One-thousand-foot streaks of water oozed down the mass jumble of gray rock like dripping black fangs. Ice chunks floated peacefully by until one landed close by and exploded, spraying us with shrapnel. Clouds rushed overhead, then dissipated as they entered the cirque we’d hiked through earlier that morning. We were at 14,000 feet, high on the Diamond, Colorado’s premier big wall. I was 12 years old. With my oversized, bright yellow helmet tilted awkwardly to one side, I looked over at my dad. His huge bodybuilder’s arms and bright eyes gave me the reassurance I needed, a symbol of invincibility. The clouds built. Electricity cracked and rumbled around us. I felt so small. Large boulders crashed down a snowfield far to our left. The mountain was alive. We raced for the summit and tagged it, then ran toward the north face descent. As we rappelled, the skies opened and pelted us with hail. I was dizzy with adrenaline.
At least that’s how I remember it. That was 23 years ago. Estes Park is still my home and I can still look out my living room window directly at the Diamond, but the mountain has changed. Increased crowds and advances in technology make it feel more like a crag than a big wall. So I moved on; Yosemite, Patagonia, bigger challenges in larger ranges. And I wasn’t the only one: For first ascents, the Diamond has been tapped out for a long time.
Or has it? Josh Wharton turned my eyes back to the Diamond a few years ago when he freed variations on an old aid route called the Dunn-Westbay, first climbed by Colorado legends Jimmy Dunn and Billy Westbay in 1972. “I bet the original aid line will go free,” Wharton told me. I went to look and was shocked by what I found: A single hairline crack, overhanging and sheer, running nearly the whole length of the upper east face, on perfect rock with great gear.
When we’re kids, we climb because it’s fun – simple, pure, intuitive movement. Then, inevitably, our lives get more complicated, and so does our climbing. Our mountains get bigger. Our rack gets bigger. We pull out the trad gear, hammer, aid slings, jumars. We learn about tools and what they enable us to do. But if we stick with climbing long enough, at some point we start craving a return to the beginning.
The Dunn-Westbay brought me back. I felt again the consuming excitement of wanting a climb so badly that it keeps me up at night. My two friends Jonathan Siegrist and Joe Mills both shared my vision for freeing the line and our obsession grew and fed on itself. Every few days, we would wake up at 3 a.m. to run up the trail and scope out the route. We decided we would climb ledge to ledge, 80-meter pitches. We wanted a small rack and few interruptions, so we’d be free to climb just for the movement – like kids.
As Joe and I walked toward the Diamond on the day we freed the Dunn-Westbay, we stopped as the sun crested the horizon and washed the wall in alpenglow. I peered up at the wall and my gut surged with adrenaline just as it had 23 years ago. I thought of my dad.
I twisted my fingers into hairline cracks seeping with water. I knew if I worried about success, I would surely fail, so I climbed deliberately through every move, one at a time. Late in the day, I balanced up the last few flakes of the route and stood on top – tired and content.
If I look at style not as a list of hard fast rules, but as an artistic expression, climbs can continually reinvent themselves. We don’t always have to find a new mountain. Sometimes it’s a matter of looking at an old mountain in a new way.
That first trip with my dad up the Diamond taught me that fear is a life force that helps us understand our mortality. This last trip up taught me that mountains aren’t overcome or tapped out – just climbed.