Defining a new game: "free aid” on the Hallucinogen Wall, in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado.
In 1980, four climbers must have been hallucinating when they set out for a new route in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison: their chosen wall looked impossibly blank. But when Bryan Becker, Ed Webster, Bruce Leila, and Jimmy Newberry topped out after a final push of eight days, they completed one of the hardest aid climbs in the world, the Hallucinogen Wall.
A free ascent of the Hallucinogen would be a dream climb for any Black Canyon aficionado, yet it had never seen an attempt. Many climbers overlook the Black Canyon because of its reputation for poor rock, which is fairly accurate. However, the Hallucinogen follows some of the best rock in the canyon. The route’s reputation for horrific runouts and hard climbing was legendary, and any ascent, free or aid, is a mental and physical challenge.
Hoping the Hallucinogen would go free, in May 2003 I rappelled the top four pitches with Mike Sheppard to investigate. I tried freeing the bolt ladder on pitch 13 unsuccessfully. The overhanging face was fairly blank with more bolt ladders below, and the project seemed improbable. That fall I did another reconnaissance, with Topher Donahue, to the top of pitch 8, where we worked it out all free on follow. Things were looking better, but to free the whole route still seemed like a long shot.
I returned in March 2004 with Ryan Nelson on a three-day attempt that ended at the top of pitch 10 when heavy snowfall forced a retreat. On pitch 6 I bolted, on lead, a two-bolt, 40-foot, 5.12+ variation that avoided the pendulum used on the first ascent. On that attempt we freed every move on top-rope through pitch 10, but the remaining two pitches I hadn’t yet seen and remained a mystery. We were thrilled with our progress yet terrified by the lack of protection for leading it as a free climb. Ed Webster, a prolific pioneer in the canyon, recently said that Hallucinogen was the hardest route—both mentally and physically—that he had done there. It was proving to be just as hard for us, too.
Hallucinogen follows an obvious corner system for five pitches, then breaks off into a blank-looking wall. Pitches 6 through 13 comprise the hardest aid done on the first ascent and involve extensive copperheading, hooking, and thin nailing. At pitch 14 the route joins a prominent crack and chimney system that reaches the top for a total of 16 pitches in 1,800 feet. The first-ascent party placed a high priority on minimal drilling (only 45 holes), thus creating extreme aid climbing with mind-numbing runouts. Today, as on the first ascent, the possibility of falling 70 feet or more is often present, adding to the character of the route. The route’s dangerous reputation was appealing to us, but preserving the original character of the climb was more important than free climbing it.
Continuing our efforts during the spring, Ryan and I, with several ropes fixed, would rappel into the canyon and rehearse pitches 9-13 on top-rope, then jug out. The chore of rappelling in and jugging out, in addition to trying to free the pitches, was so taxing that we worked on it only two days a week. For the free climb we didn’t change the original route by adding bolts or fixed gear of any kind, but we did remove some deadly blocks, broken fixed gear, and garbage, in addition to replacing 30 of the original bolts, some of which I pulled out with my fingertips. Working out the moves on top-rope felt secure, but the exposure never went away. The roar of the river 1,500 feet directly underfoot added to the intense interaction with the canyon.
Every pitch except one went free. Appropriately, it was pitch 13, the second Fear and Loathing Roof that we couldn’t find a solution to. The 30-foot bolt ladder on the headwall at the end had a few blank sections, and after numerous attempts to piece together a free sequence we finally gave up. Had there been six or seven more holds, the pitch would have gone free. The entire route had gone free except for this short section—and to have it go at A0 wasn’t acceptable.
To solve this problem we decided to try leashless ice tools since the picks might hold onto dimples of rock too small for fingers. We chose leashless tools to maintain the difficulty associated with hard mixed climbs that are considered “free” climbs. Using a piece of 5mm cord, we tethered the tools to a shoulder sling so we wouldn’t lose them if we fell. It was unlike anything we’d ever done before. The sequences linking the blanks went something like this: use a tool on a dimple while pasting rock shoes on smears, reach up for a sloping side pull with your hand, hit a crimp with the other hand, then reach with the tool again, match hands on the tool, more hand holds, and so on. This gave us “free” passage past the short blanks between the usable handholds. One hold was too small for the standard pick, so we customized it by bolting the head of a Pecker piton to the tip of the pick. This hold was the size of a ballpoint-pen tip, but the custom pick held and the pitch linked up.
On the first ascent, where they’d already established A5 hooking and copper- heading, the leaders had resorted to drilling a bolt ladder on this section. Could they have avoided drilling as many bolts had they used free- aid? Our decision to apply dry tooling to the face compromised our “free” ascent, but could it be the solution to cleaner and freer routes of the future?
Bryan Becker explains his style of climbing on the first ascent of the Hallucinogen: “The game I liked to play was to place as few bolts as possible, hence my many hours dinking around on lead with equalizing hooks, blades, copperheads, etc., along with numerous little tension traverses and the sketchy style I have always referred to as ‘fraid’ climbing—using your fingers, toes, and marginal pieces simultaneously to move upward. ‘Fraid’ (obviously short for 'afraid') I believe accurately described my emotional state numerous times while in that mode on the climb. It was fun experimenting, and it was the hardest aid climb I’d done at that time in the Black.”
Leashless mixed climbing has been accepted as a legitimate form of climbing at mixed crags and in the mountains to navigate terrain that would be otherwise too icy, cold, or impossible to free climb with bare hands and rock shoes. To us it seemed a natural progression to apply these techniques to the blank sections in order to “free” the pitch. However, “free” climbing is defined by climbing a face or crack using only your hands and feet, so technically this wasn’t “free.” Instead, it’s a hybrid that we call “free-aid.”
We think free-aid is an improvement on aid climbing because you can climb a face or crack that’s too thin to free in the traditional sense, but it is still harder than simply clipping bolts or gear and walking up ladders. It’s also faster than aid and less damaging to the rock than the repeated hammering in and out of pitons or drilling bolts. Free-aid also allows you to simultaneously distribute your weight across your tools and feet, making available holds that hooks might otherwise break. You can also use the picks to sidepull and undercling edges, techniques that are impractical or impossible in traditional aid.
Appalled critics like Alex Huber spoke out against free-aid, mentioning that El Capitan could look like mixed routes he’d seen in Europe that had broken or chipped holds if free-aid was used there. This is a fair argument, and both Ryan and I would never want such an atrocity to happen. Free-aid should never be brought to a free climb. The idea is to make aid climbing more efficient and cleaner so routes won’t get damaged and less bolting will take place. Ironically it’s the repeated use of pitons in cracks that has made routes on El Capitan possible to free climb.
In the early 1990s Charlie Fowler and Xavier Bongard did the first hammerless ascent of the Shield on El Capitan by using Black Diamond Spectre hooks (a short ice pick used for ice protection) in their arsenal of customized tools for clean protection. Is there any difference between hanging all your weight on a hand-placed Spectre hook (or aid hook for that matter) and free- aid using leashless ice tools and rock shoes? If not, then which is closer to free climbing or more difficult: free-aid climbing a face using leashless tools and hands while wearing rock shoes, or hanging in your harness and walking up ladders old-school style? Decide for yourself, but we’re not the only ones trying this free-aid style. In 2004 Ivo Ninov was going to attempt the Shield using free-aid, however he never managed to due to crowding and logistics. In 2003 Steve House and Marko Prezelj climbed the north face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies using ice tools on the rock to free climb past where others had aided. This shows the style has potential. Is free-aid the next step in the evolution of aid?
By mid-May we felt ready for a redpoint attempt. We had been building just as much mental fitness as physical for this climb. The lack of available protection meant that if we couldn’t climb we also couldn’t rest on the rope and were faced with a dangerous whipper. At night I’d lie awake running sequences through my head and what would happen to me if I fell. It was horrible, and my imagination was filled with visions of broken bones or worse. Physically we felt ready, but the mental game proved a much greater challenge.
On May 20, our first redpoint day, Ryan tried pitch 13 four times until he sent it. If we fell on any pitch, we would lower back to the belay, pull the rope, and re-lead it without falling. A broken hold plus a few slips were frustrating and sapped his energy. But his success boosted our outlook for the rest of the climb since this pitch had been a huge question mark. We rated it D10+, the D replacing the M in mixed grades. The D (for dry) was the only way we could try to explain the difficulty. It’s similar to M (mixed) ratings or a 5.13- pump. Perhaps introducing a new grading system is ridiculous, but we think it’s very different from the M grades: wearing rock shoes, using face holds in tandem with tools, and obviously no ice.
Then I sent pitch 14 (5.12-) and tried pitch 12 (5.13-R). The protection at the first crux on pitch 12 is a RURP and a long string of manky fixed heads. Not inspiring. Then you traverse under and out a roof 20 feet over a knifeblade to a headwall for a 165-foot pitch, the longest crux on the climb. There are just enough holds on the bolted headwall, but I still blew off. I was too tired to try it again, so we settled into our bivy site at the bottom of pitch 12 (we had rapped in earlier that day with three days’ worth of food and water).
We decided to do the pitches out of order over three consecutive days while living on the wall. We figured that if we started from the ground and failed up high due to fatigue it would mean failure for this season. The heat of summer was quickly approaching and we only had a three-day window. For us it was an acceptable compromise to the ground-up style we desired. For comparison, Todd Skinner’s free ascent on Nameless Tower in Pakistan and Moby Dick on Ulamertorssuaq in Greenland were done in the same way and were accepted as free ascents. In the future we’d like to do it again from the ground, but we did the best we could under the circumstances. Indeed, our style of ascent could be improved upon and we hope in the future a team will onsight the route in a day or at least do it from the ground. Perhaps someone will free the whole thing! Like anything new in climbing it will evolve. Hallucinogen hasn’t yet reached its final chapter.
The next morning I sent pitch 12 first try. I had broken a huge mental barrier because I hadn’t been able to send the pitch clean on top-rope. With that momentum Ryan then sent pitch 9. He later recalled this pitch: “When I looked up at pitch 9 through the sunlight, all I could see were copperhead wires poking out through a sea of granite. The climbing on this pitch was beautiful. I moved quietly, trying not to disturb the crusty exfoliating edges I trusted my well being to, ignoring what I was clipping as I went. This pitch plagued my mind more than any other on the route, and my visualizations of potential mistakes were vivid reminders of the mindset I needed to be in during the send. What made me want to continue was the fact that Jared faced the same demons; he put his neck out and so would I.”
Pitch 9 (5.13-R) is 100 feet of crimping ending with a technical roof and face. Only three bolts and a few worthless copperheads protect the entire pitch. The thought of pulling the crux 30 feet above the last bolt made us want to boot. Just two moves from the anchor Ryan’s foot popped off. Somehow he stabbed for a crimp and clipped the anchor, avoiding a 70-footer! He said it was the scariest moment of his life.
Pitch 10 (5.13-R), the hooking pitch, is similar with 100 feet of crimping with only five bolts for protection, two of which are right next to each other. The crux is only 10 feet above the final bolt, but the sustained 5.12 climbing in between the previous three bolts makes the potential for taking a 70-footer an unpleasant reality. I hadn’t done it on top-rope without a rest, so I was really gripped. I begged for mercy, crimped hard, and pulled it off. We were so stoked that our screams bounced all the way down the canyon. We finished the day with pitch 11 (5.12R) and both arrived at the bivy totally psyched that we hadn’t fallen.
Having the hardest and most dangerous pitches behind us was a major relief.
We celebrated with shots of whisky on our ledge. Neither of us had ever pushed that hard not to fall. We could have added bolts to make it safer, but that would have ruined the challenge. It would have left little to aspire to and certainly would have changed the character of the climb. By pushing ourselves to rise up and face those challenges, the rewards were deeply satisfying.
The final day we rapped with two ropes to the ground and quickly climbed through pitch 5. It had been over a month since I led pitch 6 (5.12+) and I nearly fell off. Ryan and I then sent pitches 7 (5.12b) and 8 (5.11+) and jugged up to the top of our ropes on pitch 14. Two pitches later we topped out successful. By chance, Jimmy Newberry (from the first ascent), who’d just stopped by for a look into the canyon on his way home, shared the moment with us.
As far as free-aid goes, we think it’s got a place in the future. Applying free-aid to new routes, especially in the mountains, where cold and intense weather prevent free climbing, and aid climbing is too slow, may be its best application. Would a new route on Baffin Island done free-aid style receive praise or criticism? Is it right or wrong? I don’t know. Bryan Becker believes that “almost all climbing—unless you go at it shoeless, naked and unroped—is aid. All gear helps, assists, and aids us in our ascents of whatever medium and location we choose.”
Critics who don’t climb mixed routes or understand the potential benefits of free-aid won’t see the value and will probably disagree with the technique. Having open minds about style and ethics brought free-aid to our attention. Will it catch on? Maybe, but it might just die out like Spandex did. Perhaps it’s our own pipe dream. We’ve climbed at the highest levels of mixed climbing and climbed lots of 5.13s, up to 13+, so we have respect for both mediums. We also have respect for pure aid climbing. In fact we like all disciplines of climbing no matter how dogmatic the practitioners. For us it was a natural progression to put mixed and aid climbing together on the Hallucinogen while maintaining a high degree of ethics and traditional free climbing. Ryan adds that he “has sympathy for those who oppose us on free-aid, and I can’t blame them for not understanding our reasoning behind opening this style. The key for us was to drop all predefined biases that are associated with climbing’s many disciplines. If you break down the concepts from alpinism, aid climbing, mixed climbing, and every other style of climbing you will find common threads that interweave and borrow traits from one another. Human nature has played a part in how we categorize and place rules for these styles, often causing a myopic outlook on how the sport can evolve. By dropping these notions and looking to objectivity as our guide, we found that free-aid worked to shed new light on pitch 13, and possibly opened doors for a freer, cleaner, and faster form of aid climbing.”
Ed Webster recently commented that our greatest contribution to “freeing” the route was our “creative problem-solving in finding ways to free climb virtually the entire climb by going into brave new territory, conceptually and physically. Pushing the limits, all of them, that’s what it’s all about in the Black Canyon!” Bryan Becker adds, “What’s most important is that we use our energies to get out and go to these beautiful and wild places that climbing takes us.” We agree.
We did the Hallucinogen how we wanted to do it for ourselves, not because we were trying to introduce something new. If we had freed the route in the traditional free style perhaps no one would have even noticed. But because we used ice tools on a handful of moves on the 30-foot section it’s become a controversial style. That’s par for the course when you think about the introduction of V ratings and sport climbing. They too received criticism yet are now considered the cutting edge of modern free climbing. The Hallucinogen was scary as hell and you’d get really whacked if you fell at the wrong spot. We had to believe in ourselves to overcome those fears, and that was tough to do since the consequences of a fall could have ended our climbing altogether.
To this day I still get sweaty palms when I think about our experience on the Hallucinogen Wall. It’s the hardest “free” climb we’ve ever done. Yeah, we’ve climbed harder pitches and done much longer routes, but those were hard in different ways. The level of risk involved at a high climbing standard is what really made it stand out and that was most exciting. The Black Canyon is full of adventure, whether you’re hallucinating or just getting high on a rock!
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado.
Ascent: Free Hallucinations (VI 5.13-R D10+), Jared Ogden and Ryan Nelson, May 20-22,2004. A Note About the Author:
Jared Ogden, 33, lives in Colorado not far from the Black Canyon. He has made first ascents from Patagonia to Pakistan, including Parallel Worlds on the Great Trango, and is one of Americas most well-rounded climbers. He puts up new routes at or near the top standards in aid, mixed, alpine, free, expedition, speed, big wall, and now “free aid.” He is has written a book, Big Wall Climbing: Elite Technique, published by The Mountaineers books.