In the last couple weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get out with some super-capable climbing partners on two of my favorite routes: Eldorado Canyon’s Naked Edge, and Rocky Mountain’s D7, on the world-famous Diamond. Both were routes I’d done before, in the case of the Edge probably a dozen times in the last few years, and in both cases we set new speed records. Here’re the stories of those ascents.
(Think speed climbing is lame? Me too, kinda. My thoughts can be found in this previous post.)
Eldorado Canyon, just south of Boulder, is dominated by the Redgarden Wall. A complex bulk of towers, ramps and ridges carved in colorful Fountain Sandstone, Redgarden hosts many of Boulder’s classic routes. Perhaps none are more famous or recognizable as the Naked Edge.
Local (err…global) legend Layton Kor made his first attempt at the route in 1962. At age 24, Kor was already the most visionary climber of his era, and in that same year he brought his gangly physique and efficient free/aid style to the Diamond with his notorious Yellow Wall (V, 5.8 A4). It took two years for Kor to return to the Edge, when he and Rick Horn completed their test-piece at Grade III, 5.9, A3.
Though the route’s finger locks and crimps have now been cleaned (and over-gripped!) by generations of climbers, and nearly everyone now approaches the Edge as a free-climbing challenge, it still commands respect. Most parties allot at least a solid half-day to attempt the route, which includes 100m of technical approach pitches and 120m of intricate, often run-out, climbing up to 5.11b.
But there is a crew of local climbers for whom the iconic route has become a familiar friend, and perhaps a race course. Though I’m sure many climbers were inspired to run up and down the Edge quickly, the first speed record of which I’m aware is 1:38, by Michael Gilbert and Rob Slater in the early 1990s. Bob Rotert and Dave Vaughan took up the playful challenge in 2006, with their self-imposed “traditional style: no french free, no simul climbing and no skate boarding down the East Slabs” and posted a remarkable 1:22.
Bob, who doesn’t let his grey hair stop him from rampaging on his dirt bike and cruising 5.11R, goaded me into attempting the challenge in 2010. As training for our first Patagonia trip, my friend Blake Herrington and I chose the windiest day in the forecast and battled 50mph gusts on the exposed arete. It must have been a tailwind, because we trimmed 9 more minutes from the time, finishing the round trip (bridge-to-bridge) challenge in 1:13.
In early 2012, the competition got more serious as local crushers Jason Wells and Stefan Griebel introduced simul-climbing to the event, and sliced our mark by a third, down to 49 minutes!!!
All year, while enjoying sunny granite in the Cascades, dodging seracs in the Waddington, and learning to scratch around in RMNP, the Naked Edge was in the back of my mind. Blake was now living in Washington, and so I had trouble recruiting a partner for the effort. Friends balked at the idea of simul-ing the insecure climbing and bombing down the fourth-class descent. Brad Gobright, a young rock-star from Orange County, was eager to try, but all through the fall season was recovering from a broken ankle (bouldering is dangerous!).
Come winter, I was ready to give up on the Edge for a while, since ice on the descent rarely melts and would make a speedy round-trip (even more) dangerous. And of course the route closes from February 1st to July 31st, to protect the nesting sites of Peregrine Falcons. Oh well, maybe next year…
Luckily for me (and unluckily for skiers!) this winter has been historically warm and dry on the Front Range. Since Brad’s ankle was somewhat healed, I began to badger him: “c’mon, just give it a try!”
So finally we were on the bridge, watch in hand, racked up, shirtless, and stoked! We’d done a lap on the route earlier that day, and reacquainted ourselves with the tricky sequences. I started the time and we were off. A few hundred meters of trail, just enough to get our hearts racing, brought us to the base of a long water-polished ramp. We soloed the easy fifth-class in tennies, trying to keep our breath in check.
At the base of the first pitch, I pulled on my climbing slippers and started up the glorious 5.11a fingerlocks. I tried to focus less on speed and more on perfect footwork. Though not the crux, I find this pitch to be the most sustained, and I placed small cams every few meters. When the steep crack gave way to a pleasant slab, I sped back up and enjoyed the feeling of my toes gripping the small edges and knobs.
I stretched the rope to 75 meters, reaching a sloping ledge and setting a belay for Brad. I pulled up rope as fast as I could, keeping pace with his breakneck climbing. We tried to yell back and forth, but the wind scrambled our words into unintelligible noise. It wasn’t until Brad pulled over a ledge 35m below, and I could see him, that we communicated and decided to keep simul-ing.
The final two pitches feature the most interesting climbing on the route. Any seasoned Eldo climber can probably mime the beta for the notorious “Bomb-bay” pitch from memory. As I began this lead, I had just one cam left on my harness. Luckily, there’s plenty of “historic” (read: manky) fixed gear and I had enough draws to clip most of it.
At the top I slung a boulder, put Brad on belay, and yelled down “yer on be-layyyyyy”. I don’t think Brad heard me, but our friends on the other side of the canyon did and responded with cheers and monkey calls. Brad would tell me later that the rope was somehow caught under his leg and my forceful belay almost flipped him out of the bomb-bay…. Ooop, sorry bro!
Glancing at my watch, I was nervous. I’d reached the top of the route in just 29 minutes, a great pace, but with Brad’s suspect ankle I wasn’t sure how quickly we would blitz the descent. But Brad is tough, and with me running in front and finding the best path, we nearly reached terminal velocity on the slabby “walk-off”. I pulled out the watch on the bridge, cheered Brad on, and stopped the clock as we both touched the plaque in the middle of the span: 44 minutes!!
The Diamond is one of my favorite playgrounds here on the Front Range, and though I’ve been up it dozens of times in summer, I’d never thought about it as a winter objective until this winter. My friend Colin Simon got me psyched on going up there two weeks ago, and we enjoyed awesome conditions. The snow on approach and in the North Chimney was consolidated, the wall itself was free of snow, and temps in the 20’s allowed for some freeclimbing. To my surprise, it was actually a type-one-fun day, and we climbed the route to Table Ledge before descending.
While it’s sometimes tough to find partners for these weird winter missions, my friend Joe Mills was chomping at the bit to try the Diamond, and I agreed to go up again a week later (Feb 3rd). Joe had been emailing with Josh Wharton, who’s 2001 ascent with Jonny Copp held the speed record for the Diamond in winter (14hrs 17m car-to-car). Josh encouraged Joe to go for the record, since it would give Josh an excuse to go try it again!
Joe and I went light and fast from the parking lot (just one headlamp, one rope, one backpack, one set of ice tools, etc) and power-walked up the approach trail. Since my last attempt, over a foot of fresh snow had fallen in the cirque, and the unconsolidated powder made for slow going past Chasm Lake. Once in the North Chimney, a 150m 5.4 approach route, we were wallowing and swimming in the loose snow, cursing our timing and lamenting that we’d never break the record at that pace.
Once on D7 itself, I was similarly frustrated by the fluffy powder that filled every fingerlock and camouflaged every crimp. That, combined with colder temps (biners would freeze to my lips if I tried to hold them in my mouth) meant less free climbing and more aid. Years of practice in Yosemite paid off, though, and I quickly established a rhythm of aid placements, high stepping and pulling off snowy holds to extend for my next piece.
We reached Table Ledge, traversed over to the Kieners Route, and stumbled to the summit completely out-of-breath. We rapped the North Face and jogged back to the car, both our throats swollen from dehydration. One look at the clock, though, and we didn’t care: 12 hours and 31 minutes, a new Diamond-in-winter record!