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BREAKING THROUGH

PART THREE

a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Madaleine Sorkin
Story by Julie Ellison

Her body plummets to the valley floor 800 feet below.

Her body plummets to the valley floor 800 feet below.

“Put a piece of gear in!”

When she hits a ledge, it sends her twisting and tumbling away from the rock like a Ping-Pong ball. The climbing anchors she was relying on to keep her safely tethered to the wall have failed, and now she’s falling. It seems to happen in slow motion, but the whole thing takes only a split second. This is what climber Madaleine Sorkin pictured while she hung at an anchor hundreds of feet off the ground in the summer of 2006. The fall was only in her imagination, but the fear was real. The 24-year-old, who was known for her playfulness on the wall, broke down crying. At a difficulty rating of 5.11b, the route she was on, Freeblast, on Yosemite’s El Capitan, was well within Sorkin’s climbing ability—she was a competent 5.12 trad climber—but she couldn’t stop picturing her body falling helplessly to the ground.

Sorkin tries to find her way out from under a slate roof in the Slate Quarry just outside of Llanberis in North Wales. Slate can be as sharp as a stone-age weapon and as slick as a school-house chalkboard. Photo by Henna Taylor

It’s no surprise that falling consumed Sorkin’s mind. Only two months earlier, on April Fools’ Day, she fell 50 feet onto a rock ledge when a rappel anchor failed on the descent from Resolution Arete in Red Rocks, Nevada. She had to drag herself for nine hours through a desert wash to reach the trailhead, a hike that usually takes about two hours. Although she came away with only a popped bursa in her knee, the mental wounds cut deep. She can’t climb long routes high off the ground, her favorite type of climbing, without imagining a freefall from every anchor. But she did it anyway, her own twisted version of exposure therapy.

“I wanted to jump right back in, so I needed to get in there with emotions that were going to come up,” she says now of her quick return to climbing. “It was really gnarly and very unpleasant, but [the accident] ended up being the pivotal experience that was the start of big-wall free climbing for me.”

Now 35, Sorkin has free-climbed some of the most sought-after big-wall routes in the U.S., including routes with dangerous rockfall, high elevation, and grades up to 5.13c.

Madaleine's morning van life routine. Photo by Julie Ellison
“There are only a few dozen climbers in the world who participate in this type of climbing at such an elite level—and the vast majority are men. ”
REI

She has multiple first female ascents, including her most recent from September 2016: The Honeymoon is Over, an incredibly difficult 5.13c. It’s more than 1,000 feet of hard, technical climbing, all above 13,000 feet on the infamous Diamond, the east face of Longs Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. There are only a few dozen climbers in the world who participate in this type of climbing at such an elite level—and the vast majority are men. Big-wall free climbing is one of the most difficult disciplines of rock climbing because routes are so long, hard, and committing. (Free climbing means the climber is tied into a rope and uses protection, like nuts and camming devices, to catch her in the event of a fall, but she uses only her hands and feet on the rock, rather than pulling on gear, to ascend.) Climbers often spend weeks or months at a time working one route, where they practice hard moves repeatedly and increase efficiency on easier sections. This means climbing and reclimbing thousands of feet of rock. Then there’s the matter of logistics. Using ropes, pulleys, and brute strength, big-wall climbers haul hundreds of pounds of gear up on the wall with them—food, water, climbing and camping equipment. Sleeping on the rock face, they’re exposed to the elements for days at a time, which can be exhausting. The manual labor of hauling combined with the physical challenge of climbing is brutal on the body, all while the mind must battle the natural fear of being so high off the ground.

“but around my junior year, climbing began to dominate my daily routine & my general orientation in life.”
Colorado College
Colorado
Colorado College
The USA
Colorado
Madaleine Sorkin waking up one early morning in an olive grove outside the town of Chulilla in Spain. Photo by Henna Taylor
Madaleine leads a crack route in Colorado. Photo by Julie Ellison

In March 2006, Sorkin was working at a therapeutic boarding school in Salt Lake City, where she had moved after graduating from college two years earlier.

With a prime location near trad climbing meccas like Indian Creek and Red Rocks, Sorkin was progressing quickly as a climber and consistently leading 5.12. But just as her climbing was moving forward, she felt lost in the rest of her life.

With a full-time job, a house, and a girlfriend, Sorkin had checked all the boxes on the life she thought she was supposed to have. But it wasn’t the life she wanted. She had come out to her family a few years earlier when she started the relationship, her first with a woman. She was learning to be more open about her sexuality, but she still struggled with accepting herself. Plus, the routines of everyday life in the same place made her restless and unhappy. She wanted to climb and be on the road, but she didn’t know how to make it happen. “I was just starting to have this awareness of the ambivalence I have in my life,” she says. “I wasn’t really sure how to deal with it at all.”

Sorkin

So she quit her job, broke up with her girlfriend, and left Salt Lake. She headed to Red Rocks to climb with Kate Rutherford, another young woman who was developing a name for herself as a strong crack climber. After climbing for a few days together, Rutherford left, and Sorkin sought other partners. She met a guy in the campground, and two days later, they were climbing Resolution Arete.

After the rappel anchor failed on the descent, Sorkin recognized that they had made a mistake in trusting webbing so old that it was bleached white from the sun. She had taken an AMGA rock guide course the year before and had a knife and extra webbing, materials she could have used to replace the old anchor. Thankful to be alive, she was beating herself up over the mistake, but her partner refused to accept any responsibility. After taking nine hours to get back to the trailhead and still covered in blood, Sorkin had to convince her partner to take her to the hospital. He wanted to go to the campground and sleep.

“The whole day, I just thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m climbing with this guy,’” she says. “He wasn’t a nice person, and I was attracting that [at the time]. I just wasn’t taking agency in my life. I was way too open to climbing with people simply for an objective, other than enjoying it and the time I spend with those people.” The accident was the catalyst she needed to create the life she had always wanted.

After her experience on Freeblast in May 2006, she went to the Bugaboos in Canada with some good friends, including Rutherford. Sorkin did some short, hard routes, as well as long, easy routes. Being in the alpine setting with snow bridges and glacier travel felt adventurous to Sorkin, who had previously focused on purely rock climbing. She was pushing herself in a committing area, which helped her gain confidence in her capacity to make good decisions. On that trip, she and Rutherford made plans to free Moonlight Buttress, a 1,200-foot 5.12d in Zion National Park, Utah, in the fall.

Sorkin and Rutherford were at a similar ability level, and Moonlight Buttress was at their absolute limit. “That was our Shangri-La,” Sorkin says of the sandstone formation with clean, splitter cracks. “If we were going to be inspired by anything, it was going to be that line.” Excited and nervous, they spent the first week hiking to the top and rappelling down to practice the hard climbing. After resting for a few days, they went for it. After two days on the wall, they topped out, having climbed all the pitches without falling. It was the first ascent of the route with an all-female team.

“I still think about that climb and how hard we tried, but that was the start of this awesome combination of things that really created a benchmark of how possible big, difficult objectives are,” she says. “Getting to climb with another strong female was really revolutionary. I think I climbed better than I would have otherwise.”

One year later the duo freed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, a 2,200-foot 5.12a, and in 2009 Rutherford belayed Sorkin on her ascent of the West Face of Leaning Tower, considered Yosemite’s steepest big wall at 5.13-. The next year, she and Rutherford successfully climbed The Freerider, a 37-pitch 5.12d that ascends the 3,000-foot main face of El Cap. It was another first all-female ascent for the duo. Sorkin credits a lot of her success to the great climbing partnership she’s had with Rutherford over the years.

“Madaleine's dedication to hard big wall free climbing is a reflection of her tenacious will and love of wild places,” Rutherford says. “She is playful, honest and caring while on the wall regardless of sending or failing.”

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For how extraordinary her career has been, Sorkin’s start in climbing was quite ordinary. She climbed for the first time at a summer camp when she was 12, and again when she was 15, at Outpost Wilderness Adventure, a camp in Colorado. Sorkin’s parents encouraged her to be active, so she was always willing to try new things. Her family lived in Maryland, so it was at camp that Sorkin first saw the potential that climbing and the mountains held for her. Along with a guide, she and another gung-ho camper woke up at 4:30 a.m. to climb The Prow, a long 5.8 on 14,170-foot Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range. “The whole time all I could think was, ‘OK, this is the coolest thing ever!’” she says. During summers she started working at Outpost Wilderness Adventures. The family who ran the camp exposed her to a more adventurous lifestyle than what she experienced growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with a mother who worked as a writer and a teacher, and a father who worked as a psychologist. When she graduated from high school, she attended Colorado College, a school in Colorado Springs known for encouraging students to participate in the outdoors. But even though she had moved across the country to be closer to the mountains, she spent her first two years playing lacrosse. It wasn’t until her junior year that she started to climb more seriously. “I wasn’t ever not into climbing; I just wasn’t putting the time into it,” she says, “but around my junior year, climbing began to dominate my daily routine and my general orientation in life.”

As a college freshman, she could climb 5.10 trad off the couch, and when she started getting back in shape for climbing a few years later, she was leading solid 5.11 without much effort. To put that into perspective, most experienced trad climbers go a whole lifetime and never climb anything harder than 5.10.

“I was a fairly natural climber,” she says, “and the camp instilled an orientation toward crack and trad climbing, going up things, and adventuring.” It was also at camp that she discovered a preternatural boldness. Every inch a climber moves above a piece of gear means the possibility of a bigger fall, so it’s common for less experienced climbers to place a lot of protection, thus reducing fall distance. She would place a piece of gear and just climb, then keep climbing without putting more protection in. Eventually, friends on the ground would yell up to her, “Put a piece of gear in, Madaleine!”

“There was some drive in me to push it when it wasn’t necessary, to contrive these really challenging situations and practice that skill of focusing on the climbing and not getting scared,” she says. Although this drive would be crucial to her future development as a climber, it arose from a past of overwhelming confusion about her sexuality.

Growing up as a shy person in a private family who didn’t talk about personal things, Sorkin never acknowledged herself as gay. Her sexuality didn’t seem to fit into others’ expectations of her, so she ignored it. But bottling everything up meant that eventually that energy needed to come out somewhere. For Sorkin, that was climbing.

“Climbing was this place of self-expression that I wasn’t doing very well with in other parts of my life,” she says. “I could prove to myself that I had power and identify by this thing that I was good at.” Climbing was the clear-cut path Sorkin wanted, but she didn’t always follow it.

Above a stormy sea, Madaleine Sorkin raps onto the Yellow Wall at Gogarth in Northern Wales for a salty day of climbing sea cliffs. Photo by Henna Taylor

Since leaving Salt Lake City in 2006, Sorkin had worked short contract gigs as a guide and a solar-panel installer to fund her climbing. After focusing on climbing for a few years, Sorkin felt like she wasn’t contributing to society, so she went back to school in 2010. She earned a master’s degree in environmental and land-use planning from the University of Colorado at Denver and landed a yearlong internship with Boulder County in 2012. But when she realized that her chosen career meant more government office work, she decided it wasn’t for her.

“I had stubbornly finished this degree and was not really climbing as much as I wanted and not in a relationship that I was passionate about,” she says. “I was doing it again, facing this same thing of doing what I think I should be doing in life instead of what I really want to be doing, and hating myself for it.” So she started climbing. A lot.

Sorkin headed to Colorado’s Black Canyon to rendezvous with a brand-new partner she'd never met, a young psyched climber named Brad Gobright. With hazards like loose rock, big fall potential, difficult communication, and high commitment—climbers must hike down to the start of the routes and climb out—the Black had drawn Sorkin in since her years at Colorado College. She and Gobright free-climbed the Hallucinogen Wall in two days, a 13-pitch route that is graded 5.13 R. She was unable to lead the crux pitch, but following it gave her the idea that something like that could be possible for her.

Right after that, she went to Yosemite to support Nik Berry, an established big wall climber, on his free ascent of The Prophet, an 1,800-foot 5.13d on the right side of El Cap. She top-roped a lot of the line, but again, it opened her eyes to what she could do when it came to climbing hard high off the ground. She and Berry then went and swapped leads on El Corazon, a 35-pitch 5.13b on El Cap.

“You see very few other climbers—men and women alike—getting after big walls with such master-level competency and fierce determination,” said Matt Samet, editor in chief of Climbing magazine, in a recent interview. “I have yet to hear of her giving up or not succeeding, which is pretty rare when you’re talking about long 5.13+ routes on which any one pitch can shut you down on the final free push.”

These accomplishments got the attention of a few sponsors, who began to support Sorkin. With tunnel vision and some money in her pocket, she talked Berry, who had barely been out of the country, into going to Kyrgyzstan, a place with El Cap–size granite walls, good weather, and a lower elevation, which meant less snow. She and Berry spent a few weeks putting up four huge routes, including a 4,000-foot line and an old aid route that went free at 5.12c R. “I dream about going back there,” she says. “There’s so much granite that just goes from the valley floor to the sky.”

Sorkin enjoying her time out of a rented van in an olive grove outside of Chulilla, Spain. The limestone cliffs that she'll climb later that day can be seen in the distance. Photo by Henna Taylor
Madaleine often coaches young, aspiring climbers. She focuses on building mental fitness and perfecting movements and technical skills. Photo by Julie Ellison
Madaleine mentoring a young climber.
“I think it's important to inspire other women to explore their capacities.”

Less than a year after Kyrgyzstan, Sorkin hiked solo to the top of El Capitan with 1,000 feet of rope, water, and other supplies for her and partner Joe Mills’ attempt on The PreMuir, a 33-pitch 5.13c/d known as one of El Cap’s hardest routes. She wasn’t familiar with that part of the wall, so finding where to rappel in, tossing the rope, and leaning out over the 3,000-foot abyss was incredibly scary but satisfying. At the end of her rope, about 1,000 feet down, she chatted with an aid-climbing party that had been on the wall for a few days. After stashing the water, she ascended her fixed rope to the top, where she would spend the night.

The next morning, she hiked down to El Cap Meadow and saw a somber group of people with a spotting scope pointed to where she had run into the aid climbers on the wall. When she looked through the scope, she saw a body hanging at the end of a rope, 230 feet below his partner. One of the aid climbers had pulled a large flake off the wall. The rock cut the rope he was climbing with, so he fell to the end of the rope used for hauling, which was also tied to him. He died instantly.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘Should we change what we’re going to do? Do we even want to go up it?’” Sorkin says. “It was really upsetting, but the reality of climbing and death is that you can’t ignore it. You lose friends along the way and it’s happened enough that I’ve had to accept it on some level.” They waited two weeks, and in that time raised some money for the late climber’s memorial. When they climbed to the fateful pitch, she and Mills drew a massive heart on the rock that could be seen from El Cap Meadow a few thousand feet below. In the end, consistent 90-degree heat and sustained difficulty (six 5.13 pitches and twelve 5.12 pitches) got the better of them, and they failed at freeing the route.

But in standard Sorkin style, she’s not giving up. She is returning to Yosemite this fall, with her sights set on The PreMuir and The Heart Route, a 26-pitch 5.13. While she’s excited to have more big objectives to look forward to, she’s also enjoying her downtime. “My life goes from ambivalence to hyper-controlled,” she says. “That’s why I space out these goals, so I can integrate them in a more relaxed, loving approach. When I lock in on a goal, the rest of my life gets pretty hazy.”

And right now she wants to keep the rest of her life in sharp focus. Last year Sorkin freed The Honeymoon is Over, a 1,000-foot 5.13c on the Diamond of Longs Peak in Colorado. All of the climbing is above 13,000 feet, making this one of the hardest rock routes in the world at that elevation. She was the first woman to climb it, and the fifth person overall. For her the progression from the very beginning of hiking up to check the route out—she puked from altitude sickness and had to be given oxygen from a ranger—to climbing the entire line without falling was gratifying. The ascent was also the culmination of the past 10 years of her life as a big wall climber.

She now lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her girlfriend, Henna Taylor, an adventure filmmaker who has made a handful of climbing films featuring Sorkin. “I’ve never truly arrived at coming out,” Sorkin says. “It’s an ongoing process. There’s not this one moment…it’s not that tidy.” However, the more she’s accepted herself just as she is, the more she’s enjoyed her life.

She works as a certified climbing guide and has been building a climbing-coaching business to help others develop lead confidence (madaleinesorkin.com). She spends time working with Women’s Wilderness (womenswilderness.org), a nonprofit that fosters confidence, empowerment, and leadership qualities in women and girls through outdoor adventures. She takes high school girls from different socioeconomic backgrounds on 5-day climbing and camping trips in the West. For Sorkin, who started climbing at a similar camp, guiding at the Women’s Wilderness camps is a way to offer that same life-changing opportunity to other females.

As one of the few female big wall free climbers, Sorkin is a heroine to many women who are looking to participate in the more adventurous aspects of climbing. Within disciplines like sport climbing and bouldering, there are hundreds of admirable girl crushers. That number goes down to a fraction when talking about traditional climbing, and a fraction of a fraction when talking about big wall traditional climbing.

“I think it's important to inspire other women to explore their capacities,” Sorkin says. “It's always been meaningful for me to see strong women who are willing engage uncertain challenges and find their power.”

Over the past 20 years, Sorkin has found that being gay has offered her slightly different climbing partnerships with men. “They’re psyched to have a partner who is more tuned into them,” she says. As a gay woman, she used to feel silenced by the heteronormative culture of climbing, and that meant fitting into more of a male role. Now she’s found her place by being exactly who she is.

“Now that I’m in my 30s, I just don’t fucking care,” she says. “I’m not going to try to fit into any particular mold. I’m going to be both emotional and really decisive and a mix of qualities. I’m just going to be myself.”

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Story / Julie Ellison Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Henna Taylor & Julie Ellison Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones