Equatorial ice climbing sounds like an oxymoron: The former half of the phrase conjures images of heat, the tropics, deserts, sun and a place where ice is only found in drinks; the latter half conjures thoughts of frozen white landscapes, icicle beards, belay parkas and screaming barfies. Simply put, equatorial ice climbing, like a unicorn or a jackalope, sounds like a beast so rare, it must be fantasy.
But it’s not. South African mountain guide Tristan Firman and Kenyan mountain guide Julian Wright recently climbed the “unicorn” of the ice climbing world: The Diamond Couloir on Mount Kenya.
The Diamond is a proud line leading to the very top of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak at 17,057 feet. Pete Snyder and Thumbi Mathenge made the first ascent of The Diamond in 1973, avoiding the steep upper headwall and instead traversing up a much lower-angle ramp to the left. Two years later, in 1975, Yvon Chouinard and Michael Covington conquered the headwall and put The Diamond on the map. Since then, the couloir has seen a decreasing amount of traffic due to global warming and the lack of ice it precipitates. The last ascents of The Diamond took place in 2005 after an unseasonably wet year resulting in better conditions. Kitty Calhoun and Jay Smith climbed it one day, Jim Donini and Brac McMillon the day after.
But since then, in the past thirteen years, The Diamond has seen a grand total of zero ascents and has slowly faded to the background of great ice climbs around the globe. Firman and Wright’s ascent is a resurrection, if only temporarily.
Firman described the climb as “fantastic” in an interview with Rock and Ice. “The ice was very good except for the crux, but the snow up high was sugary and impossible to protect—typical alpine in many regards,” he said. “The crux, as we found it, is two rock steps (probably 15m-20m each in 40m pitches) low on the route which didn’t fully form as ice. The lip slightly overhung the base of the step and the ice, while vertical, for 10-15m was ill-formed and delicate with verglassed rock sections making it difficult to protect. I know folk who would have sent the crux in June at AI6 / M7ish, and I know folk who would have sent the same crux I aided in late September at AI6.”
While the climb is decidedly different than what Chouinard and Covington found in 1975, Firman and Wright still believe The Diamond is worth attempting. Firman said, “I hope we inspire folk to put the effort in to come and check conditions and climb it.” Wright followed up saying, “I am adamant to spread the word and get some more people out here.”
Even so, Firman conceded that “there’s no getting away from the fact that it is in decline, and the conditions we found are likely getting rarer.”
The window to climb equatorial ice is getting smaller and smaller. As the world’s climate is changing, classics like the The Diamond are disappearing. Firman tries to stay positive, looking at our current situation as “glass half full.” He halfheartedly explained that while we are sadly losing some amazing ice climbs, other areas are becoming friendlier and icing over more.
While Wright and Firman have no illusions that their ascent is a signal of things to come for The Diamond; they recognize that the new normal is more likely the 13 zero-ascent years. But they are nonetheless happy to have been able to complete the climb, appreciate it for what it is, and use it to shine a light on global warming in a different way. So perhaps The Diamond is more like the rhinoceros of ice climbing rather than the unicorn—rare, dying, but very much still real and vitally worth saving if we can.
Julian Write is a Kenyan Mountain Guide and co-owner of African Ascents, a leading guiding company in Kenya.
Tristan Firman is a South African Mountain Guide for Vertigo Adventures based out of Cape Town with over 20 years climbing experience.