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Interview: Connor Herson on Doing ‘Empath’ (5.14d) on Gear

Originally graded 5.15a, it’s still considered one of the world’s hardest trad pitches.

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At 1:40 p.m. on May 22, Connor Herson stepped off his crashpad and started jamming the flaring granite of Empath, then widely considered 5.15a. Herson skipped the 65-foot route’s 8 bolts and plugged his own—mostly bomber—protection; two No. 2s, an RP, and several finger-sized cams, breathing intentionally through the crux’s runout to quiet the nervous voice in his head. He topped out after seven minutes, physically pumped, mentally satisfied, and relieved.

Though he’s just 19, Herson needs little introduction. At age 15, he made the sixth free ascent of El Cap’s Nose (VI 5.14a); at 17, he ticked his 50th 5.14 with the FA of Underage Linking (5.14d) at Jailhouse; last year, calling on his extensive crack-climbing résumé, he broke Empath’s 5.15a beta and sent the route after just two weekends of work; and, two months later, he established the 230-foot Kilogram (5.14a) in Tuolumne, featuring thin face moves and a wild roof pull.

Connor Herson climbs Empath 5.14d on gear.
After Herson’s bolted repeat Ethan Pringle wrote, “It was amazing to watch young master Connor Herson put it together really quickly, with all sorts of weird trad beta … and tenuous body-English, that only Connor can do.” (Photo: Black Diamond)

Carlo Traversi made the first ascent of Empath in October 2020 and proposed 5.15a. (Traversi, we should note, is a Valley regular with trad ticks of Magic Line (5.14b/c) and Meltdown (5.14c.) So when the heavy grade of 5.15a was proposed, few thought Empath could be climbed more easily with a crack-climbing approach—or that it would go fairly reasonably on gear. But on the day Herson redpointed the route with bolts he’d brought a rack to the cliff to suss out just that. “There weren’t many [placements], but there were enough. More than enough,” he says. Herson worked the route for a total of 12 days before sending sans bolts, often sharing the route with other climbers, including Ethan Pringle, who’s climbed 5.14 on gear multiple times. Pringle made the sixth ascent of Empath and later wrote that while the route may feel like 5.15a with the first ascentionist’s beta, “with my height [5′10″] … [and] decent crack skills … it feels on par with other higher-end 14+ routes I’ve done.” (Herson, we should also note, is 5′7″: the same height as Traversi.)

As far as Herson knows, he and Alex Honnold are the only ones who’ve tried Empath without the bolts. “I thought it seemed pretty hardcore on gear,” Honnold told me, “though I was trying it in the full heat of the summer and only dabbled a few times. But the gear is definitely a little bit finicky and it’s worst up at the top, right where the climbing is the hardest.”

I caught up with Herson by phone to talk about climbing Empath on bolts and then without them, breaking the route’s “beta,” how solid the protection was, and the 5.14d grade—currently the only trad route with the proposed grade. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Connor Herson climbs Empath 5.14d on gear.
(Photo: Black Diamond)

Climbing: Why did you decide to project Empath?

Herson: I’ve always wanted to have a long, big project. And, in terms of sport climbing, I don’t think I’ve ever really pushed myself in terms of how difficult I can project. At the same time, I didn’t want to spend an entire vacation trying just one climb, so I wanted to find something that was close to home.

In Fall 2020 I saw Carlo had put up Empath and it was in the Tahoe area, which is pretty close to my house, and I knew it would be my next project. But when I first went out and actually started trying it, I found beta to jam past some of the cruxes and I actually ended up sending it a lot sooner than I expected. [On his fifth day—Ed.]

Climbing: How did your beta differ from the other ascensionists? The sport climbers who repeated it surely didn’t jam, but Carlo is as seasoned as they come for crack climbing.

Herson: Carlo was working Empath with a lot of people who are exclusively sport climbers/boulderers, so I think they all just started using the same beta. Which was the harder beta, in my opinion. I think a few crack climbers have gotten on it who weren’t able to stem where I could. Ethan, for example, did pretty much the standard beta with a few extra jams. The way I did it, there was some very scrunchy body positions where all of my limbs were close together—and I’m not the tallest climber (5′7″), so I’m small enough that I can fit my body into those positions where my hips are still close to the wall even though my limbs aren’t very spread out. If you’re a taller climber that can be really hard because the closer your limbs are together, the more your hips get pushed out from the wall and you don’t fit into the stances as well.

Climbing: So did you have a different redpoint crux?

Herson: Well, even though the moves on Empath are hard, it’s not the longest climb. It’s more of a power-endurance route. It’s just a culmination of the pump from so many hard moves down low, that the top crux is always going to be the hardest. So even though I ended up doing drastically different beta, I think I still had the same crux as everyone else, even if the lower crux may have been easier for me.

Climbing: Can you walk me through what that upper crux is like?

Herson: You’re at the seventh bolt and you get a side-pull rest that’s maybe a full pad, incut, with smeary feet. Then you have a layback sequence where your feet are way out to your left with a lot of tension in your arms. The moves aren’t actually that hard by themselves, but when you’re pumped it gets very, very hard to keep your composure.

Climbing: And how was the gear?

Herson: The gear was actually a lot more solid than I expected it to be. I ended up bringing a crash pad and bouldered up the first 15 feet or so before placing two BD No. 2 cams in a rest pod. As you climb out of the rest, the next few placements are very solid but a bit blind, so you just have to trust that you’ve placed them well. Then you get to the last rest, before the redpoint crux, where you can place a 0.3 behind a flake and a 0.2/0.3 offset to back it up. Both of the placements are good but they’re shallow—they’re not the most confidence inspiring… They feel like they could come out.

While you’re doing the top crux you can’t really place anything. That’s the only runout on the whole route, which gets a bit exciting. There were definitely a few goes where I got up to that rest on redpoint, went up a move, then downclimbed and took because I wasn’t feeling it.

Connor Herson climbs Empath 5.14d on gear.
Herson nails the aforementioned blind placements. (Photo: Black Diamond)

Climbing: How long of a fall are you looking at taking from up there?

Herson: Probably not too big. But, I mean, at that point you’re only maybe 50 feet up and the ground slopes up at the base of the cliff, so I’m really only 40 feet off the ground, and if you fell near the end of that crux it would be close to a 25-30 foot fall. If those pieces pop I’d be close to the ground. 

Climbing: Do you think doing Empath on gear warrants a danger rating?

Herson: I’m not sure. I think there is potential for injury there but I think as long as you can rehearse it ahead of time, the gear isn’t too bad. I know Alex Honnold did rip a cam and nearly deck—but he had a bolt backing him up. [From Honnold: I was just going up it the very first time, placing pieces and clipping bolts in between, just to figure it out. I ripped a piece that I thought looked great and whipped a long ways. But it was all part of the process. Nothing crazy.—Ed]

Climbing: Why did you want to repeat Empath on gear after already redpointing it with the bolts?

Herson: It’s actually kind of funny: on my second day on the route I uncovered this single finger lock that nobody had really used before, and I thought Hey, you could place a 0.4 in there—and it would be pretty good. And I started looking all over the route and saw placements. There weren’t many, but there were enough. More than enough. So I was already thinking about doing Empath on gear before I sent it on bolts. Actually, the day I sent it on bolts I had brought a rack out just to play around and right after I sent it I started working out the placements. 

So it was a logical progression for me, because I wanted that really hard project close to home, and I was hoping that climbing Empath on bolts would be something I’d have to work for much longer.

Climbing: Empath was given the big grade of 5.15a after the FA, but it’s since been suggested to be hard 5.14. Can you weigh in on the grade? 

Herson: I gave it some thought, and I think the beta I used was certainly easier than the beta that Carlo used (and the beta that most subsequent ascentionists used). For me, given that it suited my style, and it didn’t take me very long, I thought it was maybe 5.14c—but take that with a grain of salt.

It certainly was harder for me to do it on gear because, first off, it’s a lot more mentally challenging. Even if the cams are solid there’s still that voice in my head asking Will it hold? Will it hold? Or won’t it hold? And, from a physical perspective, I had to stop mid crux sequence to place some of the cams. It wasn’t like doing it on bolts where it takes a half second to clip a quickdraw. You actually have to stop to fiddle in gear—and that takes a lot longer. Just that drastic change of pacing meant so much more time on the wall, and in strenuous positions for longer, making me much more pumped.

So I do certainly think it was harder on gear, which I guess would mean it’s 5.14d, but I definitely feel some trepidation for posing that because I don’t think there is a proposed 5.14d gear route yet. But, from a logical standpoint, comparing it to other routes I’ve done in that style, and given how it felt for me, 14c on bolts and 14d on gear feels about right.

Climbing: How does it feel to have done one of the hardest gear routes in the world? Is it something you even think about?

Herson: I didn’t really think of it that way! To me, Empath just felt like a project that I sent. It felt good because it was a hard project, not because of how difficult it is compared to other gear routes.

To watch the raw footage of Herson’s all-gear redpoint, click here.

Anthony Walsh is a digital editor at Climbing.