An essay about my first ascent of the Casual Route
Rocks to a climber are as waves to a surfer: a place of solitude and challenge, focus and clarity of mind. Climbing is a stylizing of identity, an art; one that never gets old, never gets boring, and never gets easy. It’s about the fight against gravity, the constant pursuit of perfect movement; the union of body and mind. Stone – impermanent and energized, yet not living – it is the point of nature I communicate with. I climb to be inspired, to be challenged, to push my physical and mental capacity beyond perceived limits. It is more than a sport; it is a way of life. At its very core, stripped of grades and disciplines, climbing is about the love of movement and challenge – experiencing a rooted connection with the earth. Yet intertwined with this passion and love comes a humbling sense of fear and respect. I have learned that personal growth comes at the expense of pushing one’s limits, both mentally and physically. I’ve once read that the core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences, and I would add to this that the greatest gain there is to be had comes from confronting fear through these experiences. It is in these times of fear that we are able to focus our mind with a heightened sense of awareness and overcome the challenges that hold us back.
Each climb existed in my mind prior to my living it, the way music appears as notes on a sheet before being performed. Reality, and in many ways happiness, was only to go and see if one’s thoughts were true. The Diamond represented all that I had feared in climbing: it was long, exposed, and committing. Deadly vertical, even overhanging in places, the huge, overshadowing Diamond forms the upper 1000 feet of the mountain’s entirely granite east face. When the sun moves west in the late afternoon, the Diamond becomes dark, rather sinister and somber. In the morning, on the other hand, the entire face is lovely brown with brilliant gray rock. It sparkles radiant yellow and gold at sunrise. Despite its appearance, the Diamond is steep, intimidating, and extremely committing. High up in the Rocky Mountains, five miles from the closest road, thirty from the nearest city, there would be no easy retreat if we ran into trouble. Far from cell phone reception or human interaction, there would be no call for help. It is you, your partner, and the rock. That’s it. It was the ultimate test of my mental and physical capacity. I knew that if I had any chance of success, I would have to carefully calculate each aspect of the climb, starting with my partner. There is nobody I trust more than Joby, and nobody I would rather have shared the experience with. We are climbers who speak the same language in the heart and soul, something beyond intelligence – passion, compassion. He is one of my closest friends, one I trust my life with, and I knew that such a committing route would not only require someone I fully trust, but also a great friend who would be supportive, safe, and comforting.
We carefully planned the day based on the weather forecast, making sure to pick a day with less than 20% chance of rain. Thunderstorms and harsh summer weather represent one of the greatest obstacles separating success from failure high in the Rockies, and this being our first alpine route, we wanted to prevent the possible situation of getting caught in a storm at all costs. We were lucky enough to find a two day gap in the forecast without any predicted rain, so we quickly discussed the details of the trip and packed our gear. The plan was to drive up early the next morning so we could hike in and set up camp on Broadway ledge, allowing us to wake up early and climb the route directly from the start without having to deal with the North Chimney. Broadway is a giant ledge gained by climbing 800 feet of chossy, loose rock that marks the start of the true vertical face of the Diamond, another 800 feet or so of difficult climbing. It was still early in the season, however, and when we arrived at the ranger station to pick up our bivvy permit we were informed that Broadway was covered in two feet of snow. After hearing this, we figured we would hike in and look at the conditions from the base, then decide what to do.
The grueling five mile hike with 50 pound packs was the first of many challenges we would face that day, but we moved quickly and efficiently in an effort to arrive with plenty of time to get to Broadway before sunset. Once we reached the base of the North Chimney, we were faced with almost vertical snowpack for hundreds of feet separating us from the rock ahead. We pulled the ice axes out from our packs and began to kick steps in the slushy mix of ice and snow (in my case, using only tennis shoes). Luckily we arrived late enough in the day when the snow had been softened up by the warmth of the sun, because once night falls the snow quickly freezes to ice making it impossible to ascend without the use of crampons. With every step, the slope became steeper and steeper. The weight of the heavy pack was pulling me down, diminishing any faith I had in my footing in the soft, sun-melted snow. Twice the snow under my feet released and I slid down the steep and slippery slope, jerking me onto the ice axe which was buried deep enough to arrest my fall. This represented the first of several mental challenges on the trip, because one wrong step would lead to a speedy glissade straight into the rock pile below. After an hour and a half of desperate and painstakingly slow progress, we finally made it to the sharp white granite that makes up the base of the North Chimney. At this point, it was getting late and we still had 800 feet of climbing ahead of us before reaching our proposed camp. We still didn’t know exactly what Broadway looked like, and I feared that a commitment to climb the North Chimney so late in the day might lead us to an inhospitable, snow covered ledge with no daylight left for retreat. We discussed our options, and decided the best course of action would be to fix a rope and rappel down to the boulder field below, set up camp, and wake up early to ascend the rope and climb to Broadway. I left my pack behind as we descended, then once back in the boulder field we searched through the mix of rock and snow for any spot that might be suitable for a night’s bivvy.
After finding a flat rock bed that looked alright for sleeping, we cooked macaroni and cheese, drank plenty of water, ate to our hearts content, then hid the leftovers under a rock and curled up in our sleeping bags. At this point I realized that I had left my earplugs, a necessity for sleep in the wind-stricken backcountry, in my backpack. A failed attempt to construct plugs with a paper napkin left me awake all night listening to the howling wind sweep across the amphitheater of rock that surrounded us. While it proved difficult to sleep under such circumstances, I sat and let my mind wander. After all, for a mountain to lose its silence would be to lose its soul. The minutes crawled as I impatiently awaited my phone alarm to go off at 4am, which would mark the start of our journey. I spent the early night shifting around in my zero-degree bag, trying to get a minutes sleep in between bouts of restlessness. I was worried about my performance the next day, knowing that the climbing would be difficult on so little sleep and hoping I would have enough energy after the long, restless night.
Later as I lay sleepless on the valley floor staring at the sky above, my mind began to wander. Sometimes those stars, with all their meaning, seem to look right at us. Always there was night, with its stars so distantly isolated from the intellectual or emotional material they express. The beauty of the night thrilled me, bestowing upon me a sense of an unusual, individual secret of knowledge. The mystery, existing as silence, was sustained by silence – almost as a beauty that lives among unseen shapes. Whatever was to be my end, I was being swept toward the destination. With climbing, I was making the view beautiful along the way. It was a good risk, among life’s table of averages. Great stirrings of soul happen at times unexpected. Here, in such light, yet surrounded by so much dark, I find in life and earth their most complex meanings, in silence. While I found society somewhat incomprehensible, with all its complexity and human interaction, the very colors of sandstone, the all-embracing red and brown merging with yellow or grey-green took me in. In such beauty I found hope -- and thus hope in the world.
Suddenly startled by the jolting beep of my alarm, I am shaken from my restless state. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and quickly woke Joby up. I knew that time was of the essence now, and not a minute could be wasted. We would need to finish the 800 feet of climbing to get to Broadway ledge by sunrise so we could have enough time to be off the wall when the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in. We snacked on cliff bars, packed rocks on the sleeping bags to avoid the marmots from rummaging through our gear, threw on our sneakers and headed up the snowfield, which had turned to rock hard ice through the freezing night. When we reached the rope we had fixed the night before, we ascended the line and fetched the pack I had previously left behind. Next, we each tied to the end of the 70 meter rope in an effort to simul-climb the 800 foot rock that separated us from the true base of the Diamond. I led this section, and to my dismay the rock was cold, wet, and crumbly. The North Chimney is better known as the “Chimney of Death” because of the loose and flakey rocks that fly down it, and I quickly came to understand how it got this reputation. I questioned whether our helmets would even save us from the baseball sized chunks that were falling down around us and cratering into the earth below. With 70 meters of rope separating Joby from myself, fighting the rope drag from the winding nature of the route was nearly as difficult as the climbing itself. At times I had to let go of the rock entirely and pull the rope up with two hands because there was so much tension between me and Joby. Despite the climbing being 5.7 or easier, the combination of route finding in new terrain, fighting the rope drag, and climbing with a heavy pack over loose, wet and dangerous rock made this one of the more frightening parts of the day. At one point, I remember traversing across a vertical face and having to throw for a hand hold high above my head knowing that if I blew the reach or if the rock broke, I would fall nearly forty feet to the last piece of protection below me. After successfully making it to Broadway, I set up an anchor and belayed Joby up to me. It was 7:30, and we were behind schedule. We aimed to arrive on Broadway before sunrise, but when we finally stood at the base of the climb the sun had been up for nearly an hour. The near-daily thunderstorms consistently batter the north face of the Diamond around 2pm, thus in an attempt to avoid getting caught in a storm we wanted to summit around noon. We anticipated that we would need to start the climbing by dawn to reach this goal, and being an hour behind schedule raised concerns in my mind. There is nothing more frightening or devastating than being stranded on the side of a big wall during a thunderstorm with a rack full of metal gear and the only escape being desperate and dangerous, a situation I wanted to avoid at all costs.
Joby and I had made it to Broadway ledge. We threw everything that we wouldn’t need on the climb into my pack, which we would leave behind to pick up on the descent. Already the exposure was overwhelming and gut-wrenching. The thought of continuing up was discerning at best. We located the start of the Casual Route, the easiest route on the Diamond yet still 5.10 in difficulty, making it no easy undertaking - especially at 14,000 feet elevation. Just standing at the base of the climb, I was beginning to have glimpses of doubt in my mind. I was almost convinced that I would soon be taking advantage of the scattered webbing anchors to rappel off the route, succumbing to the fear of commitment and bailing before reaching the top. I had been in a similar position one year earlier when I attempted to climb a four pitch route just across the circ, reaching the top of the first pitch then rappelling down because of the overwhelming exposure. The seriousness of the situation is so elevated that it takes immense mental control to endure the climb and maintain discipline under the extreme conditions of alpine climbing. With the recollection of previously backing off, I was comforted in knowing there was a possibility of retreat on the Diamond. Joby led the first pitch at 5.7, climbing up a pinnacle to a webbing anchor at the top. He moved smooth and efficiently, making the climb look simple. Once he reached the anchor and pulled in the rope, I started up the crisp, cool granite monolith that had intimidated me for so many years. At 5.7, this was the easiest pitch of the day, yet I found myself tense and insecure during several sequences of movement. The heavy 70 meter rope on my back only intensified my discomfort, and I became very cautious and wary. I felt the lack of sync between myself and the rock – my movements were stiff and lacked fluidity - and it made me nervous for the increasingly difficult pitches ahead. I knew in the back of my mind, however, that I have always been more comfortable on the sharp end because it forces me to clear my mind of distraction and focus on the task at hand, so I continued to tell myself that it was only because I was on toprope that I was feeling this uncomfortable. When I finally reached Joby at the hanging belay, I was jittery and stressed. I asked him if he felt the same way in an unconscious attempt to have him admit he was nervous as well, thus encouraging a retreat. But he told me he was fine, and I knew that I would have to push on for at least one more pitch before ruining his day with any ideas of backing off.
It was my turn to lead. I untied the rope from my back and cautiously handed it to Joby. This was a bit nerve-wracking as there would be no easy way to rappel, if any at all, down the infinity of overhanging rock below if we were to drop one of the ropes. Joby tied the rope to his back, and I took the gear from his harness and racked up. The next pitch involved linking a beautiful 5.9 finger crack with a long, 100 foot 5.7 traverse with only three pieces of fixed protection. I started up the finger crack, plugging in gear as I went. The sooner I was given my share of the leading, the more control I felt I had. I was no longer bound by the safety of toprope, therefore this pitch would require my full attention. I focused on the climb, sinking each finger lock and connecting the moves in one unified progression. In what felt like no time at all, I was already at the top of the finger crack and to the start of the traverse. Surprised at the ease of the climb when the moves seemed to click together, I looked down at Joby with a grin on my face and caught myself saying “that was actually pretty fun!” As I continued along thin edges and face holds for the next hundred feet of climbing, I simply couldn’t stop thinking how great the rock was. Each move seemed to flow in an evolution of progress as I moved onward, and when I reached the belay I was convinced that I had just completed the best pitch of climbing that I had ever done! I looked at Joby, then across the wide expanse making up the arching circ that formed a massive amphitheater around the crystal blue Chasm Lake. At that moment I was overtaken by the unrivaled harmony and allure of Longs Peak. The idea of retreat was sequestered, at least for the moment, and for the first time of the day I was excited for the journey to come. Still breathing heavily from the pitch before, my lungs inhaled the cool and refreshing alpine air. The setting was unbeatable; the sun shining bright and not a cloud to be seen. The fear of approaching thunderstorms became a distant memory as I gazed into the eternal blue sky. As Joby followed, I stared at the pitch above; a long crack with a wide section about 50 feet up. Everything looks easy from below, so by the time Joby reached me I snatched the gear from his harness and took off without a worry. Easy climbing up to the wide section was reassuring, but once I reached the offwidth section I paused for a moment. ‘Not as easy as it looked’ I thought to myself, as I grunted and wiggled up the wide crack. After about ten feet of groveling up insecure rock, the crack narrowed back down and provided another 100 feet of smooth and easy climbing to a large ledge, still covered in snow.
Upon reaching the belay, I was immediately struck by the thought that we had moved past the point of no return. In a moment of anxiety, I realized that it would be very difficult to retreat at this point, and that any chance of getting off this rock involved climbing onward. This was a pivotal point in the climb because I needed to accept one of my great fears in climbing; committing to the route with little or no chance of retreat. I directed my energy to the upper reaches of the wall, looming still at least another couple hundred feet overhead. With several pitches left, the crux being one of them, I felt my heart pick up speed and fear began to cloud my mind. I try not to let the bad find more place in me than the good. In an attempt to rationalize and push away my fear, I tried to rationalize the situation by telling myself that there was nothing I could do at this point but continue up. I knew that fear would only hold me back, preventing me from performing at my best. Despite my effort to manage my fear, it remained with me to some degree for the rest of the climb, and it took a great deal of control to prevent it from consuming me entirely. I pushed onwards with a new seriousness unlike how I had began the climb – now knowing that I was in it for the long run and there would be no easy way out.
The next pitch is considered one of the best 5.8 pitches in Colorado. It is a clean corner 180 feet long with perfect gear and few rests. Some call it an endurance corner, and at 14,000 feet elevation it is just that. Oxygen is thin, and every movement upwards is met with exhaustion from the move before. Good technique and efficient climbing, however, made the pitch feel pretty casual. Despite the world class nature of the climbing, I was still somewhat distracted by my fear, and at this point I was less concerned with enjoying the route, focusing more on a safe return to the ground. It was around noon when I reached the top of this pitch, and the sun would soon move behind the face of the diamond, leaving us in shade for the remainder of the day. Clouds were starting to form, and although nothing resembled thunder clouds at the moment, there was no way of knowing what might hit us from behind the wall. It had been a gorgeous day so far, and as far as I could tell it was going to stay that way, which eased the fear of getting caught in a storm. But the day was far from over, and knowing this kept me alert and focused on what had to be done to keep us safe for the remainder of the climb.
The next pitch was the hardest of the route, and the last of vertical climbing before the last traverse. There were three distinct cruxes; moving up a pair of thin cracks, then up a 20 foot chimney, and finally the exit moves through the chimney up and over a small roof on thin and insecure hand jams. I started up the pitch, trying to focus my efforts on making smooth and fluid movements and staying relaxed. The moves were delicate, and at 1500 feet off the ground on the most committing and exposed climb I had ever done. It was hard to maintain discipline. I struggled to keep my focus, and moved up the pitch with determination. The twin cracks were very thin and I found this to be the most difficult part of the route, at least from the leaders perspective. The footholds were almost non-existent, and the only way to stand was to shove the toe of my shoe in the tiny crack which barely fit the width of my fingers. Placing gear was especially difficult during this section as it was uncomfortable and insecure taking a hand off the rock to grab protection. A few hard moves though, and I finally made it to the chimney where I felt comfortable running it out. At this point, a fall would only result in me getting wedged and stuck inside the wide crack. As I approached the top of the chimney, I placed my first piece of gear in the last 40 feet, clipped a fixed wire, then focused all my energy on making the next few moves -- rated the hardest on the climb. The crack was too thin for me to get a good hand jam, but wide enough where I couldn’t get a finger lock, so I was stuck trying to improvise a way to get a secure enough hand placement where I could move up. After a few strenuous thin hand moves, I had made it above the crux and to the top of the pitch. I let out a few sighs of relief, built my anchor, then sat and hung there in space to collect myself. The moment was humbling. The sun inched away as it moved behind the east facing wall. I said my final farewell to the last bit of sunshine I would see for the remainder of the day. We would now be in the shade, which not only meant the temperature would drop significantly on the top of the 14,000 foot wall, but it also added to the impending ominous feeling of climbing on the Diamond. I belayed Joby up the pitch, realizing that he would struggle trying to move up the chimney with the seventy meter rope tied to his back. When he reached the wide section, he had to stop and remove the rope from his back and tie it so it dangled from his harness. This was a frightening moment in itself because if he were to drop the rope before tying it to his harness, we would be stuck on the rock with no way of rappeling down. Knowing this, Joby was very careful in his actions. He tied the rope off and continued up through the chimney. I couldn’t help but giggle a bit as I watched him move through the difficult crux moves with a heavy rope dangling below him swinging back and forth. Despite the rope, he made it to the belay in good form and we continued onward.
The last pitch is a 100 foot traverse left to a set of anchors, the first of the eight sets of bolts that we would rappel off. I continued to lead, and as I took my first step left I realized how much more exposure there is when you move across the face rather than straight up. Suddenly you are looking straight down to find a foothold rather than at knee level when you are moving vertically. The world below looked miniscule and insignificant from this elevation. Several deep breaths kept me relaxed, and despite the added exposure, I was excited that this was the last pitch. Once past the traverse, we will have completed the route that had for so long eluded me. The moves were relatively easy compared to the rest of the climb, and before I knew it I was at the ledge with the anchor bolts.
As I put Joby on belay and sat on the ledge, I remembered seeing pictures of other people on the same ledge and thinking to myself I would never be able to make it up such an exposed and committing climb. I surprised myself that day, pushing past my perceived limits of what was possible. It was a great feeling of success, one that I will never forget. The moment was euphoric and despite its brevity, I will never forget the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment I felt on that ledge. Climbing is not an independent activity, rather one shared with a companion, and to share such momentous success with a closest friend is a profound experience – one that even the most adventurous of people will only experience a handful of times in their life.
Once Joby made it to the anchor, we tied the two ropes together and threaded them through the rings. We checked, double checked, and triple checked that the knot was good and the ropes were running through the anchor correctly. The knot is the most insecure part of the setup because it must be low profile enough so that it doesn’t get caught in cracks when you pull the ropes, but it must be strong enough so that it holds as you lower down. Once all is said and done, you simply pray that the knot holds as you go down! I volunteered to go first, and quickly spotted the second set of rap anchors. I clipped in, detached from the rope, then waited for Joby to follow. Before pulling the ropes, I asked which side we were pulling to prevent the rope from getting stuck in the rings. We pulled the rope, crossing our fingers that it wouldn’t get caught in any cracks or corners on the way down, then threaded it through the next set of anchors. I went first again with the enthusiasm of getting closer to the ground still a thousand feet beneath us, but this time as I slowly moved down the rope I couldn’t seem to find the next set of bolts. About 100 feet down I began to worry that maybe I had missed the anchor. I glanced up at Joby with panicky wide eyes and a fearful expression. The rappel route we had taken was not over any climbing route, so if I got stranded down low in the expanse of blank rock I would not be able to climb my way back up to Joby. As I continued to lower further down the rope and away from my partner, I became increasingly nervous that I had missed the bolts with the chance of being stranded 250 feet down on an empty rock face. I was struck with a moment of panic, but just then I looked left and saw a patch of webbing. I swung over to the sun-bleached webbing, previously black but now grey after years of intense sun exposure, imagining that it would crumble away in my hands as I latched on. I was only 30 feet above the ends of my rope when I reached the ‘anchor’ that consisted of three nuts tied together, probably in somebody’s quick escape during a storm. As I grabbed hold of the webbing, one of the three nuts immediately popped out of the crack. Not very reassuring for trusting your life on rappel… then I looked far right and saw two bolts from the corner of my eye. A sudden jolt of adrenaline ran through my veins and I excitedly swung the 50 feet over to where the bolts were. As I approached the end of the rope, I realized that the ends were not long enough to get me down to the bolts. I carefully inched down the last remaining feet of rope until I was holding the very tips in my one hand – one slip and they would slide through my rappel device and send me flying – and the bolts were still another three feet below me. I grabbed a sling from my harness, leaned sideways and stretched as far as I could in an attempt to clip the bolt below my feet. With inches separating me from the bolts after nearly 240 feet of vertical rappelling, I could not believe how dangerously close I was to making the clip – or sliding off the ends of the rope. After a slight bounce and a big reach, I was able to clip the bolt closest to me. I couldn’t reach the other, so at this point I had to let the tips of the rope slide through my rappel device and swing on to the one bolt before clipping the second. As I let go of the ropes, they snapped up ten feet due to the extreme rope stretch from a full 240 foot rappel. This left me alone and ropeless at the belay station, a precarious situation at best. Suddenly I realized that if Joby made it to me and let go of the ropes as well, then both of us would be stranded on the blank face with no ropes to get up or down. I made sure he knew which end of the rope to pull when he made it down to me because we would only have one shot at this. If we held the wrong end – the end with the knot in it – the other end would shoot up and we would not be able to pull the ropes. Once he made it down, I emphasized how close he was to the ends of the rope and helped him clip in as he held the tips in his hand. Once clipped in, I double checked that he knew which end of the rope to hold, then grabbed it tight and had him release the ropes from his device. The other end shot up twenty feet in the air, nearly whipping us as it took off. I pulled on my end of the rope, praying that it was the correct side, and sure enough it started sliding through the anchors above. It was a close call, and from this point on I wanted to make sure that we didn’t skip any more belay stations (apparently there was a hidden set of anchors above that I had missed). After two more rappels and a few close calls of the rope getting stuck in cracks, we made it down to Broadway ledge. This was a huge relief because at this point, the dangers were practically over with. From here it was only four more easy, lower angle rappels to the snowfield 800 feet below us.
A few more easy rappels and we were back on solid ground. Hungry and cold, I hurried back to our bivvy where I had left some macaroni and cheese from last night’s dinner. I covered the pot with rocks to avoid having it eaten by the pesky high altitude wildlife, but to my dismay the marmots had uncovered the pot and eaten my tasty snack! Oh well, looks like we’d just have to get some food when we got back into town. After packing up all our equipment we headed down the five mile trail back to the truck. We had told a friend to start worrying about us if we had not called by 6pm, and the time was now 5:15. Worried that we would have a search party after us if we moved too slow, Joby and I sped down the trail back to the truck. We reached the truck around 6:30, but without cell service in the high mountain peaks. We weren’t able to get a signal until we reached Lyons around 7:30. We called our friend hoping she hadn’t called Rocky Mountain Rescue yet, and luckily she was going to wait another half hour before making the call. Joby and I headed back to Boulder, discussing how relieved we were to have the climb behind us and how we’d never want to get back on that massive wall. A week later Joby picked me up to head to the gym and I told him “Dude, we have to go up and do D7!” (another classic route up the Diamond).
Some have asked why, when faced with such fear, do I continue to climb? The answer is simple. I climb because it was a gift that came to me out of the magic and mystery of the world. Climbing is full of adventure and beauty – it is utterly compelling to my soul. The deepest impressions upon me were the friendships I began to make, and the integrity of the people around me. My closest friends are those I spend my days on the rock with, and it is only with them that I would trust my life. Through climbing, I have a rooted connection with my my friends and my surroundings. It opens my awareness, engages my senses, and breathes life into me. Conquering my mind, fighting my fear, pushing the limits; this is where I tend to learn the most about life itself. Climbing is more than an experience; it’s about the friends I make, the trust I gain, and the love I find. The love that drives me; the love that is wanting, needing, and breathing climbing. It’s the texture beneath my fingertips, the wind on my back, the next move on my mind. It’s the failing to succeed, but never failing to try again. A dizzying, butterfly-in-the-gut rush of adrenaline and emotion. The love is always exhilarating, always present, and when it hits there’s no mistaking, because the feeling of moving on rock…there’s just nothing like it.
For me, not climbing simply means not being…
Joby and I on top of Estrellita, a 12 pitch route in Mexico