The night was silent apart from our winded breaths and quiet footsteps; largely stifled by the dirt and pine needles dispersed across the mountain trail. The incessant stars and full moon illuminated our path before us, eliminating the need for artificial light. I remember how each moment seemed to pass by so slowly, each step becoming more difficult with elevation gain, each gulp of air coming a little more quickly as we continued into the darkness. Nighttime in the mountains brings with it a beautiful solitude. There was no need for chatter, no need for music; the dozy breath of the mountains at rest created a beautiful melody to hike to. It also kept me blissfully unaware of what was fast approaching.
[by Alexa Flower]
The very slightest thought that this might not be the best idea percolated in the back of my mind before we even began. I had not long ago arrived in Boulder to meet up with an old friend, Elliott, who invited me to join him and his friend Tom on a climb up the Diamond on Long’s Peak. Due to only a few months of climbing experience, I had never heard of the Diamond, but was immediately intrigued. He described this route briefly on the phone, assuring me several times how capable I was of completing it. Elliott – notoriously known for pushing the limits of himself and others, portrayed this climb like an incredible tale waiting to unfold. As he spoke, I imagined his eyes lighting up and his smile widening with each word. The twinkle in my eye soon grew as our conversation continued and the contagious stoke spread like wildfire. I couldn’t say no.
I pulled up to the address at 10 p.m., prepared with a pack borrowed from a friend, food, clothing, and gear I thought suitable for an adventure I knew nothing about. Several guys were discussing what awaited, with equipment spread across the floor, engulfed in a fiery debate analyzing which gear Elliott should and should not bring. One asked of my experience trad climbing. Trad climbing? I had only really understood the concept a few weeks ago. I had never held a piece of trad gear, let alone placed or cleaned. Given my response and the future endeavor, I am still unsure if my new friend walked away extremely impressed or utterly bewildered.
We arrived at the Long’s Peak Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park at midnight. While beginning our approach, that seed of apprehension planted in the back of my mind resurfaced. Doubt, while struggling between belief and disbelief, between certainty and uncertainty, intoxicated my thoughts. My breath turned to panting, as theirs seemed to be steadying. My quads burned as their pace quickened. Mercifully, the whiff of sweet pine and the cool night air was soothing. I tried to keep my focus on the simple wonders surrounding us, and leaned on the slightest hope that I wasn’t completely in over my head.
We arrived at Chasm Lake around 3:30 a.m. My first view of the Diamond is engraved in my memory. A striking silhouette piercing the night sky, towering over the scree field. It brought with it an ominous ambiance, and the perception that only great climbers, confident in their abilities, accepted this challenge. I felt insignificant next to its grandeur.
Overwhelmed and already famished, I nestled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of rest. Dreams of my earlier adventures engulfed me in my slumber. Just over a week ago, I had returned from a six-week backpacking trip through Argentina. The wine country, Argentinean culture, and breath-taking views of the massive Andes rocked me in my sleep. While there, I had grown comfortable leading 5.10 sport and proudly completed my first multipitch climb. Mentally I was becoming stronger, yet truthfully, I also over-indulged during my stay, enjoying far too many alfahores, submarines, asados, and fine wine. My impressive built-up tolerance for wine and chocolate was no longer helpful in the high-country, almost 14,000 feet above sea level.
I dreamt of the first time I heard of trad climbing, only a few weeks ago. I sat at my first hanging belay five pitches up an unknown climb in Los Arenales, too unnerved to even look down. In broken English, my friend was describing the process of traditional climbing, terming it “a mad man’s sport”. I’d shuddered at the idea, immediately announcing I had no interest in this trad climbing that he spoke of. I was enough of a coward on our current sport climb.
Too soon I awoke to reality and sluggishly rolled over, pulling the sleeping bag over my head, struggling to welcome morning’s first light. But it was already 6:00 a.m. and we had a long day ahead of us. Elliott and Tom were eating breakfast as I managed to pull my knotted hair in a bun and rub the dirt out of my eyes. The Diamond at dawn almost seemed incomparable to last night; not in the sense that one sight was more profound than the other, but that each view carried a distinct, unique magnificence. In the twilight I saw a dark silhouette impaling the night sky, however now, each feature and weakness emerged like wrinkles along the wall, vibrant in the amber light.
Within 20 minutes we were hopping along the rocks across the talus field, headed towards the largest granite wall I had ever seen. Elliott began describing the route in more detail. We would begin by soloing 500 feet up the North Chimney before arriving at the start of the route. We then had six pitches to climb and descend before a possible afternoon thunderstorm, always important to plan for in the alpine environment. I had never soloed anything in my life, nor had I climbed harder than 5.10. Our route, Pervertical Sanctuary, had a crux pitch rated 5.11a. I constantly reassured myself that it couldn’t be that much more difficult.
Beginning the solo, the rough granite felt unbreakable beneath my fingertips. I continued to focus on solving the puzzle before me rather than on possible consequences. Each movement was executed slowly and firmly; my breath gradually steadying and heart rate stabilizing. I remember how ironic it was, that I felt comfortable forgoing all gear and relying solely on my limited climbing ability (given it was an easy 5th class solo). The North Chimney deposited us safely atop Broadway Ledge, and in no time we sat in awe, gazing aloft at the grand objective set before us.
Pervertical Sanctuary follows a very steep and intimidating crack line to the summit. There was a party ahead of us on the second pitch. I watched them curiously, hunting for any helpful techniques or skills to use while I climbed. The funny thing about venturing into the unknown is, evidently, you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. Looking up, at the 500 feet to go, I had no idea what to expect or what we would encounter. I believe this was my greatest advantage.
As we organized gear and roped up, I realized I had strategically left my chalk bag at home, still packed from the trip. Elliott didn’t have chalk either, assuring me that I would be fine wiping my sweaty hands on my pants. The guys whooped and hollered, I said a quick, semi-frantic prayer in my head, and we began. Elliot fired off, leading pitch one. The entire climb the guys carried the pack, cleaned the gear, swapped leads, and belayed. I had one responsibility: to complete each pitch as quickly as possible.
Fortunately pitch 1 and 2 were rather sporty; I was able to avoid crack climbing as much as possible, finding face holds wherever I needed them. But as each pitch progressed in difficulty, the rock became bare of any surface holds, offering only a crack in the wall for me to work with, unfamiliar and strange to my eyes for I had never crack climbed before.
We finally reached Pitch 4; the 11a, 130 foot, hand-crack crux pitch. Elliott and Tom were ecstatic, enamored with the climb, keen on continuing. I looked up and cringed at the imminent moments to come. Starting with this pitch, I felt awkward and sloppy using the crack as my only leverage. Every movement felt wrong, like I was expending a surplus of energy and pain than what was needed. As I climbed, a sea of seemingly impassable rock engulfed me from all directions. Gazing below, the talus field fell away, swallowed up by the surrounding chasm. And as I searched above for any sign of an end, the cliffs stretched towards the skyline. They seemed as far away as when we began.
I desperately heaved my hands, arms, and feet into the crack, attempting to imitate the techniques mastered by my partners before me. This deemed “hand-crack” was gradually widening until I felt myself swimming up the wall uselessly. Each placement felt unsteady and agonizing. The beautiful granite would not relent, slicing the skin off my hands and forearms, leaving a trail of blood to display for those to follow. With every movement I was left gasping for breath, only to be rewarded a miniscule distance upward.
I felt small and insignificant suspended off the side of the face so far from the ground. However, hanging there I quickly realized that it didn’t matter if I gave up. The Diamond would not let me down or help me to the top if I surrendered to it. I had no choice but to continue regardless of what I thought or how I felt. Putting my emotions aside I persisted.
I looked up at Elliott and Tom, 20 feet above, still shouting down words of encouragement. They were very supportive even though I had spent almost an hour on this pitch. Thinking back, I can’t remember how I actually made it to the anchors. I remember feeling hopeless, searching deep within for a fragment of strength to help me continue. I kept trying because there was no other option and in one way or another, it paid off.
I stood hunched over, sweat-soaked, limply gripping the anchor. My hands were raw and swollen; it felt as if they had their own heartbeat. Every muscle burned, every cell felt exhausted, and with each movement came struggle. It took a few lengthy moments of recuperation before realizing I had irrefutably made it.
Life felt rich at that very moment. Standing there looking out gave the unmistakable sensation that few other places on Earth could compare to this view. There is something very profound when seeing a sight so much bigger than yourself. Every yawning valley and towering peak unfolded before us. A world so vast felt just beyond my reach. And all stresses of daily life were obsolete.
I laughed wearily as the guys congratulated me and offered water. This basic need was the finest reward.
A few minutes later Elliott and Tom assessed our next moves. The summit neared with only two more pitches, however a cluster of storm clouds in the distance stepped much closer, toying with our comfort zone. Immediately Tom suggested not to test these waters and bail. The look in Elliot’s eyes was unmistakable; he yearned for more. They began discussing our options as lightning struck not far away, with it thunder, echoing throughout the chasm. I remember looking down at the hair on my arms, standing on end. It was unanimous that we needed to get off the wall, and the rappelling began with no further indecision.
As quickly as my newfound contentment swept over me, it vanished as impending weather washed over the Diamond. Within minutes of reaching our packs, the downpour appeared in an outburst, preventing even a bleak attempt at finding shelter. Sopping wet, with no dry clothes or gear, we set off. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked directly overhead, like dancing phantoms, collapsing down on top of us. Each moment stretched into eternity as we scrambled down the talus field. Finally reaching tree line, relief flooded us and we let the breath out we had been holding in for so long.
Finally a safe distance from the lightning, the day’s events resonated within. Even though we did not make it to the summit, I felt nothing less than success and a calm contentment. You attain a new perspective when putting yourself in a higher risk situation to accomplish the indefinite. Starting with this adventure, I was utterly terrified of the unknown. Since I was little, I had always seen pictures of great mountaineers and great climbers accomplishing committing objectives but never thought it achievable for myself. They seemed of a different realm than I. Shattering my own limitations I had constrained on myself was inspiring and empowering to say the least. Following a classic alpine traditional route seemed to unfurl unlimited possibilities and a new lifestyle that I craved to be a part of.
We made it to the car well past sundown, after having gotten lost due to rain flooding the trails. Cold, wet, and too tired to even change clothes; we headed back down to Boulder.
This is Alexa Flower’s first piece for The Climbing Zine. She is a former marketing student, current corporate cog, and climbing adventurer from Vail, Colorado. After discovering climbing in the gym at Colorado State University she quickly took it outdoors, learning sport and trad climbing. She moved to Boulder last year to access world-class climbing while holding down a corporate job, and now has plans to take a seista from the working world to pursue traveling, climbing, and writing.