Diagonal

Diagonal — the column in the middle of the photo.

Well shit. Today I climbed Diagonal, a route I have been lusting after for years, a line that has intimidated me since I learned its name. Damn it feels good. Not every SOG post can be profound. Tonight I’m just psyched, or perhaps content is a better word.

My partner Scott and I met in the Cathedral parking lot at 9 a.m. We figured there wasn’t likely going to be a line for a route like Diagonal, so we made it a leisurely morning. I brought the full kit, he brought a few extra screws, and we tromped our way into the base. Scott led the first section to the base of Toe Crack, but he stopped there, relinquishing the sharp end after the climbing turned to slab. I led a short pitch to the top of the block that access the Mordor Wall, and then I launched out onto the face.
Diagonal earned its name because it follows a right-trending dike through the blank slab. The dike is full of square features, but it’s basically devoid of cracks. In summer the climbing is exposed 5.4, but in winter when it’s snow-covered and the leader is wearing boots and crampons it feels more like M6. It is runout, insecure, exposed and terrifying. And it’s fantastic. I don’t want to venture a guess as to how long it took me to lead, but it was uphill rowing the whole way. Many of the holds are rounded. Getting your crampons to stick takes dedication. Plus the snow made finding the little gear there is extra-difficult.
But the hooks, however small, kept showing up. The little edges and pockets for my frontpoints kept appearing. I kept getting just enough gear not to turn around, and I kept moving higher.
Except, of course, for a couple places where there wasn’t enough gear. There I just had to punch it and watch the expanse below me grow. “Breathe,” I thought as I moved, remembering a blog post I’d read the night before. “Breathe, and find your feet.” Somehow when the gear stopped showing up the feet arrived. At one point I just went, forgetting about gear, laying back against the left side of the dike, pushing upward for a ledge in the distance without a thought of the fall. Those are the greatest moments.
The pitch ends right next to the column, and I couldn’t stop staring at it as I belayed Scott up. Compared to the terrain I’d just moved through the ice looked mellow, easy even. The sun baked the left side of the column all morning, and although we were now in the shade I was sure the ice would still be pliable.
Scott made it up to the anchor, caught his breath, took a swig of water and then put me on belay. I set out sideways across rotten ice bound for the steep, excited to be moving again. I clipped a quarter-inch bolt at the start of the real climbing and started up.
I have not been on much ice thus far this season, particularly vertical ice, so it took a bit to center myself once I sunk my picks. The ice, however, was just as I suspected — forgiving. I moved upwards a swing at a time, placing more screws than necessary but enough to stay comfortable. At the break I grabbed a no-hands rest, sunk another screw or two and launched for the apex. Every swing sunk with minimal effort, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. This too was what I was here for.
Above the vertical ice the flow sinks into the chimney, which makes for awkward but fun climbing. After a while the ice runs out, and the climbing turns into wrestling with small plants. That’s the sort of groveling I’m good at, so I went wild. I slung a little tree and kept pushing upward. I could taste the top. I was both elated and sad it was ending.
I got to the trees and put Scott on. It didn’t take him long to scurry up in my tracks. He reached the summit and flopped down onto the ground exhausted. I knew how he felt — we’d just finished one hell of a climb.
Not every day out is awesome. Sometimes (like on Mean Streak) everything does not go as planned. Today I didn’t have a plan, I just had an objective, and it kept coming at me until I stood atop it. Maybe that was the plan, but it certainly wasn’t mine. And it certainly made me smile.
Back at the car I had a victory dance waiting — a pair of Ale-8-One’s my wife brought back from Kentucky after her last Red River Gorge trip. We got to the car at 3:45 p.m., the light of the sun was starting to warm. I dropped my pack and pulled out the bottles. “Good send,” I said as I handed one to Scott.
“You too,” he said.
Fin.
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