We are camped above the 2000ft North Chasm View Wall at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it's 4:30AM and the sound of the alarm means that it's time to get moving. Sam makes coffee while I stuff down a bowl of oatmeal and finish taping my hands. Neither of us slept particularly well the night before and talking is at a minimum as the thoughts of what lie ahead weigh heavy on us. By 5AM we are walking down the road towards a comforting glow on the horizon, it's a short lived moment of comfort as we quickly turn into the cruise gully and begin our descent of nearly 2000ft into the abyss known as The Black.
This was the first time either Sam or I had climbed in the Black Canyon. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a 2000ft deep canyon located 15 miles east of Montrose, Colorado. It is extremely narrow and sheer, and without a doubt one the most awe inspiring places on earth. The Black Canyon has reputation for being one of the most challenging, committing, scary, and flat out outstanding places to climb. It's the first place I have ever climbed that has lived up to its reputation in every way.
We arrived in the evening on Tuesday and quickly ran into our friend Jordan who had just finished "The Scenic Cruise" and was overflowing with stoke. He had somehow managed to link up with two IFMGA guides, Mark Smiley and Jed Porter, along with Mark's wife Janelle for the day. How exactly he managed to fall into that company I still have no idea. But he and Jed got to play film crew for the day as the Smileys filmed a new segment for their 50 new classics project . As we talked to them later that night we found out that everyone in the group had their struggles up the route, which did not inspire confidence to say the least. Jordan's first piece of advice for us, within minutes of arriving, was "don't do 'The Cruise' as your first climb in the Black". He was the third person to give us that same piece of advice. Given the seriousness of the Black Canyon climbing most people recommend getting used to it slowly by starting off on one of the easier and shorter climbs. Sam and I were never great listeners and lately had been making a habit of starting off on the harder or more classic routes when climbing at new area, we figured why stop now.
The next morning we set off on the original Black Canyon classic "The Cruise" 5.10+ 1,700ft V
Our gear consisted of:
The descent took us about an hour as we rapped the fixed lines and carefully navigated the poison ivy bushes. After a few minutes of putting our shoes on and simply staring up at the enormity of the wall in front of us, Sam set off on the first pitch. The crux of the first pitch was simply keeping the rope out of the poison ivy. Sam climbed until he was out of rope and then I shortly followed. When I reached the top of the first pitch all I could think of was how we were 200ft off the ground and yet only a fraction of the way up the wall. I quickly stopped thinking, took the rack ,and set off on the second pitch. The first two pitches were mellow and a nice warmup for what lay ahead.
Pitch 3 was the first of the 5.10 pitches. It's a 5.10- offwidth crack that most people avoid by doing the "Scenic Cruise" variation. Pitch 3 was Sam's lead, and it's a great thing it was, Sam flat out crushed this hard offwidth pitch like it was nothing. I on the other hand got beaten down as if it was my first time climbing wide crack. The crack was just wide enough that I could barely fit my whole body in but not wide enough to chimney. It was awful, I kept getting my head/helmet stuck(Sam thoroughly enjoyed watching that) and I struggled immensely through desperate chicken wings and knee jams to reach the top. It was ugly.
After Pitch 3 I was feeling worked, but pitch 4 was much more suited to my strengths so I had that to look forward to. Unfortunately for me, pitch 4 was really really hard. It was a super thin stemming corner that was incredibly sustained and on the smallest gear I have ever placed. It started off pretty well but as the crack tapered down to almost nothing it got really interesting and I had the pleasure of testing out one of my new Micro Nuts. It wasn't much of a fall, maybe 3 feet, but thoroughly exciting none the less. Eventually some creative finger locks and a french move or two did the trick and I then worked through the pegmatite band above to a belay . Sam worked his way up well, having issues in the same places I did. Unfortunately for him the most trouble came from trying to remove a desperately placed yellow nut. In my opinion pitch 4 was in the 5.11- range and was the hardest pitch of the route.
At the top of pitch 4 I was tired but feeling good overall. Sam wasn't feeling all that great but grabbed the rack nonetheless and set off on pitch 5, which is considered the crux of both "The Cruise" and "The Scenic Cruise" variation. Pitch 5 did not disappoint. Some tricky overhanging moves led to a steep and unrelenting crack. We moved extremely slow through this pitch as the sheer burliness was starting to take its toll. What was worse was that we were now in the direct sun and it was starting to get hot. Eventually Sam freed, frenched and aided his way to the top of the 5.10+ section and built a belay. Having plenty of time to rest after pitch 4 I was able to move pretty well through the most of Pitch 5 and after a few heart breaking moves near the top of the 5.10 section I joined Sam at the base of a wide 5.8 crack.
If I were to do it again, I would definitely lead in blocks in order to give both climbers a rest before each pitch. Sam definitely drew the short straw of the day by having to climb pitch 4 and then immediately leading off on pitch 5 with very little rest.
We had broken up our planned pitch 5 into two pitches. After lathering on some sunscreen I set off up a offwidth 5.8 crack which was, without a doubt, my least favorite pitch of the day. For some reason I kept getting my #4 stuck and spent more time yelling creative obscenities at it than I did actually climbing. After 70 feet or so of complaining I made it to the Bivy Ledge at the top of pitch 6. I promptly took my shoes off and belayed Sam up. The Bivy Ledge meant that we were roughly half way home.
We sat at the Bivy Ledge for about 20 minutes assessing our overall situation and reviewing the topo of the pitches to come. I had a snack while we sat there and simply contemplated the enormity of the canyon. The best part of reaching the ledge was that it meant we had put the hardest pitches behind us. Despite all the remaining pitches being 5.9 the show was far from over and we were already running extremely low on water.
After a rest on the ledge Sam set off on pitch 7. We had two cracks to choose from leaving the belay. They were roughly 20 feet apart from each but looked pretty similar in difficulty (5.9ish). The topo made it sound like either crack would work, this was not the case. We realized our error as soon as Sam got stuck under a giant thorn bush. An improvised swing maneuver to the adjacent crack quickly remedied the situation and Sam continued up easier ground to a belay stance. I followed up making sure to carefully remove the 3 he had placed underneath the thorn bush and met him at a cozy belay. The original plan called for a belay just below a large flake. We figured the flake would be an obvious thing to find, we were wrong. We were not where we were supposed to be and we were running out of daylight fast. At this point we stopped taking photos for the most part and just focused on getting up the wall.
After a million glances at the topo I set off up some easy ground (5.7ish) in the direction I thought the flake would be. After 40 feet or so I realized my error and was forced to down climb back to the belay. On my second attempt at pitch 8, I started by down climbing from the belay and then set off on an easy but remarkably runout traverse to the left and after a thought provoking step around I finally found the flake we were looking for. I wiggled my way up and into the flake and attempted to climb out to the next belay. Unfortunately because of the creative nature of my pitch the rope drag was too much and I was forced to down climb yet again back down into the flake where I built an uncomfortable belay and brought Sam up from there. We were now completely out of water.
To finish pitch 8 I led a short 30 foot pitch with with some wild exposure up and out of the flake up to a bolted belay.
Sam wasn't talking much as I handed him the rack for pitch 9 and I was talking too much apparently as he set off on the undercling traverse. After placing his first piece of marginal pro he looks back at me and makes a simple shush noise. I promptly shut up. He moved quickly and methodically as he dispatched the runout traverse(5.9) and disappeared around the corner. A few minutes later I hear a loud shout, I can't tell if it its a good or bad shout but he keeps taking rope. After a bit the rope comes tight and it's my turn on the traverse, I would soon find out what the shout was for.
The pitch 9 traverse is a delicate and exposed pitch with hefty runouts and huge swing potential, it is everything you image the Black Canyon to be. After carefully working my way across the traverse I started to work my way up past two old bolts and then a nail? One of the "bolts" listed in the guide book was nothing more than nail pounded into the rock and bent down. Sam had skipped the nail all together and just ran it out for 40 ft or so above an old bolt. The shout apparently came when he plugged his first piece of decent gear on the pitch. I continued up and was hugely excited to find that Sam had linked pitch 9 with the short pitch above it for one outstanding 200 foot lead.
At this point the sun was going down fast and we both put our headlamps on our helmets, just in case. Pitch 10 started with a long and exposed traverse(5.7) to the left on hollow flakes. The flakes made great hand holds but were less than confidence inspiring for pro. After a few healthy runouts I started up a steep hand crack(5.9) which felt insanely difficult for the grade considering how worn down and dehydrated we were at this point. I climbed until I ran out of rope and belayed from and uncomfortable seat in a thorn bush. I have never been so thirsty in all my life.
Our last transition was quick, I handed Sam the rack and said "take us home". Pitch 11 was our last pitch to the top. We were so close at this point, all either of us could think about was drowning ourselves in water and Gatorade. Sam worked his way up the final hundred feet or so and then belayed me up from a tree. It was officially dark as I set off and turned my headlamp on. The climbing was less than memorable except for one steep move on loose holds. Soon enough though we were done.
As soon as were at the top we scrambled the last 3rd class section to the overlook and walked like zombies to our campsite. The minute we arrived some rafters came over to bring us cheeseburgers right off the grill. It was the best tasting thing I have ever eaten. We sat and talked to our new friends for a while as we pounded Gatorade and inhaled our burgers. It was probably 30 minutes before either one of us started taking gear off.
It wasn't pretty but we had accomplished what we had set out to do. Something about being beaten and bloody while pulling yourself up and over those final feet to the rim of the Black is a feeling like nothing else I've ever experienced.
A collection of stories and adventures from the FAMS director and instructors.