The Casual Route

Longs Peak.  The Diamond.  These geographical features are well known to almost every Colorado resident, and especially to each rock climber that lives in the area.  The moment I laid eyes on the Diamond during an early visit to the area, it became one of my goals to climb it.  At the time, the easiest route up the face was far beyond my abilities, but it went on my MountainProject todo list anyway.  Trips up the Flying Dutchman and Martha snow routes only reinforced my desire to make it up the Diamond someday.

My buddy Jon and I had talked about doing the Casual Route, the easiest route up the Diamond at 5.10a for a few months.  This past week we committed to tackling the climb at the earliest weather window, preferably mid-week to avoid the higher than normal climber traffic this route has been seeing this season.  The forecast seemed to clear for September 2nd, a Wednesday with only a 10% chance of isolated thunderstorms – about as good of a forecast as you can get in that area.  We pre-selected the rack and agreed to meet up at 1am in Lyons for the drive to the trailhead.

Alpine starts always come sooner than you expect, especially when a bit of anxiety about the forthcoming climb exists.  I woke up five minutes before the alarm went off, turned off the alarm and stumbled downstairs to make my coffee and pile into my pre-packed car.  I met Jon at a parking lot in Lyons, arriving one minute before he pulled in behind me.  Loading the gear into his Jeep, we drove up through the foothills for another 45 minutes to the Longs Peak Trailhead.  Double checking our gear and shouldering our packs, we signed in to the trailhead register noting that another party had already signed in that day with intentions of climbing the same route.  They had signed in at 12:30am, and we were over an hour behind them at this point.  Hoping we would not get in each other’s way, we started up the trail and tried to keep a steady pace.

Alpine approaches are always the same.  Dark, sleep-deprived and tedious, with your world narrowed down to whatever your headlamp illuminates on the way to your climb.  No distractions, just one foot after the other while known landmarks and trail signs pass you by, your thoughts on the climb and descent that is far ahead of you.  We quickly passed one party headed for the Keyhole route, immediately identifiable as hikers because of the gear they were carrying.  At treeline we spotted another set of lights up ahead, quickly caught up with them and discovered they were the other party headed for the Diamond.  We chatted with them for a minute and continued up the trail to Chasm Lake, relieved that we would be the first party up the North Chimney – a 550 foot gully that splits the lower Diamond face.

As [Derek Hersey] downclimbed the Casual Route that day, he knocked off a little block and worried that he might have hit two climbers below him, but they were unharmed.  As he carefully climbed down past the two, Hersey said, “I knew you weren’t worried, boys – only men climb on the Diamond.” – Longs Peak: The Story Of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener

The North Chimney serves as the approach to the Casual Route and is notoriously loose and chossy.  It was still dark by the time we arrived at Mills Glacier, a thin ribbon of snow and ice that stood between us and the start of the North Chimney.  We racked up, buried our packs under large rocks to deter marmots from snacking on the packs or their contents, silently thanked whoever had installed a fixed rope across the snowfield and prusiked up the line to the start of the route.  We simulclimbed most of the North Chimney, occasionally stopping and belaying through tricky sections that were steep or loose (or both).  Finally we stood atop the D1 pillar, a feature on the route where the difficulty begins and the climbing turns vertical.  Dead vertical.

Casual Route Topo North Chimney Casual Route

It was now my lead, and looking up at the crack and traverse ahead of me made me feel dizzy.  I felt like throwing up, due to the altitude, nervousness or both.  This was the highest, longest and most difficult climb I had ever done.  Unlike other climbs, I wasn’t sure of our success.  I racked the gear, took a drink of water, fiddled with the rack a bit more and finally unclipped myself from the anchor and moved onto the route.  As I moved from handjam to fingerlock, placing gear and getting into the rhythm of the climb I began to feel better.  Fourty feet from the belay I began to traverse left, finally feeling solid and in control.  I arrived at a belay stance and Jon followed the pitch, collected the gear from me and lead the next section up to the base of the enduro corner pitch.

Casual Route Traverse Panorama

Casual Route Traverse

The middle of the Casual Route ascends a 200 foot right-facing corner system that is vertical, clean and sustained through the entire length.  I headed up the corner, feeling much better than my first lead and comfortably running it out between pieces of protection to conserve my gear for the whole pitch.  This is hands-down the best pitch of climbing I’ve ever done anywhere.  I could not help but smile and sing to myself the whole way up, even though at this point I was feeling the effects of the altitude on my strength and breathing.  The pitch tops out on the most comfortable belay ledge of the whole climb, allowing me to take off my shoes and the pack and relax while Jon followed the superb corner.

I led the next 40 foot section up to the Yellow Wall Bivy ledge while Jon caught his breath at the comfy belay.  The crux pitch was next and we both wanted Jon to be fresh for the varied but sustained difficulties.  Jon arrived at the ledge,  racked the gear and took one more look at the topo before heading out.  Steadily I payed out rope to Jon as he moved higher and higher from the belay, always vigilant to not let him have too much slack in case of a fall.  As the rope passed the middle mark, I knew he must be very close to the top of the pitch.  At last, I heard a whoop, and Jon called “off belay”.  I followed the pitch clean, trailing the pack through a squeeze chimney that barely gave me enough room to turn my helmeted head inside it.  I arrived at the crux panting from the effort and altitude, and rested for a second before tackling the hardest part of the climb.  Pulling through the crux, I stood on a tiny ledge, over 1000 feet above the talus.

We were excited.  The hardest part of the climb was behind us and it was literally all downhill from there.  I congratulated Jon on a stellar lead but we saved most of the celebration for after we were down off the climb.  I led out across the Table Ledge traverse and found the rappel anchors that would allow us to descend back down to our packs.  Jon followed the pitch and we happily began the process of organizing the gear and ropes for the nine rappels to Mills Glacier.  The first rappel went smooth, and I paused midway to take some photos of climbers on Pervertical Sanctuary.

Table Ledge Traverse Pervertical Sanctuary

On the third rappel, I descended to the ends of the ropes without finding the next rappel station.  I prusiked up and swung around, trying to find where the bolts were located.  We saw from the topo that the bolts were around a corner, but I couldn’t see them and we were holding back the party from Pervertical who were now rappelling down the same route we were.  I built an anchor, clipped into it and yelled up to Jon that I couldn’t find the rappel station and he would have to find it on the way down.  Jon located the station with help from the other climbers, and we let them pass us so we could follow them down the rest of the way.  I was wrestling with a Camalot C3 that had become stuck at my stance due to a kinked/faulty trigger wire when the other climbers rappeled down past me.

“Hey man, are you doing alright?”, the lead climber asked me.  I replied that I was just working out the C3 with my nut tool because the trigger wasn’t working when I finally recognized who I was talking to.  “Are you Kelly Cordes?”, I asked him.  Kelly is the senior editor of the American Alpine Journal and a Patagonia ambassador.  Kelly was very helpful to Jon and I while we made our way down the rest of the route, and probably saved us a half hour or more on our descent.  We finally arrived back at our packs, sliding down a bit of the snowfield after the last rappel with only a nut tool to self-arrest with.  I experienced the relief that only a climber can understand -  taking off my climbing shoes at the end of a long day and changing back into my approach shoes for the descent.  We began the talus-hopping back down to the lake, looking back every few minutes at the Diamond.