Type: Trad, Aid, Alpine, 500 ft, 5 pitches, Grade IV
FA: Kirk Miller & Ken Trout
Page Views: 4,081 total · 32/month
Shared By: Ken Trout on Jul 9, 2008
Admins: Leo Paik, John McNamee, Frances Fierst, Monty, Monomaniac

You & This Route

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Start up Cannonball Corner and diverge as the topo shows. Easy aid to the end of pitch two. There were some loose things that we may have skipped cleaning on the pitch two traverse because we were gunning for the top in one day. This would all go free and be really nice, maybe 5.11, maybe harder with pump factored in to the rating. It might be very tough to retreat from the end of pitch two.

The third pitch is outstanding. Hands and fingers up to a great ledge. Might be just 5.9. Like the good stuff on Cannonball, only thinner and thus "better". I wrote "dry bivvy" on the topo, even though we got up in one day. The important thing is that from the end of pitch one to the end of the crux aid the route stayed dry during a huge rainstorm.

Pitch four is an upside down rurp traverse. Bad swing into the dihedral wall if it all rips, thus A4-. I don't think anything ripped for the second, so maybe not too bad. A rope left hanging from the top would perhaps be lasso-reachable for an insanely exposed, upward, jumar escape.

Our last pitch is also the last pitch of Cannonball. Easier, unless it is wet and dark.


This route is located close to the cave-like zone cut by the Rusty Dagger. The Black Wall's alcove shape, wetness, joint patterns, and rock glacier signal, at least to me, the potential for catastrophic mass wasting. I'd like to make the point that most routes on this wall, not just Undertow, are unusually dangerous.

Alcoves usually form within cliffs located under plateaus, like we see in Canyonlands. The flat surface above the cliff collects groundwater, the water weakens the rock, and the wet zone weathers into an alcove. Most alpine cliffs have only small summits above and dry quickly. Climbers know the Black Wall has a summit plateau that soaks up water like a sponge, taking days or weeks to dry out. Compare the dripping rim of the Black Wall to the once familiar and now abandoned Yosemite cliff, Glacier Point. The largest rock avalanche off Glacier Point is proven to have been the result of a mistakenly located outhouse adding lubricant to the wall's joints. It's not raining poo up on Mount Evans, but a wetter wall is hard to find.

What really worries me most are the vertical cracks forming Cary Granite, Good Evans, and Cannonball Corner. These cracks increase in size, from left to right, towards the undercut center of the Black Wall. Road Warrior is widest and the little "J" at the bottom helps visualize the whole pillar as a collapse on temporary freeze-frame. Maybe it's time to move the belay bolts to the offwidth's left side, so they don't end up in the rock glacier below.

Glaciers certainly delved the cirque, but this wall is so actively falling apart that any signs of glacier ice scouring it have long ago become a part of the rock glacier below. Rock glaciers are more common under loose mountains. They abound under the rotten volcanic peaks of the San Juans. The rock glacier below the Black Wall is not even under a peak. The talus on it is large and fresh.

UNDERTOW is even closer to the alcove and the center line of the rock glacier. The route follows a large, undercut, flake, but the climbing is some of the best on the wall. The same forces that have, and will, cause mass wasting of the Black Wall also created one heck of a steep alpine route. Irresistible?


My memory is that rurps and small copperheads are key to aiding the summit roof. Everything below could be done with small wires and cams up to big hands.

A bolted rappel route might be nice from the end of pitch two. It didn't look too steep, but we didn't test that. If two 70m ropes don't reach the base ledge, then a bolt anchor would be needed and probably have to be placed in the line of fire of the horrible summit drips.


Jason Kaplan
Glenwood ,Co
Jason Kaplan   Glenwood ,Co
Thanks for adding this stuff, Ken. I was wondering about the aid routes on the Black, it seems they need a repeat. Can you post beta on the other aid routes? Jul 9, 2008
Kirk Miller
Golden, CO
Kirk Miller   Golden, CO
Mighty generous placing my name first on this route...Trout led all but the top out and I'm sure I never would have visited the Black Wall in the first place were it not for his vision. Jul 13, 2008
Jason Kaplan
Glenwood ,Co
Jason Kaplan   Glenwood ,Co
Is the RURP traverse visible in the main picture for cannon ball corner up in the upper right corner the thin crack traversing that roof from right to left? Jul 20, 2008
Will Butler
Boulder, CO
Will Butler   Boulder, CO
I believe that Asa Firestone and Matt Othmer did the second ascent of this route last summer. They were bummed to see that an old RURP was fixed in the crux as they were up there to claim the first ascent. Absolutely beautiful looking line, though the top seeps quite a bit. Jul 22, 2008
Shaun Reed
Santa Barbara
Shaun Reed   Santa Barbara
After two seasons of cleaning, replacing bolts, and fighting wetness in the later part of the alpine season, I was finally able to free this gorgeous line with Brad Wilson last Saturday (6/23/12), with both leader and follower freeing every pitch. The whole route is probably no harder than 5.11+, but as it is very sustained and at high elevation, it sometimes feels harder.

The majority of the route follows the aid line, except for half a pitch that completely avoids the A4- roof traverse. The rock has cleaned up well with maybe only a few suspect rocks that may come off with a crowbar. The climbing is tenuous, sustained, fairly sharp, and gear is sometimes tricky to place (a green/yellow Alien offset cam is really nice at the top of pitch 1!). However, the entire route takes great gear with clean falls, no runouts, and sinker finger locks are to be had throughout. As Ken points out, even though the upper pitch is often wet, the rest of the route stays dry. 

The pitches break down like this:
Pitch 1: 5.11- (130 ft). Start the route as Ken says on a ledge below the large dihedral of Cannonball Corner. Climb up easy ledges up and right to a small hand crack that leads you to the start of the main Undertow dihedral system. Clip a good piton and climb the sustained dihedral thru some cool flakes (green/yellow offset Alien very helpful here) and up to a stance on a small ledge. The anchor takes finger-sized gear.

Pitch 2: 5.11+ (40 ft). This pitch could be combined with Pitch 3. Continue up the dihedral (crux), pull around a small bulge to a ledge with a bolt. A finger-sized piece or two can back up the bolt. 

Pitch 3: 5.11- (50 ft). Continue up the dihedral, past a thin flake that I couldn't pull off despite several attempts, and up into the 35 ft roof traverse (pumpy!). Belay at the lip on a small ledge. Anchor takes hand-size and small cams. 

Pitch 4: 5.9 (110 ft). Climb straight up the fun hands and fingers corner to a good ledge. Anchor takes finger-sized cams. 

Pitch 5: 5.11 (50 ft). The Undertoad Variation. Continue up the corner to the roof. This is where the original A4- traverses left under the roof. Instead, stay in the crack, which cuts thru the right-side of the 10 ft roof. The lip of the roof is very sharp, so the trick is to back-clean as much as possible before the roof, and from a good stance under the roof, place one or two medium-sized cams in the middle of the roof on VERY long slings (we used 3 shoulder-length slings clipped together, which worked great). Undercling the roof to the right (avoiding the A4-), pull the lip, clip a fixed yellow Alien (wires broke so I couldn't get it out, but it's a good piece), and finally face climb a couple moves to the left under a massive shelf to an amazingly exposed, hanging, bolted belay on the arête. 

Originally, I set a natural belay at the fixed yellow Alien, although this required the next pitch to traverse around the very sharp arête. Not only was this very dangerous, but it didn't allow the pitch to reach the summit. The face moves getting to the arête and keeping the rope off the sharp lip of the roof is the reason it's key to have the long slings under the roof. It was considered to place one or two bolts on the face to keep the rope off the sharp lip instead of the long slings under the roof; however, using the long slings was completely safe as you can get good gear in at the lip. 

Pitch 6: 5.10 (70 ft). Sometimes wet. Traverse left from the arête under the shelf for a few moves and join back with the original aid line. When the shelf becomes a manageable bulge, clip a high bolt and face climb up to the aid line belay ledge. Continue up past two more bolts to a big ledge, which is where the collected water drips from when it is wet. Climb up and right past a piton and finsh in the chimney or on the arête to the left. Traverse left on big ledges to gain the summit and belay bolts. 

Rack: doubles to #1 BD Camalot, with extra finger-sized cams, one #2 BD Camalot (extra #2 and #3 could be useful).

A big thanks to Will Butler for conceiving of freeing this route and his hard work the last two seasons trying to make it safe and climbable.  Jun 25, 2012
topher donahue
Nederland, CO
topher donahue   Nederland, CO
Good work, guys! Was just up there a couple of weeks ago and rapped in to check out that line. After seeing your chalk and gear, I realized it was an active project, so didn't pursue it - but I am super curious: what was the old flimsy wooden board doing strapped like Ahab to that last bulge? Jul 6, 2012
Nice work, Shaun! The line looks kick-ass, I hope I get a shot at it before the end of the season. Jul 7, 2012
Shaun Reed
Santa Barbara
Shaun Reed   Santa Barbara
Thanks, guys! I still need to clean the "Ahab" board from the last pitch. I think the biggest reason no one has done this line before is that the final chimney on the last pitch seeps water over the "Ahab" bulge straight down the last pitch. For the last two years, the seeping started in July and didn't stop for the rest of the season. I put the board up there in a crude attempt to divert the flow. Ha! I think it may have done some good, but the last pitch isn't too hard and is essentially a sport climb. The rest of the route stays dry, so maybe it just adds some spice at the end of the route. If you're not into climbing wet granite, just drop a rope down 90 ft from the top to the anchor on the arête like Ken suggests. It may also be possible to add a variation to the left with a couple bolts that would join back on the left of the "Ahab" ledge where Canonball joins into Undertow. Jul 10, 2012
topher donahue
Nederland, CO
topher donahue   Nederland, CO
Ah, that makes sense - the Ahab board. I thought maybe that's what you'd beat me with if I'd have decided to try it before your send.... Jul 11, 2012
Jay 1975
Jay 1975   Bonedale,CO
Do I have to have the offset aliens?

7/30 Update: Probably wet for the season! Jul 26, 2012
Shaun Reed
Santa Barbara
Shaun Reed   Santa Barbara
Hi Jay, sorry for the delayed response, but I think you would be able to get away withouth the offset Aliens. It's only the first pitch that they are handy for, and there are other gear opportunities, so it wouldn't ever be too run out. I don't typically place stoppers unless I can't get anything else in, but I would imagine you could use stoppers, especially offset stoppers. On one attempt, Brad didn't have the offset Alien on the upper half of the first pitch, but he did find some RP placements I didn't notice before. Let me know if you get on it. As far as I know, it is still awaiting a second ascent. Oct 10, 2012
Phil Lauffen
Innsbruck, AT
  5.12a C0
Phil Lauffen   Innsbruck, AT  
  5.12a C0
My friend Kurt and I went up yesterday to vie for the 2nd free ascent of this route, and while we did not achieve that glory, we had a darn good adventure. Overall, this route is in a spectacular position with some really good rock. Good pro and clean falls (trust me, I took them a lot) are in abundance. I'm curious as to what the grade will settle out at. I'm calling it 12a. I'm not sure if any one move is really that hard, and I don't think any one pitch is really that grade, but the experience is that of a 5.12 in the mountains.

Some additional thoughts on beta, etc:

P1) Awesome pitch. Only .11 pitch I didn't fall on. I got a little confused at the start and ended up traversing into the dihedral from CC. My beta here is to start 2 corner systems right of the fixed cam in CC. You can't see the pin until you are clipping it. It was a little spooky getting to the gear above the pin, because the moves aren't easy, and if the pin blows you are going for a ways. Yellow/green Alien placement was nice, though there is plenty of gear on this pitch, so don't worry if you don't have one.

P2) Awesome, somewhat sequential, steep stemming and liebacking between good fingerlocks. Link into P3 for the whole experience....

P3) This pitch surprised me. What characterized the climbing, for me, above P2 was lack of good feet where I wanted them. I blew off near the end of this traverse for a good swing.

P4) The climbing wasn't as hard on this pitch, but it's still steep and at altitude and requires some thought. Not a give-away.

P5) This pitch spooked me. There are some hollow flakes in the dihedral I really wanted to avoid stepping on, which made the climbing harder, but didn't come off when my partner yarded on them. Kind of greasy, insecure climbing in the diherdal in a bird-shit kind of way. BETA: good red Alien from the no-hand stance under the roof, and a good place for red Camalot and a yellow Alien at the end of the roof, which are just barely placeable from a stance where you can climb back to the rest. Either way, sling the shit out of these, as that roof is scary sharp. I took a couple 20 foot falls trying to pull over the roof (burly!!). I ended up just pulling on a piece to get to the yellow Alien, at which point the hard climbing is still not over! I'm not sure what falling above the roof would look like, but I didn't want to try it. I tossed down the other end of the rope to my partner to give him a twin rope belay, just in case....

P6) Too wet to free climb, for me at least. That board is in the way of the climbing, right? I mantled onto it while pulling on the rusted pin sling... kinda scary. The grass hummock mantling and wet chimney groveling afterward bummed me out a bit too. We dropped the cornices that had been melting onto the pitch, so it may be drier, but no guarantees. This pitch reduced the classic status for me.

Get up there and do it! Great new route on an awesome part of the Black Wall! Overall, more serious, sustained and difficult than Cary Granite (and, for me, Airhead, Spear Me the Details, All Too Obvious, and The Yellow Wall, hence the 12a rating). Jun 22, 2013
Ian Cavanaugh
  5.11+ C0
Ian Cavanaugh  
  5.11+ C0
Did this route with Lukas Hill yesterday. This route is amazing. Super clean for only having a few ascents. Big thanks to all those involved in the first ascents.

Here is a quick breakdown as Lukas and I saw it:
P1-.10+. This pitch is awesome though slightly confusing to know where to go. Head towards the right most dihedral to the right of the larger corner after the ledges. Go pin followed by awesome finger locks that just get better the higher you go. We belayed a little lower than supposed to, base of the flakes. This made the second pitch a little longer and reduced drag on the leader.
P2-.11+. This pitch is spectacular. The flakes were a little heads up do to a short runout off our belay but fairly easy. The corner is amazing with sinker locks until the crux. I missed a good hold and popped off while trying to grab it while out of position. Lukas followed clean with little trouble, knowing how to move through it. belayed at the bolt.
P3-.11-. Crazy pitch. The climbing is wild and provides an unexpected but awesome finish. Belayed around the lip with bomber gear.
P4-.10-. Unreal!! 130ft of .5 finger crack! Sooooo good! Belayed on ledge.
P5-.11. Easy climbing past a few hollow but solid flakes to a roof. Pulling over is not that bad, but had a very sharp and painful hand jam. Tape up and save some skin and tears. Cool jug traverse, slightly dirty to a bolted belay. This pitch is not as scary and others have said and can be done very safely.
P6-.10. This pitch is dry and a cool little sporty finish to the summit. The board needs to be removed, slightly in the way but easy to move around.

Gear: 0.3-2 C4, 2x of 0.5-2 00-3 Master Cams, 2x of 1 & 2. green/yellow offset Alien (not needed) set of BD stoppers, set of Offset nuts (great for belays).

Overall, we thought the route should be called 5.11+.

This climb is super classic. The climbing is amazing, with great position and good gear all the way. Get on this route and have fun! Jun 29, 2013
Valdez, AK
Taylor-B.   Valdez, AK
What would this route be like as an aid route with the new hardware installed? Jul 10, 2013
Ian Cavanaugh
  5.11+ C0
Ian Cavanaugh  
  5.11+ C0
The aid rating would remain the same as it was when it was originally done. The A4 pitch is a RURP pitch through a roof. The free line avoids with section. You could probably aid the free variation at C2 with some .10 to .11- moves. Jul 23, 2013
Shaun Reed
Santa Barbara
Shaun Reed   Santa Barbara
In response to one of Phil's comments, the piton getting into the dihedral on the first pitch was placed by me, so it's new and not from an early aid ascent. It's a pretty big Lost Arrow, and it took quite a bit of heavy hammering to sink it all the way in. I remember nice low pinging sounds as it went all the way, so it should be bomber.

In response to Ian's comments about aiding the Undertoad Variation (free variation around the A4): I aided this several times back and forth while fixing ropes to clean the route. Maybe I'd call it C1+, just because the cams are shallow horizontal placements and I had to do a little pendulum at one point to get to the next placement.

Has anyone gotten the second free ascent yet? Jul 18, 2014