Sevve and I had been hiking for a little more than three hours and I was fairly certain I had underestimated our objective to climb the Casual Route on Colorado’s iconic Long’s Peak. Especially since we hadn’t even began climbing.
By the time we had reached the Boulder Field, I had fallen back at least 200 feet behind Sevve, who was appearing to gain momentum, rather than lose it. With each step I felt as though I had concrete blocks on my feet. I sounded like Darth Vader, my breathing so labored I wished I had picked some other route to kick off my big “Project” to climb 50 inspiring rock climbs before I reached the ripe old age of 50. But as we reached Chasm View, which sits on the shoulder of Colorado’s famed big wall, the Diamond, I was greeted with spectacular views of alpine granite. The morning sun had cast a soft orange glow over the massive wall, and my heart was no longer pounding out of my chest.
The explosion of massive rock fall released from the opposite side of the Diamond headwall moving quickly down a massive snow gulley.
In an effort to keep moving, we threaded the rappels, and committed to our initial descent on to Broadway Ledge, which we would traverse across to locate and begin our way up the Casual Route (5.10a). As we pulled rope after the first rappel, a golf ball-sized rock that was caught under the rope let loose and we yelled “ROCK” simultaneously. In the same instant, the explosion of massive rock fall released from the opposite side of the Diamond headwall moving quickly down a massive snow gulley. A car-sized block, which had been perched high above on some glacial melt, was careening down the gulley directly toward the approach trail near the North Chimneys (where most climbers cue up to begin their way up the wall). After exploding into several pieces and coming to rest in the talus field below us, silence returned to the mountains. Sevve and I looked at each other in disbelief, swallowed hard, and continued to Broadway Ledge as the weight of our objective had just become more real.
Sevve and I had met more than a year earlier at a local crag in Minnesota. He is a quality dude. Week after week, we would run into one another and his hardcore posse of climbing partners. Soon thereafter, Sevve, his wife Andrea, and their crew welcomed me into the midst of the colorful cast of characters. Eventually though, the fall climbing season came to a close and the Minnesota winter forced us indoors to climb on artificial walls and plastic holds. When we weren’t climbing at the gym, Sevve and I would connect on the ski trails and talk about where we were going to climb in 2013.
The following spring, Sevve joined my wife Bronwyn, 5-year-old son Rhys, and a small group of friends, on a sport climbing trip to Smith Rock, Oregon. During our trip at Smith, we talked extensively about climbing projects and I let Sevve in on my goal to climb 50 inspiring rock climbs by my 50th birthday. The idea was still in its infancy, and I wasn’t sure what people would think of it. But Sevve loved it and fired off so many ideas that it fueled my dream into making it a reality. At the top of my list of climbs “to do” was Colorado’s legendary Casual Route up the Diamond of Long’s Peak. Sevve had honed his free climbing skills while working as a Park Ranger while living and working in Yosemite National Park. He had tackled many of the classic lines in the Valley and established several first ascents in the backcountry of the Sierras. Once Sevve heard of my plans to tackle the Diamond he was fired up. With his pending move to Colorado, and my family’s road trip plans to return to Estes Park that summer, it was the perfect storm to kick off the mother of all projects — Climb 50×50.
Four months later, Sevve and I were standing in the Long’s Peak Trailhead parking lot under a clear and starry sky. It was 2:00 a.m. and we were ready to embark on an epic day. Over the next four hours, we hiked in the dark past what seemed like hundreds of headlamps, most of which were headed up the famous Key Hole hikers’ route to the summit of Long’s Peak. We moved quickly with a goal to be at the rappel anchors at Chasm View by no later than sunrise.
The summit of Long’s Peak clocks in at roughly 14,259 feet and the actual climbing (by starting from Broadway Ledge) covers roughly 900-plus vertical feet up some of the best alpine granite east of the Colorado River. Our goal was to trade leads, go light and fast, and tag the summit by lunch time, with enough wiggle room to rappel the route back to Chasm View where we left our packs.
In the mountains, seldom does anything go as planned. I have learned over the years that you constantly have to adapt to the changing environment. Sometimes it is the result of other unexpected climbing parties vying for the same route, and other times it is underestimating what you have signed up for. While the Casual Route is not technically challenging, it is complicated by the 8-mile approach and increasing altitude during the ascent. Once on route, you are executing climbing moves at 13,000 feet, which for a flatlander like me, was no small challenge. Our psyche was high, however, and we enjoyed incredible crack climbing with some of the best weather we could have asked for. We swapped leads and kept moving higher up the route. By noon, we were nearing the end of the technical climbing, but still remained about 400 feet below the summit. After a short traversing pitch to climber’s left, you are deposited on a large ledge and presented with a long section of 4th and 5th class (unroped, but safe) scrambling for the remainder of the route.
After untying, I moved sluggishly up the talus to the summit register as the weather continued to deteriorate. The storms we had been watching in the distance all day long had finally decided to engulf the Diamond. With the fear of being caught in a lightning storm, we tagged the summit, documented our ascent with a few quick photos and scrapped our idea to rappel back to Chasm View. Instead, we opted for the well marked Keyhole hiker’s route back down to the Boulder Field, a good two hour hike back down the mountain to somewhat easier ground. Sevve graciously retrieved our packs from Chasm View while I wondered into the bivy site of the Boulder Field to regale our summit victory to some fellow peak baggers that were camped and awaiting a planned ascent the next morning.
Sevve rejoined me in the Boulder Field and we began the long, winding descent back down below tree line and to the trailhead to retrieve our car. We arrived in the parking lot 19 hours later, exhausted but successful in tackling the first of my 50×50 Project! We lingered in the parking lot, eating trail mix and staring at the night sky once again.
As we pulled into our reserved campsite, my son Rhys had succumbed to sleep, wanting to wait for his Dad, but too tired to make it. My amazing wife Bronwyn greeted me with hugs and congratulations, mostly happy that I had returned from what had turned out to be a very big day.
This is what I love about climbing. It gives me the opportunity to push myself into the unknown.
I have hesitated to publish my first climb and unveil the path to climbing 50 inspiring rock climbs to the greater climbing community for fear I won’t be able to “send” my Project (which translates in climber speak to successfully completing a route from bottom to top, without failing). But this is what I love about climbing. It gives me the opportunity to push myself into the unknown. I always say that “more will be revealed” and this journey is not unlike so many others in life. So the push for 50 big sends is on and I hope you will follow me as I start ticking them off the list.