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The Red Helmet
The Red Helmet

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, The Diagonal Epic

01-Oct-2010
By Jimmie Dunn

In the spring of 1975, the teenage Earl Wiggins and John Sherwood met me in Moab to climb the first ascent of Negro Bill Flake and other routes. After that, Earl decided to blow off high school and hitchhike to Yosemite. John returned the Wiggins family's car to their home in Colorado Springs. Earl's father, Dr. Milton Wiggins, was almost as shocked as John. Earl had never called to say he wasn't coming home.

During that trip to the Valley, Earl camped under a tarp, slept under a picnic table, and soloed Outer Limits. Jim Bridwell and other local Valley climbers couldn't watch as Earl's foot slipped on the insecure face climbing of the second pitch.

This I understood. Several times while belaying Earl, I had quietly looked away rather than watch him when he was way above his protection. But Earl never fell when the stakes were high, so after awhile I almost got used to it. I always admired his fierce approach to climbing, which gave me confidence when we climbed together.

At daybreak on the North Rim of the Black Canyon, Earl and I drank some water, grabbed the rope and rack, and raced toward the Cruise Gully through the ancient, twisted cedar trees. A few breaths behind us were Bryan Becker and Ed Webster, two young college students, who were attempting the second free ascent of The Cruise. They had never climbed in the Black Canyon. None of us had eaten anything that morning. As Bryan later told me, We were too hyper-energized to eat. Besides, the late-October early morning would have been cold, in the upper 20s, not weather for sitting around. We just took off.

Daylight was short and speed essential. Reaching the narrow gully, we heard the faint but powerful roaring of the Gunnison River in the deep gorge below. We down-climbed steep rock bands, scrambling over boulders and poison ivy, big rock walls surrounding us. As the roar of the river grew louder, we felt the hair-raising magic of the Black.

More fast scrambling brought us to the base of The Diagonal on the South Face of North Chasm View Wall. An easy-looking diagonal ramp led to vertical dihedrals and topped out through tiers of wild-looking roofs. The first 1,000 feet was mostly easy climbing. A few short tricky sections slowed us down since we roped up and belayed over them. The first real roped pitch took us to the base of a knifeblade crack in a steep corner.

We belayed below the corner using two of Kor's ¼-inch nail-drive bolts, one of which was bent over and hanging down, but luckily for me it was Earl's lead. The steep corner above looked tricky, but Earl was bold so I almost felt comfortable as I hung from the questionable bolts. Earl took the rack and was off, but soon down-climbed and handed me the rack.

It looks hard, he said. You want to try it? After climbing just a few feet, I knew why he had backed off. This thin aid crack offered insecure free climbing with no protection.

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After a few more attempts by each of us, I finally climbed 60 feet to the top of the corner. But now I had to get out of it.

There was no protection between Earl, at the belay, and me, and the move out of the top of the corner was awkward and balancey. I hung on and looked down at Earl, knowing that there was no easy way of getting back down. (Since then a piton and four 5/16-inch bolts were placed for protection in the corner below the exit moves and now this pitch is rated 5.11.)

I lobbed a #9 hex into the right-leaning parallel crack above me. After clipping the rope, and looking down at Earl again, I delicately put my hand through the sling attached to the hex and, using slight tension, climbed out of the corner. A few minutes later I was belaying Earl, who easily free-climbed the corner and the last tricky move out of it. Good job, Earl.

Once again we moved quickly on easy ground, until I started leading up to the intimidating roofs. Off to the right I spotted a rusty piton, probably placed by the second-ascent party. I assumed that the Kor party had climbed directly up and over the roofs but the piton seemed to show the path of least resistance, and I headed that way.

I was only 30 feet from the piton but to get to it I would either have to climb a very thin, shallow, dusty crack or the steep rock face with marginal flaky edges. After only 10 feet, I down-climbed the rotten rock to a nasty little stance with an expanding crack for the belay anchors, belayed Earl to the stance and handed him the rack. I didn't tell him I couldn't do it. I didn't want to stress him. The climbing looked feasible, but I knew it would be difficult and scary due to the lack of protection.

Several intense efforts by Earl got him a little higher, but still only 15 feet from the piton. Each time he came back to the belay I got a little more nervous. We were both getting thirsty: our last drink had been in the campground eight hours earlier. Earl finally gave up on the pitch and gave me back the rack of nuts. I then traversed about 20 feet left to a loose four-foot-high pillar perched on a small edge. The pillar rocked slightly when touched. I wasn't sure that I had the nerve to move onto it. At that moment, a strong jerk on the rope nearly pulled me off the rock.

I shouted, Earl, what's going on? He yelled back that the top wired nut in the belay anchor had pulled out and that he had fallen onto the next one. Spooked, I climbed back to the belay and told Earl about the loose pillar. If we could stand on the pillar, I hoped that it would lead to easier climbing above. Perched on the small edges of our belay stance, I was hoping that Earl could lead this pitch and get us out of here. However, I wasn't sure what was worse, climbing above the loose pillar with no protection, or belaying from the bad nuts.

Earl's eyes looked huge, magnified behind his thick glasses. He said, I'm going for it.

A minute later I leaned out from the belay and watched Earl mantel easily onto the pillar, thinking, Wow, he's doing it. Minutes later he shouted down, I can't do it!

He climbed back to the belay. For the first time that day I was really scared. We were now truly thirsty; the beauty of the canyon didn't matter anymore, and it was time to go full tilt out of here. This was nothing like when Earl and I did The Cruise; it was more like a bad trip.

Read more about Jimmie Dunn and Earl Wiggins

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Earl, let's rappel down.

He replied, You can take the rope and rack. I'm staying. He spoke calmly, staring at me.

I looked over at the canyon rim opposite us, thinking that if any people were there, we could shout to them to go ask our friends to help us out. No one. I thought, We're really on our own now.

I didn't know what Earl was thinking. Later he would tell me that he hoped one of our friends could drop us a rope.

Earl, this is no place to stay.

Earl didn't think we would make it down the 1,600 feet back to the base with one rope, and I didn't think we could get up the last couple hundred feet to the rim.

That sense of isolation was probably what motivated me. I tried twice to go straight up, clawing uselessly at the crumbly potato-chip edges, and blindly throwing an #11 Hex tied to a knot of slings in the hope that it might catch on something.

After a few moments of silence, I started climbing a smooth arete right of the belay stance. Using tension from a horrible #5 Stopper on a yellow sling placed in a shallow crack full of dry, flaky mud, I slowly slithered and free-climbed up the vertical arete. The higher I went, the worse it seemed. My legs were shaking as I began underclinging a small roof, committed now, with no way back to the belay. Earl and I stared at each other for a moment. Then Earl said, Get us out of here.

I pulled over the roof onto a slab and a thin vertical crack, which turned out to be useless and mud-filled. A little above, I placed my smallest wired nut behind a small flake on the loose wall. Next came 25 feet of tension traversing, with my body horizontal, pushing with my feet. I told Earl, When I need slack, give me slack fast. After the traverse, I yelled for slack and lunged to a solid hand jam. Got it!

From there I worked into a shallow chimney and climbed 50 feet to a good belay. That pitch had only two crummy protection pieces in 100 feet.

Getting to the belay, I saw legs dangling off the rim and a friendly face with a Fu Manchu mustache, iron-straight beard and long straggly hair. Dean Tschappat had just made the second ascent of the Dragon Route (VI 5.9 A4) on the Painted Wall with Steve Miller.

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We're thirsty, I shouted up. A few minutes later something bumped my shoulder. It was a small red pack dangling from a rope. Beer! Dean yelled, but I was far too concerned with belaying Earl up the tricky pitch to open the pack. When Earl got to me, our only thought was to get to the top as fast as possible. We soloed up easy rock to the rim. It had taken us only seven hours to do the route, topping out at 3:00 p.m., but it had been a long seven hours. That evening in the campground, Earl said of the last technical pitch, That's the hardest pitch I've ever seen anyone climb.

Dean and Steve gave us some water, and then I asked, Where are Ed and Bryan? We all looked and could see them below us, two small dots down on the wall, and realized they weren't getting up that day. That night I felt fortunate to be in my warm sleeping bag on the ground, but concerned for my friends as snowflakes hit my face. They topped out the next morning after a few hours of climbing and a very cold night huddling on a ledge, having made an important ascent: no one in those days attempted to free climb the Chasm View Wall.

We hadn't accomplished our goal of free-climbing The Diagonal, but it was one of the wildest days of my life. After that, I stopped climbing for a few months, spooked. We almost hadn't gotten up the climb, and only had by luck. A few years later I asked Earl if he'd want to go back and he said, Never. He said it was too rotten.

In the late 1980s Glenn Randall and partner attempted to free climb The Diagonal. Even equipped with pitons and cliffhangers they were benighted. Glenn told me that he used hooks to get to the rusty piton and that it pulled out in his hand as he clipped it. It occurred to me how lucky Earl and I were not to get to that piton, though we tried for hours. I've always known I was lucky to climb with Earl.

Dunn and Wiggins very nearly freed this Grade V big wall. In 1994 Dunn and Eric DeCaria did the first free ascent of The Diagonal, using the newly added piton and bolts in eight hours car to car, with a variation to avoid the A5 Kor finish. At the upper difficulties they traversed about 50 feet lower than Dunn and Wiggins had, using sparse bolts placed by another team on a free variant/linkup. The two rejoined Wiggins and Dunn's original line via a 5.12 fingertips crack. Dunn lives with his wife, Hellen, and their son, Charlie Joe, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Read more about Jimmie Dunn and Earl Wiggins


Black Canyon Logistics

Black Navigation: The Black, as it's affectionately called, is a magnificently anomalous 2,000-foot granite gash in the southwestern flanks of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Of all the national parks, it has earned a reputation as the most fearsome big-wall climbing area. Loose rock, a committing approach and tricky route-finding all add to the experience of climbing here.

There is climbing on both the north and south sides of the canyon, and, depending on which route you want to do, this affects where your adventure begins. The most popular climber basecamp is the North Chasm View campground, which is the best starting point to access some of America's most well-known trad climbs, such as the Scenic Cruise (V 5.10), Escape Artist (III 5.10-), Comic Relief (III 5.10) and Journey Home (IV 5.10-). These climbs belie the Black's menacing reputation. They are popular moderates on good stone with decent to bomber protection. Along with all others on the North Rim, these routes have south-facing orientations, and receive good sun, making them prime in the fall and spring.

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The South Chasm View Wall is more accessible than North Chasm View campground and hence is busier with crowds and tourists. In terms of reaching climbs, the South Chasm View Wall is much less accessible and therefore more committing, requiring either a heinous descent down the SOFB gulley (which includes five rappels), or a descent of the Astro Slog, which is 11 straight rappels down a 2,000-foot buttress adjacent to the wall's most popular line, Astro Dog (V 5.11). The South Chasm View Wall tends to have better-quality rock, and is a good cliff in the summer since it stays shady most of the day.

Getting There: To reach the South Chasm View Wall, take highway 50 either west from Gunnison, or east from Montrose. Turn onto highway 347 and follow it for six miles to the park entrance.

To reach the North Chasm View campground, head west on route 50 from Gunnison and take a right on Highway 92 heading north toward Crawford. Just before you reach Crawford (a few miles south of town), you will see small signs directing you toward the North Rim, approximately 11 miles away. Carefully follow signs as the dirt road zigzags to the park entrance.

The Free Diagonal (V 5.12): This route follows the obvious right-trending diagonal line up the impressive South Face of the North Chasm View Wall. From the North Chasm View campground, start walking toward the ranger station and turn off into the trees on a well-defined path that leads you down into the technical descent of the Cruise Gully. There are two rappels (generally fixed), which can be done with a single 60-meter rope and 10 feet of 5.5 down-climbing. Continue hiking down and around the wall to the start of The Free Diagonal, which is defined by an obvious right-trending third-class ramp. Follow this ramp for about 350 feet, and rope up here for the start of the first pitch of technical climbing.

The first three pitches are 5.9, 5.7 and then a 250-foot easy ramp. The fourth pitch goes through a chossy band of 5.9 and into a few moves of 5.11 with sparse fixed protection. Continue up the diagonal feature for the fifth and sixth pitches. By now, you should see the A5 knifeblade dihedral that Layton Kor followed on his first ascent. This o iginal line contains horrendously chossy, loose rock. The route Eric DeCaria and Jimmie Dunn used on their free ascent takes a variation to the right of Kor's A5 pitch, and then rejoins the original Kor route via a 5.12 finger crack. It's possible this free version has not been repeated. Most free climbers now prefer to top out via The Free Diagonal, a variation pioneered by Kerry Gunter and Ed Pearsall that takes a foot traverse on a slopey ledge system right, with a precarious 5.11 step-down move, and ultimately joins the last few pitches (5.12-, rotten 5.10) of the Hallucinogen Wall (VI 5.10 A3).

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