April 10, 2016

Blue Diamond Ridge

Less than a week ago I got home from Red Rocks. I always make a trip there at this time of year for the Red Rock Rendezvous, and I try to incorporate some other guiding work and some personal climbing too.

This year Jess and I went down for a few days of climbing to kick off my trip. Amongst other routes, we climbed Burlesque in Icebox Canyon. I have rapped down this four pitch route on every time I've guided Frigid Air Buttress, as it's part of the standard descent. The massive flake on pitch three has been something I've wanted to climb ever since I first rapped past it.

It was a rather windy Saturday when we left the truck, but the winds abated as we got into the amphitheater below the route, and we didn't have to worry about the crowds on an old fashioned route known for it's wide climbing. The route itself was a fun adventure. Pitch two featured some fun crack climbing on great varnish, and the flake didn't disappoint. It starts as an offwidth and widens to a comfy squeeze chimney. The belay has great views down into the chimney. All in all a good route for any crack climbing aficionado or connoisseur of Red Rocks trad.

Then Jess took off and I had a fun week of guiding that included The Rendezvous. It was while driving to the event one morning a number of years ago that I first noticed the Blue Diamond Ridge. Morning light accentuates this line on Mount Wilson; as the sun makes its way across the sky it blends in with the Basin Wall behind. There's not a ton of beta out there on this route but everyone I spoke to talked about the Equalizer pitch, a notorious 5.9 lead where the only pro is two cams that are equalized part way up.

This event always brings a lot of my colleagues to the area, and every year that route comes up in conversation. It always goes something like, "Hey I'm looking for a partner for Blue Diamond Ridge...but you've got to lead the Equalizer pitch". I may have even been guilty of uttering those words myself. Over the years I've learned that some legendary pitches aren't all they're cracked up to be and I started wondering if the Equalizer was really that bad. This year I talked to my colleague Chad about the route and when I asked him if he was interested, I made sure to mention that I would be happy to lead the Equalizer. He was interested, and also was interested in leading the famous pitch. We decided that we would take the route as it came and whoever happened to be in front would take that lead.

Almost done with the approach.
A couple of days after the event we found ourselves walking away from my truck by headlamp. Pretty soon we were on an old dirt road that cuts across the desert directly toward the gully that leads to the base of the route. The dirt road peters out before it reaches Mount Wilson and after some cross country travel we picked up cairns that led us into the gully. Some fifth class climbing had us tightening our approach shoe laces and chalking up. The gully passes by a nice looking crag with varnished cracks that forms the proper toe of the ridge. This remote zone probably deserves a visit of it's own, if the climbing is half as good as it looks. After some ogling we followed the gully into the bowl between the ridge and The Basin Wall and then angled over onto the ridge where we took a long snack break at a big cairn.

I found some beta written by the first ascensionist at rockclimbing.com. He mentioned a "40' splitter crack" marking the start of the route. Above us was 4th and low 5th class climbing with no splitter in sight. We put on rock shoes and got out the rack, but left the rope coiled and resumed scrambling. We spent the next couple hundred feet climbing easy terrain on the left side of the ridge, but looking for straightforward spots that would put us back on the crest. Before long we found ourselves at the base of an excellent handcrack in a corner just left of the ridge crest. Whether on route or not, there was no way we weren't going to climb this thing! So we roped up and sent it.
Chad on a fun tight-hands crack part way up the ridge.
From here the route unfolded fairly smoothly. Some of it was easy ropeless scrambling. We did some simul-climbing. We made a number of shorter pitches with the follower wearing half the rope as tied-off coils. There were some terrain belays. We also made a handful of longer pitches with anchors and everything. Maybe halfway up passed through a cool tunnel to the left side of the ridge and got a good view of the upper part of the ridge. We saw something that looked like maybe it could be the mythical Equalizer. Chad led a short pitch of offwidth in good varnish to return us to the crest and then I took over. A few easy leads found us bypassing the only real tower on the route and then stowing the rope for some fun low 5th class climbing.

Getting fired up just before the tower.
Above this I found myself standing at the base of what we were pretty sure was the Equalizer pitch with the rack clipped to my harness. Chad put me on belay and I cast off. The reputation of this pitch was in my head at first, but after a few moves I just focused on the climbing....which was very good. It was frictiony face climbing on the best white rock I've ever climbed on in Red Rock. Aside from the two equalized #1 Camalots, I also placed a small C3 and a tricam. If we had carried more small C3's and small tricams I may have been able to get more gear. The movement was enjoyable and never desperate. Chad's offwidth felt a bit harder. Partway up Chad expressed some envy that I ended up with the pitch and I promised him that he could lead the money pitch(es) next time we climbed together.

Chad nearing the end of the Equalizer.
The Equalizer ends on a big flat step where we again coiled the rope for the last few hundred feet of scrambling. And then we were on top, putting the gear away, reapplying sunscreen, and happily changing out of our sweaty rock shoes. Good descent beta from rockclimbing.com had us back in First Creek Canyon faster than the standard walk back to the limestone, so we decided that a quick lap on Black Magic was in order on the way out.

Blue Diamond Ridge is a great route, but it's not typical Red Rocks fare. It feels a lot more like an alpine rock climb than say, Resolution Arete (also on Mount Wilson). The route felt fairly casual to Chad and I because we're both very comfortable climbing on 5.9 terrain and both have a lot of alpine climbing experience. We have a lot of experience routefinding on 3rd to low 5th class terrain and managing loose rock, which abounds on the route, particularly in the easier sections. Parties with appropriate skill and experience will find this is a really fun and rewarding route and shouldn't be intimidated by its reputation.