Over the course of three days starting on November 17, 15-year-old Connor Herson freed the Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan, a sweeping polished line of piton scarred cracks and face climbing, with the support of his father, Jim.
Thousands of teams have aid-climbed the Nose over the years, but a free ascent—where gear is used for protection but not for upward progression—is extremely rare. Connor’s ascent marks the sixth overall, and by far the youngest, free ascent of the line.
Freeing the Nose is difficult because of its 3,000-foot length and steepness. Two cryptic sections make up the crux. The Great Roof, pitch number 21 of 31, requires shoving one’s fingertips under the bottom of a 20-foot right-traversing feature. This vertical section offers few footholds, forcing the climber to paste the front of their climbing shoes onto fingernail edges on the face. The even more difficult Changing Corners comes a few pitches higher, where the wall steepens and where many of the world’s best climbers have failed. Lynn Hill, who in 1993 became the first person to free climb the Nose, named the sequence required to get through here “the Houdini.”
Tommy Caldwell and his then wife Beth Rodden became the second and third to free the Nose when they completed it in 2005.
Connor’s father, Jim, is a robotics engineer out of Silicon Valley with 30 years of experience climbing big walls in Yosemite. He’s held speed records on both El Cap (including the Nose) and the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome. He’s also freed El Cap’s Salathé Wall (but not in a continuous push). Connor’s mother, Anne Smith, is also a climber and works as a software engineering manager. Connor’s sister Kara, 20, also climbs and did Half Dome in a day with her father in winter at age 12 and the Nose in a day at age 14.
Kara and Connor’s first big wall was the 2,000-foot-tall Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome, which they climbed with their father before they were teenagers.
Connor’s free ascent of the Nose with his father’s help was bittersweet. The two dedicated the climb to their friends Tim Klein and Jason Wells, who died earlier this year in an accident on El Cap.
“Here we are at the top of the Captain,” says Jim, off camera, in a phone video he recorded at the top. “Connor, what did you just do?”
“I just freed the Nose,” Connor says, a bit bashfully.
“Good job, man,” Jim says. “Was it hard? Was it fun?”
“Yeah,” Connor says, “it’s a good route.”