The First Ascent

Posted on: March 1, 2007


Bob Kamps (left) and Dave Rearick preparing for the first ascent of the Diamond in July 1960. The experienced Yosemite climbers had convinced RMNP officials of their readiness by making the second ascent of the Diagonal (V 5.9 A1, Kor-Northcutt, 1959) on the Lower East Face. Their line of ascent on the Diamond came to be known as D1 (VI 5.7 A4). [Photo] Paul Stettner

In 1960 the Diamond was the most famous unclimbed wall in North America. When Bob Kamps and I read the letter giving us permission for "an attempted ascent of the Diamond during the month of August 1960," we could barely believe our good luck. If it had been some obscure mountain deep in Alaska, we wouldn't have been so excited. But over the past seven years that the RMNP had kept the Diamond off limits, speculation had been building to a feverish level. Now we'd been offered the first try.

Too excited to wait, we set out on the first day possible, July 31. As Bob and I and our support party lugged our equipment up to Broadway, the sky darkened to a steady drizzle. Half-hidden in clouds, the Diamond appeared more sinister than ever, a mysterious realm unimaginably removed from Yosemite's sunny rock. I looked over at Bob, and his rueful smile hinted that his morale had plummeted as suddenly as mine.

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The next morning was windy but bright, however, and our enthusiasm returned. I began right up the crack in the center of the face. When I reached the first belay ledge, the wonder of it struck me: I was in a place that no one had been before, touching rock that had been the object of so many climbers' dreams.

Swinging leads for the initial free pitches, we continued up blocks and increasingly difficult faces, until the first overhang caused us to switch to aid. Bob and I had climbed together so much and the route finding up the central crack was so obvious that it required no discussion. We'd both started to feel almost businesslike about the experience: we wanted to finish off the Diamond without incident—it wouldn't do to mess up its first ascent.

Then water began to drip again from above. I looked up, worried, and saw more gathering clouds, but no rain. Instead, a waterfall cascaded from the upper chimney, hitting the rock about 100 feet higher than my belay stance, indicating that some 400 feet would be overhanging. When I pointed out the scenic, but ominous, sight to Bob, he insisted on maintaining his optimism—and on proving it, by launching up the next pitch without a moment's hesitation. Past a six-foot roof, which Bob overcame with a single piton, he couldn't find good anchor placements and was forced to set the route's first bolt. By the time I joined him, the sky had become grim once more, and we left our ropes in place and rapped off.

When we arrived on Broadway, of course, the weather began to draw back, but there was nothing to do other than enjoy the luxury of a bivy our support party had stocked with sleeping bags, down jackets, salami, raisins and candy and watch the distant lightning flash across the Great Plains.

At dawn the wall was a luminous orange. Beyond our high point and a wide crack that the cascade had watered and filled with grass, we attained the Ramp, twenty feet behind the curtain of falling water and quite dry. But now as we entered the middle section of the Diamond, the rock started to change, becoming loose and broken, with shaky piton placements. Our crack turned into a slot, packed with blocks. While Bob exhausted himself up direct-aid pitches, I glanced around me to discover spectators perched high on Chasm View, staggered out in various spots along the ridge between Longs Peak and Lady Washington, and clustered at the edges of Chasm Lake. Now and then a Park Service radio crackled and reverberated across the thin air.

A few bolts at belays, a free chimney section, more hard direct-aid climbing and some rope fixing later, we anchored ourselves to a cold ledge at 13,700 feet for the night. Bob leaned back a little, while I sat cross-legged, watching the moonshadows steal across the slopes below us and fade into the darkness of the lake. The sound of the waterfall lulled us, while its occasional splashes woke us from brief snatches of sleep.

The sun rose again, and our spectators reassumed their posts, then watched us move up until the central crack widened into a chimney. Now we were near the source of the waterfall, pouring from the lip of a mossy chockstone. We avoided it by detouring left and following some cracks that, for once, took to pitons and direct aid quite well.

The storm clouds returned; it was time for the climb to be over. I managed to get back inside the chimney, where I encountered the enormous ice blocks that had produced the waterfall, and at one point, I had to do a lieback against one of them.

At 1:30 p.m., August 3, Bob and I arrived at the top of the Diamond and found ourselves in the midst of a small crowd, including a cluster of indefatigable reporters. Other, less hardy ones, appeared along the way down, harbingers of the overwhelming media coverage that would soon engulf us. While we made our descent, from time to time gazing back up at the vast face, we felt just as much awe for the Diamond as we had when it was still unclimbed. The deep shadows that deluged its gray rock, dark as rain, reminded us of just how serious the adventure could have been.

Today, whenever I look up at the wall, even though it's now covered with climbers, I still have that cold feeling.

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