Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Tom Herbert is as much “Yosemite climbing” as you get. He’s the son of Golden Age climber TM Herbert, the dry-humored, big-wall first ascentionist who partnered with the sport’s best, including Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, and Royal Robbins. In addition to pioneering classics such as the Muir Wall (VI 5.10 A2+) on El Cap and the Chouinard-Herbert (5.11c, 1,400’) on Sentinel, TM worked at the Yosemite Mountaineering School guiding clients in the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
TM led his son up many long routes in Yosemite as a child, and at 18, Tom began guiding as well.
Today, at 51, Tom splits his time between Yosemite West and Reno, Nevada where he works as a hospitalist at Renown Regional Medical Center.
While I was climbing with Tom in Yosemite last week, he pointed out the cave in Camp 4 where his dad bandit-camped for 30 years. “That’s where we could always find him,” Tom said. “And the rangers only caught him there once.”
In Camp 4, I helped Tom carry 17 crash pads over to Midnight Lightning (V8) and watched as he ran two laps. He first climbed it 32 years ago in 1989 and has repeated it many times since. In 2015 he and his son Tommy did it together.
Back in the late 80s, with John “Verm” Sherman, Tom projected “the world’s most famous boulder problem,” the 25-foot highball capped with a hard mantle. Since then the two have had a friendly rivalry on the line. Verm, a decade Tom’s senior, nearly did it before Tom but an ankle-breaking fall cut short his attempts. On his 20th birthday, Tom blocked out the dangerous fall—this was before crash pads—and earned himself (roughly) the 17th ascent. Verm did Midnight Lighting in 1990 but has not repeated it since.
The competition between Tom and Verm continues. Verm (61) has kept at the climb, aiming for its oldest known ascent. However, a slew of injuries has kept him from completing it.
Later, over a choppy phone connection from his house in Yosemite West, Tom told me why he continues to climb Midnight Lightning.
Q&A with Tom Herbert
After not being on it in nearly two years, you did it first try. Then you lapped it, also first try. How did that feel?
It was as big a surprise to me as it was to anybody. It was a bit surreal, actually. I was planning to spend a bunch of time on it. Now I can start working on El Cap.
You’ve climbed for 38 years and first did 5.14 back in 1991. How do you stay psyched?
During the winter I boulder, and during the spring and fall I do long routes in Yosemite, including walls. Then I throw in sport climbing whenever I can. That mixes it up and keeps me motivated and psyched.
Back in 1989 you did Midnight Lightning with zero pads. Last week you brought 17. Why so many?
When I hit my 40s, I became much more nervous about falling off boulders. That’s why I bought so many pads — to compensate for being more scared.
Do you think you’re the oldest to do Midnight Lightning?
I very well may not be the oldest. But I may have the longest span of doing Midnight Lightning, now almost 32 years. Kauk did the first ascent in 1978, but he can’t recall when he last did it.
Do you want John “Verm” Sherman to nab the oldest known ascent?
John’s been working on it for the past four to five years, and I’ve supported him on it. I’m rooting for him. If he gets it, then I’ll have to beat him when I’m 62.
To read more about Tom Herbert and his history on Midnight Lightning, check out his feature in Rock and Ice’s November 2015 issue—coming soon to www.rockandice.com.