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Wharton Climbs Black Canyon Grade VI Fast and Free

Josh Wharton during an attempted free ascent of Hallucinogen Wall (VI 5.10 A3+ [5.13+]), a 13-pitch aid route in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Free attempts on the line have been few and far-between since Ryan Nelson and Jared Ogden’s nontraditional drytool ascent in 2004.[Photo] John Dickey

Last month, Estes Park climber Josh Wharton led every pitch of Hallucinogen Wall — a difficult Grade-VI aid route in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison that was first climbed in two pushes over 17 days and rated A5 — all free and in a single day.

In cool and sunny conditions, with partner Vic Zeilman preparing to jug behind, Wharton started up North Chasm View Wall at 3 a.m. with aims of reaching one of the final pitches, a delicate band of frictionless white pegmatite rated 5.13+ before it received full sun. It was his fourth attempt on a single-day free ascent, having failed on previous tries with Bryan Gilmore, Michael Barnthouse and, most recently, me.

(Top) The 1980 first ascent team: Jimmy Newberry, Bruce Lella and Bryan Becker, with Ed Webster behind the camera. (Middle) Newberry surveys the scene from a bivy on North Chasm View Wall. (Bottom) Lella jugs a line on Hallucinogen. [Photos] Ed Webster

When Bryan Becker pioneered that pitch on the first ascent of Hallucinogen with Ed Webster, Bruce Lella and Jimmy Newberry in 1980, it had been snowing or raining every day during their several-week siege on the wall except one. Webster remembers looking up at great, “beak-like roofs projecting into space. [We had] to go through these roofs to reach the rim and to safety.” Becker placed a total of 24 copperheads to get through that crux.

One red dot in a sea of gneiss, schist and the infamous pegmatite of North Chasm View Wall. [Photo] Ed Webster collection

Ryan Nelson and Jared Ogden worked to free the route for several weeks in 2004. The duo climbed a variation of Pitch 5 to avoid a pendulum and used modified ice axes to drytool several moves on their thirteenth pitch to reach the rim of the canyon. They rated the climb 5.13- R D10+, but were met with hesitation to award full credit for a “first free ascent.”

Austrian Hansjoerg Auer finally made the first complete free ascent seven years later, climbing it through an intermittent snowstorm in 8:41. Auer told Alpinist he did not aid the pitches before attempting to free them. “This proved fairly demanding on some sections as there are some very long hook moves,” said Auer, “but I prefer this approach as you get a better overall picture of the line and, above all, you certainly never get bored.”

Last fall, I partnered with Wharton on a previous free-in-a-day attempt of his. The route’s framework of thin seams jammed with fixed copperheads, hollow-sounding flakes and broad, delicate traverses increased in difficulty with each passing pitch–5.10+, 5.11+ R, 5.12-, 5.12+…. Signs of Hallucinogen’s hard grade, even as a popular aid climb, littered the route; recently broken flakes, and bail anchors reminded us how easy it would be to fail. Hallucinogen is “definitely one of the most exposed spots I’ve been in the Black,” Wharton said, “and really gives the route a big-wall flavor.”

Wharton, belayed by the author Chris Van Leuven, starts fresh after a two-hour break on Hallucinogen Wall. “When Josh stepped off the anchor it felt like we were entering the next chapter of the route,” says Van Leuven. The most technically difficult sections of the route still lay above them. [Photo] John Dickey

“There weren’t any major setbacks on the day I sent,” said Wharton, “but as always there were a few snafus. Vic lost a jumar somewhere in the descent gully. He proudly sucked it up, and ‘Grigri-jumped’ the entire route. I forgot a key C3 on one pitch that backs up some fixed heads, and just went for it anyway. And on the 13a pitch I broke a hold, but managed to stay on and make up some new beta on the fly.”

Wharton has established several new routes and linkups in the Black, including Black Sheep (5.13+, 7 pitches), Free Nose (VI 5.12) and Tague Your Time (V+ 5.12). He considers this his last major outing in the canyon, at least for the time being.

Sources: Ed Webster, Josh Wharton, 2005 and 2012 American Alpine Journals,

Wharton scrambles over the lip of the Black Canyon several weeks after his Hallucinogen ascent. [Photo] John Dickey