Long's Peak, Casual Route
By: Mark Bockmann | Climbers: Mark Bockmann, Rob Jameson |Trip Dates: September 5-7, 1998
Photo: Tom Dunwiddie
Clear Skies on the Casual Route
Labor Day weekend 1998 - everything looks great for a first attempt at the Diamond. My fiance is in Boston visiting friends, my good friend Rob is flying in from the West Coast, and the weather has been stable and warm for weeks. I pick up Rob at DIA and soon we're catching up on each other's latest exploits on the drive back to Boulder. Rob's high-stress job in San Francisco has taken its toll over the past week, and he makes it clear that sleep is a higher priority than attempting the car-to-car effort in a day. Despite his job, he has been able to climb frequently in Yosemite over the summer, and systematically ticked off many of the long 5.9 free routes there. My own preparation for the Diamond has consisted of a steady diet of grueling 30 - yard approaches at Rifle, and a token 5.8 "alpine" route on Hallett Peak two weeks ago. Added to this, Rob has lived at sea level for his entire life.
I think back to the fall of '94, soon after my first few bouldering and toprope sessions at Hammond Pond in Boston. I bought a copy of Climbing Magazine, and I remember most clearly the feature article on the Diamond. Tales and photos of the Briggs brothers' epic ascents on the sheer face both thrilled and terrified me. I wondered at the time if I would ever have the skill or guts to climb such an incredible wall. Now that the time has finally arrived, I've got butterflies in my stomach. Technically, I believe the route won't be a problem for us. Rob has climbed for years all over Europe and North America and has a good head for the mountains. While I've got about four years less experience than he does, and haven't done nearly as many "gear" routes, I feel that my sport climbing experience should make a Diamond 10a crux feel, well, maybe not "casual" (at nearly 14,000 feet!), but at least reasonable. More than the actual difficulty of the route, it's the fear of the unknown that is getting to me. Long's Peak is a big mountain. Storms happen. Help is a long way away if anything goes wrong.
Early Saturday afternoon we pull into the trailhead parking lot, worrying about getting bivy permits for the Mills Glacier spots. We know the combination of stable warm weather and the holiday weekend will make it crowded up there. Luckily, a couple of spots remain, so we pay our fees, grab a bite to eat, and shoulder our overweight packs. The first few miles to Chasm Lake are practically a highway. The trail is wide and never too steep. We pass through a crisp alpine forest following switchbacks, and a nearby creek stays within hearing range. An hour up the trail, a footbridge crosses the creek. The trees on the far side immediately grow smaller and more weather-beaten. In a few hundred more yards we find ourselves above treeline. We traverse under a cliff high above a hanging valley, then cross a lush alpine meadow, complete with marmots whistling from their hiding places in the rocks. Three hours into the approach, we reach Chasm Lake. The full majesty of the cirque surrounds us. To the left, Mount Meeker towers above. Beside it, Lamb's Slide offers an icy approach to Upper Kiener's on Long's Peak. To the right, Chasm View Wall catches the late afternoon sun. And directly across the lake, the shadowy face of the Diamond itself appears, looming over the cirque like a monolith. We pause for a photo and scan our intended route for the morning. Above a talus slope lies the Mills Glacier, shrunken to its late season size and looking hard and icy. Above it hang the clean slabs of the lower East face and the infamous North Chimney, which is anything but clean. Broadway Ledge leads left from the top of the Chimney to the D1 pillar, the first pitch of the Casual Route. Over the pillar, we can faintly make out the finger crack and long traverse into the huge corner system that leads to the Yellow Wall bivy ledge. From here, the route follows double cracks to a squeeze chimney, then launches into the 5.10 crux bulge above. One more pitch of 5.8 escapes left on Table Ledge to the D7 rappels, or to Kiener's and the summit. All of these features are already familiar to me from the many topos and photographs I have studied, but standing beneath them on this cool September afternoon, they suddenly hold more meaning than before.
The final trudge up to the bivy sites from the lake takes much longer than anticipated. At last we find an acceptable spot - a large flat boulder with another rock perched atop to form a small cave. We gratefully drop our packs and the chill immediately penetrates our sweat soaked T - shirts. I go to find water in the waning light while Rob cuts steps up the glacier to save time in the morning. After this, we fire up the stove for dinner and settle into our bags for the night.
4:30 AM. My watch alarm beeps, and we quickly eat and shoulder the gear. Five minutes after leaving the bivy site, we're already climbing up the icy glacier. Even with the steps Rob chopped and a couple of sharp rocks to act as ice axes, it's still a little dicey. We pull onto the slabs of the North Chimney with a few hand jams between the ice and rock. We make a route finding mistake early and rope up for a 15 - foot headwall. After this, it's easy third class for several hundred feet. The sun is now up and the view of the cirque below is stunning. The Diamond towers overhead. A fit, middle-aged climber appears below, moving quickly, and as he passes I recognize him as one of the Briggs brothers. He confirms that he is indeed Roger Briggs, and we gladly follow his lead up toward Broadway. We couldn't have paid money for a better guide through the maze of loose blocks that form the North Chimney. Soon I decide I'm not willing to solo any longer. We break out the rope and I lead up exposed but easy 5th-class cracks. I reach a belay station and realize I've made it to Broadway - despite its name, it wasn't obvious from below. I feel relief with the first and most dangerous part of the climb behind us. And I'm encouraged - it wasn't as scary as I had expected. We stay roped for the exposed traverse across the top of the North Chimney, and arrive at the base of the Casual Route. Already, two parties are climbing above us. In the warmth of the morning sun, we engage in light banter with the other climbers nearby. Soon it's beginning to feel almost like a day of cragging at the Gunks. That is, until someone high above yells "Rock!" and we hear something heavy land on a ledge above us. We're showered by fresh turf as we hug the side of the cliff. Suddenly it doesn't feel much like a day at the Gunks anymore.
While we wait our turn to climb (it's not called the "Cattle Route" for nothing), my friends Dave and Julie show up. They get in line behind a party on the Yellow Wall (this summer, Dave hiked the Keyhole Route on Long's car - to - car in 5-1/2 hours - it took me sixteen when I was in high school). We see Roger Briggs above us rope soloing D1, the first route on the Diamond, now free at 5.12. He's already finished the second pitch and is hauling up his pack. Rob and I munch a Clif bar and decide who leads the crux pitch with a game of rock/paper/scissors. He wins and I'm secretly relieved, but ashamed of my own wimpiness. Rob starts up the pillar after giving the party above enough room to breathe. It's about 5.6, and before too long he's at the belay. I hurry to join him, then we both end up waiting again. Directly across from us, a couple of aid climbers are making slow progress on the 2nd pitch of what appears to be Jack of Diamonds. They spent the night before on a portaledge only one pitch up. Why didn't they just rap down to Broadway? Who knows? It's my lead now, and I grunt through an awkward slot before reaching the beautiful 5.9 finger crack. I take my time placing nuts and cams - the stances are all good, and I'm on the heels of the climber above me anyway. The famous 5.7 traverse starts at a bundle of slings. Many parties belay here, but I decide to stretch it all the way to the corner. By the time I reach the corner, I'm pretty sure Rob is simul-climbing to give me some more rope. We're climbing on double ropes, but one is 50 meters and one is 60. The long one reaches easily, but the short one is a bit too short. The standard belay ledge is occupied, so I hunt for pro from an awkward stance below. Rob joins me at last, and leads again.
While belaying, I notice Roger Briggs high above, hauling up his pack again. He has to lead, rap down, jug back up, clean the gear, and haul his pack on every pitch, and he's still faster than we are - not to mention the fact that he's on a much harder route. I follow Rob's pitch and join him at a sloping belay stance in the huge right facing corner for a quick drink and a snack. It's already early afternoon, and we still have a lot of climbing left to do. The next two pitches are a beautiful mix of finger locks, stems, and face climbing in the corner. After every strenuous move, I stop to let my heart rate settle back down again. We're around 13,500 feet, and our bodies know it. But the climbing is excellent. We make it to the Yellow Wall Bivy Ledge at around three o'clock. It's not as spacious as I'd hoped, but the views are unmatched. Roger seems to have topped out on his 5.12 route already. His typical climbing day would prove more than 99.9% of climbers could handle, I'm sure. Another party joins us on the ledge as we wait our turn on the crux pitch. They're raving about the quality of the climbing on the Yellow Wall (5.11b). Apparently Dave and Julie, who were climbing below them, bailed after the first two pitches due to the time factor and/or nerves. At last it's time for Rob to go, and he nervously works past the wet 5.9 just above the ledge. Soon he's out of sight, and I squirm into my fleece to stay warm. The sun disappeared around the mountain long ago, but there's still plenty of light left. More importantly, the weather remains stable and clear. The soft whistle of wings catches my ear, then a few seconds later I see the raven glide by, riding the wind currents at eye's level. It's amazing how similar the bird's wings sound to a falling rock. I've already ducked several times today at that sound. Sometimes it was a rock, sometimes a raven.
Rob's faint call filters down to me and I quickly break down the anchor and climb through the initial tenuous wet section. I climb up a lovely set of thin cracks with fun and technical moves. After 30 feet, the cracks open up into a squeeze chimney. I drop my hydration pack onto a runner hanging from my harness. I find small edges here and there in the slot, avoiding most of the true chimneying moves. Above the chimney, 20 feet of easy fifth class lead to the crux bulge. I discover that the Casual Route crux is all about footwork, and I comfortably stem while cleaning a green Camalot from a perfect slot in the middle of the bulge. Three more moves and I join Rob at the belay. "Had to frig it," Rob says, but we're both happy with our efforts. With the crux below us, the final 5.8 traverse pitch feels almost superfluous. The focus has now switched to getting down. Finishing the first rappel, I notice another climber stranded in the middle of blank granite at the end of his ropes. He started the rappel too high and can't reach the station. We let him and his partner use our ropes. I also let them borrow some gear to avoid crowding the belay station, figuring we'll get it back on Broadway. Four rappels later, Rob and I are standing on Broadway watching the two climbers' epic. I don't know what problems they're having, but they haven't even completed one more rappel since we last left them. We finish the final four raps to the ground. Safe at last! And we completed the route without an epic. I'm ecstatic, and the fact that we're forced to wait for our gear doesn't even dampen our enthusiasm. We cook another pot of mac & cheese while we wait.
It's dark by the time the climbers are finally down. They're OK, just slow, so we grab our gear and start the long hike out. The air feels thick and oxygen - rich compared to the upper Diamond, and I'm charged with energy. Rob's headlamp battery is dead and he's caught without a spare, but we make good time through the maze of boulders in the moonlight and at last reach the trail below the lake. By midnight we're at the car again, and my energy has fizzled. But the route is done now, and we've got that feeling you can only get after completing a long alpine route - a buoyant mix of elation, fulfillment, and deep down, dog-tiredness.