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Madaleine Sorkin becomes the first woman to free climb Dunn-Westbay Direct (5.14-)

[This story has been updated to clarify Sorkin’s style of ascent. She rappelled from the top of the route and started climbing from the belay ledge at the top of the first pitch.]

On August 10, Madaleine Sorkin, 40, enjoyed a no-falls day on the Dunn-Westbay Direct (IV 5.14-, 4 pitches, 1,000′) on the Diamond of Longs Peak (Neniisotoyou’u, 14,255′) in Rocky Mountain National Park. This makes her the first woman and fifth person overall to free climb the route on lead. The crux pitch is about 270 feet long and requires an 80-meter rope, and the route from Broadway Ledge sits above 13,000 feet in elevation.

Madaleine Sorkin during her free ascent of the Dunn-Westbay Direct (IV 5.14-, 4 pitches, 1,000') on the Diamond of Longs Peak (Neniisotoyou'u, 14,255') on August 10. [Photo] Henna Taylor

Madaleine Sorkin during her free ascent of the Dunn-Westbay Direct (IV 5.14-, 4 pitches, 1,000′) on the Diamond of Longs Peak (Neniisotoyou’u, 14,255′) on August 10. [Photo] Henna Taylor

The Dunn-Westbay Direct was first free climbed by Tommy Caldwell in 2013. Joe Mills supported Caldwell’s ascent and also sent the route on toprope during their no-falls day. Jonathan Seigrist completed the second free ascent on lead in 2016. Josh Wharton was the next person to redpoint, then John Ebers sent the route in 2020.

Sorkin was also the first woman and fifth person to free climb the Honeymoon is Over (V 5.13c) on the Diamond in 2016.

The following is a Q&A with Sorkin about her process and the day she sent:

Who did you end up partnering with?

I mainly worked on the route toprope solo. I led the route quickly on my second lead attempt ever. Both of my lead efforts were supported by my friend Jeff Hansen. My wife Henna Taylor filmed much of my projecting process with the route and her support has been the bee-knees! I can’t overstate how much work it is to be up there and I have tremendous gratitude for partners who actually show up to support efforts like this.

How many days do you think you invested up on the wall?

I spent 11 or 12 days up there this summer between June 24 and August 10. Some days were much more productive because I was acclimated or the rock was less wet. While this has been a tough alpine season with wet conditions and storms, thankfully there was only one day that the crux pitch was so soaked that I couldn’t put my climbing shoes on.

I also got on the route three times in August 2021 to see if I thought I had a chance at freeing the line and to get a sense of what would be required for summer 2022. Additionally I think this preview helped me know how to train mentally and physically for the route.

What was your strategy, both on and off the wall? As recently as a year ago you were recovering from some medical treatments/surgeries on your finger tendons, right?

Yeah thankfully my finger arthritis has been much more manageable for a year and a half now!

My main strategy was to let this pursuit matter to me. To honor this time as a deeply personal and mysterious process alongside a simple climbing goal. I felt healthy mentally and physically and wanted to have an experience of giving myself wholeheartedly and transparently to a dream. The experience of simply being a desiring, loving body on this mountain and leaning into the work required was very present throughout working towards this goal.

Practically, this was the first project that I employed consistent visualization. There are so many intricate moves for that long pitch and I could eventually perform the moves on my back before bed, practice my breathing and get so invigorated by the power moving through me as I imagined myself sending the pitch. The ritual also demanded my attention and helped focus my mind and avoid anxious thoughts that might distract me from the physical task at hand.

Describe the day you sent…

Oh. It was beautiful. I felt like a rock climber in love with climbing. I had a mantra for that day along the lines of “you can find a way right now.” I said this to myself at the base of the 80-meter crux pitch and a few times throughout the hour and 15 minutes I was leading the pitch. Two memorable moments stick out to me on that lead. First was in the section that I consider the redpoint crux. I paused to place a piece and realized that would be too inefficient and I needed to keep climbing. The next moves are intricate foot placements and liebacking, and I began shaking as I tried to arrive at the first hand jam rest. What I remember is my complete commitment to finding a way. This energy carried me through those moves. The other moment was in the last 10 meters of the pitch, where there is this sharp, off-balance traverse sequence. I slightly bobbled the placement of my right big toe and responded perfectly. I thought “this is no big deal, just fix it,” and I remember smirking and feeling kind of smug. I immediately re-situated the toe and moved through. When I grabbed the big hold following those difficult moves, I screamed with such a release of power. At the top of the crux pitch I was cycling in joyful disbelief for a while.

The remaining pitches to the summit are up to 5.13- and had been soaking wet and seemingly unclimbable until that week. I didn’t know how to climb them precisely but they were dry and the wind was at my back! I felt a floaty, upward energy even as I fumbled a little figuring out gear and sequence. I enjoyed a “no fall day” to the summit!

[Sorkin shared the following information about the style of her ascent after this article was first published.]

I also want to mention that on the day I sent, we accessed the route by climbing the North Face of Longs Peak via the Cables Route [5.4] to the top of the Diamond [ca. 14,000′] and rappelled [down] the Dunn-Westbay Direct, to the top of the Green Pillar, the start of the crux pitch on the DunnWestbay Direct. I didn’t climb the first 300 feet from Broadway Ledge, which has climbing up to 5.10, to get to that point. This decision hinged on witnessing repeated rockfall coming down the Chasm View rappels and into the North Chimney, and not wanting to repeatedly expose myself and partner to this risk. To access Broadway Ledge where many routes begin, the two common access points are the North Chimney or the Chasm View rappels. While I don’t think the style of my ascent significantly alters the difficulty of the route, it is important for me to share the pertinent ascent details as best I can and role model transparency to other climbers self-reporting their ascents.

Additionally, for future climbers, there is a cleaner ascent of the crux pitch waiting to happen. It currently has a number of fixed stoppers and pins. I imagine there is a cleaner ascent waiting for someone if they were motivated to bang out all the fixed gear, which might be easier in colder temperatures when the metal is more contracted.

What do you think made the final difference for success?

Thankfully, sending this route was straightforward once I sorted my beta and figured out how to rest and manage my heart rate up the pitch. For me, the art of the send was taking the time to learn the details of how my body wanted to climb the rock and keep a rhythm to my progress alongside storm cycles and resting and training appropriately between days up high.

I think I’m very good at performing quickly once I see I can do the route. I find the pressure to perform to be an uncomfortable feeling and sometimes I wonder if I increase this sensation to get myself to perform quicker.

Earlier this spring you pulled off a free ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall in a day–I imagine that helped prepare you to climb long hard pitches above 13,000′?

I chose two performance goals this past year that inspired me and that I thought would contribute to my drive and focus for the Dunn-Westbay Direct. They were challenging goals but ones that I thought I might complete quickly and would translate to my capacity on the Dunn-Westbay Direct.

In October 2021 I redpointed Yellow Wolf 5.13d (a brilliant granite 1,000′ wall in northwestern Wyoming; five of the nine pitches are 5.13). I believe I completed the fourth free ascent (first female) of the route. In April 2022 I climbed the Hallucinogen Wall in a day after replacing the old bolts over the winter (I’d free climbed the route in 2012 with Brad Gobright over two days). The “in-a-day” objective was a reasonable for me, however, I put the added pressure on myself to do it the first time I tried. I bobbled the crux pitch that day, so I had to repeat it and was so pumped that I was barely staying on the rock. I kept thinking what perfect practice that was for the Dunn-Westbay Direct.

Are you finished with the Diamond for a while?

This is an interesting question. I cried earlier today thinking about saying goodbye to the route and the mountain. I think that is a good sign that I am beginning to feel complete with the goal. The send happened and there is a deeper process I’ve been in that I’m slowly unraveling. This morning I wrote a poem to the mountain.

[Sorkin wrote a poem about her experience on the Hallucinogen Wall for Alpinist 79, which was recently sent to press and will be available by the end of August.]

What are you looking forward to next?

So much 🙂

How are things going with the Climbing Grief Fund?

CGF awarded our 25 therapy grants before the end of the annual cycle. I hope the American Alpine Club can secure more funding for 2023 and offer more community services for grief and trauma.