Swapping leads

Reflections on the ‘Golden Age’ of climbing, from Dave Rearick and the Diamond to ‘Curving Crack’

Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps standing below the Diamond on Longs Peak. The pair made the first climb of this famous wall in 1960.
Courtesy Pat Ament

In 1964, as fall began a chilly dissolve into winter, Dave Rearick and I drove the 11-plus miles up Boulder Canyon and made a free ascent of a short route on Castle Rock. I named it “Curving Crack.” 

I was aware of this left-leaning depression up vertical granite and thought to show it to my friend and mentor, Rearick. Most people will recognize his name. He and Bob Kamps were the first to climb the Diamond — that sheer wall on the East Face of Longs Peak — in 1960. No Colorado climb has received more notoriety than their first ascent of the Diamond. Those days remain for me indelible. I was 13 and followed the various newspaper accounts. My parents drove me along the Peak to Peak Highway to get a closer view of the great East Face.

After the Diamond, Rearick accepted a teaching position in the math department at the University of Colorado. The dean had followed the news about the climb and invited Rearick to apply. Rearick moved into a small apartment on East College, in September 1961. Among his first climbs around Boulder was the “Grand Giraffe,” in Eldorado Canyon. His partner George Hurley could not do the overhanging crack and invited Rearick to give it a try. Rearick made straightforward work of the notorious challenge. 

During the spring semester of ’62, Judith Chase was his teaching assistant. They fell in love, married, and in February 1963 moved to an upstairs apartment on Mapleton Street. He immediately started to search out potential free climbs around the area. When I heard he lived in Boulder, I phoned him, probably in late February or early March 1963. Rearick remembers I was excited and a bit breathless on the phone when I said, “We should climb.”

At his upstairs Mapleton Street apartment, I met a meticulous man who had good manners. He was professional, with a clean appearance and high character. We had mutual interests, such as rock climbing and music, and right away we practiced various gymnastics. He showed me three presses into handstands, and then he lay on his back, had me place my hands into his, and he pressed me into a handstand. He made us a protein “shake,” a pasty concoction he said would build muscle. Judy made tea from mint she grew in her garden. 

At Castle Rock the day we did “Curving Crack,” Rearick had with him several of the pitons he and Kamps used on the Diamond. These included some of Yvon Chouinard’s earliest prototypes, made of tough chromoly steel Chouinard had begun to hand-forge in his small shop in California. One heavy piton was made from an angle iron, sawn and a hole drilled in it by Bill Feurerer, a guy we knew as Dolt. With its weight, Rearick and Kamps were happy on the Diamond to have only one of those. They’d also brought some “lightening holes,” made by Dick Long and Chouinard, named for holes drilled in the sheet iron to make it less heavy. Still later these were called bongs. Rearick had early knifeblade pitons made by Chouinard and/or Chuck Wilts. Rearick’s favorite was a piton made by Herb Swedlund, a small horizontal, useful size made of heat-treated alloy. Rearick carried this piton up virtually every climb he would do.

I loved history and liked to imagine the earlier days. On the Diamond, Rearick and Kamps used oval Bedayan carabiners. Kamps used a wood-handle hammer made in California, and Rearick used a wood-handle hammer made by Holubar, in Boulder. The head of Rearick’s hammer later would break off in Eldorado when he and Bob Culp free-climbed “T-2.” The head of that hammer would go missing in the brush on the slope below that climb. The hammer held together, though, for the Diamond.

While they took six ropes up the Diamond, they had minimum water and a shortage of food. The best meals were raisins and candy. Rearick and Kamps were both influenced by the Sierra Club, although Kamps was more extreme than other members of that club. They had to fill out an application for permission to climb the Diamond, and the application, they mused, was more difficult than the climb. They were required to have a support party, and a back-up rescue group. Many of Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Rescue hesitated to participate, because they were unhappy Colorado climbers such as Dale Johnson and Layton Kor had previously been denied permission to climb the Diamond. So, Rearick and Kamps enlisted the Evergreen Rescue Group along with a few Boulder climbers and those in the Rocky Mountain Rescue who refused to go along with the boycott. No one knew if the Evergreen people knew the first thing about climbing, and they probably didn’t, but the rangers had little clue about anything. The rangers must have been impressed when Holubar Mountaineering loaded a 1,200-foot spool of Colombian rope onto a horse and sent it the 5 miles up to the shelter cabin.

Rearick and Kamps made their ascent of the Diamond during the first two and a half days of August, 1960. I was about to start the eighth grade. Large telephoto shots published in the newspaper gave me a glimpse of the straight-up nature of the forbidden wall, two climbers lashed to the vast upright surface of granite. I imagined the delirious exposure beneath their feet. 

The Diamond was not Rearick’s first experience with the East Face of Longs. Nine years earlier, in 1951, he applied for a summer job at a YMCA Camp northwest of Estes. While employed at the camp, he and Canadian Jack Hilton went AWOL on July 1. They made a long, trailless trek to Longs Peak from the camp, through Estes, the way the crow flies to the mountain. They could see the mountain and, in this extreme cross-country jaunt, stumbled through foothills, into forest, around rocks and lakes, to Storm Pass — where Estes Cone and Thunder Mountain connect. They continued onward past Jim’s Grove to the Chasm Lake cutoff and finally up to the base of the towering face of the mountain. Had they gone by car, along the road, it would have been 12 miles to the ranger station and then another rugged six miles to the foot of the rock face.

They did not know how to rock climb but were eager to see what they could teach themselves. Jack had a 50-foot rope, a few carabiners, and had hitch-hiked to the mountain town of Ward to buy a small number of pitons from Gerry Cunningham. Rearick had not seen a piton before. He brought a hatchet that could be used to hammer in the pitons. They began up the granite edifice. The two ascended in the area of Alexander’s Chimney and arrived at the top of Longs at sunset. The summit was hardly the end of this astonishing epic. They climbed down the north side of the treacherous mountain in dark, hiked down the next eight or so miles to the ranger station, hitch-hiked back to the YMCA camp, and arrived back at midnight.

•  •  •  •

Rearick and I climbed many times at Castle Rock. One day, in 1963, we did a route Royal Robbins later would name “Athlete’s Feat.” When Rearick saw the third pitch of this route, a 50-foot, overhanging crack that leaned sharply to the right in a big dihedral, his attraction to these type of steep liebacks seized him. He was beginning to be famous for them, what with his overhanging Split Pinnacle lieback in Yosemite, the third 5.10 climb in the Valley. 

Pat Ament pushed the standards of climbing, pioneering routes like ‘Supremacy Crack’ in Eldorado Canyon. Photo: Courtesy Pat Ament

I was in good shape and ready to attempt the crack, yet I put up no resistance when Rearick asked if he could lead it. Too wide for any normal piton, the crack might take one of our large, aluminum bongs. He stepped across the ledge to the crack, leaned back with hands against the crack’s edge, and pulled into a lieback. He slid his hands up the edge of the crack, as he walked his feet higher and higher on the smooth right wall. Less than halfway up the crack, he stood on a quarter-inch wide, flat foothold that ran horizontally across the right wall. He pulled with his left hand against the crack, to hold himself in, as he hammered in a bong with his right hand. He clipped a carabiner to the eye of the bong and continued up. 

Many or most climbers would have needed a rest now and either reversed the moves to the big ledge or lowered on the rope through the piton back to the ledge. But this was Dave Rearick. He proceeded higher, in the strenuous lieback. At last he reached the upper lip of the crack, where the right-leaning wall curves up and slightly left. Two or three touchy moves from easier rock, and a good distance above the bong, he was aware of the situation. The bong might not stop him, were he to slip at the coming difficult transition out of the lieback. If the piton held, he might hit the ledge from the stretch of the rope. 

His tie-in to the rope was a single loop around his waist and a bowline, as was mine — not a comfortable way to fall. I paid close attention, as I belayed, and slid my right hand as far up the rope as I could, ready to pull in a large amount of slack fast.

Rearick stepped onto a small patch of flaky, crumbly granite with his right foot, and that foot whipped out to the right — off the rock. He plummeted head-first. I pulled in every inch of rope with blistering speed. The rope jolted tight against me, and his head stopped about two inches above the big ledge. He hung there a few shocked seconds and righted himself. Instead of giving up for the day, as most any climber would do, Rearick stood on the ledge and reflected, in his quiet, composed way,

“If I don’t go back up now I’ll develop a mental block.”

He concentrated his mind and every tendon and muscle on the moves. With my right hand high on the rope, I was ready again. He moved up and out of view, onto a small ledge above. The lead was worthy of the new 5.10 grade. A soft voice told me I was on belay. 

•  •  •  •

To my surprise — a year later in 1964 at the foot of Castle Rock’s “Curving Crack” — Rearick asked me to lead. He wrapped the rope around his lower back, and I started up. His old, white Colombian rope had some of the DNA of the Diamond in it. Thirty feet up this slippery inset crack, winter arrived. My fingers had already become numb. Rain soon became snow. To smear with climbing shoes against the granite was like smearing against the ice of a frozen lake with hard dress shoes. 

Dave Rearick climbing ‘By Gully’ on Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon.
Photo: Courtesy Pat Ament 

The climb angles in a gentle curve up left, and the higher a climber moves the more vertical the rock becomes with fewer holds. As I hit the steeper rock, everything was wet. My hands lost all feeling, as I crushed fingertips into the shallow crack. I came to the obvious black streak where water had run down the rock for decades. The route was polished to a black pearl. 

The upper, steepest last moves required a rounded lieback. I leaned to the right, against the slick finger holds, as my feet smeared on the slimy left wall. When my body wanted to barn-door left, I reached up left and planted a palm over a flat, round ledge. I moved my hand up to where my fingertips caught on a sandy edge. A big step left onto a small, sloping foothold, and I pulled myself onto the ledge. Snow whipped across the granite. I put in an anchor and was on belay.

The wet rock required exact technique. Rearick started up, as fast as he could climb. By the time he reached the difficult moves, the rock was white. He did not hesitate to call for a tight rope. I pulled the rope, and he used it to hoist himself onto the ledge. He was impressed that I’d freed the pitch in this minor hurricane of rain and snow. I was not used to seeing Rearick struggle on a rock.  

A reader might wonder why I would write about so small a climb. It is because this was the moment — I sensed — at which Rearick viewed me as the stronger climber. This climb alone would not support such a conclusion, but he seemed to resolve from this day that a new standard was on the way and that I was among those who would establish it. 

Rearick was generous. From here out, more often than not, he would subtly place himself in a secondary role. I was flattered by this and, as always, impressed with his gentlemanly spirit. He respected people and always gave them credit. I preferred the idea that Rearick was my mentor, the Yosemite climber, the strong, free-climbing master, that friend of Kamps on the Diamond. I did not want a different Rearick. He expected me to improve as a climber and did not feel dishonored if I climbed moves he had trouble doing. Rearick had a competitive side, when the spirit moved him, but as a general rule he did not like to compete — other than in playful ways or with himself. Climbing, like art and music, was individual.

People now tell me they think 5.10 might be an appropriate grade for “Curving Crack.” (It’s currently rated at 5.9+ according to the Mountain Project.) I will say it was a bit more difficult in the rain and snow, required a certain attention in the crummy shoes we had back then, and strained the arms to place a piton where a small Alien or Friend today slides easily in.  

Now, in July of 2019, Rearick is well into his 80s and lives in a Boulder apartment at the Meridian, his right hand mostly paralyzed from a stroke a few years ago. He and I talk often on the phone, and he has his same amazing memory for detail. He can say the exact date of almost any event in his life. 

In his day, Rearick was a great climber. He also was a classical guitarist, a math professor and an astronaut candidate who went very far in the difficult elimination process. He took up cycling and one day rode south from Boulder to Golden, then west steeply to the top of Berthoud Pass, and down past Winter Park, on north to Grand Lake, over Trail Ridge Road, through Estes Park and back to Boulder — a more than 200-hundred-mile “super loop” over two major passes in a single day. He also would do this loop the opposite direction. One day he pedaled his bike the steep 36 miles from Boulder to Longs Peak, rambled the 20-mile round-trip up and down the mountain, and rode home to Boulder. These are all “minor details” of what he later would call a relatively “uneventful life.”

 I climbed “Curving Crack” many times after that first free ascent with Rearick, and I thought of him each time. The days move on, yet Rearick and I muse that we did live life. We had climbing when it was young, when we were developing it, and when the rocks were not overrun by the masses. 

I think of the solitude I felt at times, when I could hear the slightest breeze through the tops of pines, the sound of a nearby river, or maybe the soft scraping as my partner brushed some part of his clothes against the rock. The experience involved so many sensations, so much beauty. To be with a friend was well worth the pain of frozen fingers. I suppose I don’t have to say why we called those years “the golden age.”  

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