Snow and Ice Climber Mary Harlan Thrives at the Edge 4

Because There’s Just Something About Mary

Wow, is there ever.

As a pregnant snowboarder checking out freestyle skiing, Mary Harlan was ripping and feathering twin tracks down Aspen’s back country within days of giving birth.

Two weeks after giving birth to Sam, Harlan ran dirt and rocks, testing the mettle of her new mama-body. Dodging trees around Thomas Lakes at the throat of Mount Sopris, Harlan was stoked: she still had it.

Before Sam could crawl, Harlan was guiding her fourth team up Mount Denali, living in tents at subzero temps for weeks on end. Her jovial competence tempered the challenges of surviving—let alone summitting—this glaciated behemoth.

As a single mom, Harlan switched careers, leaving the ease of guiding and a job with Ute Mountaineer to secure an EMT certification and to graduate from a fire academy. Thriving at the edge, Harlan felt that fire-fighting would also be more fulfilling, enabling her to live in service, with purpose. Harlan now finances motherhood and her own adventures by extinguishing other people’s oopsies and rescuing the unfortunate. She’s the most petite member of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department and Colorado River Fire Rescue.

Nothing stops her. What is it about Mary?

Could it be a tragic past? Some dark inner force pushing her to prove herself?  Nope. “My parents encouraged everything I did,” she explains. “The only thing they didn’t want me to do was to get a tattoo, or to become a tattoo artist. So I didn’t.”

Harlan’s just a happy midwesterner who has translated her athleticism into scaling mountains, sending ice and surfing snow. She’s funny, corny and humble.

And hard core.

Harlan’s first thirteener was a whim. She and a girlfriend were goofing off in the mountains, no big expectations, “wearing jean cut-offs and cotton shirts,” she snorts. They noticed people in “serious” layers, with crampons and ice axes, headed to the top. Looking up, the girls thought, “We can do that.” And they did.

“I got altitude sickness. I felt terrible, but I loved it,” Harlan recalls. “I just figured ‘Hey, this is a part of it.’” Above tree line, Harlan found an awesome, eerie peace. She fell in love with altitude, the mountains, and the physical and mental challenge of playing in them.

She then took an eight-week course with Outward Bound. To make mountaineering her life, Outward Bound told the 22-year old flatlander to “go do something epic,” while she was wrapping up her college degree in ballet. “Then come see us about a job!” With help from a crafty college advisor and a multitude of workshops and internships, Harlan’s degree leapt from plies and arabesques to figure-8s, expensive gear and a love for suffering.

In her early days, at an ice climbing seminar in New England, a pro instructor overheard Mary bemoan the challenges of paying for it all: gear, courses, training, travel. He offered to take her on as an assistant so she could attend courses for free. Mary’s ice climbing idol, southerner Kitty Calhoun, another instructor at the seminar, overheard and stole Mary from under his wing. “Ain’t no man gonna have no woman as his assistant!” Calhoun smiled at the male instructor as she offered to enroll Mary in the three courses she taught at the seminar, for free.

Because there’s just something about Mary!

Having attended an all-girls private school, Harlan has cultivated the gift of drawing people out and letting others shine. She could be “unlikable”—she has fierce climbing cred, a smokin’ body and confidence up the ying-yang. Yet she’s utterly adorable and non-threatening. “Competition ups the game,” she says, “But you don’t have to be a narcissist about it.” Half of the time, Harlan reeks of sweat and her hair is a chunked-out mess from days without showering.

Her goofball sincerity is magnetic.

There’s so little ego. While sharing her own goals or accomplishments, Harlan quickly points to the mountain friends who’ve made her successes possible.

Twenty years in, she points to how social media might tweak an ego. “I see posts of a hot young girl on-sighting a boulder problem I did ten years ago—I don’t have any pictures to prove I did it way back when. I’ve gotten over it. I’m just ecstatic to be doing this.”

Harlan is no trust-funder, and between Sam and firefighting, she has to watch her bank account. She doesn’t have the luxury of obsessing over bagging firsts or by working the sponsorship/celebrity angle. Harlan goes big, though. A Goethe quote in her email signature says it all: “Whatever you can do, or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power, magic in it. Omega Pacific, Mad Rock Climbing, Gnarly Nutrition and Static Climbing have all recognized this quality in Harlan. She gets sponsorship offers.

Going into the winter season, Harlan will be looking hard at her motivations. A 50-foot whipper on pulled-pro and screaming ropes scared the hell out of her this past summer. In climbing, that’s a life-threatening fall and she’s lucky not to be paralyzed. Harlan was fully transparent, posting her terror on Facebook and her blog, GoBig!Adventures:

Why was I climbing? This is a stupid, selfish, egotistical, silly sport. People just die doing this. I know two people who died in the last year from similar falls. I know one guy who will need hospice help for the rest of his life because of a fall like this… What the heck am I doing? I just want off, NOW. I feel sick. Am I going to have brain damage? This is so irresponsible. I have a child. I’m getting married. I love my mom and dad. What will they say, that I died doing what I loved? Screw that.”

Harlan is still regrouping, with nothing to prove. A documentary-short on her mountain life entitled “A Balancing Act” was recently screened at the 2016 No Man’s Land Film Fest. Walking out afterward, she was reflective. “I think I feel self-conscious about the documentary because I don’t feel rad enough to have one made about me. I look up to so many other people!”

This may have elements of truth to it, but ultimately—in light of the many restrictions barring Harlan from a mountaineering life—she offers no excuses. Her blog motto? “From a woman who likes to get after it, get it done, and go big.”

Harlan just does it, maintaining a pace and appetite that few who are on parenting or career tracks are compelled to match.

She’s excited for winter. As of October, she has gotten married and earned a dream promotion in Breckenridge, working as a firefighter and an EMT at the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. Her son Sam’s life is rooted in Carbondale, so Harlan will commute, taking advantage of time and friendships in Summit County during 48-hour shifts at the fire station.

Always in training for work and play, Mary Harlan will have a full winter season: alpine and cross-country skiing, climbing goals in the desert, indoor training where she’s been hired to set routes, ice climbing and playing around with dry-tooling. All accompanied by her new partner in life, husband Lance Torre.

How does she do it all? Jeez, there’s just somethin’ ‘bout her.