Connor Herson is a 16-year-old sophomore at Woodside High School, a cross-country runner, and he likes math. Pretty normal stuff for a guy his age. A typical teenager. But, what separates Connor from the rest of the high school herd is his penchant for rocks — big rocks — like free climbing the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite.
His family is not an everyday “Hey, who wants to go to the beach?” kind of family. Rather the four-member Emerald Hills household is the “Hey, who wants to go climb the face of Half Dome?” variety. Connor’s father, Jim Herson, and mother Anne Smith, who met while on a bike tour, are both veteran rock climbers. Connor and his older sister, Kara, 20, a junior majoring in engineering physics at Stanford University, learned to climb before they could walk. From the get-go, a family on the way up.
“I’ve been climbing most of my life,” says Connor. “My parents didn’t push me into it. When we would go to a climbing area I could entertain myself or climb. I chose to climb.”
When the members of this athletic family are not outdoors scaling granite monoliths all over the country, they work out at Planet Granite and at Touchstone Climbing Gyms. The artificial walls of the gyms vary in difficulty and can test even the best climber’s abilities. It is in centers like these that Connor, who is now part of the U.S. National Junior Climbing Team, has competed in various national and international climbing contests.
The athletes scale walls reaching up to 60 feet high, using numbered handholds of various size on a vertical surface that changes pitch and angle. The competition is rather straightforward: He who reaches the highest point, wins. Not as easy as it sounds.
The circuit at the national level of competition is comprised of 16 regions throughout the U.S. with various age categories. Having placed third in Nationals, Connor qualified for the Worlds. He attended his third World competition earlier this year, which was held in Italy, and placed 16th overall out of 80 contestants in the 16-to-17-year- old division.
Climbing takes stamina and a lot of overall body strength, but Connor eschews doing pull-ups and push-ups to get in shape. “I don’t do a lot of physical training because I feel that the best way to get better at climbing is to climb,” he says. Cross-country running for Woodside High is just another outlet for someone who obviously has too much energy.
Artificial walls are one thing; scaling 3,000-foot slabs of vertical granite are another.
Having already ascended El Capitan multiple times (as well as Half Dome and other celebrated peaks) employing various “aided” techniques, Connor felt he was ready for a new challenge and set his sights on the infamous “Nose” of El Capitan. But in this case, he would attempt to “free climb.”
A free climber is attached to a safety rope looped though a spring-loaded device called a cam, chock or wedge, which is jammed into crevices or a crack in the rock every 20 feet or so. These will catch the climber should he or she slip and fall. However, all of the climbing is accomplished without any aid from the ropes.
“Aided climbing” uses ropes to help the climber ascend the rock. “French freeing” utilizes rope to aid through the most difficult parts of the climb, and free climbing is done for the rest. Connor learned the technical ins and outs of big wall climbing making use of aided climbing and French freeing. Free climbing is a big step up.
The Nose is one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan and is a popular one. However, it was once considered too technical to free climb and in 25 years only six have achieved the ascent by free climbing. Connor is one of them.
“When you’re developing as a climber, every new climb is a big challenge,” says Connor. In the case of tackling the Nose, this is a huge understatement.
His parents thought Connor’s goal was a reasonable one given his amazing abilities and swift progress. However, they considered it a long-term project, one that would take several years in planning and training. They had confidence he could achieve it.
“A year or two earlier, we had independently realized Connor would be well suited to eventually be a big wall free climber if he wanted” Anne says. “He has the enthusiasm and incredible stamina to do many difficult climbs per day—he is good at very tenuous “slab” climbing, which is the style prevalent on the Nose.”
It was a spur of the moment decision to make the attempt in 2018. Professional climbers who learned that a 15-year-old was making such an attempt found the notion rather audacious.
“As parents, one of the reasons we supported a project this ambitious is that the Nose is a relatively safe route. That is, the protection is good and rockfalls are rare,” Anne says.
It took Connor and his father three days to complete the ascent. Along the way Connor and Jim would sleep on ledges. “There are only a few ledges so you have to make sure you get to them before nightfall,” says Jim, “and hopefully they are not already occupied.”
Weight is a big consideration in long climbs like the Nose. Food, water, sleeping gear, ropes and tackle make for quite a load. Especially when one is utilizing arms and legs with every ounce of strength to climb. There’s not a lot of rest to be had in such an endeavor. That means somebody must haul the gear up after each “pitch” — which is the length of one’s rope—typically 150 to 200 feet long.
So Jim pulled the gear up, pitch by pitch; 31 in all for the Nose. Connor would lead and fix the rope to an anchor at the end of each rope length. Jim then used jumars (a device allowing him to climb the rope instead of directly on the rock) to ascend the line and carry the haul bag.
In mountain climbing, falls, of course, happen.
One slip of the foot or lost grip and the climber finds himself free-falling to a thankfully short, albeit abrupt, stop – courtesy of ropes and other safety gear. Falls are heart-pounding and maddening all in the same moment. It means covering the same real estate all over again.
“When trying something at this level, falls are common at first,” says Connor. “They are part of the learning process. On my successful attempt [of the Nose], I only fell on one pitch; the ‘Changing Corners.’ I got there at the end of my second day and almost got it first try but slipped at the end. It was disappointing but we had food and water for one more day so I would have another chance. We slept on a ledge below that pitch. The next morning, I successfully climbed Changing Corners and then the rest of the route.”
Once Connor crested the top of El Capitan he was international news.
“I found online articles in many languages, from all over the world,” Jim proudly wrote in his blog afterward. “It made some foreign writer’s lists of top climbing stories of 2018. This route was first climbed free 25 years previously. Connor was only the sixth person ever to do this. All others were full-time professional climbers at the height of their careers, and spent much longer rehearsing the climb than he did, so his ascent really shifted the paradigm of who might accomplish feats like this.”
Connor stands five foot three inches and weighs in at 115 pounds. Undoubtedly there are those attending Woodside High who consider him small. But in the climbing world he’s one big dude.
Photo by Jim Herson
This story was originally published in the December print edition of Climate Magazine.