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

Painted Wall, The Serpent. In mid-October, Kennan Harvey and I climbed an all-free variation to the Dragon route on the Painted Wall. We climbed in classic wall style, with the leader free climbing and the second following on jumars. A “true” free ascent is left for future European rock stars. We followed the original Dragon Route (Baillie-Baxter-Lovejoy-Karlstrom, 1972) for 600 feet to Kor’s Cave, a huge overhang sheltering what was once a spacious bivy ledge that has since fallen off. From the remnants of this ledge where the Dragon goes right, we went left under the roof, climbing three complex pitches diagonally up and left to rejoin the Dragon in its “Stygian Traverse.” At the end of this traverse, we continued left onto new terrain, joining the Dragon again a pitch higher, just beyond a rotten yellow band that forms the original route’s aid crux. Easier free climbing led to the Dragon exit chimneys and juncture with the Stratosfear route, with four more moderate crack pitches to the top. The free route involves about 600 feet of new climbing in 1,800 feet overall.

We took four days car-to-car, most of which was spent hauling, carrying loads or drinking wine on our portaledge. The main challenges lay in route finding and sparse protection on the steep, intricate wall and in protecting our ropes from the sharply fractured rock. I had climbed the original Dragon Route in winter three years earlier with Mark Synnott; Kennan had never been on the Painted Wall before. Other than what I remembered from my previous ascent, we climbed all pitches onsight, using no aid for progress, inspection or placing protection. We placed no bolts. Seven pitons were left fixed and about ten 5.11 sections were encountered. This being a wall climb, we suggest a Yosemite-style rating of new wave 5.9+.

Although we left all our pins fixed, future parties are advised to carry a few knifeblades because the Painted Wall sheds flakes, ledges and fixed gear. The rock that is not loose or fractured is generally flint-hard and excellent for climbing. A good selection of modem micro-gear, wired nuts and long slings is advised; the Kor’s Roof pitch requires several four- to five-inch pieces. We led on double 10-mm lines and though we had no serious mishaps, by the end of the climb we had cut or damaged three of the five ropes we carried. A detailed topo, full of helpful beta and gratuitous names for prominent features, is available by sending your firstborn daughter to Kennan Harvey.

Jeff Achey, unaffiliated