American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

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

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. In the last five years the Black Canyon has become one of Colorado’s most important climbing areas. All five of the state’s Grade VI big-wall climbs are found here, as well as many Grade IV and V free climbs. In the early 1970s major big-wall routes were done on the Painted Wall: the Forrest-Walker and the Dragon routes. Prior to 1976, all the routes on the 2000-foot North Chasm View Wall were predominantly artificial. The Cruise (NCCS V, F10+), a free version of a 1964 climb by Layton Kor and Larry Dalke, was the first major free climb in the Black Canyon, accomplished in May, 1976 by Earl Wiggins and Jim Dunn. North Chasm View Wall has been the primary focus for recent exploration. Following the first free ascent of the Cruise came more free climbs: A Movable Feast (F11) by Steve Hong and me, the Journey Home (F10) by Bryan Becker and me and the Goss-Logan route, done all-free by Leonard Coyne and Ed Russell, another F11 climb. All the Arêtes were climbed free, the Northern and Southern Arêtes of the Painted Wall, the Porcelain Arête, the Hooker and Diagonal Wall, as well as the central face of South Chasm View Wall. In short, within the past five years all the major features of the Black Canyon have been free-climbed in one-day ascents, in traditional style, “with a rope, a rack and the shirt on your back.” Aid-climbing was not entirely shelved, however. During their epic ascent of High and Dry (V, F10, A5), Earl Wiggins and Harvey Miller endured broken drill bits, 30-foot nut throws, lassos, and a diet of chapstick to lubricate their parched mouths. Miller had another good adventure with Steve Hong on Air City on North Chasm View Wall when he was forced to bivouac in a T-shirt just a stone’s throw beneath the north rim. On the Painted Wall local climbers John Pearson, Jim Newberry, Tom Pulaski and John Rosholt climbed another major new line, Journey through Mirkwood (V, F9, A3). It is fair to say that most of the new Black Canyon climbs are free climbs. Not all are F10 and F11. Climbs such as Newberry’s Slabs (F8), Cimarron Slabs (F7) by Sue Patenaude and me, and the Casual Route (F8) by Newberry, Charlie Pitts, Doug Scott and Pete Thurston are all popular. On South Chasm View Wall the Mirror Wall (IV, F10) has some superb finger cracks; an old Pat Ament- Roger Briggs climb, it was done free by Becker and me. Nearby is the Cenotaph Corner of the Black Canyon: Black Jack (F10-), a perfect five-pitch dihedral first done by Leonard Coyne and Dennis Jackson. On North Chasm View Wall, many of the finest climbs have been pioneered within the last two years. Perhaps the most popular free climb on the wall is now the Scenic Cruise (V, F10+), a four-pitch variation of the Cruise, put up by Joe Kaelin and me in the spring of 1979. In two short years, many repeats have been made, including a phenomenal unroped solo by Earl Wiggins in October, 1979. Wiggins, who had climbed the route once before, completed the 2000-foot, 14-pitch route in a scant hour and a half. Jim Dunn, who free-climbed the Cruise with Wiggins, also has a long-term interest in the canyon. After Dunn and Dean Tschappat made the first ascent of the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad on North Chasm in the early 1970s, repeated attempts were made to push the climb free. In 1979 Leonard Coyne and Ken Sims were able to link together a combination of two climbs to end up with the Air Voyage (V, F11+). A year later, perseverence paid off and Dunn and Coyne finally free- climbed all of the original Eighth Voyage of Sinbad. With multiple leads of F11, some loose rock and the ever-present chance of being benighted, the Eighth Voyage certainly ranks as one of Colorado’s most desperate free climbs. Just prior to that accomplishment, Jim Dunn and Peter Gallagher free-climbed a companion route, the Stoned Oven (V, F11+), using a few variations en route. They had one close call when, about ten pitches up, Gallagher was hit squarely on the helmet by a sizeable rock. In 1980 two new Grade VI big-wall climbs were added in the Black Canyon: Hallucination Wall (VI, F11, A5) and Wild Bills’ Wall (VI, F9, A5). The Hallucination Wall is the featureless expanse of rock to the west of the Nose of North Chasm View Wall. The Nose (VI, F10, A5) was climbed in a five-day push in April of 1977 by Wiggins and Becker and remains unrepeated. A year later, Becker returned to the canyon and made a roped solo ascent of the Dragon route (VI, F9, A4) on the Painted Wall. What came to be known as the Hallucination Wall because of the improbability of the climb, was attempted twice in 1979 when a high point of five pitches was reached by Becker and me. On April 29, 1980 a second attempt on the Hallucination began. Becker and I reached the base of the climb only to discover that two other climbers, Ken Trout and Bruce Leila, were at our high point! Both teams joined forces, but continuously bad weather caused delays and food ran out. Trout rappelled off first to return to college and two days later the three of us followed suit after Becker had finished the first A5 pitch. Hopes were still very high for completing the climb. Local climber Jim Newberry was recruited, and we four jümared fixed ropes back to the Fantasy Island bivouac site with another week’s worth of food. During the subsequent days, still plagued by daily rain, snow and hail, I free-climbed an F11 pitch, and Becker added yet another A5 pitch, this time sky- hooking. A two-man portable ledge, or Cliff Dwelling, proved invaluable, providing much needed protection from the daily barrage of storms. A new bivy site, Happy Trails, was established below the Fear and Loathing Roofs, a band of overhangs which guards the upper portion of the climb, before a snowstorm stalled efforts for a day and a half. At this point roughly two weeks had been spent on the wall. The climb was being covered daily by radio, TV and newspapers. With only one of the climbers moving at any one time and with the luxury of the portable ledge, hours of contemplation slipped by—with the transistor radio turned on to catch the latest progress report on us! The pitches through the Fear and Loathing Roofs, while not the hardest, were easily the most spectacular. The rock overhung all the way to the river below. On the second pitch a fleck of metal lodged in my right eye. After a lot of aggravation, this was removed by a specialist in Montrose two-and-a-half days later. On the final day Newberry led the last hard pitch of aid and Leila and I completed the 14th and 15th pitches, topping out at 7:50 on May 15. We were met by patient friends. Food and four bottles of champagne were graciously sent by the Montrose Daily Press and Channel 9 News in Denver. Less than a month later, Bill Forrest and Bill March completed yet another Grade VI, Wild Bills’ Wall on the south rim on Cross Fissures. Rumor had it that Forrest was up to something “big” down in the canyon. Several attempts, including a winter one, were made on the climb, which trends right on the edge of several overhangs to a niche, over another big roof and finally up an obvious chimney system to the rim and the Cross Fissures Overlook. In the early 1970s, Forrest made the first ascent of the Forrest-Walker route, a grade VI on the Painted Wall. Bill Forrest is anything but a newcomer to adventurous climbing in the canyon. When it comes to climbing in the Black Canyon, you have to be a glutton for punishment!

Ed Webster

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