Are you ready to tackle the East Face of Longs Peak? Our rock-hound runs down all the ins and out of how to climb the most sought-after face on the Front Range whether it’s your first time or you’re a vet looking for a new challenge.
The scream sounded like that of a small child. Even as it left my lips, I thought, “ah man, you sound like a tool.” Other sounds followed: the distinctive clink and rattle of a piece of pro pulling, the clatter of my rack scraping rock, and the final thud of my helmet (thankfully, not my head) hitting the wall. I had been casually reaching for the jug that would have signaled the end of a long section of scary climbing, and then I was suddenly squealing like a trapped weasel.
In a blur, I was 30-odd feet below my last piece of pro, a blown micro-cam hanging on my rope, upside down, but all other systems seemingly intact. I gasped for air and wiggled like a landed mackerel to right myself. That’s when I locked gazes with a pair of jaw-dropped lads sitting on comfy ledge nearby. The obvious newbies were making their way up the Casual Route, which paralleled our chosen line, Eroica.
“Dude, you alright?” asked one kid with a mix of awe and concern.
“Hmmm … I think so,” I managed without sounding too rattled or embarrassed. Rob, at the other end of my rope, was wondering the same thing. That’s about when the dread hit me—I have to climb up there and do it all over again.
Right up the hill from Denver in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak’s storied East Face offers some of the best alpine rock climbing in the world. While it looms within clear sight of the northern Colorado front-range sprawl, the 2,000 foot face, capped by the dead-vertical Diamond, still feels like its out there on the fringes when you’re on it. Even the easiest route on the East Face requires expert mountaineering skills, and to climb the Diamond takes serious nerve. Never a lamb, always a lion, Longs Peak can dish up daddy-sized helpings of snow, wind, rain and sphincter puckering lightning at a moment’s notice any time of the year.
Yet, if you live in Colorado and fancy yourself a rock climber, the thought of climbing the Diamond has to be rattling around in your gut somewhere. More likely, it burns like a coal that sears your insides. No? Then just jaunt up to Chasm Lake and stare at it for a few minutes. If your spine doesn’t stiffen and your cells collectively demand “climb it!” then you’d be better off swapping that rack for a bowling ball, my friend. That way you’ll still get to wear some nifty shoes.
Still with me? Good. The truth is that if you’re fit enough to solidly lead traditional 5.10, plan well, and have a little weather karma built up, then the Diamond can just be a big day out in a grand arena. … Then again it may conspire to kill you. But what fun is there in a sure thing? Besides, I’ve done it a bunch of times, and I’m nobody special. So let’s get to it.
THE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO CLIMBING THE DIAMOND
Where: Rocky Mountain National Park
When: Depending on the snowpack, June through August are the prime months. During early season, be prepared for significant snow climbing on the approach and descent.
The prevailing wisdom is to be up and off the wall before the afternoon boomers, so a bleary 3:00 am start will put most parties at the base of the East Face by dawn. A day trip, even if all goes well, can be a long and exhausting slog, so be prepared.
My preferred method for the last few years has been an overnight mission with a glorious bivy in the magnificent Chasm. Bivouac permits are available from the RMNP backcountry office (970-586-1242). Several sweet caves have been built by climbers that make a tent unnecessary. I recommend parking it in a cave on the grassy hill above Chasm Lake and below the southwest face of Mount Lady Washington. A couple extra pounds of basic overnight gear are all you need to be snug as a punch-drunk marmot.
North Chimney: This infamous gash is the fastest way up the lower East Face and to an enormous ledge called Broadway and the Diamond proper. Mostly 4th class terrain, the copious loose blocks just waiting to be tumbled down onto you or the people below you will be the main concern. On a busy weekend, it can be a frightening pinball alley. Early season through July can present a rock hard snow tongue at the base. Some pitch out the Chimney, some solo it, others simul-climb. In my opinion, a prudent party gets the rope out sooner than later and pitches out at least the last 150 feet to Broadway by exiting the Chimney to the right on 5.6 terrain and crossing back left to the D1 pillar at the top.
Chasm View Raps: This method adds a few miles to the hike but avoids the crowds in the North Chimney. Chasm view overlooks the Diamond from the base of the North Face. Three frighteningly exposed double-rope raps put you on Broadway. The Broadway traverse can be easy or death-defying depending on snowpack. A smart party at least ropes up to cross the top of the North Chimney. This approach is better with a bivy at Chasm View.
The left side of the Diamond sports the most consistently clean and pleasurable free climbing on the wall. The routes average eight or so pitches, and most of these will be 40 to 50 meters long. Bernard Gillett’s Rocky Mountain National Park: Climber’s Guide—High Peaks has all the details you’ll need.
Casual Route 5.10a: The “Cazh” is by far the most climbed route on the wall because it’s the easiest. But don’t let that lull you or take away from your sense of triumph. Stacks of moderate but strenuous climbing lead to a crowning 5.10 pitch near the top and the escape off Table Ledge. At nearly 14,000 feet, that 5.10 pitch can be a bear, but it’s fairly easy to pull on gear through the crux if your guns fail you.
Pervertical Sanctuary 5.10c: Much more sustained than the Casual Route but still 5.10, this pristine line is slightly more direct to Table Ledge. The book recommends a couple big pieces for the crux, and you definitely do not want to skimp on this size to save weight.
Yellow Wall 5.11a: Layton Kor, the most prolific Colorado climber of all time, was robbed of the first ascent of the Diamond by a couple of carpetbagging Californians in 1960. His swift answer was to establish what has since become the finest free climb on the wall. Rambling up through yellow lichen on marble-like edges, sustained 5.9 and 5.10 leads to a slightly run-out 5.11a crux on small gear. Parties often call it a day at Table Ledge, but a desperate 5.10 pitch and some wet 5.9 top this joint out near the apex of the wall.
D-7 5.11d: Another dreamy line on great rock. While the crux is harder than the Yellow Wall, the copious fixed pins and straightforward climbing can make this an easier pill to swallow for some. The 5.11d crux is short (and easily aided).
The Obelisk 5.11a: This hidden gem grabs the most sun on the wall by being at the very south end of the Diamond. An impressive offwidth is its hallmark but don’t be deterred because edges inside and out make the wide bits reasonable. An old #4.5 camalot size piece protects the crux moves, and a smaller crack nearby eats up standard pro. Bonus: the best splitter handcrack on Longs is found on this route.
King of Swords 5.12a: One of two free routes on the Diamond’s steeper and soggier right side, King of Swords is long, sustained, and overhanging. This outrageous line is a graduation route for the aspiring Diamond hard-person. The King demands a deep well of endurance and masterful gear placements for a safe ascent.
Eroica 5.12b: Eroica, my arch nemesis, is perhaps the best really hard route on the Diamond. Continuous and often serious 5.11 is punctuated by two 5.12 cruxes. The Casual Route is nearby should your resolve wither. Cuidado, amigos.
Back Into the Fire: From Table Ledge, six hard to find double-rope rappels head back down the face. Carefully consider the weather before putting your ass back out on the line on this descent. After hitting Broadway (no pun intended), you’ll encounter four more rappels down the lower East Face immediately after scrambling directly down from start of the Casual Route. The big advantage to this descent is that you can leave some stuff on Broadway to retrieve on the way down.
To the Top (or not): Escaping off from Table Ledge is my preferred method. Once off the face, all hell could break loose and you would probably still make it. First, take a deep breathe and give thanks that you made it this far. Then, thankfully put on your comfy approach shoes. Hug the edge of the Diamond as you make your way to the top. If you encounter difficult climbing, you are off route. Either continue to the summit for a deserved celebration with the masses or cut toward the North Face from the top of the Diamond. Make your way down to the remnants of the Cable Route and do one or two rappels from the old antique eye-bolts down to Chasm View. Now you can relax, baby, because it’s all gravy from here.
If you have all your crap with you, casually rock-hop down to the Keyhole trail, shooting far-away looks at the campers in the Boulderfield Campground. If they ask you what you have been doing, just say something like “Climbing, man” and vaguely wave toward the Diamond. Never, under any circumstances, engage these people in conversation (unless they are cute). They are beneath you now.
Good luck. Remember that if you fail, you still got to spend a great day in an amazing place. Check your ego at the trailhead, figure out what you learned, and try again next weekend. Oh, and if you see a dude flailing, cursing, or whimpering out on some run-out edgefest next to your route, just politely look away until he gets it together. •