The Diamond


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.

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 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.

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