My beaten body rests on a carpet of blissfully soft moss. Gradually I feel the dampness of the greenery soaking through the ass of my pants and the hood of my fleece, but I’m far too tired to care. When I crack open my eyelids I see swirling clouds above and filtered light from a setting, mid-August sun. Only slightly nauseous at this point, I finally release myself to imagine pizza, beer and chocolate. My day-dream is interrupted by some muddled swear words and my Dad joyously yelling from below with a cracked voice, “It’s amazing! These things we do for fun!” This was the hardest climbing day of my life.
The first time I climbed Longs Peak I was eight years old. Motivated by the promise of new toys and intrigued by the almost mythical aura that had forever accompanied this mountain, I climbed the two pitches of 5.4 on the North Face’s Cables Route with my Dad to the summit. Years later I had my first experience climbing the Diamond; the massive, imposing East Face of Long’s Peak. We climbed ‘Yellow Wall’ 11a IV together just weeks before I turned 20. It was a long, ass-kicking day in less than ideal conditions. Every part of my body hurt afterwards. It was scary, but also strongly motivating. I remember studying the topo and feeling awe-struck that something like Tommy Caldwell’s 2001, ‘The Honeymoon is Over’ 13c V could even exist on a wall so high, so steep, and so demanding. I had to climb it.
Many years, many Longs Peak summits and several Diamond routes later, I returned for the second ascent of the Honeymoon. And so did my Dad, eager to support my ambitious goal. Even after working the route for many days, acclimating to the altitude for weeks, and honing my big wall skills, my ascent of the Honeymoon left me utterly destroyed. When my Dad jugged over the lip of the wall I teared up from a combination of pride, excitement, and exhaustion.
Fast forward to the fall of 2012. I joined Tommy Caldwell in Yosemite Valley for a six week effort on The Dawn Wall. It was a crash course in tall granite– I observed his efficiency, logistical planning, and affinity for extreme lie-backing. The following year, we teamed up again to try the ‘Direct Dunn Westbay’ on the right side of the Diamond. This wild route would free the original aid line via a monstrous 80 meter 5.14 pitch at 13,400 feet. Tommy had put some time into this thing already and was prepared to execute.
On our first attempt to free the line, we were reminded first hand how unforgiving Longs Peak is. A climber took a massive lead fall just above us, pulling off a grip of loose rock in the notoriously dangerous North Chimney. He suffered extreme injuries including a punctured lung and several broken bones. We immediately pushed aside our goal and aided the incredible efforts of Rocky Mountain Rescue to get the injured climber off the mountain safely, which took nearly 10 hours. I left the week following to pursue projects and obligations in Wyoming, but Tommy later went back with the help of granite ace Joe Mills and freed the line. For the next two summers, I abandoned my ambition to climb the route due to excessive wet rock on the Diamond. I wondered if I would I ever get the chance to go back— longing for the kind of satisfaction I shared with my Dad on the Yellow Wall and the Honeymoon.
Scrolling through Instagram in the shadow of Mont Blanc this June, I saw photos of the Diamond and had a suspicion that my weather window had arrived. It looked…unprecedentedly dry. Jesse Huey, a fellow Arc’Teryx athlete and Colorado local, confirmed my suspicion, and even before my return to the States, I messaged my Dad and planted the seed, ‘The Diamond is looking pretty damn dry dude!’
Seven mile approach. 5,000 feet of elevation gain. 200 meter static line. Radically hard rock climbing. The preparation days were full-on, but I needed this kind of beating to warm up for an actual attempt. On my first try, the opening 90 meter dihedral pitch of 5.10 was literally running with water. Cold and already tired, I waited as my Dad arduously jugged the waterslide below. Next was the business. For this pitch, you need every single inch of an 80 meter rope. So much so, that a short jog in the line at the bottom required me to tie into both ends of the rope, leading up an arching roof before building a nest of gear and dropping one side of the rope as though I was climbing with twin cords. From here, the climbing gradually turns up. From 5.10 to short bits of 5.11 to a 5.12- crux and a poor rest. Above, the crack opens and closes, the corner alternates back and forth from facing left to facing right. There are no more down pulling holds. There are no more good resting positions. Nearly two hundred feet of lie-backing stand between you and relief at the anchor. I chugged along. I nailed the first crux, I nailed the second crux. Approaching the final crux I was breathing ferociously. One foot above the last until something slipped. I exploded off the mountain, falling 40 feet and screaming profanities at the top of my lungs. A dodgy forecast forced us down the wall. I had tasted how hard and how beautiful this route really was and now my motivation was surging. Beat up, I pondered the weather report on the hike out, hoping for a clear day so I wouldn’t have to break out my fleece jacket.
Sunday, August 14. It was completely splitter in Estes Park. A Diamond climber’s dream. Warm and stable with little to no chance of a ballistic Colorado thunderstorm. I awoke to the four A.M. alarm and my Dad and I rallied hard up the trail. This time the initial corner pitch was only slightly wet. My Dad ditched his approach shoes and free climbed the pitch in the name of speed.
First attempt on the crux pitch. 10am. I climbed well. I felt smooth and strong, blasting through the cruxes and resting where I could. Dozens of climbers on the Diamond that day cheered me on. Nearing a small rest just below the final crux around the 70 meter mark I misplaced a foot and took the ride. Forty minutes of full effort and in a moment a simple mistake had me screaming down the biggest alpine whipper of my life. I watched 50 feet of wall rip in front of me and felt the brisk air rush over my frantically waving arms. Lowering to the belay I mentally prepared myself to try again. I had no excuses. The weather was perfect. My chances were low but why not. My Dad assured me, ‘Hey dude, shit happens’ insinuating that any try could be the try.
Second attempt. 11:40am. I moved quickly. I reached my high point and nailed the foot work. Clipping the wire below the final crux I pulled the entire weight of my 80 meter cord up with a loud grunt. I tip toed across a thin face traverse and threw myself at the dead point to a big, flat, jug. Void of breath I somehow managed to scream with excitement. A few exit moves and then I released my body into the harness. I did it. ‘I can do this’, I said to myself.
You can tell that my Dad was never much of an aid climber by his jugging abilities. Despite ripping off his fingernail in the process, he free climbed the bottom arch and moved as fast as he could carrying the haul bag and fighting dense gravity. Days before he had expressed his concerns to me, that maybe he was not fast enough. More than anything he didn’t want to hold me back. I was beginning to freeze sitting at the belay as a stream of water relentlessly dripped on me and the wall had by now passed into the shade. At the time my Dad made it to the ledge I was shivering uncontrollably but still overly stoked that I had somehow pulled off the crux. I grabbed an insulating layer and started climbing. Shortly into the 13a pitch I realized it was soaking wet. During my time on the ledge, the steady stream of water had crept its way into my chalk bag as well. Just a move below finishing jugs I peeled off. Wet shoes. Wet hands. Crushed spirit.
This is about where I started to imagine giving up. ‘It was a good effort’, I would tell myself. ‘The pitch is wet dude, what do you expect!’, I said in my head. My subconscious was turning against me. ‘Maybe you can’t do this.’ But almost as quickly as these thoughts came into my head I remembered my effort on the crux pitch – truly 100 percent. I remembered my Dad’s bloody hands as he finally reached the belay. He wanted me to succeed as badly as I did. I could not fucking stop now. I tied my wet shoes and fired the pitch, swinging wildly leftward to a jug rail just as my feet cut from the rock. I worked my way upward to the anchor and clipped in. My Dad rushed to the belay with an enthusiastic, albeit bloody high five and insisted I eat or drink water. All the heavy breathing at altitude made me feel quite nauseous. I couldn’t stomach the sugary snacks we had left. I grabbed the rack and quested upward.
The next pitch was a stout 12c. This had given me some trouble when rope soloing and in my current state I was pretty damn nervous about it. I punched through the crux and skipped a piece in full-on desperation. My arms were cramping and as the rain had washed off my tick marks I found myself completely lost just a move or two from a ledge. I spent my last ounce of energy getting the loop of rope out from behind my leg and then I lost it. Forty feet of thin-air.
Nearly colliding with my Dad, this time I was too tired to even yell ‘fuck’. I took off my hat and held my head in my hands. Softly my Dad said to me, ’Sorry Jonathan’. Every part of me wanted to give up. In this moment I had no hope. I had tried my absolute hardest and it simply was not enough. I was delirious with exhaustion, altitude and hunger. I felt my heart break as I said aloud, ‘I can’t’. I pulled up the rope to get my gear – even this task was terribly difficult. As I looked above to the last pitch I saw that it was bone dry by some miracle. It was always wet, every time I had been up here it was wet. Today it was dry.
I looked at the holds I missed and the bent cam that had caught my huge fall. First emptiness and then something shifted, ‘I can do this.’ I am not sure why, or where it came from, but I wasn’t ready to stop trying. I couldn’t let go of the idea that this was the day I would send. This was the day that I would top out and this was the day that my Dad would be there, holding the other end of the rope. For practically my whole life we had adventured on this peak as a team. At 66 my Dad is incredibly strong, but still, I could tell this was very hard on him. Today could be the last time we were up here together. I gathered my emotions and tried again. I climbed the pitch. I climbed the next 5.12 pitch, moving slowly as my legs began to cramp as well. I placed gear only where I needed it because just to stop and fiddle consumed too much energy. As I mantled the lip I felt the sun on my face.
At the top I clipped the anchor and yelled down to my Dad. He was two hundred feet below but I could still hear him yell with excitement. I collapsed into a bed of moss. As he jugged the line I watched the clouds move on a perfect alpine summer night. My Dad arrived and we burst out laughing as we hugged.
It would have been rad to send in good form- crushing every pitch and making it all look and feel easy. It would have been cool if all the climbers up there that day saw me at my greatest and watched my Dad and I simply dance up the wall. Sure it would have been rad. But what’s even better is that it was a fucking battle. I went to the absolute death despite wanting to give up so badly. My Dad pushed through as hard as he could to support me, as he always has. On this day I tried to give him something back- one last ass kicking memory on The Diamond.