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1980: Granola and Champagne

Posted on: March 29, 2019

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Bryan Becker on Hallucinogen Wall. [Photo] Ed Webster collectionBryan Becker on Hallucinogen Wall. [Photo] Ed Webster collection

SPRING 1980: ON THE SEVENTH DAY of our first attempt on the Hallucinogen Wall, we'd run out of food. By the seventh day of our second attempt, a handful of granola remained. Bryan Becker, Bruce Lella, Jimmy Newberry and I were three-quarters of the way up the sheerest swath of North Chasm View Wall in the Black Canyon.


We'd perched for the night atop a convenient flat-topped flake we called the Happy Trails bivy. Three hundred feet of overhanging blankness separated us from the North Rim. More featureless rock spread out on each side; below, ditto—but at least we'd already climbed that part. On the opposite rim, a growing crowd gathered at the overlook to watch our slow-motion crawl.

"Hey Jimmy, turn on your transistor radio. Let's see if we're on the news again!" one of us said.

Jimmy flicked it on, and sure enough, we caught a local station's bulletin. We listened intently as the Black Canyon's chief ranger gave an update on our progress in a thick cowboy accent. Finally, he declared:

"Well, I'd say by the rate the climbers are goin', they should reach the North Rim by late tomorrow afternoon."

At that pronouncement, we all screamed in unison:

"We're gonna make it!"

THE BLACK CANYON HAS LONG been legendary for loose rock, crumbly salmon-pink pegmatite bands, arduous route-finding, fever-inducing ticks and waist-high poison ivy. Nonetheless, in May 1976, Colorado Springs climbers Jimmie Dunn and Earl Wiggins inaugurated a brash new free-climbing era with a fast-and-light six-hour ascent of the Kor-Dalke route: a winding crack and corner system up the steep, 1,800-foot face of North Chasm View Wall. "We cruised it!" Dunn exclaimed—and the name stuck, along with a catchy motto, "A rope, a rack, and the shirt on your back," that was later sometimes altered to, "A rack, a rope, and a little bit of dope."

During the mid-1970s, the local climbing history was preserved in a sheaf of typed route descriptions at the South Rim Ranger Station. A hastily scrawled note, decorated with an arrow or two to point you in the hoped-for right direction, provided your ticket to unforgettable adventure. You and your partner set off up an 1,800-foot wall with a rack of hexes and stoppers, a two-inch-wide tubular nylon swami belt wrapped several times around your waist, a chalk bag, EB rock shoes, a quart of water, an apple, and an extra shirt and a hat in case you suffered a forced bivouac. How you played the "games climbers play," in Lito Tejada-Flores' classic expression, counted most of all. Gymnastic difficulty wasn't everything; climbing with style and good ethics was.

FOLLOWING OUR INAUGURAL EPIC on the North Rim in October 1976, Bryan Becker and I free climbed a plethora of new routes in single-day efforts. Known as "the Hobbit" for his compact size and readiness to embark on virtually any adventure, Becker soon became my most trusted partner.

In November 1979, Bryan and I scaled the first five pitches of the Hallucinogen Wall: a blank-looking precipice on North Chasm View Wall that soars 1,700 feet above the cataracts of the Gunnison River. Earl Wiggins declared that you'd have to be hallucinating to see any climbable features up the smooth, grey face. Bryan and I discovered two stashed water bottles en route. Who else had eyes on this? we wondered. We cached our entire big-wall rack at our high point to guarantee our return.

The next April, we came back. To our astonishment, two climbers were at our equipment stash. One of them, Bruce Lella, shouted, "Hey, you don't have to hurry. We've already divided up your gear!" Although we'd never met before, we said our hellos and merged into one team. Turns out, Ken Trout, Bruce's partner, had deposited the mystery water bottles. Three days later, Ken announced that he had to get back to college for an exam, and he rappelled off. Amid daily rain and snow, the rest of us persevered. After we ran out of food, we descended to resupply in Colorado Springs—and find another partner. Fortunately, the ever-enthusiastic local climber Jimmy Newberry agreed to join us.

On May 7, when we jugged back up our fixed ropes, we were doubly glad to have revolutionary technology—Stonemaster-invented gadgets from Yosemite that included dozens of malleable, soft aluminum bashies made by Dale Bard, and one of Mike Graham's first two-person portaledges. Soon the "cliff dwelling" sheltered three of us from the wet weather while Bruce suffered in his hammock.

Legend has it that members of our convivial team utilized certain substances for "extra inspiration." Indeed, Bryan displayed extraordinary A5 prowess on Hallucinogen's two toughest leads: a sky-hooking section protected by two bolts thirty feet apart (the face so smooth that jugging up it, I couldn't see the rugosities he'd used); and the obstacles we nicknamed "The Fear and Loathing Roofs," where he placed twenty-four bashies on a single pitch (I cleaned—and counted them).

As I hand-drilled a bolt on the smooth headwall, a tiny, hot fleck of metal flew into the pupil of my right eye. Although a doctor removed the metal days later, the resulting scar tissue impaired my ability to focus with that eye for the rest of my life. (Recommendation: Always wear sunglasses!)

Unbeknownst to us, two of Newberry's friends—Nancy Lofholm of the Montrose Daily Press and photographer Les Choy—had been publishing daily newspaper accounts with photos of our epic struggle. When the Associated Press picked up the story, TV and radio stations also tuned in. We were NEWS!

On May 15, I led the fifteenth and final pitch to reach the North Rim at 7:50 p.m. For what was perhaps only the second time in North American climbing history—since Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell completed El Capitan's Wall of the Early Morning Light in 1970—the media was waiting to cheer and congratulate us. Bruce, Jimmy, Bryan and I devoured the spread of cold cuts, cheese, bread and fruit Nancy brought, eagerly washing it down with four bottles of champagne donated by a cameraman from Denver's Channel 9 News.

When the camera finally got rolling, the TV guy asked Bryan that most dreaded question:

"Why do you climb?"

And there stood Bryan, begrimed, exhausted, famished, exhilarated. He took a swig from the champagne bottle and clutched a half-eaten sandwich in his other hand. Mid-chew, he stopped to contemplate this difficult inquiry. Then he chewed several more times, swallowed—looked directly into the camera—and answered:

"To lose weight?"

A clip from the Montrose Daily Press in 1980. They said they would make it and they did, staff writer Nancy Lofholm began her article. The four climbers in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison clambered over the rim one by one at sunset last night—cold, tired, wet, hungry and elated. [Photo] Ed Webster collectionA clip from the Montrose Daily Press in 1980. "They said they would make it and they did," staff writer Nancy Lofholm began her article. "The four climbers in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison clambered over the rim one by one at sunset last night—cold, tired, wet, hungry and elated." [Photo] Ed Webster collection

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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