American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Colorado, The Painted Wall, Black Canyon of the Gunnison River

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1973

The Painted Wall, Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. On May 3 Kris Walker and I completed the first ascent of the Painted Wall. The ascent of 2600 feet of vertical and overhanging rock ranks as my most extreme rock climb. The immensity of the wall, coupled with the knowledge that determined efforts by Layton Kor and Rusty Baillie had been repulsed, intensely magnified the concomitant doubts and fears of a big wall first ascent. From the beginning, Kris and I had ruled out the Kor-Baillie line. The wall was big enough to preclude trespassing. So we picked our own line (about 100 yards downstream from theirs) and spent parts of three days making a reconnaissance of the first 700 feet. By the end of the third day we were getting positive vibes about the route, but a sudden snow storm and a rash of poison ivy forced us to retreat. We returned two days later with calamine lotion and determination. Once on the wall we climbed continuously for five days. Fortunately we found three tiny bivouac ledges along the way. During those five days and 26 pitches, rockfall was our chief danger. As I started the fourth pitch I dislodged a 30-pound block which crashed squarely onto my right thigh and then grazed Kris’ ear. On pitch thirteen, Kris shoved off a 75-pound block, hoping to direct it, but the block took a bad bounce and plummeted directly for me, blotting out the sun. I was tied to my anchors and couldn’t move. It looked like death, and then the sun reappeared. Leading was more difficult for the remainder of the day. On pitch 17 we hit a dead end, so Kris led a dangerous pendulum, and then struggled up an ugly overhang on the right. This pitch ended in “Death Valley,” an 85° rock gully filled with loose stones and down-sloping holds. It took us five rotten pitches to get up Death Valley. The belayer was in constant rockfall danger, and the leader seldom had adequate protection. As Kris led the twenty-first pitch the haul line dislodged a watermelon-sized block about twenty feet above my belay. I dodged in time, but a water bottle, gorp bag, and one Jümar were smashed. Two quarts of water and a thousand sunflower seeds splashed and tumbled into the depths. From the top of Death Valley we spotted our final bivouac ledge 75 feet below us. We rappelled and settled into our perch, but our sitting sleep was restless, the summit overhangs were too close—too ominous. The last day was awful and it was beautiful. We wanted off. The top was near. The rich pink and red hues of the gigantic overhanging blocks and the absolute reality of nearly 3000 feet of exposure, coupled with questionable anchors and nearly impossible leads were agony and ecstasy. Kris led free up pitch 23; it was rotten face climbing which ended in a hanging belay from five tied-off angles in a crumbling white band. Pitch 24 took me 5½ hours; it sapped my last reserves. It was the pitch I’d been wanting—an ultimate physical and technical challenge where success was imperative but doubtful. The pitch ended with a pendulum, vertical scrambling, and a lot of praying. Kris’ pitch was just as demanding. It led over a series of overhanging bulges and ended in a typical rotten pegmatite band. It was an awful place; 70 feet below the summit, we hung from five bongs in an unstable crack. Pitch 26 led through an easy chimney. We arrived on top at dusk and stood together as the sun sank. We knew the secrets of the Painted Wall, we knew each other, and we were happy. NCCS VI, F9, A4. Considering the size of the Painted Wall and the discontinuous nature of its crack systems we are pleased with the directness of our line. We’re also pleased that we had the good fortune to complete the route without using expansion bolts. To my knowledge, this is the first boltless grade VI in the country. We made a conscious effort to achieve this. Certain risks were involved in that effort; it is very satisfying to have succeeded.

Bill E. Forrest

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.