Under Angel Wings - Climbing Magazine

Under Angel Wings

Damon Corso on Fish Out of Water.

Damon Corso on Fish Out of Water.

High Country Bouldering in Sequoia National Park

“I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate…” — Ansel Adams

I was born of white pines and crisp air—it’s just taken me a while to figure that out. As a little boy, I spent many a sunny Southern California day indoors in front of Nintendo and Lego sets. I ate Hostess donuts by the pack, and when I once ventured onto a hiking trail, I got kicked by a horse. Why go out?

My dad tried his hardest to get me into the mountains and would lure me with lore from the world beyond our pretty-in-pink Palos Verdes house. He told of far-off places —Sierra lakes and trails—his eyes turning fiery behind his glassy spectacles.

In 1999, our family revisited the scene of some of my dad’s adventurous outings. I remained completely averse to hiking. Everything was uncomfortable: the iodine-tinged water, dustladen bloody nostrils, the nauseating sour-sweet smell of witch-hazel in the summer heat, and a leaky Thermarest that left my spine twisted among the rocks.

After four days, I staged a complete food strike: I was 15, going on 15 miles from any road, and swore that the next thing going into my mouth was a piece of blueberry pie and a Coke from Grant Grove. And then we came to Hamilton Lake, nestled below the huge fluted peak of Angel Wings, one of the largest granite ramparts in the Sierra outside Yosemite Valley.


Gargantuan granite blocks were strewn about, with curved overhangs and looming black-streaked faces. We made camp 50 yards from the lake’s shore. Near the water, I found a place to tan and cast lures for Goldens, and found myself smitten in a most unlikely place — 18 miles from soda.

I watched my father race off into the sunset, up Kaweah Gap, moving briskly across the multitude of switchbacks on the way to the summit of the Precipice. I remember him still, bronzed by sun, dark and athletic, with a climber’s build: broad shoulders, skinny legs. The next year, he swiftly passed away, taken by cancer, in a fashion as he might climb — with a quiet and humble run into the evening light.

My mother, sister, and I brought his ashes by backpack deep into the Kaweah Basin overlooking Mount Whitney, its talus burning golden in the late summer light. The mountains forever branded me. I could never measure myself against an ocean sunset or a banquet of pancakes, but I found a quiet power in the Sierra. I could feel the world and its tangible forces among the mountain valleys, streams, and granite, and in the hallowed air.

Around that same time, I took up climbing. I started in gyms, fueling my burns with Three Musketeers Bars. Eventually, this new passion took me into bouldering competitions, and across the world. I often thought back to the Sierra. The memories and images came to me as if in an old film — panning through the boulders, speckled with Californian light and moss.

It took a decade for me to visit Hamilton Lake again, and by then, I held only relic memories of the landscape. Did any climbable line actually exist in that backcountry basin? I wasn’t sure, but I hid my doubts as I sold the idea to Damon Corso. In fact, I totally suckered him into the trip, knowing full well there might be nothing worth chalking-up for.

Shawn on Gabriel (V9), the line that sparked it all in a 15-year-old

Shawn on Gabriel (V9), the line that sparked it all in a 15-year-old

But oh, how there was. Christina Pilo, Damon, and I hiked deep into the Sierra with 90-plus-pound packs outfi tted with crashpads, ropes, food, brushes, and equipment. The plan was to establish contemporary boulder problems in a remote, pristine landscape touched by legends my father revered: Royal Robbins, Galen Rowel, and Ansel Adams himself.

The high-quality granite we found was even more impressive than memory had hinted. Over five days, we climbed a plethora of five-star boulders up to 50 feet tall. We’d hold a mid-afternoon tea by the lake, recovering with dried bananas, snap peas, tea biscuits, and espresso, lazing upon the warm granite slabs leading into the lake before returning again to the perfect granite. Our creations included my finest FA to-date, Gabriel (V9), named after and dedicated to my dad.

Shawn Diamond resides in New York City and is a senior at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College, and also holds a degree in fine art from UCLA. He has climbed around the world and plans on continuing to do so, while pursuing a career in reconstructive surgery.


Hamilton Lake lies at about 8,200 feet in Sequoia National Park, and the climbing is best from June to October. Approach from the west, via Visalia and Three Rivers, California. Follow Highway 198 (Generals Highway) to the Lodgepole Ranger Station, where you can obtain the necessary backcountry permit. There is also a supermarket, laundry, and camping in the Lodgepole area.

The Crescent Meadow trailhead is a few miles south of Lodgepole. Turn east off Hwy 198, immediately south of the Giant Tree Museum parking. From the trailhead, follow the High Sierra Trail approximately 11.4 miles to Bear Paw Meadow. Another 5.2-mile leg leads uphill through switchbacks and river crossings to Hamilton Lake. The boulders will be obvious.