Chris Weidner Wicked Gravity
Chris Weidner Wicked Gravity

Sharp granite, cold and rough, splits my fingertips. The ones without Superglue ooze blood, forming a pink film mixed with chalk. I sag onto the rope nearly 1,000 feet up, completely spent.

My breath is spastic, temples throb. I rest my helmet against the rock as the drone of a small plane flying below swells, then fades. I close my eyes.

Near the top of the Diamond, a sheer wall on the east face of Longs Peak, I'm at 14,000 feet above sea level and I feel like crap. When I open my eyes and look around I see more than a dozen climbers on different routes, engaged in the same slow, skyward crawl as I am.

What's wrong with these people? I think. What's wrong with me?

Climbers have a love-hate relationship with Rocky Mountain National Park. It's among the most popular and accessible alpine areas in the Lower 48 — with walls like the Diamond, classic routes on many high peaks and countless boulders scattered all over — yet every day up there, no matter what you're climbing, feels especially grueling.

The crushing combination of absurdly early starts (to beat the clockwork lightning storms), long approaches, altitude malaise and erratic temperatures creates a wild, summertime playground for tenacious climbers with an aptitude for abuse.

Fortunately for us, our motivation usually — barely — outlasts the short summer season in "The Park."


I'm not a fast hiker, so for a big objective like the Diamond I leave Boulder so early the partiers on Pearl Street do a double-take as I drive by sipping coffee rather than a nightcap.

Slumped in my harness on the Diamond I'm dumbstruck — and impressed — by how many climbers are willing to suffer for this wall. I chuckle and think of Andy Kirkpatrick and his award-winning memoir, "Psychovertical," where he quips, "Life's too short to have fun."

Bruce Miller, of Boulder, on a 5.13 pitch near the top of the Diamond.
Bruce Miller, of Boulder, on a 5.13 pitch near the top of the Diamond. (Chris Weidner / Courtesy photo)

Bouldering is fun though, right? Like real, Type-1 fun?

Definitely. But up in The Park you have to dig deep even to climb the small rocks.

A few weeks I ago I bouldered in "Upper Upper" Chaos Canyon. Four of us slogged forever, way up into a nondescript talus field near the top of the valley. Only when I caught my breath (several hours later) and explored the infinite climbing possibilities did I begin to appreciate why The Park's boulders attract climbers worldwide.

I once shocked a young Japanese climber in Hueco Tanks, Texas, when I told him I lived an hour from The Park yet I hadn't bouldered there. He shook his head disapprovingly. "I make four trips to Rocky Mountain from Tokyo!" he exclaimed.

I always figured boulderers were lazy ... until that day in Chaos Canyon, when headlamps guided us back to the car 12 hours after leaving the parking lot.

The rewards of a particular climb — like anything — are directly proportionate to the effort required to succeed on that climb. Maybe that's why Park days are so memorable.

It's many things really: the beauty, the feeling of accomplishment, the celebration of our "backyard" mountains. When you and your partner top out a route in a downpour; when you accept the discomfort and keep on moving; when you push through your fatigue, your pain and your fear — these hardships are transformational.

We return to our lives a little bit different, a little bit better.

Washington climber Jens Holsten, in an essay for a few years ago, evoked the feeling of climbing in The Park: "The meaningful achievements that stick with you for a lifetime may become less frequent, but they do still happen. They remind us of why we love to climb and of why we love to live."

Looking up at the top of the wall, I pull myself together. Nearby ravens soar playfully on thermals, cawing at each other for no apparent reason. I slip my heels back into rock shoes, breathe hot air on numb fingers, chalk my hands.

And I climb.

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