Everything is Illuminated
This problem is on the same block as Rise and The Golden Rule, correct? Had you been thinking about the climb for some time, and had anyone else, to your knowledge, tried it?
The boulder sits in a large sand-gully below the Secrets of the Beehive sector of the Buttermilk. It is just a moment’s hike from the parking lot. The boulder has no official name but holds four climbs: Rise, my own 60-foot first ascent on the southwest arête; a Sharma climb next to Luminance, on the northwest arête; Luminance, on the west face; and The Golden Rule, on the north face. The boulder had been spotted, cleaned, and worked on by multiple climbers. Chris Sharma, Dave Graham, Kevin Jorgeson and more looked at the line, and the latter two even tried some of the holds/moves. Chris eyed the line to climb for a film but chose the arête to its left.
How many days of effort did you put into Luminance?
The climb took me two days to complete on TR clean. I created a janky and quasi-balanced anchor on some large chickenheads atop the boulder — leaving ample surface area for some heinous rope drag. The climb is extremely steep, and I basically used the rope as protection only — trying the problem in a “ground-up” manner — pretending as if I were bouldering. Every time I fell, I would lower to the ground and start again.
The moment I first sent on TR, two great emotions overcame me. Excitement and terror plagued my mind for a few days between the TR and the send. I knew physically that I could finish the climb. Could I quiet my mind enough to allow my body to do its job?
Tell me a bit about the style of the climbing — moves start to finish vis-à-vis the terrible landing? You had two spotters for your ascent, correct?
I used a 16-move sequence. Any fall after move six would have been catastrophic. An uncontrolled fall before the sixth move would have only broken a few limbs, probably. The climbing is quintessential Buttermilk bouldering. Orange patina is slashed with minimal but parallel rails with neon-green lichen striping the lens-shaped wall. There are just enough holds. I used every feature on the face, and an absence of any would have left the climb impossible.
The feet are miserable and few — lending to the excitement. The first move off the deck is super committing: a right-hand throw to a small but positive crimp. The move was just a bit larger than comfort’s sake, and total body control was impossible. So right off the ground, I had to leave my control aside. Next came a series of hand matches until reaching for a long span out right to a positive rail with a slot in its rear. I jammed my fingers down that slot’s throat for dear life and twisted them into place — locking my nails down — grinding my teeth — fighting for life. Then, I held on with a fury.
The crux comes when I let my left foot off a good hold and let my body swing out from underneath in order to reposition way up and right. The rightward swing was complicated because the wall has a double angle and was slanted to propel my body into a twisting, writhing mess. Moreover, once your enter the “swing” move’s territory, the ground drops out from underneath. I was no longer semi-protected by a small ledge under the boulder. A fall would leave me dealing with the full 30 feet to jagged ground — facing the sky — coming outta the air horizontally.
After holding the swing, some difficult body-tension moves led me out to two holds I could at least get a little shake on. Of which, the left hand has some space to get behind. I wiled out on the left hand until I could hear my cuticles rupturing, set my right foot on a positive rail, and launched to a large right-hand rail at the lip. My feet cut. My arms were fully extended and I was way above the death zone! Luckily, the topout is not super adventurous and some jugs lead the climber out safely.
Walker Emerson, who was spotting you, said this was the scariest climb he’d seen, and it sounds like you had a moment of doubt, as well — you took a fall from the crux once before sending, correct? How big a fall was it, and were you hurt at all in the landing?
The swing move was not only the crux but also the most dangerous move to fall on. I had to let go of all body control in order to commit to the swing and hang on for the ride. I had one of two options: 1) if the swing was not feeling “great,” I could hop off and hope for the best, or 2) I could commit to the swing, go horizontal, and either potentially send or potentially end up a vegetable.
So, yes, I had plenty of doubt, because I could not settle on one of the options before leaving the ground. On my first go, I did not get the right hand so solid and knew it. I had no desire to commit to the swing, so I buckled up, clenched my teeth, and dropped. I stomped a pad about 15 feet underneath with both feet. Walker, who was tied into a fixed line standing over a 40-foot drop, checked my back and shoulders, so I wouldn’t end up with an enormous fall — pushing me away from the ledge. I pinballed between a series of three crashpads set up down a sloping hill with rocks on either side. I fell about 30 feet off the wall and away from the problem, but I was totally unscathed except for some small ankle gashes…and totally f—cking psyched.
After the fall, I knew that option number 1) was not terrible. However, the chance that I’d end up completely fine again [should] the same event occur was pretty minimal. On the next go, I was poised to send and didn’t care to test any more falls.
I suppose the one big, but maybe painfully obvious, question is: why risk so much for this one climb…?
Simply put, an unhealthy cocktail of obsession and recklessness informed Luminance. But less curtly, Luminance, in my mind, is not just “one climb” but the culmination of many years of climbing and an evolution in motivation. Our sport has inherent risks for persons at all levels, and I have grown accustomed to peril over an 11-year period. Many of the dangers involved with the line could be balanced against calculated risk and experience. I admit, this line provides a breakthrough in my climbing. I have never before placed my body in such jeopardy, especially through a sequence of low-percentage moves spread over a deadly landing.
But at the moment, I’m tired of putting up or repeating boulders that are just off the ground — testing my ability to perform heinous moves with the safety of pads. It has lost its appeal momentarily. Luminance and the Buttermilk highballs are a labor of obsession and of dreams, not just a function of training and of work. The line and boulder are so obvious. It has been ready for the taking for some time, and I am honored to have had this type of exchange with the Sierra landscape — being the first but not last to feel out fear on Luminance.
Were you able to sleep the night before the redpoint?
Sleep came easily before the redpoint. But, I could hardly close my eyes the night of the send. Some leftover adrenaline will follow me back to the East Coast.
Walker Emerson Luminance Interview
Emerson, from the Bay Area, was one of Diamond’s two spotters on Luminance. Here, he shares the spotter’s-eye view of the first ascent.
How was it to spot such a highball, scary endeavor?
I didn’t know Shawn before the day of Luminance, but the Buttermilks are a small place and anyone seeking out pads for some highballing is pretty typical. I was out for the holidays with my kid brother; my friends had ditched me and decided to go to the Happies for the abundance of snow at the Buttermilks. So I was looking for pads. Shawn and I teamed up — first I gave my project a few burns, but Shawn seemed anxious so I suggested we go try his project. We tromped through the snow to the Secrets of the Beehive area. I asked Shawn which boulder he was going to. "It will be obvious," he replied. Around the next drift stood this house-sized boulder, with fresh chalk on perfect slash patina: a fairly short amount of climbing with a huge amount of exposure. The face juts dramatically from the base, placing you quickly over the heady landing. Shawn had anchored a toprope to large features at the summit. He tied in and gave it a burn. Huge moves on sloping crimps gained him the lip. He lowered to the ground. We sat for about 20 minutes, trying to figure out how best to protect the awful landing.
What sort of solution emerged?
We had a Mondo and several smaller pads, so it wasn’t really enough to cover the entire fall zone, plus the landing drops away so much that coming off the crux cut-loose move would send you flying down the hill. I suggested I tie into the rope to spot his swing and check him in the pit of pads we had built. We weren’t really sure if this would work, because the cut-loose swings you out with such violence. Shawn took off his harness and laced up. I was tied into a Grigri, the line fixed through the anchors atop the boulder and anchored to another boulder about 70 feet back from the wall. I got my stance over the no-fall zone and made a human wall with my arms, hoping to make Shawn a little more confident with my 6’2” self.
And then he went for it?
Wiping his feet for a second, Shawn looked nervous. I could tell he wanted it to be over with quickly — he grabbed the starting holds and climbed up to the cut-loose, and then matched and swung toward me, letting go before he reached the apex of the swing. His feet hit the pad right in front of me as I slammed him backwards; Shawn pin-balled into the pit. Slightly unscathed, Shawn weighed his options for another 10 minutes. I could tell he was thinking this is the time to do it — It’s the last great line in the ‘Milks and someone else will do it if I don’t do it right now. With more confidence, he gave it another go. I took my position again, trying to make my self as big as possible. This time when Shawn matched and took the swing, he screamed bloody murder. Holding the gut-wrenching swing, he got his feet on…now comes the real crux. The next move requires 100 percent. No lockoff will get you there. Realizing I was no longer in a position to spot, I unclipped the toprope and ran to the edge of the pads, knowing that if Shawn fell now there wouldn’t be much I could do ….. "You’re over the pads…come on, Shawn!" I screamed. He launched for the sloping rail snagged it, and bumped into the back for the thank-god hidden slot. With a few more carefully executed moves, Shawn was whooping and grinning as he casually topped out Luminance.
What was your reaction?
When he got back down, I told him that this was the stupidest thing I have seen anyone climb in the ‘Milks. As to how Luminance compares with other Bishop high highballs, I’d say I there are a few very tall next-level problems in Bishop and Luminance is right up there with them. The Beautiful and Damned is tall, but the landing is flattish and there are no obstacles to miss. Same with This Side of Paradise and Evilution, which is getting topped out regularly these days. Although these boulders problems are much taller, the commitment level is the same. After you take the swing and are still on the holds on Luminance, you have to make a huge throw — at this point, making it to the top is your safest option. The landing is too uneven to drop safely.