The Honeymoon Is Over

Posted on: March 1, 2007


Tommy Caldwell, belayed by Beth Rodden, on The Honeymoon Is Over, in 2001, the first Diamond 5.13. Eric Doub, the first ascensionist, spent years trying to free it completely, before he settled into his family life and gave his topo to Caldwell. [Photo] Topher Donahue

Thunder cracked. The hair on my head stood on end, and the metal on my harness started to emit a low, buzzing noise. "Let's get out of here," my dad shouted. Our pace quickened down the talus. Another loud bang, and a twinge of electricity traveled up my spine. Hail started bouncing off my helmet; my heart raced with excitement and fear. Within minutes the ground was white.

We'd spent the last hours in constant tension as ice melted out from the D1 Chimney and showered around us. From a distance the shards appeared to be floating in slow motion, but each time one of them fell close, it whizzed like a bullet.

I was twelve years old and this was my first trip up the Diamond, via the Casual Route. Despite the somewhat epic experience, many more trips would follow. Ever since I was five, when my family first moved to Estes Park, the Diamond had loomed in my kitchen window, its steep, gray walls a constant, awe-inspiring presence. Over the years its landscape became a part of who I am. Through it and through my dad, I learned the wonders of nature—and the meaning of adventure.

In my early teens I climbed the Diamond about once a year. At first, because I loved to push myself gymnastically, I was primarily a sport climber. But the mountains always felt more familiar, perhaps because of childhood climbs with my dad. I began to understand that my niche should be hard alpine free climbing, and The Honeymoon Is Over—the Diamond's most coveted 5.13—seemed like the perfect fit.

Eric Doub, a local Boulder climber, had established the route several years earlier as an aid climb and had been trying to free it ever since. Now he realized that weeks spent on the Diamond did not fit into his settled-down lifestyle, and he gave me his topo. Labeled with pitch after pitch of 5.12 and 5.13 and occasional notes like "dyno" or "not yet freed," it seemed like a treasure map to me.

For my first attempt in early June 2001, my dad picked me up at 2 a.m. with coffee and donuts. Two hours later, the nighttime glow of Front Range civilization had given way to a soft, alpine dawn. I quivered as our intended climb loomed above me. While the routes around it followed obvious weaknesses and cracks, this one took the steepest, blankest line, connecting faint seams and flakes up the very center of the face. By the time we'd made it halfway up the wall, water began dripping on us from a point nearly 500 feet higher. Deeply intimidated and slightly damp, I took the excuse to retreat.

But the allure of the first Diamond 5.13 proved too exciting to pass up. I returned a month later, this time with my wife, Beth. My dad hiked to Chasm View to watch the show. Although I have since learned that Beth is way more impressed with a good joke than with a tough climb, her presence motivated me to try harder. Above my previous high point, a tiny seam ran for 100 feet before ending in a sea of blank-looking granite with only a few bolts. I made some hard moves, then spent several minutes trying to shake my pump and catch my breath: 5.13 at this altitude made me dizzy. Even the gear was tricky: mostly RPs that had to be carefully wiggled into miniscule seams from precarious positions. I secretly hoped for one of the notorious thunderstorms to force another retreat. Being on the Diamond so late in the day made me nervous, but I was comforted by Beth's shouts of encouragement. I could even hear my dad shouting from Chasm View.

I crawled my way up each pitch. When the cracks became discontinuous, I would hold onto a tiny edge or finger lock, trying to convince myself to make the next move. I didn't have enough power left to reclimb pitches, so I couldn't fall.

The topo said the final pitch was easier than previous ones, but as I stepped off a small ledge, I felt my fingers open and my muscles start to fail. I managed to control a short fall back onto the ledge and sat there for twenty minutes trying to find some last reserves of energy. Only five feet above me, a small roof, followed by about ten feet of easier climbing, led to the very apex of the Diamond, the highest point of vertical rock in Colorado.

At that instant I could think of no more ideal route in the world: this challenge that had been staring right at me my whole life. In an effort to shed any extra weight, I took the rest of my rack and clipped it to a small nut. Then I started sprinting. Above the roof the crack ended. The only possibility was a sloping edge about five feet left. I was sure I was too spent to do the move, but I couldn't hold on any longer. With an awkward yelp, I dynoed. To my astonishment, my fingers wrapped around a hidden edge and my hand held on. I manteled over the top and silently turned to look back down at Estes Park, and the valley where my house sits.

Although I'd just finished one of the greatest fights of my life, I felt no need to yell or even to celebrate. Surrounded by the mountains and their endless possibilities for adventure and beauty—and with my wife and dad close by—I realized I was simply at home. My honeymoon with Longs Peak had begun when I was twelve in the thunderstorm and continued to the moment when I climbed its hardest route. But my love for the mountain still grows... and it's not over yet.

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