Two Diamonds

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

On Saturday afternoon, Apryle finally gave in. Agreed to join me for an attempt on the East Face of Long’s Peak, via the Casual Route on the Diamond.

The climb would not, however, be casual. The Diamond is a striking feature, visible from miles away as it rises over a thousand feet in an unrelentingly vertical sweep of unbroken granite. To attempt this climb in a day, the Diamond hopeful must first wake in the middle of the night and hike to Chasm Lake, 4.2 miles while gaining 2360 feet of elevation. The trail ends, replaced by a faint climbers path that weaves through boulders and gravel on the north side of the lake, up the ancient glacial moraines to the base of the ever-shrinking Mills Glacier. Now in the age of glacial retreat, this once-mighty iceflow amounts to little more than a permanent snowfield posing a minor inconvenience to the would-be climber. Only at this point does the actual technical climbing begin, first by treading carefully up the loose, rotten granite of the 600 foot North Chimney to Broadway Ledge. From Broadway, the climber strikes up the face, overhung so steeply at the top that it seems the! re is no sky to the west, only a vast sea of pink and black granite, split by thousand foot cracks only visible from this near vantage. The Diamond itself gives ample cover to approaching storms, so our tense climber glances nervously skyward at every puff and wisp of cloud, always ready for a monstrous black demon to rain down hail and lightning from above.

The Diamond was first climbed in 1960 by a Californian pair, via a challenging aid route that took two days and much fear to complete. Over the decades since, ambitious climbers have forged over 30 new routes up the menacing face, the easiest route wryly nicknamed “The Casual Route”.

Thankfully, the Casual Route itself offers a bit of a reprieve from the otherwise terrifying array of hard free climbs and aid routes on the Diamond. Though fully eight pitches long, the route is comprised of mostly moderate climbing, with a few fearful sections on easier rock and well-protected cruxes, culminating with an airy move of 5.10a climbing over a bulge high on the face.

Apryle and I started our day well before the crack of dawn. The alarm barely registered in my groggy mind as it blared away at midnight. She nudged me awake and we ate some cereal. We grabbed our packs, and as we turned off the lights and headed our I snuck a little package from high in the closet into my pocket. We were off to climb the Diamond!

A measly hour and a half of sleep had not treated either of us all too well, but we shouldered our climbing packs and hit the trail around twelve-thirty. The quiet chill of the night was broken now and again by other Long’s Peak hopefuls – packs of woefully underprepared Keyhole climbers headed off to do battle with the standard tourist route up the mountain. The cold night air was a surprise, I had expected warmer temps, so we trudged along with shell jackets tightly zipped. My cold fingers found refuge in my pants pockets, and I found myself gripping tightly to my little surprise. Apryle and I moved steadily up the trail, arriving somewhere near Chasm lake at around three o’clock in the morning.

The new moon kindly left us naught but starlight and the pale glow of our LED headlamps by which to navigate. Faintly silhoutted against the dark night sky, tremendous buttresses of rock surged skyward. I felt insignificant, indimidated, and tired. We found an overhanging boulder with a sandy sheltered bivouac site underneath, set a watch alarm for four AM, and curled up under a space blanket to wait for the reassuring glow of early dawn to show us the route.

Our “nap” passed just as unplanned bivouacs frequently do – slowly, with much shivering. By four AM there was light enough to see the hulking mass of the Diamond and the inky blackness of Chasm Lake lying before us. We started around the left side of the lake, though we were soon stopped by a short but steep snowfield, cliffs above, lake below. A pair of headlamps bobbed and weaved across the lake, so we backtracked and found the climber’s path. Other parties appeared, hiking up from below or rising out of their hidden bivouacs. We found ourselves third in line as we approached the final moraines at the base of the East Face of Longs.

A cold wind had accompanied the blood-red sun, so we huddled behind a small boulder as the other parties geared up to ascend the rotten North Chimney. The Diamond looked friendly almost, shining pink and orange as it stretched skyward for half a mile. We were worked. I was nervous, whether from the challenge before us or my hidden agenda I know not. I felt sick as I had on Gannet Peak in the Wind River range, the last time I reached 13,000 feet in the States. Apryle was tired from the hike and lack of sleep; she was worried that in her state she wouldn’t be able to contribute much to the climb, let alone lead the crux pitch.

So instead of climbing, I pulled the ring out of my pocket and proposed.

I was almost sure she expected it. I couldn’t fathom how she hadn’t caught on, when she had discovered my intentions and foiled this very plan two weeks earlier. Unbeknowst to her, I had received the ring in the mail a day earlier, a beautiful brilliant diamond set in the smallest of platinum bands. I was excited, and wanted to take her on the Diamond to propose. I asked her to go with me a few times, but she wasn’t ready. She wanted to wait until she was ready to play an active role in the ascent – to share the leads, not just follow.

My co-worker Todd, an experienced climber and Diamond veteran, goaded and coaxed hard us that day when we stopped by the CMS office. “Just give it a go! You can send that route; it’s so beautiful!” That afternoon, Apryle guessed at my plans, certain that Todd knew something she did not. My overanxiety to climb a route that we both knew might be beyond us seemed uncharacteristic….but suddenly she knew why. And she was sad to ruin my surprise, but what could be done? It was a grand idea, we both acknowledged.

I had played the fool with respect to diamonds and rings; anytime we talked of marriage I made it plain to Apryle that I didn’t know a diamond from a granite crystal. She knows me well enough to know that I would never embark on such a purchase without months worth of research and pondering. She couldn’t believe I thought I could just run out and pick up a ring the week before she agreed to climb that menacing and thrilling Diamond. She was completely fooled. When I asked her again to climb the Diamond, she honestly thought we were just going to climb, that she had ruined my surprise and I would end up taking her out to dinnner or some other cliched proposal.

As we huddled behind that boulder with the East Face of Longs Peak soaring above us, painted pink by the rising sun, and our faces flushed from the cold night air, we decided to throw in the towel and head back home. Apryle looked at me and jokingly said, “So you don’t have anything for me?”

I smiled told her “No”, even as I pulled the ring from my pocket. Her jaw dropped and her eyes went wide. She said yes.

We both felt like giving the climb a chance after that, but three hundred feet up the North Chimney we bagged it. I was still feeling the altitude and Apryle was tired. We enjoyed the warmth of the rising sun for a half hour on a little ledge as rockfall rained down from above, then quickly descended and happily hiked down the valley and headed home. We didn’t climb the Diamond, but it isn’t going anywhere. And if you ask me, what we accomplished up there was far more important than any rock has ever been. Definitely a day to remember, forever.

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