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Madaleine Sorkin’s Top 6 Big-Wall Free Climbs

Pro climber Madaleine Sorkin shares her six favorite big-wall experiences.

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Madaleine Sorkin climbing in Jordan
Madaleine Sorkin at a belay ledge in Wadi Rum, JordanHenna Taylor

Madaleine Sorkin is known for her prowess, grit, and mastery on difficult big-wall free climbs. Her top ticks include The Honeymoon Is Over (V 5.13c) on the Diamond of Long’s Peak, Colorado, and the Hallucinogen Wall (VI 5.13 R) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado. Here, Sorkin, our instructor for AIM Adventure U’s 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness online course, dishes the dirt on her favorite big-wall free climbing experiences, in the order in which she climbed them.

1. 2006—Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12d), Zion National Park, Utah

“A long, aesthetic 1,200-foot desert splitter. My dear friend Kate Rutherford and I attempted to free our first challenging big wall. We surprised ourselves with our capacities and really inspired one another to try harder than ever before. This accomplishment was a launching point for both of us into trying big, audacious goals (and was the first female team free ascent of the route).”

2. 2009—West Face (V 5.13a A0), Leaning Tower, Yosemite

“After a few weeks of effort, I made an early female free ascent of the West Face on Leaning Tower. It was my first individual climbing goal, and I learned a lot about solo perseverance as I navigated changing or bailing partners, unsettled weather patterns, and friends dying in a remote area of China. My dear friend Kate supported me on the day of the send as I led each pitch and she ascended the rope behind me. Even with individual goals, I learned that good partners can make a great difference, and the mental challenge brought up my personal struggles all the more.”

3. 2010—Women at Work (VI 5.12 R)—FFA of the Original Route on Mt. Proboscis in the Northwest Territories of Canada

Two women and I spent 25 days at the remote base of Mount Proboscis and flew out after a twenty-inch snowfall. Our main objective was to free climb the full southeast face’s Original Route, first climbed by Jim McCarthy, Royal Robbins, Layton Kor, and Richard McCracken in 1963 (VI 5.8 A4). The route had in part already been free climbed in the late 1990s, with a detour from pitches 5–8; the line was named Via Costa Brava (VI 5.12- R). The remote adventure positively challenged our teamwork, route-building skills (e.g., hand drilling), and appreciation for the spirit of the pioneers, including Jim McCarthy’s remarkably accurate memory of the route details, over 40 years later.

4. 2012—La Fiamma (V 5.12c R), Russian Tower, Ak Su Valley of Kyrgyzstan

Remote in the Ak Su Valley, we already had a majorly adventurous trip characterized by massive granite climbs, dysentery, an unplanned home­stay with a generous Kyrgyz shepherd family, and general arguments about helmet wearing. So this aid line, originally ascended by an Italian party, was a cherry of a gift as we got to show up to the base and ground-up onsight the climb as a difficult free line over a day and a half. It was a relatively easy and joyful experience, and well-welcomed at that point in our trip.

5. 2013 —PreMuir (VI 5.13+) on El Capitan, Yosemite

Before this route on El Capitan, I’d freed two other major ones (El Corazon [VI 5.13] in 2012 with Nik Berry, and Freerider [VI 5.12+] in 2010 with Kate Rutherford). From those climbs, I’d learned a tremendous amount about perseverance, selecting an appropriate goal, and strategy for achieving it. I had also enjoyed being able to check the box of completion on those climbs. Yet the struggle on the PreMuir was an effort I’ll never forget and continues to remind me that it is the process and our attention in a climb that create the fulfilling experience. My partner Joe Mills and I endured a 95-­degree heat wave while on the wall. We each climbed well with commitment, determination, and good humor. We supported one another through ups and downs and the hard labor of climbs like this. I felt proud of us in these ways. And I was deeply satisfied when I redpointed the pitch that I was most terrified of—a 5.13+ stem corner on pitch 24. On our fifth day without rest, Joe kept struggling on this pitch and was unable to get into the extremely wide stem position. Our decision to say “enough’s enough” before the climb was over and choose self­-care in this direction was a newer growth for me.

6. 2016—The Honeymoon Is Over (V 5.13c), the Diamond of Longs Peak, Colorado

Freed by Tommy Caldwell in 2001, this individual goal represented a culmination of a lot of my big-wall experience mixed with learning to perform above 13,000 feet and deal with the higher number of variables affecting one’s success on the route (weather, finding partners, wet rock, etc.). It was easy to be inspired by this line that goes right up the middle of the Diamond, one of the most beautiful big rock faces I’ve seen, and sustained at the top of the grade I climb. In the end, I freed the route in poorer style than I’d hoped (breaking the last 5.12+/13- difficult pitches up with a stance due to our slow pace and my fatigue at that hour). I was satisfied with my effort and dedication to the goal and subsequent flexibility with the reality of a situation. I learned a lot more about acceptance.

Want to get in shape for your next climbing trip? Take AIM Adventure U’s 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness online course