At the moment Madaleine Sorkin found herself clipping into a sketchy dead man's triangle -- a piece of webbing tied, without being equalized, through two pitons -- she considered yarding her way back up to the last rappel anchors. But she just wanted off. Life wasn't going well. She had recently quit her job, was still suffering from a breakup with a girlfriend months before, and felt jaded about climbing.
It was two years ago, and she and a new climbing partner had just done Resolution Arete (5.10 A1) on Mount Wilson, Red Rocks, then disagreed on the descent and Sorkin capitulated. At the stance she looked around and found no option for a backup nut. The webbing was jammed tightly into the piton holes, precluding backup gear there, either.
When her partner weighted the anchor to rappel, the webbing snapped. Together, the two climbers free fell 50 feet, landing on a tree in the descent gully.
Both survived with relatively minor injuries. Sorkin popped a bursa and sliced her knee open, while her partner, who had landed on her, bruised his elbow. A painful nine-hour hike out, nine staples in Sorkin's knee, and a lecture from the nurse about backing up rappels followed. Then Sorkin had to contend with a two-month recovery -- and decide whether or not she wanted to climb again.
"My parents and family thought I would quit," Sorkin, now 26, says. "I had to defend climbing to them and articulate why I thought it was so important." During that process she finally realized climbing was central to her existence.
"The accident was a wake-up call," she says. "It reminded me to love what I was doing or do something else." What ensued was the best, most euphoric climbing year of her life, during which she and Kate Rutherford became the first women's party to send Moonlight Buttress in Zion (V 5.12) -- a climb Sorkin recently repeated in a day with one fall.
Over the next few years, Sorkin free-climbed the Regular Route on Half Dome (VI 5.12), Yosemite, and Zion's Monkey Fingers (5.12a) and Plan B (5.12), a burly roof crack. Other major routes were The Crucifix, a five-pitch Yosemite 5.12; Hairstyles and Attitudes, a dicey 5.12c/d in Eldorado Canyon; Ruby's Cafe (5.13a) in Indian Creek; and Lost Cities (5.12b), on which she led all the 5.11s and 5.12s, on the committing and runout walls of the Black Canyon.
"It's impressive to see a woman who is as solid and who climbs as hard as she does," says one frequent partner, Heidi Wirtz.
There aren't many women climbing 5.12 in the Black Canyon.
Just as unusual is the fact that this accomplished climber pursues little sponsorship. "I don't like when I feel pressure to be something as a climber," Sorkin says. "It's really distracting. I want climbing to come from this place of love and desire; it's me and my friends and what we want to do." Instead, Sorkin seeks a career where she can give back to her community, but also climb and travel.
For now she's moved out of her 2005 Mercedes Sprinter van, in which she had lived on and off since graduating from Colorado College four years ago with a degree in religion. A reflective person given to extensive journal-writing, she is at a jumping-off stage of figuring out what to do with the rest of her life. She has considered graduate school, though in what field is not certain. For now, she has created a kind of stability by settling in Boulder, Colorado, where she found an environmentally responsible job installing solar panels for Namaste Solar.
Sorkin assuages her travel obsession with shorter trips, most recently to the Wood River Range, Alaska. In July, she, Kate Rutherford, Emily Stifler and Althea Rogers searched for the perfect line through kitty litter and dirt-filled granite cracks before establishing Talkin' Dirty With My Bugnet Bitches (III 5.11) and the four-pitch Respect Your Alders (5.10 A1) on unnamed granite domes.
WHY IS IT HARD TO PIN YOU DOWN?
Maybe it's because my great grandfather was from the Ukraine, and he traveled across Eastern and Western Europe with an urn. Like, a family urn.
WHAT WAS IN IT?
(Shrugs) I don't know, but he always inspired me. He didn't even bring a clean pair of underwear.
WHY DID YOU START CLIMBING?
It was a great outlet for me regarding the ways I didn't fit in. Climbing gave me this freedom path. Climbing is this really self-expressive thing; it's really personal, and no one was telling me exactly what I should or shouldn't do or what cues I should be taking.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR DESIRE TO BE A CLIMBING BUM WITH YOUR NEED TO GIVE BACK TO THE WORLD?
I don't want to compromise what I do, but I want to do something and stick with it so that I can feel like I care about the community I'm a part of, and that it cares about me.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM ANY ACCOMPLISHMENTS?
After doing them, I realize how attainable they are.
YOU CLIMB IN SERIOUS VENUES. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU'RE GRIPPED?
I sing songs, but if I'm really, really scared I won't be singing, just completely focused.
WHAT DO YOU SING?
Really corny folk songs that I learned in fifth grade, like this one about a guy who falls in a well and doesn't get rescued because his name is so long.
WHAT ARE YOUR CLIMBING GOALS THIS YEAR?
Climb some badass shit or not, and be OK with it. I climbed the Nose with Kate (Rutherford, in 17 hours), and I'd like to do more endurance pushes. I want to go to more alpine environments, like Patagonia.
WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND TO OTHERS WHO MIGHT LOOK UP TO YOU?
Don't choose a career, build out a van, definitely don't get a dog yet, enjoy your freedom. Get comfortable with many unknowns.