It's Not about the Marriage

Posted on: March 1, 2007


The following sidebar is an Alpinist web-exclusive.

The news was spreading all along the Longs Peak trail of hiker ants: Someone had died. Up on that face, east side, below the summit.

It was windless and balmy at the Boulderfield, 12,700 feet, early September, 1995. Over the last few summers, commuting up and down the mountain to work on my dream route—the first 5.13-to-be on the Diamond—I'd overheard plenty of rumors, but this one caught my attention. I stopped pumping water and listened more closely to the tourist chatter.

"The rangers slid down ropes and wrapped him in nylon. They couldn't get the body off the cliff, so they're going to leave him there for the winter and let nature embalm him."

"Yep," another hiker said, "Two women were hiking up and heard there was a dead guy on the wall, and they got so upset they turned around."

All around, people were pointing up to Table Ledge, right at the bottom of my route's second-to-last pitch, where a bright yellow and blue square appeared, small as a postage stamp. My portaledge.

Uh-oh. What had I unleashed? The previous weekend in a raging snowstorm, I'd strapped the ledge flat to the wall, so I could escape up and over the summit. Quickly, without a word, I packed up my water bottles, headed up the talus slope to Chasm View, traversed to the top of the route, and rapped down to spend a luxurious night at what I thereafter named the Dead Man Bivy. I could only wonder what the tourists would think about my resurrection the next morning.

This was my route's second casualty. One July afternoon the year before I'd been talking on the phone to a ranger who told me he had to hang up right away to join a rescue: hikers had reported a stuck climber with blonde hair and a white shirt high on the east face.

"Wait a sec," I said, my dismay building as I pictured my white haulbag and the spare yellow rope I'd draped over the top, "Where is that climber?"

"Sorry can't talk any more. The helicopter's about to take off."

I begged him to listen while I explained the mistake. Not only was the alleged victim stranded and immobile, he was also armless and legless. Those darned climbers—always getting themselves stranded!

In 1987, when I first saw the line, I little thought how many soap-opera-like episodes would result from mere curiosity and attraction. As I was climbing Eroica with Roger Briggs, I kept looking at the continuation of the second-pitch dihedral: Where did that go? How hard would it be as a free route?

Six years afterward, when Roger cranked out another Diamond 5.12, The Joker, I couldn't help thinking 5.13 would be next. And that the line I'd spied from Eroica was my best hope. Over the next few seasons I aided the route, ground up. One section had five hook moves in a row, and another involved a fall onto a fishhook. But despite such moments of microdrama, by 1996 the route was in place: about sixty percent naturally protected and the rest with hand-drilled bolts. Now all I had to do was free the moves and link the sections!

Ha, ha.

As I continued my attempts during the 1996-1998 seasons, I found few rests on the route, and almost all the moves turned out to be harder than 5.11. Climbing at that level means training twenty to thirty hours a week, if not more. Yet marriage, children and a growing eco-building business had whittled my weekly climbing time to two to three hours a week. Around 1999 I grasped that the math was all wrong—and always would be.

After so much effort, I was passionate to see this Diamond 5.13 completed. I knew my late friend, Eric Goukas, in whose name Roger and I had climbed Eroica, would be gunning for it, too. Freeing the route would take someone who routinely climbed 5.14 at low altitude, who was well acclimated, had good mountain sense, gear-placing expertise, tremendous bouldering power and superior endurance. Tommy Caldwell seemed to meet these requirements, so I gave him the topo in early 2000, but he had some excuse for not completing the assignment: going to Kyrgyzstan and getting shot at and kidnapped or something. Kids nowadays, so overscheduled.

On July 28, 2001, he finally got around to it, onsighting most of the route and redpointing every pitch. He told me it took more work than anything else he'd climbed in his life. I liked hearing that! And I was glad to know that our multigenerational effort had brought an end to the Diamond honeymoon of mere 5.12.

In 1994 my wife Catherine and I had gotten married below Longs Peak. Around the time we met the year before, I'd entitled my new route The Honeymoon Is Over, and to this day Catherine is not absolutely certain the name was unrelated to us. Through the years I've told her, "It's not about our marriage." And I know this is true, since I sometimes introduce her to people as my first wife, and I still get slugged in the shoulder—an act of affection that tells me my most important honeymoon is not over.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.