Diamond Couloir: sunset of a world famous ice-climbing

Diamond Couloir: sunset of a world famous ice-climbing

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Ice Climbing, Big Wall

Diamond Couloir, when and where

Diamond Couloir, The Headwall in the EightiesThe Headwall

The Diamond Couloir’s first ascent was realized by Pete Snyder and Thumbi Mathenge in 1973, avoiding the steeper high section by a ramp on the left; this impressive upper section, named “Headwall”,
was pioneered in 1975 by Yvon Chouinard and Michael Covington,
who made famous the Diamond Couloir as one of the world's greatest ice climb; this magnificent line crosses the SW face of Mount Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro, and surprisingly lies only 20 kilometers south of the Equator!
Yes, the Equator… Notwithstanding this fact, Mount Kenya is high enough to have various glaciers and receive conspicuous snowfalls.
As a matter of fact we can’t consider it as a single peak, but rather as
a complex massif, consisting of several smaller peaks, composed by syenite, an excellent kind of rock to climb, surrounding the two main peaks named Nelion and Batian.
Mount Kenya is an extinct stratovolcano, having quite an alpine appearance and rising inside Mount Kenya National Park, established in 1949 and become an Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997. The park is situated around 150 km North-North-East from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
The highest peaks are Point Batian m. 5199, Point Nelion m. 5188, Point Lenana m. 4985 and the rocky Point John. As said, the Diamond Couloir splits the South West wall of Mount Kenya, a steep face ending with the twins Batian and Nelion summits; after the very steep Headwall the couloir exits to the upper Diamond Glacier and leads to an ice-gap named “The Gate of the Mists”, dividing Batian, on the left, and Nelion, on the right.

Diamond Couloir lower pitches in 1989
Diamond Couloir lower portion
The Diamond Couloir in 1989
The Diamond Couloir in 1989

The climate

Punta Lenana seen from Punta Nelion Punta Lenana seen from Punta Nelion

Mount Kenya's climate is truly peculiar, as a result of its location. It is home to one of the monitoring stations of the Global Atmosphere Watch.
From December to March - the Southern hemisphere’s summer - south side of Mount Kenya takes more sunshine: rock-climbs are dry and in good conditions, while ice-climbs’ conditions become quickly bad. From July to October – the Southern hemisphere’s winter – south side of Mount Kenya takes less sunshine: both the north-facing rock climbs and south-facing ice climbs are in good conditions.
Yet parties in the past used to climb the Diamond Couloir both in summer and mid-winter, the dry seasons.
The two dry seasons are separated by some months of rainy season, during which climbing conditions are generally unfavorable. The highest rainfall occurs between the middle of March and the middle of May, and a bit less between the end of October and the middle of December.
Mount Kenya has a typical equatorial mountain climate, which Hedberg described as “winter every night and summer every day”. As a matter of fact during the day sudden changes may occur: in the morning the weather is usually good, while some rainfall and even snowfall can come in the afternoon and in the evening.
Unfortunately in latest years an important variation strictly connected to global warming had changed the games: the current climate on Mount Kenya is still rather wet, but remarkably less than in the last century.

My experience in 1989, when Diamond Couloir was still a white iced stripe.

Diamond Couloir: towards  The Gate of the Mists , 1989Towards the Gates of the Mists

In the very first days of January 1989, when just after the Christmas Holidays I flyed to Kenya to climb the Diamond Couloir with my friends Angelo Pozzi, Massimo Boni, Daniele Pioli and Silvia Mazzani, I only was aware of two notices: the mythical first climbing of the Headwall, by Yvon Chouinard in 1975, and the first Italian repetition, by the 8000s summiter Fausto De Stefani with Italo Bazzani in 1979; moreover I knew that the month of January was a period with good “meteo” conditions, but probably wasn’t the best one for ice-climbing on Mount Kenya South face. I was also getting into my head the very nebulous idea that climbing an ice-gully near the Equator line should be truly a strange adventure!

The Howell Bivouac on Nelion inside the mists

Yet, even if a bit reduced being compared with its conditions in 1970s, we still found this world famous ice-climbing as a white iced stripe, splitting marvellously the South West wall of Mount Kenya… We all had quite a satisfactory experience, because of the beautiful ice-climb, the nice weather and the superb environment! The only mis-adventure we had, truly disagreeable if considering the incredible number of unfavourable events occurred, was during the air trip: cancelled flies, lost luggages, impossible landings, an absurd “hijack” to London and so on.

Ice climbing, mountaineering and global warming.

Global warming is melting all the iced surfaces on earth, from the arctic calotte to the alpine glaciers to the greatest Himalayan glaciers to the Andean ones and to the equatorial ones, of course! Unfortunately global warming is threatening not only ice-climbing, but all mountaineering’s activities in middle and high mountain. Also the rocky-buildings may be injured; as a matter of fact in last decades, and more and more frequently in last years, numberless rock-falls had occurred in the Alps, mainly in the Western Alps, but sometimes also in the Dolomites and Eastern Alps, caused by the degradation of the permafrost interior zones, which should remain permanently iced. These invisible permafrost areas are damaged by the succession of meltings and freezings, giving rise to a general instability of the whole rocky-building. Last well known rock-falls in the Alps regard the Petit Dru – really a noisy case – the Matterhorn and the same Mont Blanc in Western and Central Alps, while in the Dolomites important rockfalls are reported on Pelmo – (august 2011)– and Cinque Torri.

Diamond Couloir in latest years

In late years, slowly but inexorably, this beautiful ice line started to become one of the numberless victims of global warming, until in the beginning of 2000s it was deemed unclimbable, due to the absence of ice in the bottom section of the route.

The campsite near the Two Tarn Lake

Yet in August 2005 four US mountaineers climbed the full Diamond Couloir and noticed the climb on the web, stating that the Diamond was still shining: at first Kitty Calhoun and Jay Smith and the following day Jim Donini and Brac McMillon. They reported that the route has changed into a modern ice climb with a very difficult 60 m. first pitch, starting with 8 m. of overhanging M7 dry tooling, followed by 50 m. of USA Grade V ice and by others 6 pitches of moderate climbing on great ice, with one pitch of water ice USA Grade IV+ ice at the famous headwall.
The same year, in October, the Swiss guide Fred Salamin also climbed the couloir and found great ice conditions on the entire route. A possible explanation was that the fall rainy season, till that time avoided by climbers because of bad weather, could become the best season to climb the Diamond Couloir, getting lucky - truly a lottery - with the weather! Another possible explanation was that the year 2005 had been an exceptional year regarding ice-conditions.
Last Diamond Couloir ascent had been noticed in 2006, the 17th of January, by Julian Mathias (USA).
We don’t know anything regarding Diamond Couloir latest repetitions; on the contrary someone notices that the Diamond Glacier, situated at the exit of the Diamond Couloir and feeding it, unfortunately is now no more than a patch of snow: comparing the current ice-coverage with the 1980s one the difference is truly dramatic.
Someone reported the Diamond Couloir being on the way of a definitive sunset.
Concluding: may be that in the future some-one will climb again the Diamond, but I think that he will need some friends and excentrics rather than a couple of technical ice-axes and crampons...


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Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Jun 26, 2012 2:58 pm - Voted 10/10


thanks for mentioning direct ascend of the headwall - Michael Covington is one of my best friends in Colorado (see man in the tipi article). Great report.
P.S. I have an original poster from first direct ascent of Black Couloir hanging in my guest house.

Alberto Rampini

Alberto Rampini - Jun 27, 2012 1:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: thanks

Ciao Liba,
i try to be accurate while writing about others climbers! I believe it's due...Thanks also to you for your comment and have a good day.

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