Posted on: March 1, 2007
John Bachar leading Gray Ghost in Tuolumne, California. Legendary free soloist Bachar made two of the 1970s' hardest first free ascents—D7 and D1—during his stay in Colorado. On the FFA of D1, the late Billy Westbay led a wet, runout 5.11 offwidth for 100 feet—arguably the greatest lead ever done on the Diamond. [Photo] Pat Ament
You could see that damn crack all the way from the plains, rising up from Broadway like a giant x-y axis etched onto the Diamond. Every day, during my summer guiding around Estes Park, D1 stared me in the face: stark, obvious—and maddening. It was the first route on the Diamond and by far the most classic, an Emilio Comici kind of line. I had some talent, but I needed a partner with more alpine knowledge to try to free it. Among the other guides, Billy Westbay, who had made the first one-day ascent of the Nose with Jim Bridwell and John Long, seemed like a natural, if intimidating, choice. While at first glance, his long blonde hair and mellow demeanor made him appear like an archetypical do-nothing hippie, as you got to know Billy better and watch him climb, you noticed how he oozed an unshakeable inner power. Still in my early twenties, with only a few seasons in Colorado, I had yet to gain experience on longer mountain routes. Making the first free ascent of the D7 had seemed quick and easy, so I didn't really count that. One afternoon I got up the nerve to ask Billy. He flashed that playful yet astute Westbay grin and said, "Sure, let's go for it." Secretly, I almost regretted speaking: I didn't know if I could hang with him on a climb of this stature.
With lightweight daypacks and minimal gear, we arrived at the base of the North Chimney just as dawn was beginning to hit the top of the Diamond. As we gazed up at that cold, smooth wall, I remembered its altitude and ever-changing weather, and I knew that an afternoon storm could trap us in our skimpy clothing. I looked over at Billy and hoped that my poker face was as convincing as his.
Soon we were in the sun on Broadway at the start of the y-axis that splits the entire mountain in half. Westbay offered to lead the first couple of pitches to the headwall with the main crack. I said, "Yeah, no problem man." He must have guessed my relief because he gave me a reassuring smile and said, "Relax, these pitches are cool."
As the Colorado boy, Westbay had the home-court advantage, and he got us to the headwall quickly, without any screwups. The next section looked like a cross between straight Yosemite-style cracks and undulating, non-Euclidian Joshua Tree-type ones. I was comfy with both forms, and they were mostly finger and hand sized—my favorites. Westbay suggested in a playful tone that I take the lead, "'cause you have smaller fingers than me." He really did have what we called "hotdog" fingers, and now I was the one who grinned. "No sweat, Billy." Anyway, if the crack turned out to be too hard, I could just lower off and we could go home: No big deal, right?
It's been quite a few years since that day, but I remember solid rock interspersed with grainy Josh-like sections, straight-ahead jams for a while and then some little crux thing. We only had one full set of hexes and Stoppers. Every time I got tossed a runout, cruxy section, I forced myself to relax. To my surprise, the holds were there every time. One, two, three pitches later we were at Table Ledge. No falls.
Westbay said, "Good job, Johnny." His voice was now almost serious.
I was stoked at his praise, but the rock was dripping everywhere around us, and the clouds were thickening overhead. We didn't have topos in those days, and neither of us had tried to find out beforehand exactly where the original route went; I mean, what kind of route finding could there be on this thing? The D1 is a topo. Yet we soon realized the main crack system had a twenty-foot-long, four- to six-inch offwidth section that was soaking wet and pretty damn steep, and our biggest pro was a number 11 hex. Not good. Westbay, who seemed oddly unfazed, said he vaguely remembered that Kamps and Rearick might have aided up some crack to the left, but he wasn't sure. Out left we saw another crack system but couldn't tell if it actually topped out. It was starting to drizzle. So:+#8200;take a chance on an unknown crack or continue up "the crack"?
Thunder burst. Westbay's eyes lit up and his smile turned coy, almost cocky, with a strange new energy. "I'll lead this one, Johnny," he said. "Gimme the rack." That was it.... He cruised up the pitch for a ways, and then, as he placed our number 11, yelled out an ominous, "Watch me."
I watched him intently, hoping he wouldn't fall. We were using hip belays, and he was a big guy. He grunted for about fifteen or twenty feet, yelled down, "I got it," and disappeared into the chimney. It started to rain harder. I barely made it on toprope! It's probably a stout, old-school, perfectly straight-in 5.11a offwidth when dry, but this thing was drenched. Hell, I'm still impressed. Westbay would have fallen at least fifty feet if he had blown out of that crack.
At the summit the lightning was beginning to cut loose, so we ran down. Back at Covington's Guide School, the other guides asked us the standard, "What did you guys do today?"
It's funny how some of the best climbing days in your life just go along like a normal day with no major epics. No one falls, nobody gets hurt—almost boring. But when you really think about them years later, they can seem magical. Billy kind of glanced over at me with this little all-knowing smirk on his face and then answered, "We just freed D1."