Crowds, Covid, and the Casual Route

Alpenglow on the Diamond face, Longs Peak

“Dr. Tony Fauci would be so pissed if he could see us,” the climber to my left says. He imitates the USA’s top Coronavirus expert, a well known figure in recent days: “‘You’re all the way out there, on the side of a mountain, and you fuckers still can’t stay six feet apart!?’”

All three of us at the anchor laugh.

We’re in tight proximity, for sure. Me, my climbing partner, and a stranger are in what’s called a “hanging belay”: literally hanging off the side of the Diamond, a huge alpine wall in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There is no ground below us — just thousands of feet of air.

A few pieces of climbing gear stuck into cracks in the rock and some short nylon tethers are all that keep us from dropping to the glacier below. We aren’t all attached to the same gear — but our anchors are built around each other, at the only possible stance. The wall is too smooth and vertical to spread out much.

We are climbing the same route, chasing each other up. There are two climbing parties in front of us, and one behind. It *is* a bit ironic: we are more remote than most people will ever get in their lives, and yet… our new acquaintance is right. Dr. Fauci would not approve.

Approaching the Diamond in the early morning.

The Diamond is massive: about 1,000 feet high and even longer widthwise, shaped — you guessed it — like a diamond. The thing is dead vertical or overhanging in most sections, and tops out around 14,000 feet in altitude (~4,250 meters). The wall is the undisputed jewel of Colorado climbing, which helps explain why there are ten parties climbing it on this random Wednesday.

Of those ten parties, four (including us) are stacked up on the Casual Route (5.10a), the easiest line up the wall. This is creating a bit of a traffic jam, as faster parties are forced to wait for the climbers in front of them to clear the “pitch” or section of the route, before continuing.

Normally, this would be unsustainable. The wall, an East face, is totally blind to weather blowing in from the West, which is quite typical in Colorado. Climbing parties need to move fast to avoid being stuck in storms high up on the mountain. But we have a perfect weather forecast — a bluebird day. So we’re talking politics on the wall, relaxing, and trying not to let the crowds bother us.

“I guess we weren’t the only ones that saw the forecast,” my climbing partner Beth says to me.

“And everyone’s out of work due to the virus.”

“Imagine this place on a weekend!”

The thought makes me shudder.

Route Details

Topo of the Casual Route, overlaid on photo of the Diamond. CC credit Steph Abegg
  • Name: The Casual Route,
  • Grade: 5.10a (5c/6a), 7 pitches, Grade IV
  • Type: Alpine Trad Climbing Route — double ropes recommended
  • Location: Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA
  • Approach: 5.5 miles one-way to base of North Chimney, 3,000+ feet of elevation gain.
  • Descent: either join Keiner’s Route (Class 3) to the summit of Longs and descend via the Cables Route, or alternatively, rappel the Diamond Rappel Route (double ropes required) from Almost Table Ledge
  • Beta: Plentiful on Mountain Project. Richard Rossiter’s guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park also has an excellent chapter on the Diamond.

Our Climb

Beth leading the pitch 3 traverse

Our climb up the Diamond is excellent — sunny weather, climbing within our abilities, and spectacular position. As I start up my first lead, someone on an adjacent route gives a monkey call — climbers all around us echo it. Early morning, monkeys on the wall. Pretty cool.

As the day drags on, the crowds start to become a bit more of a bother. I spend an hour sitting in a hanging belay, waiting for the parties in front of us to create some space between us. They never do; we will be tight behind them all day.

My partner leads out on the pitch 3 traverse, and I hear a couple familiar voices below. “Hey, you see those guys down below?” I shout out to Beth. “You might recognize them!”

“Trying to climb, here!” she yells back at me, unappreciative. I put my attention back on the belay. Below me, on the Broadway ledge, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell are racking up. “How long you guys been waiting?” they ask the party in line behind us. “Over an hour already,” the couple answers. “Oh wow,” Honnold responds, before asking: “Do you guys mind if we climb through?”

Tommy Caldwell climbing pitch 3 traverse on the Casual Route (5.10a), the Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado
Tommy Caldwell on the pitch 3 traverse. I am at a hanging belay in the background. Let’s take a closer look…
Climber looking unamused in hanging belay on the Diamond, Longs Peak
*insert laughing emoji here*

The pair of pro climbers blasts by us like a rocketship, passing up the traffic jam quite efficiently. They are simulclimbing, an advanced technique which does away with belaying entirely. “Best to think of it as soloing with a backup,” Honnold says as he steps over us at the third pitch anchor.

The Honnold sighting gives us a spark of energy. Anyone good enough to be climbing on the Diamond knows those two guys. They are on a huge mission: linking up a bunch of big climbs and ridges in Rocky Mountain National Park. They will triple or quadruple our mileage today, easily.

Honnold stops for a while above us to have a shouted conversation with Chris Weidner, another (semi?) pro, who has rappelled in from the top of the face and is working on establishing a new route, way up high on the face. It’s kind of surreal, these two guys yelling back and forth, making plans to meet in Boulder later that week, to catch up, to hang out. Such a quotidian interaction in such an unlikely setting. But hey, that’s Colorado.

The party behind us bails.

That must be frustrating. I watch their double ropes spiral down towards Broadway.

My partner pulls the lead on the pitch 5 dihedral, a 200-foot corner with sumptuous climbing up cracks and laybacks. I’m jealous. That must be the best pitch on the route. She eats that up and we arrive at the base of the crux pitch to find the belay, unsurprisingly, occupied. I use an ancient old bolt and a nut cinched down on top of a hanger-less bolt to build an alternate belay. I back it up with cams in an expando-flake.

Yummmmm

The sun has passed behind the face at this point, and both my partner and I are getting cold, standing on a two-foot-wide “bivvy ledge.” This would be an uncomfortable place to spend the night, I can’t help but think. We have rain jackets but no down. We start to shiver a bit while the leader ahead of us finishes the squeeze chimney and shouts down “that was the worst thing I have ever done.” His follower sighs, and soon takes off.

I’m happy to get moving, even if I am staring the crux pitch in the face. A tricky thin section of 5.9+ fingers leads to a 5.8 squeeze chimney, which I actually find quite enjoyable. Maybe because I’ve been spending a lot of time at Vedauwoo this summer, where chimney and offwidth is the name of the game.

The chimney goes down easy, but I’m still gassed by the time I reach the technical crux above, a bulgy reach. There are two fixed nuts at the crux, but one is literally held together with duct tape, and the cable on the other has frayed pretty severely. I skip them. I accidentally place a cam in a key hand jam, fiddle around for a while looking for the sequence, and eventually fall off. The twin ropes we’re using stretch quite a lot.

It’s not really scary — I trust my gear, I trust my belayer, and the route is vertical enough that I’m in no danger of hitting anything. It’s frustrating, more than anything. The move isn’t hard. Our long day is catching up with us.

Checking out the crux pitch from below (you’ll notice we’ve moved our belay). Longs’ famous “Boulder Field” is visible in the background.

My belayer, down below, screams up asking me to just aid through the crux. My fall might have freaked her out a bit. She’s been motionless on the belay ledge for two hours now, and is getting really cold. She wants to get moving, ASAP. I exercise a bit of selfishness and figure out how to free the moves. I didn’t really have the right gear to aid it, anyways. Once I’m above it, the move seems almost laughably easy. But looking around from our position up high, the totality of the day sets in.

My partner follows the crux pitch. She’s gassed, cold, a little scared, and ready to start getting off this mountain. I am, too. The shadows are getting long, and we still have nine rappels in front of us. I lead the final traverse out to Almost Table Ledge, my partner follows, and the route is done.

Five double-rope rappels get us to Broadway Ledge, where our packs await us with water and snacks. The party in front of us forgot to untie the knot before pulling their last rappel- their rope is stuck in the anchors. We untie it and toss it down to them. They continue down. We eat, take in the sunset, and for the final time, allow these two guys to get ahead of us.

Long shadows falling over Chasm Lake. Photo taken from Broadway.

Soon we rappel the Crack of Delight, sliding some 600 feet down our ropes in the fading daylight. We are tired and it’s very repetitive, but we keep our focus set just a little longer. Most climbing accidents happen on the descent.

We hit the ground, pull the ropes cleanly, and can finally relax. Safe.

So, what does it take to climb the Casual Route?

Just about every Colorado climber has the Diamond on their list. It’s inspiring. But only a few will ever get around to going up the thing. Here are a few things I think you need before trying to tackle this route.

First: a lot of trad climbing experience.

The Diamond East Face Long’s Peak from the Boulder Field
The Diamond seen from the Boulder Field on Long’s Peak. The Cable Route climbs just to the right of the Diamond, in between the snow patches.

I first set eyes on the Diamond three years ago, while attempting the Cables Route on Longs Peak. The Cables is two pitches of low-angle rock climbing; that day was my first ever roped alpine climb. Climbing alongside the Diamond, it looked intimidating and impossible. In the three years since, I climbed a lot, primarily on traditional gear. Easy routes, long routes, hard routes. I climbed with lots of partners, developed a sense for what I like and who I like to do it with. Through this process, eventually the Diamond stopped seeming so impossible.

Second: A Stupid Early Start

For most climbers, the Casual Route is a full day. The more popular approach is to do the route car-to-car, which should take from 12–24 hours, depending on how fast you hike, how efficiently you are climbing, whether you choose to summit the mountain or rappel the Diamond, how slow the parties are in front of you, etc.

We hit the trail at 2:30 a.m. Our car-to-car time was about 22 hours, but I blame a lot of that on unavoidable waiting we had to do at the belays, waiting for the parties in front of us.

However, as sad as it is, the simple fact is: crowds may be the crux of climbing The Casual Route.

Next time I climb on the Diamond, I will seriously consider bivvying on Broadway ledge or near Chasm View, in order to beat the early-morning clown show.

Third: Big Lungs!

Climbing 5.10 at 14,000 feet is hard! Altitude definitely plays a role in this experience, and it can be tough to plan for if you have little opportunity to climb and train at elevation.

All of the routes on the Diamond feature LONG, sustained pitches which will challenge your endurance. The 5.10 crux of the Casual Route is the second-to-last pitch, and it’s as high as you will go (the final pitch is a traverse). That means you’ve climbed over a thousand vertical feet at elevation, before you even hit the crux.

Make sure there’s gas in the tank!

Hiking 14ers around Colorado is a good way to get a feel for what altitude does to you. Sampling some of the more moderate alpine climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park is also great practice.

Fourth: Comfort soloing 5.5-ish terrain

There are two ways to access climbs on the Diamond:

  • Climb the North Chimney (5.4–5.6)
  • Rappel in from Chasm View

Rappelling in from Chasm View is the safer option, but it adds several miles of hiking, plus three rappels to your day. Most parties opt to climb the North Chimney, which is about 600 feet of low-angle, decomposing rock. This is generally soloed or simulclimbed; pitching it out almost guarantees you’ll be stuck in line.

This was the worst part of my day on the Diamond, and it suffered from the same problem as the rest: crowds. Basically, everyone looking to climb the Diamond in a particular day starts up this chimney at daybreak. This results in kind of a race, with people simultaneously soloing, simulclimbing, and pitching out the climbing through this low-angle funnel filled with loose rocks.

There were probably between 10 and 15 people in this chimney while we were climbing it.

It’s just a bad time. The climbing is easy, but the constant anxiety that someone is going to drop a rock on you or you are going to drop a rock on someone else is just a mess. So the quicker you can move through this section, the better.

Fifth: Familiarity with mountain weather

Understanding mountain weather is absolutely critical to climbing on the Diamond. Since the face points to the east, you don’t have a direct visual towards any storms that might be building.

Alpine climbing is nothing like gym climbing, sport climbing, or even moderate trad climbing close to the ground, where bailing is quick and uncomplicated. You need to know what’s up with the weather, and you need to be comfortable making judgment calls about when to bail, when to continue, and what type of suffering you are prepared to endure.

And although we were lucky enough to climb on a day with an absolutely splitter forecast — you can bet both Beth and I were keeping an eye on the skies. I have been caught in nasty, dangerous storms on this mountain. Don’t underestimate the weather up there.

Was It Worth It?

Yes!!!

We climbed the Diamond a few weeks ago — I stayed quiet because there is lots of other stuff happening in our country at the moment, and I didn’t really feel a need to take up space. I also felt that I was being drawn to writing about the crowds, which didn’t seem like a super optimistic piece. I kept thinking, seeing if there was anything else I wanted to say.

Long’s Peak and the Diamond seen from the trailhead? The road? Idk.

Truthfully, the crowds did detract from the experience. I would have loved to be alone — or at least unhindered — up there. But these days, especially in Colorado, that’s just not the way things are.

It’s easy to get elitist and snooty about things. But when I think back to my first time seeing the Diamond, three years ago, and the person I was then: would I be absolutely amazed to know that I climbed it? Hell yes! And would I have cared that it took all day, we went slower than I liked, and I fell at the crux? Hell no!

We climbed the Diamond, man. Well worth it. Full stop.

I suspect anyone who climbs it would feel the same.

Summit selfie.

And don’t worry Dr. Fauci: it’s been three weeks, and I’m feelin’ fine.

4 thoughts on “Crowds, Covid, and the Casual Route

Leave a Reply to Olympus Mountaineering Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s