Sunday, March 15, 2015

Failure on the Diamond in Winter

"If you don't know what this is, go back to reading Outside Magazine"

Sunday had one of the best weather forecasts for any day this entire winter. So good that it attracted three separate teams to attempt a one-day winter ascent of the Diamond on Longs Peak - a feat not often done. All three teams failed, though, but not because the forecast was wrong - the weather was splitter all day long. No, it was because all three teams made mistakes.

The first team on the wall and the ones putting in the first tracks through knee-deep postholing nearly from Chasm Cut-off onward, was a pair of Poles. Their mistake: they got on the wrong route.

The third team on the wall was a pair of pros going for the winter speed record: Scott "Naked Edge Speed Record Holder" Bennet and Joe "Freed 5.14 on the Diamond" Badass (I think that was his last name, but it might have been Mills). Being pros just one mistake wasn't going to shut them down. So they made a series of mistakes: forgot an ice axe, dropped an ascender, forgot gear on Broadway, and, finally, with an assist from another party, a mountain boot was dropped off Broadway and fell one thousand feet to the snowfields below the Diagonal wall.

Charlie and I were the third team. Our mistake? Charlie chose the wrong partner.

An incredible sunrise as we started up the North Chimney

Basically, I'm not good enough to get that done in winter. But, as the ever-optimistic Charlie pointed out, if you don't ever fail, then you haven't found your limits. Unfortunately, my limits are pretty easy to find. Nearly everywhere I look these days. I'm not just fast enough on steep aid, in mountain boots and with gloves on. At 13,000 feet and with a pack on my back. It was difficult to get high in my aiders or even step out of them, though I forced myself to do that a few times. 

We didn't go in completely cold. We practiced by climbing up Country Club Crack. Even in our mountain boots. Charlie wore a heavy pack even. I didn't. I did buy a new set of aiders so that I'd be able to get my boots into the steps easier.
The gear I carried

We went on Sunday, not only because the weather report was great, but because it gave us all day to pack and get everything ready and still try to get some sleep. Sleep was tough to come by, though, as we were meeting in Boulder at 2 a.m. so I had my alarm set for 1:25 a.m. I got about three hours of sleep. Charlie got less. But we made up for that by having him carry more weight. My pack weighed forty pounds and Charlie had forty-five.

You might already be thinking: "Well, that was your first mistake - carrying so much weight." I don't think so, but it is certainly debatable. We carried two lead ropes so that we could use the Yo-Go method of simul-climbing. I carried a big rack because I wasn't going to free anything and didn't want to back-clean too excessively. If anything, the mistake was thinking that we'd make it with so much weight. But without that gear, we definitely wouldn't have made it. 
At the base of the North Chimney

We were hiking in warm, but breezy conditions, by 3:02 a.m. I led the way initially and set a pace that didn't drain me. Charlie patiently followed my slow plod. We made treeline in 1h15m or so and then couldn't find the normal trail. It didn't matter very much, but I was surprised how hard it was to find in the dark. Charlie took over the lead and we did some postholing through soft snow before we even got to Chasm Cut-off.

From the Cut-off, there was just one pair of tracks heading towards the East Face. I studied them in dim light of my headlamp, wondering if they were fresh from even earlier this morning. The tracks didn't take the usual, low traverse over to the meadow where the privy and ranger cabin are located, but stayed very high on the slopes of Mt. Lady Washington and lead directly to Chasm Lake. We continued across the frozen lake, postholing up to our knees most of the time. Even following the track, it was hard work and got a lot harder on the far side when the angle increased dramatically.

Ahead we could see the lights of two climbers. I was amazed that another party was going for the Diamond. I didn't think the face was climbed much at all in the winter and now two parties on the same day. Of course, it was the weather report. When Mark and I climbed the Diamond this past summer, on a Tuesday, there were at least ten parties going for the Diamond. It makes sense. For most people, me very much included, getting up the Diamond at all is a huge feat and generally requires the best weather to be successful.

Following the last pitch to Broadway
We finally caught the climbers at the base of the North Chimney. Charlie was already yelling up thanks for the track. We didn't want that to go unacknowledged for even a moment. Without that track, we'd have been much slower. They were two Poles. Kasper was on vacation from Poland, visiting his ex-pat friend, Yuri, who had been living in Chicago for twenty years. They'd never climbed the Diamond before. Right. The term bad-assery comes to mind. I imagined these are the type of guys that climb 8000-meter peaks in winter. At night. Naked. 

While they roped up, we did the same. I showed off my prowess and competence, by dropping down mitten 200 feet down the snowslope. While I climbed down to retrieve it, Charlie flaked the rope and started climbing up the North Chimney's snow couloir. I got back in time to tie into the end and follow him. Our plan was for Charlie to lead us up to Broadway, he being the better ice/mixed climber of the team. He's really the "better everything" of the team, but it sounds better to call him our mixed master. And, yes, that is self-deprecating and not entirely true. I am much better at dropping gloves.

We climbed the North Chimney as two pitches, both led by Charlie. This in itself, at least for Charlie and I, was a substantial climb. It's an entirely different experience to climb the North Chimney in winter with forty pounds on your back and wearing crampons and using ice tools than to scramble up it in summer. Charlie led with is two carbon-fiber axes and I followed with my stone axe. I have just enough experience to know which end to hold.

As the couloir pinched down and we were forced to climb rock, the angle increased, as did the difficulty. I would definitely benefit from more experience hooking rounded granite and climbing rock in crampons. Charlie led up the steep part nicely and it exiting onto a rock slab covered in just enough snow. I'd been on that slab before and knew how tenuous the snow cover can be. Conditions were good though. Fifty feet higher, Charlie set up a belay. 

The second pitch doesn't follow the normal summer route out the steep right side and onto the slabs above. Instead it heads up a steep broken corner on the left. In the summer this is perpetually wet and occasionally covered in verglas, but in the winter it is a mixture of snow-covered rock and ice. This is steep, committing climbing. Charlie was solid, placing good protection when it was available and running it out when it wasn't. I struggled mightily to follow. It was physical and tiring. One particularly unnerving section was a nearly vertical snow section. Doing this with one axe was challenging. I'd have been terrified if it wasn't for the tight toprope belay.

As soon as we made Broadway we were met by intense sunlight. The entire ledge is buried in snow so that everything is at a very steep angle. Against the wall, the snow was melting in the suffocating heat. We stripped down. I was very winded and continued to breathe as if I was in the midst of a 5K run, while just standing there. We watched Kasper lead up the Diamond very slowly. Charlie started to wonder if they would let us pass. I remained mute to that suggestion, inwardly fearful that I'd be even slower. Kasper had at least one axe a the ready and used it to hook in the vertical crack above. I'd be trying no such shenanigans.
The Poles starting up Yellow Wall

After eating and drinking and gearing up, I started the laborious traverse in the deep snow. When I got near enough to the Poles I asked them if they were on D7. I was pretty sure it was further left. They just responded, "We hope so!" I traversed low, well below where they had set a belay, and further left. I pulled out my topo and confirmed my suspicions. They were on the Yellow Wall and I was now below the snow-covered 4th slabby/broken section leading up to the base of the first pitch of D7. Getting to that belay proved disappointingly difficult for me. When I finally got to the Diamond proper, I had to aid a couple of moves just to get to the first belay. Clearly that wasn't a good sign.

I clipped into a fixed pin and threw in another cam. I pulled up a bit of rope (note: not all the rope) on the red rope and fixed it. Charlie was belaying me on the yellow rope, so I could just continue leading up the first pitch, but before I did, I pulled off my crampons and just clipped them to the belay. I did the same with my axe. This would add even more weight to Charlie, but he yelled over to do that, I suspect because it had already taken me so long just to get to here that he wanted to keep me moving.

A slowly worked my way higher. Though this first pitch is only rated 5.9, when you are aid climbing, the free-climbing rating is irrelevant. In fact, it can be harder to aid 5.9, then 5.11. The best climbers, the speed climbers, don't really view it as "aid climbing". They view it as "free climbing with aid", meaning that they are always looking to gain altitude in the easiest fastest way. I, on the other hand, was mired in my aiders. With my big boots, my gloved hands, my pack, I was just too clumsy to free climb. But mostly I didn't have the confidence to free climb. I was afraid to get too far out of my aiders for fear that I wouldn't be able to place gear before I fell or that I'd waste tremendous amounts of energy hanging on and desperately fighting to place gear, trying not to panic, knowing that a fall, any fall really, would likely crush what little psych I still had to continue upwards.

After just twenty feet the rope came tight on me and I couldn't move. I yelled down for Charlie to give me slack, but he was giving me slack. I was stuck by the short-fix on the red rope. What a dope I was. Whenever you fix, you pull up all the slack and then fix. Just amazing... I hung there in my aiders while Charlie jugged the red line to the belay at the base, clipped in, and unfixed the red line.

Just about then a climber appeared onto Broadway from the North Chimney. He yelled over, "Is that you, Ben?" I said, "Nope." He said, "Really?" I said, "Yup. Who's that?" He said, "Scott Bennett." I knew Scott from the Naked Edge speed wars. He and Brad Gobright currently had the record at sub-29-minutes, bridge-to-bridge. I yelled back, "Hi Scott. It's Bill Wright." He responded, "Cool! Good to see you up here, Bill, giving the Diamond some winter love." We're trying for the speed record and it's only been three hours so far." Three hours??!! Damn! Even with the track put in by the four of us, that was mind-boggling. We'd taken about 6.5 hours to cover the same terrain.

Scott was climbing with Joe Mills, who had freed the hardest route on the Diamond (5.14) last year. Scott thought they were on about a 10-hour, roundtrip, pace. It seemed like Scott was doing all the leading, being more the alpinist than Joe. When Joe arrived on Broadway, though, he took over the lead for the traverse of Broadway to D7. While Joe did this, Scott was yelling up advice to the Poles to switch over to D7 at the Crossover Ledge. Joe was going to traverse low, like I did, but Scott directed him to climb higher, along the minuscule "ledge" that cuts directly along the base of the Diamond. This break is less than a foot wide and the wall bulges out above it. When Joe got just a little ways past the Poles, he didn't like the conditions. He said, "This is jingus. It's not safe. He retreated to the Poles and anchored there. Scott came across and then easily led the remaining way over to Charlie at the base of D7.

Scott asked if they could climb through and, never one to hold up a faster team, I responded, "Come on up." Scott brought Joe over and they transitioned from mixed climbing to rock climbing. This didn't mean any changes for Joe, but Scott took off his mountain boots and heavy socks, just placing them on the tiny shelf at the belay, untethered. He pulled on a pair of approach shoes and swarmed upwards, using a mix of free climbing and aid climbing. Scott wore gloves as well and although he was climbing much faster than I was, he was still making liberal use of his aiders, just way more efficiently than I was and sprinkling in judicious free climbing.

I was about thirty feet below the first pitch anchor when Scott overtook me, about 130 feet up the wall. I just moved to the side and he aided on through. Scott had already short-fixed once, I think just from a single piton, but maybe he backed it up with a stopper. That was our plan as well, but I didn’t think the anchor was good enough to fix. 

With Scott about ten feet above me, a curious sequence of events led to all three parties bailing within the time span of just a few minutes. First, the Poles called over that they were heading down. They didn’t think they could be successful getting behind two parties on D7. Scott encouraged them to continue, but they were fine with going down. “It was our own fault for heading up the wrong route. We’ll be back.” At that point, I decided to bail. I didn’t want to be the reason the Poles bailed, because I didn’t think I was moving fast enough to get up the wall in the daylight. I told as much to the Poles, telling them that they’d only be behind a very fast party and they wouldn’t get held up. They were determined to rap off, though. I suspect they might have had the same feelings that I was having. They were even slower than I was, but I assumed they were tougher too, and could just climb through the night. I wouldn’t do that, at least not by choice.

Scott then called down for Joe to send up the Gri-Gri, as he’d need it self-belay. Scott had been climbing with just the rope tied off, the “Death Loop” method of fixing and I guess wanted to start using a method without “Death” in the name. 

Joe responded, “No can do. I need it to jug.” 
Scott asked, “What about the ascenders?” 
“I dropped one in the North Chimney.”

Oops. They had already forgot to bring a second axe, so Joe had to follow the North Chimney without a tool. Now the dropped ascender threatened their ascent and their record attempt. I had already told Charlie of my decision to bail and he readily agreed and didn’t try to pressure me to continue. I appreciated that. I told him I’d just continue to the anchor and he could jug up and clean the pitch, just to experience the Diamond in winter and use his new skills. Little did I know at the time, but Charlie had no interest in that. Just jugging the bottom thirty feet had proved incredibly strenuous for him and he saw no need to do that work. So, when I offered up one of our ascenders to Joe, so that they could continue their ascent, Charlie jumped at it. If he had to give up his ascender that meant he had another reason not to jug up the wall. Scott was very thankful and relayed the information to Joe. 

As we were working out the details for them to haul up the ascender, Joe and Scott realized that  in their haste, they had left Scott’s boots perched on the shelf below! They asked Charlie to clip them in with the ascender so that they could haul them up. In the process of belaying me, trying to manage three ropes, get the ascender off the rope, getting the boots clipped in, Charlie mishandled a boot. It dropped to Broadway and bounced down the hard snow and over the 1000-foot Diagonal Wall, careening far out into space. Charlie’s exclamation of “Shit!” alerted us all and we watched the boot drop out of sight.

“That’s it, we’re bailing!” said Scott seemingly before we even lost sight of the boot. I was impressed how he had done all the calculations for continuing and knew it wasn’t prudent. Joe pressed him, though, “Can’t you just continue without it?” Joe said, “Nope. Going up and over and down the North Face without a boot, without crampons, with one axe, and just in my Five Tennies? No.”

With that he started dealing with the new situation. He’d continue up twenty feet to the first belay anchor and rap off. They only had one rope, so they hauled up my red rope to set up the belay. Once that was done, I got onto the rappel lines and descended, cleaning the pitch of my gear. I descended past Joe and then, hanging ten feet out from the base of the wall, continued on past Charlie down to where the ropes intersected Broadway. I threw in an anchor here and waited while, first Joe, and then Scott joined me. We had to swing the ropes into Charlie so that he could grasp them and rappel down to us. While Charlie was doing this, Scott led back across Broadway, belayed by me. En route he climbed up and unstuck the rappel rope of the Poles, who he had been trying to direct to the Crack of Delight rappel anchors. If Charlie and I were alone on face, I’d have rappelled the North Chimney because I knew exactly where the anchors were, since we had used them on the ascent. We’d have had to down climb the lower couloir, but that wouldn’t have been a problem, as the snow conditions were good. But Scott knew the Crack of Delight rappels well and led all of us that way. 

It was time consuming to get everyone over to the first rappel anchor. Everyone down climbed to those with a belay, save for Scott, who unroped and soloed down to them. Kasper was the first to rappel, but he missed the next anchors and went by them, stranding himself near the ends of the rope. Scott had to wait for additional ropes to set up another rappel, rap down to the next anchors and fix another rappel line to rescue Kasper. All this took time and Yuri, Charlie and I waited above. 

Eventually it all got worked out and we all got down to the snowfield below. Scott and Joe waited for everyone to get down to them before taking off, running down the slopes with their light packs. They had recovered the boot and seemed in great spirits. They had rescued a fellow climber and dealt with their adversity and mistakes with grace and aplomb.  Both of these guys are incredible ambassadors for the sport of climbing. 

We coiled ropes, packed our gear, and ate and drank. There was no great hurry, as we had plenty of light to get back to the parking lot. I was tired and needed more fuel. The Poles took off a few minutes before we did, but we passed them just past Chasm Lake, as they stopped to shed. The going back across Chasm Lake was more laborious than I had hoped, given how many people we had seen up in the cirque that day. It turns out that Austin Porzak, the guy that skied the First Flatiron, was there that day. We saw a pair with skis. They ended up climbing up Lambs Slide and after getting lost or something, summitting Longs at 5 a.m. the next morning. Wow. They went entirely through the night. That’s seriously tough, but I’m not sure what was going on.

We plodded back to the car and my pack seemed to get heavier with each step, as the burden of failure weighed me down. We were way too heavy to succeed, but not good enough to go lighter. It's a vicious circle and one that pretty much rules out the Diamond in winter for all but the very best. Or if not the very best, the much-better-than-me. 

Charlie was super cool about it. He's a great guy and would never blame me for this failure, but he did his part masterfully, leading us up to Broadway. I didn't come through. I thought I was better than that, but I'm not. 

Fourteen hours to fail. Fourteen hours with 40+ pounds on my back. I was completely wasted when I got back to the car. I sprawled onto a dry patch of the pavement and then cramped up, massively, removing my boots. Despite drinking almost 80 ounces of liquid, I'd still be 3 or 4 pounds light the next day. Charlie looked and acted fresh. He had seriously considered going up the Notch Couloir after we got off the face, after Scott had jokingly asked if anyone was up for it. I'm sure he can be tired, but I'm also pretty sure he can't get tired while adventuring with me.

Afterwards I beat myself up a bit. I felt that I had let down Charlie, though he denied that and refused to let me believe it. I felt I had wasted his chance on the best weather day of the season. Two days later, while hiking/running Bear Peak with my buddy Mark, I told him all about it. I concluded the obvious. The minimum skill level to climb the Diamond in a winter day is fairly high. I learned that it was considerably above my skills. It was embarrassing to think I was good enough and then to find out how wrong I was, how far short I was. Mark chose to see it as just a step along the way to gaining the required skills, a step on the path to success instead of a dead-end at failure. 

By far the impression that will stay with me the longest from this day is not the climbing or the mountain or the weather, but the people. Everyone displayed such optimism, such kindness, such patience, such personal responsibility, and such carrying. It made me feel extremely lucky to be a part of this community and to call some of them my friends. Friends that see only the best in you and are forever lifting you up, even when you're determined to sink. 

Heading home across Chasm Lake

1 comment:

Justin Europe said...

Nice work Bill! I'm duly impressed.