Also in This Area
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.