world's hardest trad route
(Photo/Gutife via Pixabay)

World’s Hardest Trad Route? Could Be, Thanks to Teen Connor Herson

Most folks might have thought ‘Empath’ was a sport route, but one climber had other ideas.

So much for “Magic Line.” It’s not every day someone climbs 5.15 on gear — in fact, it had never happened before June 12, but now Connor Herson may have pulled it off.

Depending on who you talk to, Carlo Traversi’s “Empath” clocks in at either 5.14+ or 5.15a. After Traversi, the Tahoe rig saw a flurry of repeats from U.S. crushers like Jimmy Webb, Daniel Woods, and Nathaniel Coleman.

Ethan Pringle finally downgraded it to 5.14+ after utilizing chicanery, including jammies (read: sticky rubber gloves that help you hand jam better).

But here’s the kicker: all of them clipped the bolts. Herson skipped them, opting instead to plug gear for protection.

Well, he did that the second time he sent the route.

“A climb so nice, I climbed it twice — the second time on gear!” the teenager commented on Instagram.


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A post shared by Connor Herson (@connor.herson)

Herson’s post is brief; he thanks his belayers for their psych and Traversi for his first ascent vision. He mentions he’s grateful the Caldor fire didn’t fry “Empath” and turn it into an unclimbable crust of potato chips.

He doesn’t even broach the topic that he probably just climbed the hardest pitch of trad climbing anyone’s ever attempted. He almost certainly did — previously, the contest was between Sonnie Trotter’s “Cobra Crack” and Ron Kauk’s “Magic Line.” Both routes check in around mid-5.14, and there’s no option to climb them as sport rigs.

So, Herson landed on the moon when he clipped the chains on “Empath” after skipping all the bolts. Any route is more challenging if you climb it on gear instead of bolts.

Anyone who’s placed gear understands why: even if you know the placements by heart, you have to fuss with each piece to ensure that you set it right. The climber must find stable stances to make placements, and then marshal the endurance to stay in them long enough to do so and recover well enough to continue.

Never mind the flared, sloping, discontinuous cracks on “Empath,” which look discouraging at best in terms of whether or not a nut or cam might stay in them if you took a whipper.

Judging by Traversi’s description of “Empath,” there might not be a less ideal route for trad gear: “‘Empath’ is slightly overhanging, about 65 feet tall, and it’s difficult all the way from the bottom to the anchors,” he said on beta hub The Crag.

“It’s a power endurance test piece with very few resting positions. The minimal shake spots are on bad liebacks with smears for feet. The route revolves around squeezing this refrigerator-like feature from bottom to top. There are only two down-pulling holds on the entire route. One of the uniquely difficult aspects of the climb is that your left hand is always on the ‘good’ holds, and your right hand is always on bad holds. Your left arm gets completely smoked because there are few opportunities to rest it.”

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Have you ever tried to finagle a nut into a sloppy, flared crack while squeezing a refrigerator and performing a “bad lieback” on smears? I haven’t either. Nobody else has done it at as high a standard — to be clear, the 5.15 threshold — as Connor Herson.

Put your feet up, Connor, and not necessarily on nonexistent footholds. You’re officially the world’s hardest trad climber.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson is a staff writer at GearJunkie, and several other All Gear websites.

He has been writing about climbing, cycling, running, wildlife, outdoor policy, the outdoor industry, vehicles, and more for 2 years. Prior to GearJunkie, he owned and operated his own business before freelancing at GearHungry. Based in Austin, Texas, Anderson loves to climb, boulder, road bike, trail run, and frequent local watering holes (of both varieties).