Diamond Days: A Three Year Journey to Climb the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park
The first time I lay eyes upon the Diamond, I knew I needed to climb it. I don’t imagine I am at all unique in that regard. It is the most dominating feature in all of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Although the wall beckoned to me, I recall thinking at the time that multi-pitch climbing was a highly technical pursuit better left to professionals, and trad climbing was an insane discipline fit for the kind of sociopaths and risk-takers one had better not associate with.
The year was 2007. I was just out of college, and had taken a job on a trail crew for the National Park Service at Rocky. I found myself working alongside some of the most interesting characters I had ever met. Many of them still hold that superlative. My crew was assigned to the South District of the park – which meant our big white 6 pack truck drove right past Long’s Peak on our way to work every morning. I spent a lot of those mornings so exhausted from the previous day’s work that I could barely keep my head up; but I don’t think I ever missed the stretch of road between Lily Lake and Mount Meeker. In the morning, I’d sit on the right, and on the way back, I’d sit on the left. Each time we rolled past Long’s, my face was glued to the window. I never actually thought I’d climb it, I just couldn’t help but stare.
Half-way through the season, the trail crew embarked on a project on the Long’s Peak trail. Each week, we camped out under the stars in a small barracks right at treeline, called Battle Mountain. The camp was tucked in among some hardy gnarly little ponderosas and lodgepoles that held their own against the altitude, the lightning, and the prevailing winds well enough. So it was a fairly comfortable place to come home to each day. But each morning, it was a two minute walk from camp to the great outdoors, and a completely unobstructed view of the Diamond. At 6 am in the middle of the summer, that wall glows as if lit from within – wrought with fire and iron hues. I stared that wall down each day, and it just stared right back. Guess who blinked.
One of the crew leaders I was working with at the time was a man named Jeremy Long. Jeremy (or J-Long) was a bona-fide rock climber. He’d earned his stripes, that much was sure. He could speak with authority on any subject, was an amateur maestro of physics and rigging systems, and was the trail crew’s most hallowed contribution to the park’s search and rescue response team. He was strong as an ox, every bit of 6 foot 6, from Texas, and had long red hair halfway down his back. He lived off of junk food and cigarettes, had a healthy hacking cough that could keep you up nights and wake you before your alarm, and he spoke colorfully and adamantly about all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories involving reptiles, government officials, and alien invaders. He was one of the most respected members of the crew – a true renegade, an outlaw, and a perfect role model for anyone suffering from a post-pubescent case of the Peter Pan blues. I went sport climbing with him a couple times, and then he proposed we’d try the Diamond.
Our attempt on the Diamond via the route Pervertical Sanctuary was a failure, unless you consider mere survival a success. Given the circumstances, I did just that. Going upon the logic that I was a pretty good boulderer, J Long led us up the D7 pillar as far as the crux pitch – splitter 5.11 fists through a bulge – and handed off the rack then and there. ‘You’re the stronger climber,’ he explained, ‘why don’t you take the crux pitch.’ Let’s just say I learned how to french free a lot faster than I learned how to jam. Half way through the pitch, the Diamond let loose one of its typical noontime monsoon storms. Among the wind, the rain, the hail, the snow, the thunder, and the lightning, J Long made the call to bail.
About 8 long raps and three hours later, I started to feel my fingers and toes again, and for the first time didn’t really feel the Diamond was beckoning all that much after all. I didn’t look at Long’s Peak the same way for the rest of the season. I got psyched on sport climbing, and bought a ticket to Thailand for the upcoming winter. The Diamond would have to wait.
Yet even half-way across the world, the Diamond was never far out of mind. I read my copy of Bernard Gillet’s guide to Rocky Mountain alpine climbing cover to cover. I pored over his handdrawn topo for the Diamond, and the route descriptions that accompanied. I obsessed over the Front Range Freaks dvd my parents bought me for christmas, fixating on Derek Hersey’s mind-boggling solos. Over and over again, I watched with morbid fascination as he dangled ropeless from Eldorado classics like the Naked Edge and Rosy Crucifixion, and listened transfixed to his thickly brogued account of onsight downsoloing the Diamond’s Casual Route: ‘It was casual’, he said dismissively. By now, I could climb 5.12 sport. ‘Yeah, maybe it is casual’, I toyed. I came back from Thailand, farted around for a couple months, and returned to Rocky for another season. I worked in the South district again, we did another stint on Longs Peak, and I spent another summer’s mornings salivating over the Diamond.
My buddy Greg Mionske was starting to become a pretty good trad climber, and we worked together on the trail crew. J Long was elsewhere for the time being, so Greg and I hatched a plan to climb together. This time, we chose the Casual Route, and we did pretty well on it. We made it up to Table Ledge – about 3/4ths of the way up the wall – but with the summit in our sights, the sky opened up on us once again. We were so close, I was halfway to convincing Greg to wait out the storm. Then lightning crashed on the summit directly above us, and we decided to bail. We’d both heard stories of the legendary ranger, Jim Detterline, getting struck by lightning while leading on the Diamond and having to downclimb through temporary blindness back to his belay. We wanted none of that.
A lot of friends congratulated us, and Greg even hinted at being satisfied with how we’d done. We made it to the end of the technical climbing, so technically, we’d climbed the route. You don’t have to be very close to the Diamond to see where the Casual Route ends. Table Ledge cuts a clear horizontal line across the top quarter of the Diamond. Most climbers opt out on the final two pitches, or the 4th class scramble to the top, since summiting means hiking off instead of rappeling, which is an ordeal in and of itself. But to me, I couldn’t stand to think of the climb being finished at Table Ledge. The climb ended at the top, whether you arrived climbing, walking, or crawling.
I spent the winter sport climbing and travelling again, before I found myself back at Rocky for a third season of trail work. The granite had started to feel familiar, the peaks and walls surrounding me took on names and tangible characteristics. I climbed some 5.10 trad climbs, learned a thing or two about crack climbing, dispatched a lot of 5.12 sport routes. I felt pretty good about my progress as a climber. Still, the Diamond continued to taunt me. I simply had to climb it. I was spiked out at Battle Mountain again with the trail crew when I called up my buddy Grant Simmons. We had a good weather forecast, and I needed him to drive up from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Grant was sort of in the shoes I had been in a couple years ago when I tried Pervertical with J-Long. This would be his first alpine climb. I didn’t know much about climbing, and he knew less. But he decided to come up anyway.
We left from the trail crew camp at Battle Mountain at two in the morning. It was still pitch black as we passed Chasm lake on its eastern flank. When we dropped onto Mills Glacier, I had no idea where we were, or where we were going. As the going got steeper and steeper, I kept tilting my head back to look for landmarks. There appeared to be a hulking mass in front of us, above the glacier, and I reckoned that had to be the North Chimney. I took out the rope, and told Grant to tie in. He looked skeptical as I picked up a couple of pointy rocks, and began climbing up the 45 degree iced over tongue of the glacier. I could hardly kick in steps, relying more on the rocks I was using as ice tools than on my feet. The rope seemed to go on forever, and I looked down at a more and more disconcerting slide down the glacier into the scree Grant was standing in. Finally, he called up to me – his voice wavering slightly. “Dude, this is sketchy. I think you should come down.” He was right, and I knew it. Ever so delicately, I climbed down my little divots until I was back on the scree, shook up, and out of breath.
We were finally starting to get some of that pre-dawn light, and Grant and I could make out a
lower angle slope to the left of where I had just climbed. Undeterred, I started up again. I figured we’d get to that place where the glacier meets the wall – what’s that called again? – and then traverse along it til we hit the North Chimney. No problem. I made it up the gentler slope to the bergschrund, straddled it like I was riding a shark’s fin, and hopped over to the other side.
It’s not that I was stupid, I was just plain dumb. I didn’t know anything about glacier travel, or bergschrunds, but something about that place felt wrong to me, and scary. I didn’t want to stand on the “bottom”, not knowing what the “bottom” really was. It could have been a few centimeters of snow, for all I knew, and then empty space beneath that. So I did the only thing a dumb rock climber stuck inside a bergschrund could do. I climbed it like it was rock, alternating between campusing along the edge of it, and chimneying between the glacier and the wall. I did this for half a rope length until I reached a weakness in the wall behind me. Of course, I didn’t have any cams out. So I just sat there in the schrund, freezing my ass off, and belayed Grant up. I think when he got up to me he said something along the lines of “is this right?” I assured him we were good to go. “See?” I said, pointing my headlamp upwards. “This looks super easy, it must be the North Chimney.” I don’t know if he believed me or not, but there wasn’t really any turning back. We were committed… at least in my mind. I had my mind made up – I wasn’t going to get turned away from the Diamond again.
We got out the rack, and I started leading up the easy terrain. The easy terrain was not as easy as I remembered, and it was soaking wet to boot. I ran it out until the rope pulled tight, and I made a shoddy anchor there in the dark. It was starting to brighten up a little, but we still had our headlamps on. I saw another party approaching below us, and knew we had to move. As Grant climbed, they drew closer. Finally we heard one person say “Is that the North Chimney?” To which the other replied, “No way dude, those guys are way off route”. Just dandy, I thought hoping Grant hadn’t heard it. Of course, he had.
Grant made it up to the anchor, soaked through with sweat and meltwater. There was a number 3 off to the side of the main anchor that I had tossed in as an afterthought, and when he came up, he asked if he could clip in there. “Sure”, I told him, fumbling with the ropes. He clipped into the piece, leaned back, and the piece promptly exploded out of the wall, dropping Grant a meter and a half onto the belay, and dropping chunks of rock upon him. His face was ashen white as he clawed his way back up to standing next to me. It was a little late for oops. If I had taken Grant off belay before the piece blew, he’d still be down there in the bergscrund for all I know. Call it a cheap lesson, as climbing lessons go.
Inexplicably, we did not bail, and did not change our course. We even simulcimbed the final few hundred feet of the unknown pile of sopping choss for reasons that I cannot, in retrospect, justify to myself much less Grant or anyone else. Of course, by the time we made it to Broadway, the party behind us was already at the base of none other than the Casual route, racking up, and ready for take off. I was crestfallen. These guys looked slow, I thought. In spite of our absurd epic, I still wanted to be in front of them – was still certain they’d slow me down.
That’s when we got our first luck of the day. Half way up the pitch, the leader called down to his belayer. “Dude, I have to come down. You have to lower.” “What? Why? What are you talking about?” “Dude, I need to take a dump. Really really bad. Lower!” And so he did. I could see the belayer looking at me longingly, but I knew an opportunity when I saw it. “Um, sorry man,” I said, “but I’m gonna start climbing.”
Finally, Grant and I were on familiar terrain, and we started to kick it into a high gear that I’ve only ever been able to find climbing with Grant. We were fluid, swapped leads fast and efficiently, climbed at a strong pace, and keeping each other psyched. Soon enough, we were at Table Ledge, and in spite of our early morning shenanigans, there wasn’t a cloud in sight. It was a rare bluebird day on Longs, and the other party was far behind. We had the Diamond to ourselves, had climbed all the technical terrain, and now all we needed to do was walk to the top.
I don’t remember exactly when we topped out, exactly when we got off the North Face rappels, exactly when we chugged our victory beers in camp, or exactly when we made it down to the car. What I do remember is that when we finally made it home to pizza and beer and our loving girlfriends, we were so tired we couldn’t even eat. At around 10 PM, we passed out with our clothes still on. After a twenty hour date with the Diamond, I was more whooped than I had ever been prior, and as whooped as I’ve ever been since.
My third season at Rocky would prove to be my last, as life took me in other directions. I haven’t climbed the Diamond since that day with Grant, although I’ve gone on to climb quite a few bigger, and harder things. I find it hard to imagine struggling on the 6 pitch 5.10a that once so troubled me. In many ways, I find Derek Hersey’s account of the Casual route easier to relate to than my own distant memory. But the Diamond still captivates me, still holds my attention, still commands my respect in a way that few other walls I’ve climbed do. On a recent trip to Denver, I found myself searching the skyline for the familiar black face, hooded in it’s winter blanket of snow. I didn’t see it, but it felt good just knowing it was out there, staring people down, yawning impressively at sport climbers and boulderers, and crying its inevitable challenge to anyone who would listen, “come climb me, if you dare!” I can look that face in the eye now, having climbed it once, but I still hear the call. And to be honest, it still makes me shake in my boots.
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