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.”