Climbers recount canyon ascent

Few have matched 1972 scaling of Black Canyon wall

DENVER (AP) – Forty years ago, two Colorado climbers pulled off a feat some thought impossible: a 2,500-foot ascent up the treacherous Painted Wall, a sheer cliff looming above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.

Choking down their own doubts and dodging rockfall, Bill Forrest and Kris Walker summited May 3, 1972, after nine days of climbing – the last four spent on the granite face.

“The wall had never been climbed, and it had been attempted by some of the best climbers in the country,” says Forrest, 72, who lives in Salida. “It was a hard climb to make, and it wasn’t in the bag until we topped out.”

The Painted Wall involved 26 pitches, a pitch being the distance the lead climber ascends before belaying his partner. The fastest climbing is done when a team’s pitches are as long as their rope, about 150 feet.

“The 24th pitch was the hardest I’d ever done,” Forrest says. “I came close to dying. I’ll never forget that pitch. I still think about it now and then.”

If the adventures of our youth become the legends of our old age, then Forrest has enough for a memoir longer than the Harvard Classics Five Foot Shelf of Books.

“I loved climbing,” Forrest says. “It’s not accurate to say it was everything to me, but it was a huge part of my life.”

Forrest spent most of his youth in Colorado. He began climbing during a late-1950s Army hitch, when he was stationed in what then was West Germany. Blessed with raw talent and an iron will, mastery came early.

“I always liked doing first ascents,” he says. “I owned one guidebook but didn’t like reading it. I liked to scout my own routes.”

By the time Forrest and Walker took on the Painted Wall, they already had major climbs under their belts, including El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Forrest’s 1970 ascent of Longs’ east face was the first solo ascent of what’s known as the Diamond.

The Painted Wall is tricky because of a lack of continuous crack systems and the frighteningly rotten rock. The expedition began April 22, when Forrest and Walker, who had scouted a promising route from Walker’s photos, lugged their gear down a half-mile, poison-ivy-choked gully to the gorge’s bottom.

“We thought we had a good idea of the best line up, but once we were on the wall, the exact details were different from what we expected,” says Walker, 60, who lives in Bow, Wash., and runs Oceanid, which produces water-rescue craft. “No previous climber had gotten higher than 900 feet up the face.”

Two days after arriving, the pair began several days of up-and-down climbs. They took turns leading, setting pitons and climbing nuts by day and sleeping on the ground at night. By the next Saturday, with 800 feet of route-finding under their belts, they began the last three days of the climb, enduring a hail of rocks.

Forrest says there were many instances when he was “nearly petrified” by the risk.

“But we did it, and fewer than a handful of people have done the Painted Wall since,” he says. “It’s that hard.”

Forrest’s climbing career ended in 1993 during an attempt to climb Mount Everest. He came down with a savage case of amoebic dysentery that nearly killed him. In one week he lost 30 pounds off an already-lean frame. The aftereffects plagued him for years.

“I could still climb but not at the level I’d want to, so that part of my life is over,” he says.

Still, he retains the blockmason’s grip of a man who once knocked out chin-ups with almost simian ease.

Forrest, a one-time graduate student in English, went on to found a mountaineering equipment company, which he since has sold. Among the innovations springing from his workshop were metal-framed snowshoes with nonskid teeth built into them.

Forrest still hikes, often with Rosa, his wife of 25 years. They have bagged all of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners.

Asked what climbing gave him, Forrest is quick to answer. “Just a lifetime of adventure, tremendous friends and a lot of self-knowledge,” he says. “Climbing for me is the finest sport in the world. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Walker says he would love to talk his old friend into a trek to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“We were a great team,” he says. “I hope we’re still around for the 50th anniversary of the Painted Wall. How cool would that be?”