When Connor Herson talks about Peace (5.13d), his voice turns rapturous. “I just remember being instantly hooked on that route. I mean, how can you not? It’s probably one of the more beautiful lines out there.” He pauses, then quickly amends this: “That’s a bit of an understatement.”
The 16-year-old first saw Peace on a childhood climbing trip to Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite. “I remember looking at that climb and thinking, Wow, that’s a cool climb. And if you see it, it’s just….” He trails off, apparently lost in his memories.
The route, which follows a set of tiny knobs up a striking black streak on Medlicott Dome, took Connor five tries. On the morning of the send, he had already attempted it once and had one-hung it; he didn’t expect to have the time for a second go. But after that attempt, he decided to go up again, despite the fact that the sun was about to hit the wall. He thinks that the imperfect conditions actually put him in the right mindset to send it. “When I was doing the last few moves of the .13a crux, the sun was even in my eyes a bit, but I was past all the hard climbing. I did almost come off, though,” he says, laughing.
[Also Read 15-Year-Old Connor Herson Frees the Nose!]
In fact, he loved the route so much that as he was being lowered down, he asked to stop, just to take it in. And the next day, when he discovered by chance that he was camped near Ron Kauk, he took it upon himself to thank Peace’s bolter and first ascensionist in person. “I just wanted to thank him for that route,” says Connor. “For the vision and for putting in the hard work.”
[The below photo is not of Connor Herson—it is Brad Gobright—but shows the route beautifully!]
Connor is just a sophomore in high school, but he already has a truly impressive climbing resumé. His parents, Anne Smith and Jim Herson, are both accomplished climbers in their own right, and they have been bringing Connor and his older sister Kara to crags for as long as they can remember. “They never really forced climbing upon me; they just gave me the option to climb,” Connor recalls. “They said, ‘Okay, we’re at the crag. You don’t have to climb, but we’re here, so if you want to, we’ll belay you.’”
Last year, Connor became the youngest person—and one of just a handful of climbers—to free climb the Nose. He was accompanied by his father, who also belayed him on Peace, and who freed El Capitan himself. During the week, Connor spends 10 hours a day at school, between classes and cross-country practice; most of his climbing takes place on weekends, with his dad.
Connor’s hardest sends to date were Lucifer and Southern Smoke, both 5.14c, at the Red River Gorge. He sent Southern Smoke in just two tries, the day after he climbed Lucifer. “I don’t think I’ve tried anything harder than that.” But for Connor, it’s not about the numbers. “You kind of have to keep in perspective that grades are not authoritative, in my opinion,” he says. “Peace was probably harder for me than Lucifer was, and Lucifer is graded almost an entire number grade harder.”
Both he and his sister are also competition climbers, and Connor cites the variety in his climbing experience as a factor in maintaining constant motivation. “I’d really consider myself an all-around climber…. It really helps me maintain the psych, because if I burn out on one discipline I can just switch to another.”
Connor is strikingly casual about his accomplishments; he says that for the most part, he just climbs to have a good time. “For me, a lot of the highlights of my climbing career are just normal things, like doing a climb that just feels good or spending time with friends,” he says. “At some point, I’d rather have a good time with my friends than get a hard tick but spend no time with my friends.”
And as for training? “I mean, I’d probably be climbing a bit stronger if I trained, but I mean, climbing is supposed to be fun, and I do this sport for fun. So for me, right now, I don’t really see why I should be training.”
In the upcoming season, Connor has some big goals in Yosemite, all on El Capitan, including free climbing Triple Direct and the Salathé Wall. “I’ve been asked about the Dawn Wall,” he says. “I honestly don’t quite think I’m there yet, but what I tell myself is if I free every other El Cap route, or close to every other one, then I’ll try it. But that’s years out. That’s no time soon.”
When asked if his classmates know about his climbing accomplishments, Connor has to pause to think. “Um…” he says. “I think my closest friends know, somewhat. I mean, I think my teachers do, because I had to miss school for Youth Worlds in Italy this year, so I had to tell them why I was going to be gone.” He pauses. “So I think my teachers know.”