More than a decade ago, Josh Wharton and Jonny Copp broke the speed record for climbing the Diamond, the 13,000-foot east face of Longs Peak in Colorado. It was a 14 hour roundtrip, from leaving their car and returning to it. He claims they weren’t trying, just trying to stay warm in the Colorado winter chill above timberline. Last year, young climbers beat their record and it was just the motivation Wharton needed to try again. Here is how he stole the title back… at least for a little while.
Last year, when some strong, motivated young climbers from Boulder broke our record in 12 hours, 31 minutes, I found it oddly motivating. Suddenly, something I hadn’t considered doing for many years seemed like a good challenge again. Speed climbing is silly – especially when no one else is lined up at the starting line – so a little healthy competition can be a positive tool to motivate me to dig deep.
GEAR: See Josh Wharton’s boots he used to climb the Diamond, the Phantom Guide
With a new fire lit, I recruited Stanislav Vrba to help me chase the new time. “Stanley” was the ringer. He doesn’t have much experience with speed climbing, but before an injury cut his career short, he was an elite runner for the Czech Republic. He ran the 1,500 meters in 3:46. That’s fast. I first noticed Stanley’s speed on a trip to the Canadian Rockies, when I struggled to keep up, even though he carried more than his share of the rack and was breaking trail.
Conditions play a huge role in any winter speed record, and the Diamond is no exception. Early season tends to have less snow, but colder weather. Late winter often means more snow, but warmer temps for free climbing. With 2013/14 being such a huge snow year, Stanley and I decided to ski to the base of the North Chimney. This meant we’d have to go out of our way on the descent to retrieve the skis, but we hoped it would save some time on the way up and down.
Details and planning also help speed things up. Stanley and I schemed and obsessed, doing all that we could to save weight and keep gear to a minimum. We carried one rope pre-flaked in the pack, a very light rack, aluminum crampons, a single tiny tool each and no helmets; everything was set. Friday, March 14 looked reasonably warm and not too windy, so we planned to meet at 5 a.m. at the Longs Peak parking lot.
At 5:34 a.m., we began our approach, leaving the trailhead at a marathon-like pace. Our skins slipped on the icy snow and at Chasm Junction one of my skins broke. I had to carry my skis on any uphill stretches, costing some serious time. Stanley broke trail up into the North Chimney like a boss, but then made a route-finding error in the devilishly deep snow that cost us more time. Psychologically this was the hardest part of the day, as it’s impossible to feel fast.
We were at the Diamond D7 by 9:00 a.m. I free climbed when possible, grabbing gear often, while trying to keep the aiders packed away. But the normally easy lower angle sections of the route proved the most difficult. With snow resting on the larger features, I was often forced to crimp and tiptoe on the outside of ledges – a little unnerving with ice-cold fingers!
At 1:00, we were at Upper Kieners, which took us about 40 minutes. The snow was deep at first, and we wallowed and heaved. Neither of us had been to altitude recently, and this was the area of the climb where we really felt it. At the summit we took a brief break to scarf down some food and water.
Next was the hour-long North Face and Camel Gully descent. We were forced to do some short rappels on the North Face due to conditions, but kept up a steady downhill trot amongst the treacherous snowy talus. The Camel Gully looked totally different, and this time I make a route-finding mistake and we had to do a rappel. We both felt the time slipping away from us.
Finally, at 2:40 p.m., we took off from Chasm Lake to trailhead. Stanley and I broke from team formation, and began personal frantic scrambles. The lower portion of the Longs Peak trail is narrow and icy, so in ice climbing boots, it was a deadly bobsled run. I tried to hold on, shouting desperately, “Clear the trail please!” at snowshoers, as I sped by barely in control. I crashed a few times. Stanley hit the trailhead a few minutes behind me at 3:46 p.m. We did it. 10 hours and 12 minutes, car to car!
Sitting in the parking lot, we were both psyched and happy with our day. Some elderly snowshoers made us feel like rockstars, expressing disbelief at what we’d done. But, we know that there was significant time left on the table, so we’ll be back… but probably not until someone stokes the fire for another try!