Each fall Connor Herson, 16, takes “a bit of a break,” he says. He runs cross country for his school, Woodside High, near home in Emerald Hills, California, and climbs less than normal.
Yet Herson, a 10th grader and top runner and student, goes to the climbing gym any time he can after a meet—and that’s been “every meet so far this year.” For the weekend following this interview, he planned to head to Yosemite for a “no expectations” push on the Triple Direct on El Capitan. While the 35-pitch, 3,200-foot Grade VI is a linkup rather than an independent line, and its pitches have all been free climbed, it is considered a route in itself and has not been done free as such. It takes Freeblast on the Salathé to the Muir Wall, and traverses to Camp IV, just below the Great Roof on the Nose, to finish via that route.
In November 2018, 11 months earlier, Connor, with his father, Jim, had free climbed the Nose (Grade VI, 5.14). Connor, an all arounder who likes everything from comps to bouldering to multi-pitch alpine walls, was the sixth person to free the Nose, and at age 15, by far the youngest.
“I haven’t done the Great Roof or the Changing Corners since then,” he says, “and I’ve grown a few inches, so it might be a bit different”— especially on the body-position-intensive Changing Corners, a far harder pitch than the Great Roof. He adds, “But I do remember my beta.”
Q&A with Connor Herson
Where did you get the idea for the Triple Direct?
After the Nose last year, some of my friends, Owen Whaley and Hobbs Kessler, said I should do it. In terms of free climbing it’s much more sustained than the Nose.
On the Nose, below the Great Roof there’s nothing above .12a. The only two pitches above .13a are the Great Roof and the Changing Corners. So if you can do those, you can do the route.
On the Triple Direct, you still have those but you have two additional 5.13 pitches, and they’re back to back. And you have a pretty sketchy .12d and .12b pitch.
What is the rundown for the pitches?
One 5.14 pitch. Three 5.13 pitches—the Great Roof and the two on the Muir Wall. And I believe four 5.12 pitches.
By the standards of El Cap free routes it’s not as sustained as most. But I feel like it’s a good challenge, especially the Changing Corners. It’s very, very strenuous, and I’d be doing that third day on.
What was the buildup to freeing the Nose? The first time I ever really considered it was the spring before.
My dad and I were doing the NIAD with Tim Klein, and he really thought I could. I had only done the Nose once. There was this one .12d pitch. I was
13 at the time and on toprope I flashed it, and then [on the NIAD] that prompted us to go to the Jardine Traverse instead of the King Swing to check it out.
When did you start trying?
A few weekends later we hiked up to the top and rapped in to try the Changing Corners … The first day I couldn’t do anything. At the time Tommy [Caldwell] and Alex [Honnold] were going for the speed record. They were hiking down [after a lap].
Tommy gave me some really good beta, and then I got all the moves.
I went up a few more weekends that spring and ended up redpointing the Changing Corners on toprope.
Tim Klein and Jason Wells, who was also our good friend [deep breath] had an accident on the Freeblast … One of Tim’s locking biners had ended up on our rack. My dad said, “If you free the Nose we’re going to leave that locking biner on that last bolt as a tribute to those two.”
What do you hope to do in climbing?
El Cap free climbing, definitely. Big-wall climbing is very involved, very rewarding, it is just so fun. I hope to do as many free routes on El Cap as I can. I’ve heard that there are still lines to be done there.
In sport climbing, my next goal is to get a .14d. Just everything.
—The Nose (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite, age 15.
—Airstream (trad/sport 5.13a/b), Incredible Hulk, Eastern Sierra, onsight, age 16.
—Southern Smoke (sport 5.14c), second go. Ultraperm (sport 5.13d), onsight. Both Red River Gorge, Kentucky,
—Peace (sandbag sport 5.13d), Yosemite,
—Did 14 sport 5.14s , age 14.
—2018 USA Climbing Sport & Speed Male Youth B National Champion, age 15.
—Finalist at 2017 IFSC Youth World Championships in Male Youth B Lead.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 261 (January 2020).