When you make the sixth free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan at the tender age of 15, it might be a hard act to follow. But Connor Herson found something to pique his interest. While most of us will never climb at the 5.14 level, the young Californian wanted to send fifty—count ‘em 50—5.14s before his 18th birthday.
“About a year ago I was at 28 total 5.14’s. I started climbing outdoors a bit and summer rolled around and I had quite a bit of success and did a few more 5.14’s. At some point during late summer/early fall I realized that if I did 15 to 20 more within the year I would be at 50 total. Since 50 is a nice number and it was a goal that seemed doable but, not dead easy, I thought, Why not?” explains Connor.
“It was a bit weird because it is number chasing, but at the same time it was a goal for me to build my base and build a broader pyramid rather than just go for one, single, really hard climb. I feel like there is so much of a focus in climbing, in general, on the absolute hardest route you can do. Sending your absolute hardest. Pushing your limit. Sending the next grade.
“For me a lot of what this goal was was not really not trying to do my first 5.15, but trying to see how many 5.14as and b’s I could do. I think for me, at least, it has more of a value because it’s more climbing. It makes me a better climber. It keeps me more rounded instead of just focusing on a specific climb. Doing a bunch of climbs slightly below my limit for me is really useful,” clarifies Connor.
Connor sent his first 5.14 with the route God’s Own Stone at the Red River Gorge in 2017, when he was only 13. “I was really psyched about sending that. It was during this period of very fast progression for me. Less than a year before that I had done my first 5.13c and a year before that I had done my first 5.13a.”
While Connor had setbacks along the way, luckily the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t a major problem. “Covid wasn’t as much of a factor because it [deciding to do fifty] was after the initial lockdown and I already knew what the situation was and that I might not get to climb as much. But at the same time my climbing kind of ebbs and flows and there are occasionally periods when I am just not climbing as strong. I had one of those periods in September and October. There was one point when it seemed pretty unlikely because it was the start of December and I still had at least 14 to go and only around six months to do them.”
“Then there was a one-month period in December and January where I went to my local sport crag, which is Jailhouse Rock. Fortunately, Jailhouse has twenty five 5.14s, so during that one month I think I did seven. From there the goal seemed much more likely,” said Connor.
Connor’s parents are both very accomplished climbers. They gladly helped keep the project moving forward. “They’re my parents. They give me a lot of support with life in general and in climbing. They have made a lot of sacrifices. There are times when we go to crags which might not have the best routes for them, but a few routes in the 5.14 range. If they weren’t so psyched on supporting me I wouldn’t be close to 50,” acknowledges Connor.
Finishing the project in style, Connor’s last route was not only a first ascent, but his hardest route to date at 5.14d. “It just kind of happened that way. I didn’t really intend for it to be like that. I came back from a trip to St George [Utah] and there was a substantial part of a Jailhouse season left. I had a project which I had been working at Jailhouse which wasn’t that hard. I just needed one good go on it and I could have done it.
“But I wasn’t that psyched on that project and I knew about this line that would go. So on my first day back from the trip to St. George I was really psyched on it. I took a drill out there and bolted the linkup. I honestly have no idea what the grade is going to settle at. It could get downgraded. It links crux sections of multiple 5.14s so there would be some strange logic [to downgrade it to 5.13],” said Connor.
“The climb is a massive linkup,” explains Connor. “It links three separate lines together to form one pitch. It starts on a climb called Mother Lode which, depending on who you ask, is 5.14a or b. Once you do most of the hard climbing on that, you trend left into this new section and then you join the Shield—which is also 5.14a or b—right where the hard climbing on that route starts and you do it’s crux. From there you go left into a closed project but the guy who bolted it and is working it was kind enough to let me climb on it from my linkup start. That climb will probably be 5.14a or b.”
Connor’s dad Jim came up with the name for the route. It is a nice little pun about Jailhouse. At Jailhouse most of the routes have jail-themed names. It is one of those few “themed” cliffs. There are climbs called Fugitive, Cell Block, Alcatraz, Haul of Justice, etc. The new 5.14d? Underage Linking. “It is a pun of underage drinking,” Connor explains. “It references that it is a linkup and that I am not of legal drinking age.”
Connor is quick to admit that he doesn’t have one favorite style of climbing. “That varies depending on what styles of climbing I have been doing lately. For instance if I have been sport climbing and working on a really cool climb that I really enjoy then I will be really psyched on sport climbing. If I feel burned out on sport climbing maybe I will be more psyched on trad climbing. It really depends week to week; month to month. I just try to stay well rounded so I have those options.
Connor Herson on 5.14 #17: the Nose (VI 5.14a), November 2018. Here he is sending the 5.14 Changing Corners pitch.
Connor’s favorite climbing area is a bit on the large side. “I would like to say California as a whole. I think California as a whole is probably one of the most diverse places to climb in terms of style. You have world class bouldering in Bishop. You have decent sport climbing at Jailhouse and Tahoe. You have really cool single pitch trad routes in both Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. You have big walls in Yosemite. And nothing is too far from my house!” says Connor.
In the four years it took Connor to achieve his goal of fifty 5.14s, he grew in several ways. “I went from being under 5 feet to now being 5’6″ or 5’7″. I probably went from 100 pounds to 140. I went from a point where 5.14a was my absolute limit that I have to project to send to where 5.14a is a grade where I can do second go pretty easily. With that progression comes a lot of knowledge and a lot of personal growth,” said Connor.
What’s next for Connor Herson? “I will see how this summer plays out. I still have one more Advanced Placement (AP) test and I still have [high school] finals so I am focusing on school work. There are a bunch of climbs I would like to get on this summer. It is probably going to be a bit too late in the season for El Cap. I know a few climbs in Tuolumne Meadows I would like to get on. There are some climbs up in [Lake] Tahoe.”
Connor Herson on 5.14 #50: Underage Linking (5.14d, FA), May 2021. Photo: Harry Yuan
But he admits that it would be nice to find his absolute limit. “I would like to try something harder because on the try that I sent Underage Linking it felt hard though not quite at my limit. So, if there is a 5.15 somewhere…the obvious choice is the new one in Tahoe, Empath, which Carlo Traversi put up last fall because it’s only 3.5 hours from my house.
“That means I could project it on a regular basis rather than having to spend my entire European vacation on a single route. For me, if I am going somewhere for a week I want to see how many 5.14a’s I can do rather than trying to do a 5.15. I want to explore a new area and get a bunch of climbing in and save the projects for a local area where I can go more often,” said Connor.
Regardless of his next goal, given his track record, Connor will undoubtedly be successful. He’s proven that he has both the physical and mental tools to climb hard and stay motivated and still have fun doing it. One thing is for certain: it’s going to be exciting to watch.