The east face of Longs Peak (14,255′), RMNP, Colorado. The steep rhomboid on the upper part of the face is the Diamond. [Photo] Topher Donahue
The Day Begins
Boulder Canyon, Colorado, 2 a.m. The alarm goes off. Wha…? Oh, yeah: the Diamond.
Driving through Boulder is surreal: while people stagger home from a night of revelry, I’m just waking up, a day later in time. Crickets chirp in the warm July darkness, but we’re traveling to a different world, with snowstorms and unimaginable fatigue, suspended thousands of feet above the city.
At our meeting place Eric Doub sits inside his car, motionless. I tap on the window.
“This is no time for sleep! Let’s go climbing!” I’d tease Eric less if I knew he’d been up all night at a party. But he still beams with relentless optimism–the kind of partner you want on the Diamond.
An hour’s drive takes us to the trailhead, where the parking lot is already full. We step out into the darkness and a cold blast reminds us of the long approach ahead. No moon tonight, so after a last-minute load adjustment, we follow the three-foot circles of our headlamps up the rocky trail. As we reach tree line, we look back to see the city lights sprawling for a hundred miles on the plains below, where millions still sleep. In the wide-open tundra, the wind turns icy, while the sky explodes in orange and red. We can put our watches away; the only time that matters now is the position of the sun.
The last few minutes to Chasm Lake are steep, and we feel the altitude in our legs. Then our first full view of the east face appears, glowing in the morning light. I’ve stood here countless times, yet I’m still awed by its size and beauty. Glaciers sculpted Longs Peak over the last 200,000 years, leaving behind a 1,700-foot mosaic of gray and tan granite: the east face cirque. At the heart of it, above everything else, is the Diamond. Nine hundred feet of vertical and overhanging rock top out at 14,000 feet, forming a diamond-shaped wall within the wall–the premier alpine face in the lower forty-eight states. The left side, the Yellow Wall, is a climber’s paradise, with vertical, bulletproof rock split by well-developed cracks. By contrast, the right half overhangs for 500 feet, and the rock can be choss. Water drips off the top, mesmerizing the few who venture there.
Jeff Ofsanko on Pitch 4 (5.11) of D1 (VI 5.7 A4, Kamps-Rearick, 1960; FFA: V 5.11, Bachar-Westbay, 1978; FFA [via the original line]: V 5.12a, Achey-Briggs, 1980). The line of first ascent on the Diamond, D1 is far from the easiest either to aid or free climb. [Photo] Topher Donahue
A new energy fills us: the wall looks enticing. We hurry over the talus around Chasm Lake, then up the snow to the base of the North Chimney, a 700-foot funnel of loose blocks and rubble. It’s easy but dangerous, so we simulclimb to Broadway, the ledge at the bottom of the Diamond. It seems as though a whole day has passed since we left Boulder, but now the real climbing begins.
We’ll have only a few hours to enjoy the sun before it slips behind the mountain. Then the temperature will plummet and a bone-chilling gray will engulf the wall. Powerful afternoon storms may build out of sight behind the mountain and suddenly swallow up the Diamond, producing anything from torrential rain to blizzards, often with intense lightning. The mountain often lures climbers like us with its early sun, then slams them with numbing cold and terrifying storms.
Welcome to alpine rock climbing, Diamond style.
The Forbidden Wall
For a long time, the Diamond’s sinister appearance made climbing it nearly unthinkable. Almost a hundred years passed between the first recorded ascent of the mountain and the first ascent of this wall. In the 1950s steel pitons, efficient direct-aid techniques and a fierce new core of climbers led to the first ascents of Half Dome and El Cap. Colorado’s big wall was the Diamond, and soon aspirants from all over the country were eyeing it. While not as big as some of Yosemite’s walls, its weather and altitude made it much more daunting.
In 1953 Tom Hornbein and John Rensberger traversed out high on the Diamond looking for an obvious line, but found only a lot of space. A year later Dale Johnson, one of Colorado’s leading climbers, was prepared to attempt the Diamond, but as he said afterward, “We did one of the dumbest things I have ever done in my life: we told [the park officials] what we were going to do. And the Longs Peak rangers said in words to this effect: ‘Like Hell you are!'” Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) officials believed that rescue from the Diamond would be nearly impossible, and they put the wall off limits for the next six years.
In 1959 the best climber in Colorado was probably Ray Northcutt, an ex-Marine who thrived on pull-ups and push-ups. He was tricked into leading one of America’s first 5.10ds, the direct start to Eldorado Canyon’s Bastille Crack, when a friend told him that Layton Kor had just done it. The young Kor was not only Northcutt’s greatest rival, he was also his best partner. When the RMNP remained implacable, the two established the Diagonal on the wall below the Diamond that year instead, creating the most difficult climb in Colorado. They hoped their success would convince the Park Service to lift the ban.
As 1960 approached, pressure was mounting on RMNP officials. Rumors were spreading that climbers from around the country were planning to climb the Diamond–with or without permission.
D1: The First Ascent
In July 1960 two young California climbers, Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps, traveled to Colorado to support another team that was hoping to attempt the Diamond. But by the time the RMNP finally lifted the ban, the original team had fallen apart, so Rearick and Kamps completed the necessary paperwork and interviews for themselves. They still had to find a support party of four, a strict requirement set down by the Park Service. Many local climbers didn’t want to assist two Californians intent on stealing Colorado’s gem, but finally Roy Holubar helped them recruit Jack Laughlin, Gary Cole, Charles Alexander and Charlie Roskosz. These four were promptly rewarded with the task of lugging a litter and 1,200 feet of rope up the mountain.
John Rensberger on the first reconnaissance of the yet-unclimbed Diamond in 1953. His climbing partner, Tom Hornbein, remembers that the two had finished another Longs Peak climb and arrived at Table Ledge “with a little time to kill [and] some as-yet-unsquandered energy and curiosity.” [Photo] Tom Hornbein
In the 1961 American Alpine Journal (AAJ), Rearick wrote, “We knew we were well prepared for the climb, coming fresh from a month of practice in Yosemite. We had become acclimatized to Colorado’s high altitude by climbing The Diagonal…. We had the latest in chrome-moly hardware, made by Yvon Chouinard. Now all we needed was endurance, both physical and psychological, luck with the rock, and most of all, luck with the weather.” On the first day, July 31, 1960, that luck seemed to fail them: a storm engulfed the mountain and they had to retreat from Broadway back to the Chasm Lake shelter. “The grim aspect of the Diamond looming over us, veiled in clouds and weeping streams of water, did little for our morale.”
Then the mountain gave them three days of decent weather, and they completed the climb in fairly routine fashion, apart from some large ice blocks in the final chimney, which required a cold and unusual lieback, and a “melodramatic touch… added by a brief hailstorm at the top.” The ever-understated Rearick reported the climb only as the “First Ascent of the Diamond.” But it soon came to be called The Ace of Diamonds, which morphed into the Rearick-Kamps Route. The modern name, D1, perhaps best conveys the stark simplicity of the line.
Their ascent was a media event of unequaled magnitude in Colorado climbing. As Rearick wrote, “The dizzy aftermath of parades, banquets, and television appearances… confirmed the [Diamond’s] exalted reputation.” The prize had gone to Californians, but Rearick soon moved to Boulder, where he still lives today. So much for regional loyalties.
|The First Ascent
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At the time of Kamps and Rearick’s climb, Kor was on his way to becoming one of history’s legendary climbers. He’d missed his chance at the first ascent, but his tremendous drive insured that the Diamond would soon bear his name.
Layton Kor on the second ascent of the Diamond, via his new route, the Yellow Wall (V 5.8 A4), with Charlie Roskosz, in 1962. Kor and Ray Northcutt had asked for permission to make the first ascent in 1959, but the RMNP officials had turned them down, and the ascent of the unclimbed wall eventually went to Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps in 1960. Kor would go on to make the third, and first one-day, ascent of the wall, via D1, followed, two days later, by the fourth ascent, by a new route: the Jack of Diamonds (V 5.10 A4), both with Royal Robbins in 1963. In 1967 Kor and Wayne Goss made the first winter ascent, via the Enos Mills Wall (V 5.7 A3). [Photo] Huntley Ingalls
In July 1962 Kor grabbed the first climber who wouldn’t say no, Charlie Roskosz, and the two uneventfully nailed their way up the second ascent, via the Yellow Wall. The route was less steep than D1, with better rock, but harder aid. According to Dougald MacDonald’s book, Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener, the only real problem was that Roskosz forgot to tell the rangers and his wife that he was going up. The rangers ticketed Roskosz for “climbing without permission”; his wife discovered his ascent only after reading about it in the Denver Post.
While Kor now dominated Colorado climbing, California was under the sway of another powerful climber: Royal Robbins. Like Kor, Robbins had an immense motivation for first ascents and was more fit and more possessed than most of his partners. By some accounts Kor and Robbins felt competitive toward each other, but when the two met up in the summer of 1963, they quickly formed one of the strongest rock-climbing teams in the world.
To start, they repeated D1, making the third ascent of the Diamond and the first without a night on the wall. After two days’ rest they returned to put up the Jack of Diamonds in a single day. Today, more than forty years later, the Jack has seen few repeats, and it is uncertain whether anyone has again made a one-day ascent. Robbins wrote in the 1964 AAJ, “On my last reserves I struggled up this final pitch, topped the Diamond, and shook the hand of a great climber.”
By 1964 a new generation of Colorado climbers was emerging, all heavily influenced by Kor. Pat Ament and Larry Dalke were still at Boulder High when they became regular Kor partners. That summer seventeen-year-old Ament made the fifth ascent of the Diamond with Bob Boucher, establishing the Grand Traverse. Ament recounts that during the last section–two long, overhanging aid pitches–Boucher took a thirty-foot fall. Without a sound, he replaced all the pitons that had been ripped out, and as Ament joined him at a hanging belay (two suspicious-looking pitons, with 1,500 feet of air beneath them), Boucher turned to his young partner and said merely, “Be brave.” The sky darkened and the snow became a blizzard, but Ament led on to the top. Unknown to him, his parents had hiked up to Chasm Lake and were watching their son’s progress through a telescope.
The author, Roger Briggs, at age seventeen, on the Yellow Wall (V 5.8 A4) during the 1968 second ascent. Over the next thirty-eight years he would would climb the Diamond ninety-eight more times, establishing half a dozen new free lines. [Photo] Mike Covington
The Diamond was not climbed again for two years. Then, in 1966, another Kor protege, Mike Covington, and Pete Robinson put up Curving Vine, a complex line with two pendulums on the extreme left side of the wall. The same year, Larry Dalke, George Hurley and Wayne Goss opened D7–the wall’s seventh ascent. Following uninterrupted crack systems for hundreds of feet, this first moderate aid climb began to ease the Diamond’s forbidding image.
Kor completed his last great climb in March 1967. After John Harlin’s death on the Eiger the year before, Kor had returned to Colorado questioning the meaning of climbing, and of life. He summoned the last of his famous drive to make the first winter ascent with Goss, via a difficult new line, the Enos Mills Wall. Although Kor soon walked away from serious climbing, scarcely ten years after starting, he’d accomplished more in a decade than most climbers manage in a lifetime.
|Layton the Great’n
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“Geez, the guy would insist on rappelling from a strand of alpine cord on a tied-off ring angle 500 feet off the deck…. After a while I’d make him go first and then sneak some extra cord onto the anchor.” Kor had us in stitches, and in terror, as he recounted his first days on Longs Peak with Northcutt. A fifteen-year-old dreamer, eager and impressionable, I’d just met nineteen-year-old Ament, and through him, masters like Kor and Robbins. My sense of possibility had been blown apart.
Under Ament, I began to serve an intensive apprenticeship, and by the following summer it seemed inevitable I would attempt the Diamond. Four of us, in two parties, planned to try two different climbs: Jim Logan and I would attempt the second ascent of D7, while Wayne Goss and Roger Dalke would aim for a new line just to the right.
Armed with proper permission (this was the last season that the Park Service required it), we fixed ropes in the North Chimney, then returned home. A week later, we hiked to Chasm Lake with monstrous loads and spent our first night at the shelter cabin. Logan and I (combined age: thirty-six; combined experience on the Diamond: zero) had given no thought to where we would be spending the next night; our bivy gear consisted of a single down jacket.
Kevin Cooper on Broadway, Longs Peak. This ledge marks the division between the Lower and Upper East Face, where the Diamond begins. [Photo] Topher Donahue
After a long day, we reached Almost Table Ledge in the dark, exhausted. To make matters worse, Logan had broken his hand when he dislodged a block on the fifth pitch. We settled in on the tiny ledge and spent a long night shivering together in a tug-of-war over the down jacket (“I thought you were bringing the other jacket!”)–the beginning of a long friendship.
When we finished our climb, we had made the ninth ascent of the Diamond. At sixteen, I was the youngest person to have climbed it (fifteen-year-old Kordell Kor broke that record a few years later, and now Tommy Caldwell holds it with an ascent at age twelve). Goss and Dalke, who had been smart enough to bring full bivy gear, still spent an uncomfortable night on a tiny stance. They topped out the next day and named their new route the Black Dagger Chimney.
As the ’60s drew to a close, D7 became a trade route, and by the early ’70s its lower half was virtually a fixed piton ladder. At the same time, new innovations for direct aid like copperheads, rivets and specialized hooks made thin seams and blank sections possible, and climbers began to explore the Diamond’s intimidating right side. Now that any piece of rock could be aided, where could climbing go?
Free and Clean
To the young climbers of the ’70s the point of climbing began to change from what you climbed to how you climbed it. When Chouinard began selling hexes and nuts, a completely new genre–free and clean–emerged, and prolific communities of its practitioners formed in the Gunks, Yosemite and all over Colorado.
Although I had grown up using a hammer and pitons, I quickly saw the simplicity and beauty of the new ways. Most of the Kor aid lines in the Boulder area had by now gone free, and conversations were turning to the big walls. Would Half Dome, El Cap or even the Diamond go free as well?
By 1973 the Diamond had become the most coveted free-climbing prize in Colorado, but it presented daunting problems. First was finding the right line. One school of thought, which I subscribed to, was that the D7 would be a good choice because it was the easiest aid climb. (Had we chosen instead the unlikely looking line that Duncan Ferguson and Chris Reveley discovered in 1977–the Casual Route–the Diamond would have gone free much sooner.) The second hurdle was the time and energy required for an attempt: one or two tries per summer were about as much as anyone could muster. A final barrier was psychological: the mere thought of free climbing the Diamond was intimidating as hell.
Charlie Fowler on a winter ascent of D7, in 1978, with Dan Stone. By the end of the 1960s, D7 had become a trade route, with fixed pins making its lower half “virtually a fixed piton ladder.” Winter ascents such as this, however, remain significant even today. [Photo] Dan Stone
Goss and Logan finally made the first free ascent in 1975 using a line that combined the lower part of D7, the middle part of the Yellow Wall and the final part of the Black Dagger Chimney. Within a week Jimmy Dunn and Chris Wood had freed a similar line, staying a bit more to the right. At the end of that summer, Tobin Sorenson and Bruce Adams freed Pervertical Sanctuary. Over the next few years, most of the lines in the Yellow Wall area would go free.
In 1977 John Bachar, a Californian famous for his bold free solos and blonde, bad-boy image, freed the entire D7; in spite of our initial expectations, it turned out to be the hardest free climb on the wall. That same season Ferguson and Reveley found the easiest one, piecing together the start of D1 and the middle of the Grand Traverse. They originally named this the Integral Route, but it soon came to be called the Casual Route because most of it went at 5.9 or less. The next summer first Charlie Fowler and then Steve Monks free soloed it. More than any other first ascent, the Casual Route transformed the Diamond. The once impossible and forbidden wall had become, for strong climbers on good-weather days, a relatively “casual” outing.
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But the Diamond would never be an entirely welcoming place, and there were other lines that remained far more serious. With four overhanging pitches in a row, three on crumbly rock, D1 did not seem a sane choice for the next free climb. Nonetheless Bachar came back in 1978 with Billy Westbay to make this outrageous attempt. The two, however, had a serious disadvantage. Convinced that the line was obvious, they hadn’t read a route description. In the AAJ Rearick had written about reaching Table Ledge only to discover the main crack system had become a black, mossy, overhanging offwidth, running with ice-cold water. Disheartened, he and Kamps had leaned out and looked ten feet left, where they found a small, hidden, left-facing corner in perfect, dry rock. Bachar and Westbay, unaware of this alternative, assumed that the line continued up the nightmare central crack. Westbay fought his way up the wet, runout 5.11 offwidth for 100 feet, performing the greatest lead ever done on the Diamond, and one that will probably never be repeated.
Climbers on the Casual Route (IV 5.10-). More than any other first ascent, Duncan Ferguson and Chris Reveley’s opening of this line in 1977 changed perceptions of the Diamond, creating a relatively accessible route on the intimidating wall. [Photo] Jonathan Degenhardt
When the news reached me that they’d freed D1, I could hardly believe it. My own climbing on Longs was at a low point: I had spent most of the late 1970s coaching high-school distance runners. By 1980 I began climbing seriously again, and after linking the Directagonal on the lower wall and the Yellow Wall in a twelve-hour push with visiting Australian powerhouse Kim Carrigan, I felt fit and confident. D1 had yet to see another free ascent, but I had no intention of climbing Westbay’s wet offwidth pitch above Table Ledge. I wanted to free the original Kamps-Rearick line. I hoped that their version would yield a high-quality, challenging pitch.
With Carrigan gone from Colorado, I was again looking for a strong partner. I had been hearing about a powerful, confident newcomer to the Boulder area–twenty-two-year-old Jeff Achey. Although Achey and his contemporaries viewed me as “elderly”–I was now all of twenty-nine and had a steady job–he was eager to go up on D1 with me.
Achey and I moved rapidly up the first five pitches to Table Ledge. The last headwall pitch, ending in a small cave at Table Ledge, is horrendously loose, with eight-foot, crumbly spikes of rock standing precariously in the way–the crux, according to Kamps and Rearick.
As I pondered this section, never before free climbed, it began to snow. But it was a dry snow, and I was still warm, beneath rock that overhung for the next 100 feet and seemed oddly inviting. After I traversed left into the Kamps-Rearick finish, a dry, bomber crack appeared in a one-foot corner. Like them, I was elated, but also a little intimidated by the wall leaning out above me, over thousands of feet of exposure.
The author, Roger Briggs, belayed by his brother, Bill, on the 5.11 crux of the Lower East Face’s Diagonal Direct. Ray Northcutt and Kor established the Diagonal (V 5.9 A1) on the Lower East Face in 1959; its completion helped convince RMNP rangers to lift the ban on climbing the Diamond. Kor and Floyd Bossier pushed the route to Broadway in 1963 for the Diagonal Direct. The brothers Briggs established a variation to this–Directagonal (V 5.11c)–in 1977. In 1980 Briggs and Kim Carrigan enchained Directagonal with the Yellow Wall for the first continuous linkup of the integral face. [Photo] Glenn Randall
Powerful liebacking, devious stemming, get in some gear, try to rest, repeat. The swirling snow added an absurd tranquility, but the rock stayed dry and my hands were warm. Soon I was breathing like a distance runner, climbing at my limit at nearly 14,000 feet, yet I wanted this pitch more the higher I got. Finally, I found some hand jams, just as the angle kicked back to dead vertical.
Drained, I settled into the tiny belay stance, leaned out against the anchors and breathed in the vast space around me. The snowstorm passed and the sun returned to bathe Mills Glacier 2,000 feet below.
Achey began the infamous last pitch by stepping right, back into the main crack, which at this point is a bomb-bay chimney. Depending on the time of year and the temperatures, the next 140 feet can be running with water, filled with ice, or–as it was in this case–both. But one finds a way to get up this pitch, because going down from here is unthinkable.
At last we emerged at the top of the Diamond and back into the sun. D1 as climbed by Kamps and Rearick twenty years earlier was now free.
|Rumors of the Fall
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Against the Grain: 1985
“Hey Jim–wanna go look at a new route on the Diamond?” I knew Logan would say yes even though he hadn’t been climbing recently. Since the one-jacket bivy, our friendship had survived many adventures, including building my house in Boulder Canyon. Although Logan’s boyish looks hadn’t changed in twenty years, he was now a veteran of big climbs from Yosemite to the Canadian Rockies. Even so, he had no idea what he was getting into. Neither did I.
By 1985, as the sport-climbing revolution took off in America and seemingly everyone focused on bolted 5.13, the Diamond had become somewhat neglected. But not by us. That summer, Logan and I set out in search of the “last great free climb on the Diamond.” A chance conversation with Billy Westbay led me to an overhanging aid route on the right side: Its Welx. Mark Hesse and Dan McClure, who put up the route in 1973, had told Westbay that most of it should go free–after the first two pitches. Photos revealed a line of cracks and corners from the top, almost down to Broadway. But the first 250 feet was an overhanging, rotten alcove, with A4 aid.
From Broadway, the overhanging start was all too obvious; so was a crack system fifty feet left that offered a bypass. Once above the alcove, we began to feel the exposure. Our ropes swung gracefully in space, touching nothing, and the wall overhung for most of the way to the top.
On the third pitch the rock became loose, like lumpy sugar. Sweating profusely in the morning sun, I struggled up a slot, running it out from a tiny wire, pulling off errant blocks and great handfuls of soft, granulated rock. Grains cascaded into my hair and eyes, down my neck and into my pants.
In desperation, just below a crumbly, overhanging offwidth, I groped blindly left as far as I could. Suddenly, I felt a deep finger lock. It was so good, I immediately swung out onto it–and looked up to see a finger crack in good rock, with bomber pro. I could avoid the offwidth altogether.
As I brought up Logan to a hanging belay, I squirmed in my harness to try to get the grit out of my pants. What I had just gone through deserved a name: The Torture Chamber.
Jeff Achey on an early ascent of Directagonal (V 5.11c). In 1980 Achey would become the author’s partner for the second free ascent of D1, and the first free ascent of the route in its original form. [Jeff Achey collection]
Logan took the next pitch, liebacking and stemming his way up an overhanging fist crack too big for his small hands, until he pumped out and melted off, dropping into space onto a number four Friend. After a rest, he finessed his way higher, got in some wires and pulled into an easier corner. By the time he reached a belay stance, he’d expended everything he had.
He was still willing to belay, but as the crack got thinner, the footholds disappeared, and my arms were cramping. Even after a hang, I couldn’t recover enough to continue. The altitude, the hundreds of feet of overhanging rock, the fight through the Torture Chamber, and the long Diamond approach had finished us off. At the base of the east face, exhausted, dehydrated and demoralized, we swore we would never return to this climb.
It always takes a while for your body to recover from a hard day on the Diamond. This time, my psyche took even longer. But a week later, funny thoughts began to creep into my head: Maybe that wasn’t so bad…. Some of the climbing really was kind of cool…. It would be pretty amazing if this thing actually went free….
Logan had had his fill, but the experienced and versatile Dan Stone was eager to go back up. As we set out, Rearick himself hiked in with us, twenty-five years after his first ascent. He had become a friend and mentor, and his presence gave the day a fateful feel.
What a difference it makes to have been on a climb before. I reached my previous high point much fresher and pulled the moves first try. Then a gently overhanging, thin-hands crack and a long, wet pitch took us into the sun on the north-face slabs. It felt so good to be off the wall that we couldn’t comprehend what we had just done. On the long hike out, it began to sink in.
I knew this climb would be named the King of Swords, but the rating took a little more thought. Though none of the moves in isolation, at low altitude, would be 5.12, the rating of a Diamond climb must reflect the whole experience of being up there. I chose to grade it 5.12-, the first on the Diamond.
Far from representing the “last great free climb,” the King of Swords changed what I thought was achievable, and I began to get more ideas. For many years I’d studied a series of subtle and beautiful features left of D1 that pieced together uncannily. In the early 1980s I did a long first pitch, the beginning of the aid climb Diamond Lil. Returning in the summer of 1986 with my brother, I pushed the route 200 feet higher, reaching the bottom of a blank section where I placed a bolt. Then the season was over. I had the next nine months to train and dream of sheer planes of perfect granite, disappearing corners, and the runout above the bolt.
Josh Wharton on a 2004 winter ascent of D7. Wharton and his partner, Jonathan Copp, set the winter speed record on this ascent, climbing to the summit in two blocks and descending the north face in 14:17. [Photo] Michael O’Donnell
That winter I connected with someone who appreciated the Diamond as I much as I did. I’d first met Eric Guokas when he was a student in my high-school physics class. By 1986 he had become one of the best climbers in the Boulder area, with a winter solo ascent of the Diamond to his credit. Our mutual love of Longs brought us to climb together regularly and to collaborate on a free-climbing guide to the east face. Now he and I committed ourselves to the new route. In May he left for Yosemite; we’d head up to the Diamond as soon as he returned.
Steve Levin climbing King of Swords (5.12a). Roger Briggs and Dan Stone completed the first free ascent of the route (known in its aid form as Its Welx, V 5.9 A4) in 1985. When Briggs first scoped the line, he thought it might be “the last great free climb on the Diamond,” but the ascent changed his perception of what was possible, and he continued to put up hard free routes over the next sixteen years. [Photo] Kennan Harvey
But he never came back. A month after leaving Colorado, Eric was killed in a long leader fall.
Writings were collected, memorials held and ashes spread at Chasm Lake, but I struggled to find the right words, the right gestures, to remember Eric. After a few weeks the only thing that felt meaningful was to complete our climb.
When I shared my intentions with Eric Doub, one of Guokas’ best friends, we both knew that he would be my new partner. Doub and I fought our way up shallow, overhanging cracks, and after I took some whippers at the crux, we named the finished route Eroica, in honor of our fallen friend.
The crux pitch had still not been led without falls, so I returned the next summer with Chip Chace, and the summer after that with Michael Gilbert, both times without success. Finally in 1989 I walked away for good, letting the climb stand as it was. I needed to get on with my life.
By the early ’90s, interest in the Diamond started to grow again, and my friends and I began to encounter more climbers on the wall, including some modern legends. One morning, in 1991, Michael Gilbert and I were approaching the North Chimney on our way to free solo the Casual Route. We hardly expected anyone else would be heading for the Diamond at 10 a.m. Yet a lone figure appeared ahead of us. His scrawny legs, frizzy hair and floppy old climbing shoes made him unmistakable.
The great free soloist Derek Hersey on Pervertical Sanctuary, as part of his 1989 triple enchainment, when he free soloed the Yellow Wall to Table Ledge, down climbed the Casual Route, then soloed Pervertical Sanctuary, finishing before noon. In 1991 the author encountered Hersey on an outing that included a free solo of Pervertical followed by a down climb of the Red Wall (IV 5.10-). [Photo] Kennan Harvey
“Hey up, punter!” the climber shouted, with a charming Manchester accent.
“Derek!” Gilbert said, in delighted surprise. “God, they let anyone up here these days.”
“Looks like it, mate,” Derek Hersey said, grinning his goofy grin.
“Hey man,” I said. “How’s your training been going lately? Any tips for me?”
“It’s going great! Best meal before a big climb? Greasy fries with a Tooth Sheaf Stout and a few fried pastries. But stay away from the veggies: they’ll make you soft in the head!”
We eventually found out that Hersey was there that day to outdo his triple enchainment from 1989 (when he free soloed the Yellow Wall to Table Ledge, down climbed the Casual Route, then third-classed Pervertical Sanctuary, all before noon). Today he was planning to start with Pervertical, down climb the Casual and go on from there.
The three of us ambled up the North Chimney lightheartedly, then parted ways on Broadway. A few hundred feet into our route, Gilbert and I noticed that the big corners above looked wet, but we were too committed to stop. We shifted into hyper-focused mode until we reached the Yellow Wall bivy ledge and took a breather. A familiar cackle sounded in the air. Silhouetted against the sky was Hersey’s figure, about to start down the Casual. “No!” we waved. “It’s soaking wet.” He disappeared. We had no idea where he went, or what he was up to.
When we’d made it safely back to Mills Glacier, Michael suddenly spotted a figure high above us. Derek seemed to be starting down the Red Wall, a 5.10- somewhat notorious for epics. Incredulous, we watched him methodically down climb and reach the bottom about thirty minutes later. Knowing he was safe, we packed up and hiked out, shaking our heads. It was vintage Derek. He never told anyone what he did, and he never knew we had watched him.
I kept running into Derek in obscure places over the next few years, and we climbed together off and on. During the winter of 1992-93, I shared with him the next line I wanted to free on the Diamond’s right side: an aid route called Christopher Robin. Derek was enthusiastic, and we planned to start work when he returned from a trip to Yosemite in early June.
On May 28, 1993, Derek died while soloing the Steck-Salathe, a profound loss to the climbing world and to his friends. It would take the next two summers and three different climbing partners–Chip Chace, Steve Levin and Pat Adams–but finally we finished our climb in his memory: the Joker.
|It’s Not about the Marriage
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A New Era
Although the young generation of climbers was still largely in the grips of sport climbing, in the early ’90s Jim Beyer had instigated a resurgence of hard aid climbing with two desperate lines on the right side of the Diamond: Smash the State and Steep is Flat. Pete Takeda continued this trend in the later part of the decade with Toiling Midgets and Left for Dead. But there was also a growing subculture of climbers such as Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, the Huber brothers and Tommy Caldwell who were starting to take 5.13 to the big walls. It was a matter of time before some of them turned their attention to the Diamond.
After the Joker, I was certain I’d establish no more new Diamond routes. Satisfied with the last ten years, I was enjoying being the old man who still repeated Diamond climbs with friends, while younger climbers like Doub worked on their new lines. In 1996 Doub and I climbed his latest project, The Honeymoon Is Over, doing as much free climbing as we could (perhaps fifty percent), and I came away impressed with the steep features he had connected with thirty hand-drilled bolts. But I knew I would never do this climb all free, and though Doub worked on it until 1999, he could never link all the moves, either.
Topher Donahue on Ariana (IV 5.12a). George Hurley and Bob Bliss put this route up as an aid line in 1975; Roger and Bill Briggs freed it ten years later. Donahue, who, like Diamond veteran Tommy Caldwell, grew up in the shadow of Longs Peak, made the first free ascent of Bright Star (V 5.12a) with the author in 2001. Donahue and Caldwell have contributed their own marks to the wall: Donahue made the first one-day winter ascent in 1996 with Craig Luebben; Caldwell added the hardest free climb, The Honeymoon Is Over (V 5.13), in 2001; and in 2003, they climbed five Diamond routes together in a day. [Photo] Jeff Achey
In 2001 I ran into Topher Donahue, and he suggested we try to free Bright Star together. Ed Webster had put up this aid route, solo, in 1984 to commemorate his girlfriend, Lauren Huston, after her death in the Black Canyon. Charlie Fowler had freed the first two pitches in the 1980s, and Donahue and Cameron Tague had freed the third pitch at 5.11+ R earlier that summer. Before they could finish the climb, Tague had died in a fall from Broadway. I was a tragic replacement.
On Broadway, Donahue handed me the rack. “Why don’t you take the first pitch?”
I accepted the offer, not knowing that the first, third, fifth and seventh pitch were all serious 5.11+–no task for a fifty-year-old. At the end of the day, I’d managed them all, and we were standing at the top of a beautiful new free climb, the longest on the Diamond. Donahue congratulated me for one of the best climbing days of my life, but an unmistakable sadness permeated the moment. It should have been Tague’s hand he was shaking.
Bright Star marked the close of my time as a pioneer. Within a few weeks of our climb, with Doub’s blessing, Caldwell freed all of The Honeymoon Is Over and thus brought 5.13 to the Diamond, signaling a new era. While in 1985 I’d believed only a few “last great climbs” remained on the Diamond, I now have no doubt younger climbers with enough vision and effort will create lines that we cannot yet imagine.
|The Honeymoon Is Over
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The Day Ends
July 2006: I’m standing at the top of the Diamond, this time with Bernard Gillett. Bernard is a mathematician who has climbed the Diamond more than thirty times. About ten years ago he started keeping an official count of my Diamond ascents. This was number ninety-nine. I never know if I’ll climb the Diamond again, so I take each one as a gift.
Bernard is religious about tagging the summit after a Diamond climb, but I never do, so we rejoin at the top of the north face for the scary descent down wet and snowy slabs covered with rubble. I always pause here and think about the guy who took the 1,600-foot plunge over the Diamond. We’re tired and sleep deprived, so we make sure every move is right.
Timmy O’Neill on the Black Dagger (V 5.7 A3 or V 5.10d). Wayne Goss and Roger Dalke opened this line in 1967 at the same time that the author and Jim Logan were making the second ascent of D7. As O’Neill would attest, forty-seven years since its first ascent, the Diamond still gives full value to all who attempt it. [Photo] Jonathan Copp
We reach Chasm View, perched on the edge of the Diamond at midheight, a thousand feet above Mills Glacier. From here the Diamond reveals its full, intimidating glory. We can hardly believe we were just there. It’s difficult to leave this place because it’s the last we’ll see of the wall up close… until next time.
Back below tree line, the lush greenery seems fluorescent after a whole day on granite. The last few miles drag on and we’re too tired to talk, but finally the moment of ecstasy: we’re at the trailhead. Or is it a moment of disappointment, because now we’ll drive back to the city and return to our ordinary lives?
My Diamond days, shared with so many friends over the decades, have been a blessing. And there will be a few more.