Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Anything but Casual

The Diamond, the highest alpine face in Colorado. For the past two years, Casey and I have been toying with the idea of climbing the infamous wall. Finally, after years of climbing and experience gained in the alpine arena, we were finally ready. Or so we thought.

I met Casey in Dalhart at about 3:30 and we departed for Estes Park. Our excitement about the upcoming day seemed to quicken the drive. Before we knew it, we were pulling into the Longs Peak trail head. We decided to stealth camp in the parking lot since it was nearly 11 and we were going to begin the next day at 2am. We rested our eyes for a few hours dozing off to sleep every now and again only to be awoken from our slumber by the endless sounds of various hikers beginning to make their way up the trail.

At about 1:30 we were both awake and didn't see any point in waiting till 2 to get started. We quickly got ready and began the long ascent to the base of the Diamond. We were both excited and far less sleepy than I would have expected. Soon we began overtaking other groups that were headed for the Keyhole route. We were trucking. By the time we reached the Chasm Lake junction we could see multiple groups of headlamps in all directions. This is a popular peak! "Further up and further in!," I said as we picked up our pace hoping to be the first party to reach the North Chimney. A few minutes later we overtook some girls on their way to the Keyhole. We informed them that they'd missed their trail and needed to backtrack. We kept going. Only one large flock of headlamps remained in front of us. By the time we reached them I was beginning to have doubts that we were on the right trail. It just didn't feel right. I felt like we had mistakenly headed up the Loft.  I pulled out my phone and consulted with a topo map app. The app confirmed my suspicion. We skirted around the Ships Prow and located Chasm Lake. By that point, a few groups had passed us. 

After refilling a water bottle, we skirted around the lake onto the boulder field on the right side, eager to gain the other group. I knew the secret path through the boulder field and we soon passed the other group (the trick is to stay really high). We scrambled among the rocks through the bivy sights to the bottom of Mills Glacier. Light was finally breaking over the horizon and it looked as though we were going to be first to start climbing the North Chimney.

We had some difficulty locating the chimney, however. I though I found it and began climbing a steep, icy snow slope with just trekking poles and my tennis shoes. I reached the top just as Casey went around the snow and informed me that he was staring at the North Chimney and that I was off route. The steep nature of the slope prohibited a safe down climb, so I began traversing along the top within the safety of the crevasse near the cliff. Eventually the steepness of the slope declined enough to allow a safe passage down. I noticed a rope hanging nearly all the way to the bottom, an opportunity I didn't care to pass by. 

Once at the bottom of the glacier I met Casey who was patiently waiting. My route finding skills had betrayed me, and we were running a bit behind. Still, we were the first ones there. Casey racked up and ascended the short snow slope until gaining the slabs on the left side of the North Chimney. Once he reached the end of the rope I kept my belay device on the rope, yelled "simul-climbing!," and began following his lead. Not faced with the hassle of placing gear, I began catching up and began taking the slack out with my belay device, tying it off, then coiling the spare rope at every opportunity. Eventually, we reached Broadway. Interestingly, we seemed to still be the only party on the Diamond that day. So much for this being the "Cattle Route" on this particular Saturday!

We took a quick break and Casey began leading the D1 pillar. He linked the first two pitches and soon I began climbing and soon met Casey at the belay. 

We promptly re-racked and I began up the short 5.9 finger crack to the long 5.7 traverse. I started across and clipped a piton. The beta I remembered for this pitch indicated that the route traversed horizontally. So that's what I did. Constant trickles (waterfalls) of water moistened nearly the entire traverse. This surely added to the difficulty. The traverse felt a bit more like a 5.9 than it should have and I realized that instead of traversing horizontally, one should tend up and left. I began climbing up and soon reached a piton just before the hanging belay. 

Casey followed and made quick business of handing me the pack and starting the next chimney pitch. As he climbed out of sight, he yelled down about how wet and horrible the chimney was. I heeded his warning, and threw on my softshell to combat the wetness. Unable to fit into the first squeeze with the pack, I was forced to do some difficult moves outside the chimney. This pitch was pouring down water and I found myself nearly slipping multiple times. It was official, Longs Peak was taking a leak on us. Once I even grabbed a cam to assist my upward progress. Props to Casey for such a strong lead up such a terrible pitch. 

By this point we were already exhausted and decided to take a small break. At least a third of the route was soaking wet, the weather was beginning to build in the distance, it was already 9:30, and we were only half way up the face with the crux pitches remaining. It may have just been our exhaustion speaking, but for nearly 10min we seriously considered bailing. Then, all of a sudden, and without more than a few words between us, we decided to keep going. I grabbed the rack from Casey and started climbing the long 5.8+ pitch. I climbed quickly and efficiently pulling on strength I didn't know I still possessed. Eventually I reached the Yellow Wall Bivy Ledge and put Casey on belay. It was really nice to have a good rest while Casey climbed. The view was spectacular and we were nearly finished with the route. Only two pitches remained between us and the end of the technical difficulties. 

I started climbing the right most chimney directly above the belay. After the first 20ft or so, the route seemed to get a lot harder. I climbed and climbed looking desperately for the overhang that held the 5.10 crux, but all I saw was nothing. I kept climbing. The pain in my forearms worsened and I had difficulty keeping myself calm. I climbed a few more feet. I searched across the rock for a crack I could jam my hand into -- nothing. I felt for some edge that would give me purchase on the rock but the pump in my arms was too great. Quickly I threw in a cam near my waist, clipped it to my belay loop, and leaned back. So much for an "onsight" lead of the crux pitch. I used the opportunity to place a good chock in the crack above. After my forearms had recovered, I grabbed onto the rock and removed the cam. I climbed past this section, but about 10ft later was again forced to weight a cam. I repeated this process a few times. 

Though I was far up the face, I still couldn't recognize anything that looked like the crux overhang, so I decided to traverse to the left to see if I missed something earlier. After traversing about 10 ft, I saw something above that resembled the overhang. However, what really spurred me to climb up there was some fixed pieces. When you think you're off route seeing fixed gear can be very reassuring. I continued up and weighted the fixed nut. After yet another short rest, I continued up and reached several fixed pieces. Finally I had made it to the belay and the Table Ledge Crack. All around us loomed dark and scary clouds. The distant clouds poured rain onto the hills below. We needed to get off this rock.

Exhausted, I fumbled with the anchor for a bit, then shouted down to Casey that he was "on belay." I knew this would be a difficult pitch for Casey to follow with the pack and I shouted down that he should French Free (pull on gear) the difficult sections if it would help him out. Props to him for only weighting the rope a couple times, this pitch was difficult enough without that obnoxious pack. After much grunting, and a whole lot of effort, Casey met me at the belay. 

Our exhaustion masked our excitement, but neither were as powerful as our desire to be done with the climb. For the last time, I took the rack and began traversing across to Table Ledge. So great was my desire to be done, that I made use of every opportunity to pull on gear. At that point in the day, I just didn't care anymore about "style." I wanted to be through! Unfortunately, my anxiety to finish caused me to be a bit lax concerning rope drag. Pretty soon I was barely able to proceed, entangled by the horrible rope drag. Eventually, however, I reached Table Ledge and put Casey on belay. I watched as he traversed over, impressed that he was still able to climb so gracefully after 1500ft of climbing. I certainly couldn't have matched his poise on the rock. Soon he met me at the ledge went "off belay" for the last time. 

We quickly coiled the rope and walked over to the end of the Keiners Route. Since I had been there before with Cory two years prior, I took the lead and navigated us up the easy 3rd class terrain to the famous "step around." We seemed to climb this section quickly and before we knew it we had reached the summit at about 4pm. Later than we would have liked, but considering we got lost earlier and ⅓ of the Casual Route was dripping wet -- we felt pretty good. 

We had climbed one of the most classic routes in Colorado and, perhaps, the country. Not too bad for Casey's first 14er! The clouds around us looked much more gentle than they had before, so we used this fantastic opportunity to take a few summit shots. 

This was a welcome break in our day and we savored every second of it. We felt a lot better after this and were ready to begin our descent down the Cables Route on the north face of Longs. Neither of us had descend this way before, but the abundance of well built cairns guided us to the first eyebolt rappel station. We met a couple from Wyoming who had just finished climbing the Keyhole Ridge. They graciously allowed us to rappel down with them. 

Once down, we chatted with them for a bit and looked out over Chasm View at the Diamond. It looked so big from this angle that we could barely believe that we had actually just climbed it. It was an amazing sight to behold. We parted ways with the couple from Wyoming and wished them well. 

Our scramble down the boulder field went quickly and we began the long, long descent back to the trailhead. It was pretty clear that we would soon be hiking in the dark. After a while, we both went into "zombie mode" and found ourselves staggering back to the car 19.5 hours after we had started. Climbing Longs car to car resulted in a Long day. 

We drove the car down the rode a bit and found a good place to park for the night on the side of the road. Ramen noodles, mandatory mandarins, and some vanilla pudding was our celebratory meal. After that, we crashed. 

We awoke sore and still tired, but stoked that we had just climbed the Diamond. I took the first shift at the wheel and we began the familiar drive back to Texas with one more amazing climb ticked off our list.

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