by Amanda Tarr

Hallucinogen Wall (VI 5.11 A5)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
June 21-25, 1997

I'm sitting here, thinking about this trip report that I'm about to write.I want to relate my tale in as raw a form as possible, because this wall meant a lot to me. It was about returning to my home ground, about challenging my limits, about spending 5 days alone in a wild and forbidding place. My time on the wall felt so very far from all the other stuff, both positive and negative, that clutters my life. I want to capture as much of the feeling as I can, yet I'm afraid that it's already been marred. Upon returning, I've been hit with a wave of congratulations and praise, spanning the spectrum from handshakes and hugs from good friends to newspaper reporters and photographers. While appreciated, it feels overwhelming and foreign. Climbing the Hallucinogen Wall was a powerful experience for me, a very personal journey, and it's hard to let people take this and turn it into just another accomplishment. It means a lot more.

The other major influence which may have cast this climb in a slightly different hue for me was talking to Dr. Coomer just after I finished. Good partners and good friends are hard to find. Expecting to be able to swap stories of scary leads and killer bivies, I instead heard about how Eric almost took the ride. It was very sobering, and caused me to look back at some of the loose blocks that I started to yard on or place gear behind.Brought up so many questions in my mind. What if Eric had gone to the deck? What if I'd pulled off one of the blocks? What if, what if, what if...

On with the show...

I never really made a conscious decision to solo the Hallucinogen. There was just this spark of an idea in my head that got a little out of control. Before I knew it, there I was at the North Rim campground, with a nearly full moon overhead. I couldn't bring myself to walk the trail to the rim. Having made the stroll with Nate just a couple weeks previous, I knew how scared it would make me feel to stand at the railing and feel the air currents wafting up from the gorge. With someone else there, I could just squelch the nervousness with idle conversation. Being alone, there would have been no ignoring it.

In the middle of the night I awoke to a crazy jingling. Someone went flying by on a bicycle, gear rattling madly. Groggily, I lowered my head back to the pillow. Seconds later, I heard a meow. Was someone just messing around? What was going on? I sat up and looked around. Believe it or not, there were a pair of kitty cats walking down the campground road. I mentioned this to the rangers the next day, and they just think I'm nuts. Maybe it was a dream after all.

Next morning, much to my delight, Ranger Jason 2 agreed to carry one of my bags down the Cruise gully to the base of the wall. On top of that, he made me some damn fine pancakes to send me on my way. He was quite happy about the arrangement, actually, because he has a lot of interest in getting to know the canyon. Since I'd been down the Cruise gully descent way too many times in the past 6 weeks or so, I was the perfect guide. Down at the base, he helped me fill my water bottles with river water (and iodine tablets), and I was soon alone in the base of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

The Hallucinogen Wall loomed above me. The line slices through what appears tobe the most featureless section of North Chasm View wall. The stories I had heard over the last week were racing through my head. 80 foot whippers, unprotectable 5.10 offwidth on the very last pitch... warning upon warning. I knew how arduous retreat would be, both from the wall and back up the Cruise gully. There's no YOSAR in the Black Canyon. Were I to get hurt, self rescue would likely be the only option. So many uncertainties. Did I have enough water? Could I even lead the crux hooking? Was it a good idea to try and bring a fairly light rack? Would the 90+ degree heat be too much to handle? I had to just get on lead. It was 2 pm, much later than I'd hoped.

The first pitch is lichen infested 4th class to some slightly grovelly 5.8 or so. I ran a full 60 meters to try and haul from the point that would create the cleanest path for the bag. Unfortunately, the bag got stuck 5 times, 3 of which were within the first 30 feet. All told, I must have jugged 800' on the first pitch alone. The next pitch was better but not great. Fairly quality free climbing, but another slab haul with complications. I was doing a mixture of space hauling, rappelling, jumaring, swearing, cussing, and sweating, but the bag eventually joined me at the belay. It was then late,and I knew I had to bivy, but the slab was so low angle that there was no hope of getting my ledge level. In addition, the gear on the next pitch was too far away to be of use, so I hung my ledge on a Fish hook. I pleaded with the gods of thin flakes to spare me the horror of falling 10 feet or so onto the main anchor at some early hour of the morning.

Maybe I'm still scared of the dark. All I know is that, as soon as I settled into my ledge, a deep, chilling fear took over all my thoughts. The moon was dramatically illuminating South Chasm View Wall, and I had never felt so small. The roar of the river was so close, and the distance to the rim seemed so infinite. I swallowed the lump in my throat and fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day started with 3 free pitches, 5.8 rotten roof yikes, 5.10 funk OW, and 5.9 nice, they were designated on the topo. I'd jugged the pitches before, in what seemed another life. Tony, Nate, and I had been on the wall just 2 weeks before, and had to retreat from our push attempt after getting absolutely walloped by the mother of all thunderstorms.

My fourth and last pitch of the day was the A4 pendulum pitch to the Fantasy Island bivy. It was the first aid I'd done since I climbed Spaceshot this past spring, and it took a couple placements before I was in the groove. I was also accustoming myself to the Yates adjustable daisies, an experiment that worked out well for me. My first taste of the hooking that was to follow on the upper pitches came on this pitch. All went well until the pendulum. I lowered myself out and began running wildly back and forth across the face. Try as I might, I just couldn't swing far enough. I went so far as to take off the rack and try to swing unencumbered. No luck. Eventually, decided to try something new. I hung at the center point of the swing and started pulling myself towards my goal. When the angle between the pendulum point and myself was too high for my weak fingers to hold, I eased onto a talon hook, took some of the tension out of the pendulum rope, and started a hook traverse towards the fixed pin at the edge of the swing. Suddenly, the flake upon which I was hooked peeled, and I was sent spinning back across the rock, back to the beginning. Eventually, however, this tactic worked. I found a slightly lower traverse and was able to hit Fantasy Island in plenty of time to settle in comfortably for the night.

With darkness came the same dull but overpowering fear. Some people say the Canyon messes with your mind. I don't know that those are the words I'd choose, but I can tell you that there's a presence there. The Black Canyon feels untamable. I felt very much like a visitor when I was on the wall those nights. The roar of the river filled my ears. I couldn't escape it, even with music from my walkman playing full volume.

Morning dawned and I was quickly on lead. The next couple pitches went fairly quickly, and the hauling was improving. The pitch which is labeled 5.11 or A4 required a bit of free climbing to most easily surpass the difficulties, but I wore my free shoes and it really wasn't too bad. The third pitch of the day upped the stakes a little bit; strings of #1 heads followed by hooks and I eventually banged in the first pin that I actually aided off. (I had placed another on the pitch before, but only clipped it for pro). It was the first pitch that put me on completely unfamiliar ground; We'd bailed from pitch 8 after the storm. Eventually, however, I clipped the anchor below the crux pitch and looked up.

Where was the pitch?

Between the two topos I had of the route, I decided that I must somehow figure out how to trend left for a bit. But this would have to wait. As always, I wanted to take everything one step at a time, so I rapped down, cleaned and hauled, stacked the ropes, and got racked up.

Then I looked up. Craning my neck, I could see a bolt on the upper reaches of the pitch. A bit confused, I tried to imagine a line trending vaguely left and then back right to this bolt, but I just couldn't see it. Then I saw the bolt out of the corner of my eye. It was almost dead horizontal with me, to the left. My topos sucked.

Started out on a series of creaky hooks to the first bolt, one of my islands of safety in a sea of flexing flakes. I saw a bolt about 15 feet above and tried to search out a path of hooks to reach it. The evil twist is that all the hooking on the Hallucinogen is very natural and very difficult to spot.I felt around with my fingertips, trying to select placements with a bit of an incut. Sometimes it just wasn't possible. I blindly placed a hook and eased some weight onto it. Stood up on it and quickly crawled up to my second steps. There looked to be a storm building on the horizon, and I wanted to be off this pitch before it hit. Quickly, I chose another placement and put my weight on it. Improperly. I had forgotten to take into account the fact that some of my weight was still on the previous hook. Suddenly, as I tried to commit fully to my new placement, the crystal broke and I was flying. The fall was over almost before it was begun. I have only fallen a handful of times in my life, so I can tell you the fully blown Screamer is going on my wall.

I assessed the mistakes I had made. Moving too quickly. Improper testing. I decided that the rock quality was such that maybe the incuts just weren't as positive as one might think. For the remainder of the pitch, I tended to opt for flat hook edges because while they didn't feel as bomber,intellectually I knew that they were probably more solid. I took to the practice of prying ever so slightly on every placement before I committed to it. With the constant crunching of exfoliating flakes under my toes in the aiders, I knew I needed to be dialed in.

Slowly and carefully, I balanced my way up the pitch. There were many times that I wasn't sure which way to go, and had to just follow my nose and hope I'd find the way. Maybe I was lucky, for every time I thought I'd hooked myself out into a dead end, I'd get into my top steps and find another placement to send me on my way. I was scared, but I did my best to block out the nervousness and focus on the climbing. With a squeak of relief, I clipped the anchors and looked back at what had been the hardest pitch of aid I've yet done. 4 bolts and a couple fixed heads in a full pitch of devious hooking. (As I remember anyway... could be wrong)

The annoying part about soloing is that I'd carried a full wall rack up for this pitch. A bit of overkill on the gear, but I guess I would have been pretty bummed if I'd found a bomber #3 Camalot slot in the middle of the hectic stuff.

Slept a little better that night, thinking that maybe I'd actually make it up this damn wall. I'd done 4 pitches each the last 2 days, and I had just 5 to go. I didn't know that the scariest moves were yet to come.

Morning came and I merrily hooked off the belay to the first bolt on the "A2 cactus" pitch. Clipped it and hooked left to another bolt, placing me directly above a rather pointy death block. I had to get into my top steps,and I still couldn't touch the next hook placement. My small 5'3" stature probably keeps me from blowing some of those delicate placements, but there are disadvantages. I pinched a Talon hook with the very tips of my fingers and managed to barely sneak it over the lip of the edge. Tried pulling down on the daisy that was attached to it and it slipped. So I reset it and this time the test passed. Ever so gently, I eased onto the hook and it seemed to hold. As I climbed up and put it into view, I got a slightly better look at the placement. Basically, I have no idea how it held. Unfortunately, it was just about the only option, so up I went to my top steps. The bad news was, I had to repeat the process. This was definitely a tall person's pitch.

Presently, I realized that the distance between me and the bolt was greater than the distance between the bolt and the pointy death block. Joy. And my only option was to keep on hooking. One last out of reach placement, and I was on the A2 ramp. Now, the hardest part was over. Except for the cactus.

I did just one more pitch that day, the first overhanging pitch on the route. It felt great to just set up my bivy early and enjoy my last night on the wall. I heard some faint whooping from the overlook on the South Rim. Some friends of mine were pretty psyched for me, and I think my mom was probably just happy to know I wasn't yet dead. I stayed awake until the stars started peeking out into the night. The bivy was set under a huge roof, and the route really fell away below me. The uncertainties in my head were starting to fall away one by one.

The final three pitches of the route were long, but fairly uneventful. I left the fat pins in the haulbag for the one pitch that I would have needed them, but some funky placements did the trick. The last 60m pitch did involve some unprotectable rotten chimneying, but I guess everyone can use a little extra grovelling in their lives. My mom and the Rangers Jason were waiting at the rim. As was some cold beer. They helped me haul the last pitch, and the wall was over 5 days and 15 pitches after it had started. Ranger Tony on the South Rim extended his congratulations. He'd been checking my progress roughly every hour since I started the climb, and I think it was probably a relief for him to see me done.

I grew up in Gunnison, Colorado. Since I moved away and went to college, people have always asked if I'd ever climbed in the Black. For 4 years, the answer had been, "Nope". This climb was a very special homecoming.

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