The Diamond Gamble

by Kitty Calhoun
Winter 2008

“Come on, come on,” my partner Jay Smith anxiously pleaded with a piton as he desperately tried to coax it into a small seam on an otherwise blank face of overhanging volcanic rock. Just then, a warm wind kicked up and set in motion a light layer of hoar frost that had accumulated overnight. The angular crystals shimmered in the day’s first rays of sun to hit Mount Kenya’s Diamond Couloir, a 1,000-meter mixed alpine climb.

Jay didn’t recognize the beauty of the dancing flakes that had settled on his exposed neck – it was all he could do to stay balanced on front points, pressed against dime-sized edges. If we could just get up the next 30 feet of dry tooling, we would reach a tongue of thin WI 5 ice that led to easier ice above and a clear path to the summit. But Jay, who was in the same spot for over 30 minutes trying to get some protection, seemed to be stuck.

We intended to climb a new rock route on the other side of the mountain, but changed our plans upon hearing rumors that for the first time in eight years the first pitch of the Diamond “might” have come in. It was worth the gamble – the Diamond was one of the most famed and sought-after mountain routes in the world, and for nearly a decade had been considered impossible with the lack of ice. The couloir was fed mostly by a 200-foot hanging glacier about two-thirds of the way up the route, which had shrunk at an increasing rate since the 1980s from climate change. Now, maybe it was possible again?

The Diamond Couloir’s crux WI 4+ headwall was first climbed in 1975 by Yvon Chouinard and Michael Covington, who employed then state-of- the-art front points, swami belts and lengthy bamboo-shaft hammers and axes with curved picks. Covington would later write that they found the headwall “uninviting;” Chouinard tackled it with a committing mixed move to exit out of a cave and onto an ice curtain. The first pitch, however, was a solid, 75-degree-angle flow of ice that was so insignificant, Chouinard soloed it while Covington was sleeping in.

Ironically, the cruxes of the route had been flipped: The mighty headwall, now shrunk to half its size, was trivial, and the pitch that Covington slept through, the one Jay was now striving to mix climb, had shut down numerous competent parties because of the lack
of ice and protection. It felt strange to be struggling on the same route 30 years later. Jay finally managed to get the pin into the seam and was feeling about, like a blind man with his cane, for another hook placement for his tool.

Suddenly, a soft whirring broke the silence and a softball-sized rock came hurtling by from far above. It was heating up already. We had to get through this pitch now. The clouds were building, picking up moisture as they moved from the rainforests to the Teleki Valley below us.

Thirty years ago, Covington had seen a monkey buried in the ice at the base of the couloir. Probably killed by rock fall, I thought. As more rocks whizzed by and Jay fought to finish the pitch, I realized that if we didn’t hurry, we could experience the same fate.

About the Author

Three months before climbing the Diamond Couloir, Patagonia alpine ambassador Kitty Calhoun climbed the Salathé Wall on El Cap with Becca Roseberry. Hauling and carrying the haul bags took a heavy toll, and she has had three surgeries during the last year to repair her hips. For her, it is just another reason to climb fast and light.