Yosemite climbing has come a long way since 1958, when the first ascent of the Nose was established over 47 days of aid-climbing. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first free ascent of the Nose – achieved by Lynn Hill in ’93 (“It goes, boys!”) – and a new record has just been set. Connor Herson has, at 15, become the youngest person to free-climb the route. According to his Dad, “Most importantly, no days of school were missed in the sending of this route!” Connor climbed it over three days starting on November 17.
The 15-year-old climbed the route in incredibly fine style. Most teams aid-climb the route – Connor is only the sixth person to have ever free-climbed (i.e. trad climbed) the Nose. What's more, he used no fixed ropes while working the route and then climbed it as a single-push, three-day ascent, leading all the pitches and placing all the gear himself.
Connor led the first 26 pitches without falling, but then got held up at Changing Corners: the pitch was blocked by fixed lines that someone had left. By the time Jim had jugged up and moved them, it was getting dark – rushed, Connor fell off the last move. He continued to the summit in the morning.
Impressively, Connor is a weekend climber. He had spent just 16 days in total on the route, almost all over one or two-day weekend trips to work it. Most of that time was spent on logistics – the nine hours of car journey, hiking to the top to abseil down and work the Changing Corners pitch, or climbing 19 pitches up to work the tricky Great Roof.
But let's go back a bit. Connor has a long relationship with Yosemite. In fact it really began in 2003. I’ll let Jim explain. I asked him: “So... I’ve read that you were free-climbing the Salathé Wall as your wife went into labour with Connor?”
Jim replied: “Technically, she wasn't in labour. It was a scheduled c-section but the doctor suggested taking the baby out earlier. The baby wasn't under stress so Anne stuck with the original schedule. But yes, Connor would be three days older if I hadn't been redpointing the Salathé!”
Connor leading the Great Roof. Photo: Jim Herson
More impressive kid ascents
Connor has an older sister, Kara, who also climbs (although she’s currently more into rugby). Kara climbed the 2,000-foot Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in a day with her father in winter age 12 and the Nose in a day at 14. When Connor was 11, he completed a jumarless ascent of Half Dome with his Dad. When he was 13 he did the same on the Nose. Connor’s also a sport and competition climber wo has redpointed up to 5.14c (8c+) on routes at Red River Gorge (Southern Smoke and Lucifer).
It might sound like Jim and Anne (Smith) are pushy parents. They’re not. In fact, when I ask Jim if he has any advice on how to end up with your kids as climbing partners, he tells me: “Don’t push them! Let them climb when and what they want. Connor led around age nine. The danger is the dads who come up to me in the gym after reading my trip reports and ask how to take their kid up Half Dome after leading their first 5.8.”
Apparently Connor wasn't into climbing until about age eight: “He’d bring his trains to the climbing gym and just have fun playing with them while we climbed. Then one day a switch went off and now we have to keep him from getting overuse injuries. These gym kids will climb until their fingers fall off. They're addicts really!”
How to climb with kids
How do they fit it all in? It seems the Hersons are those hard-working sort of people who manage to do it all, with modesty and humour, while seeming totally chilled.
Jim tells me that he and his wife got into climbing at the “relatively old" age of 27: “There were no climbing gyms at the time so it was mostly taking our lumps in Yosemite.” Intrigued I read up on them and learnt that Jim has held speed records on both El Cap (including the Nose) and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. He also finds time to be a robotics engineer out of Silicon Valley. Anne, meanwhile, is a software engineering manager and a pretty handy climber, too, who used to be on the elite comp circuit.
There's a great interview with Jim on American wad, Beth Rodden’s blog, about climbing with kids. She writes: “With two kids in the mix, it seems from the outside that he just effortlessly added them onto his roster of partners – regardless of the length or difficulty of climb. They have one of my favorite climbing blogs out there that always leaves me laughing and inspired.”
Meet the Hersons. Photo: Herson Collection
What do the Hersons love about Yosemite? Jim tells me: “There's nothing that beats climbing 3,000' of granite. Nothing close, actually. I go nuts with all these crazy strong gym kids going to the Valley just to boulder!”
And what does Connor think about his achievement?
Jim says: “Connor doesn't have social media and only a small group of his climbing buddies even know what climbing El Cap, by any style, entails so he doesn't really know it blew up. But his friends told him a little and he's seen the articles so he has an idea. But honestly, he doesn't have a clue. My social media blew up but he only got three texts from his buddies commenting on his poop tube decoration.”
When he topped out, Jim said, in a phone video he took: “Here we are at the top of the Captain. Connor, what did you just do?”
“I just freed the Nose,” Connor says, bashfully.
“Good job, man,” Jim says. “Was it hard? Was it fun?”
“Yeah. It’s a good route.”
Connor seems set to follow in his parents footsteps. Jim tells me: “He’s going to be a weekender climber. Like his sister, he's a hard working nerd. His focus will be on school.”
He continues: “He hadn't climbed much this fall, running cross country. So after he redpointed 30 out of 31 pitches, including two hard goes on the Great Roof and four all-out burns on the Changing Corners, he said: "You know dad, I don't have my endurance. I need to start climbing again." He then went to the bouldering gym the next day to “build endurance!”
What's next for this father-son duo? Jim tells me, “Having your 15-year-old wanting to spend the entire weekend with you is the best gift climbing has given me! He's bouldering now. Will do more Valley climbs in the spring. My goal is just to stay healthy enough to support him!”
How much climbing is too much? Connor celebrated by climbing to the top of the tree that marks the very end of the Nose. Photo: Jim Herson
WATCH: Think Stanage is exposed? BMC ambassador James McHaffie takes a fall from the Headwall Pitch of Salathé Wall, Yosemite
WATCH: Pete Whittaker rope solos El Cap on BMC TV
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