Text and pictures © 2002-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2019/06/11
"The Black Canyon of Gunnison... It's like Yosemite for grownups !"
I guess the decision needed to be rushed, otherwise, if I'd had the time to think about it I probably wouldn't have gone. In the previous months we'd done quite a few long classic trad routes, in RMNP, up the Diamond or on Devil's Tower. The previous WE had been a bit of a letdown on Spearhead where we found the route too easy. So on thursday one of us tough about Gunnison. I think it was Jenny; she says it was me... Like any Colorado climber we've heard about the Black Canyon's fierce reputation: it's the third highest cliff in the US, there's nothing much easy, the descent gullies are rotten and full of poison ivy, the climbers few and hardcore. So on thursday evening Jenny gives a call to our local guidebook lender, which he drops off in the morning; and after work we take off for a 6 hour drive through central Colorado, trying to avoid the floods in downtown Denver.
Left: Jenny relaxing on a hanging tree belay. What a better way to read the guidebook ?
Right: Jenny on the 4th pitch of Maiden Voyage, with a view on the North Chasm View Wall. The Scenic Cruise follows the left side of the pillar. The large dihedral of the second pitch is visible near the base. Yes, that little thing is the entire 2nd pitch...
After a short sleep in the car above a dark mist-shrouded canyon, we finish the last few miles to the tiny campground, get a spot, talk to a friendly ranger who looks like she's bored of not seeing enough people, and start going down the Cruise gully for a short day. The gully is muddy from the week of rain but not as bad as its reputation. Only two spots of poison ivy, which I try to identify from Internet pictures, one of which at the base of the second rappel. Jenny asks: "Why don't people cut it ?", "OK, you go ahead and cut it..."
We get to the base of Leisure Climb and I rummage through the stack of Xeroxes I hastily did the previous day but can't find it: "OK, OK, you wouldn't want me to get hurt on the runout 5.9, no ?" So we just traverse to the other side of the gully to the base of Maiden Voyage, another 5.9. A Layton Kor 5.9. Reading through the history of climbing in the canyon gave me an eerie feeling: between explorers who spent months to explore the canyon, mountaineers in the '20s, Layton Kor in the '60s who was probably bored of desert towers and a few others, it looks like a vastly untapped resource. Just driving around the rim of the canyon gives you an idea on how huge it is, both in depth which can reach 800m and in length. The guidebook has something like 200 routes in it. The canyon may have a thousand times that. Perusing the guidebook gives me shivers: names like Layton Kor and Ed Webster are intermixed with Jimmy Dunn, Earl Wiggins, Doug Scott, Jim Beyer, Mugs Stump, Jeff Lowe, Chris Bonnington, Pat Ament... What the hell are we doing here ?
Left: Jenny at the first belay. The sun is hitting the summit of the other side.
Right: View of the Scenic Cruise from near the base in early morning. Starts in the crack on the left, behind the tree, continues up the large right-facing dihedral, then avoids the Layton Kor offwidth by taking the next crack to the right and merges back with it higher.
Left: Jenny finishing pitch 2. The serious business is about to start.
Right: Start of the 5.9 pitch. The crack above is the original 'Cruise' offwidth, on the right is the 'Scenic Cruise' variation
Our first little victory is of not being scared by that route in the first place. I find the rock funky on the first few moves, but then get into the rhythm and we do the first two pitches at once. Then the next two pitches at once also, overcoming a short, easy and well protected 5.9 roof. It looks good for tomorrow. What are we going to do again ? It's early, so we could have done another route, but decide to get back to the campground at 15:00 so we can rest and prepare the big day. At camp, between cooking filet mignon without a BBQ and eating slices of nutella'd bread, I do something unusual: I actually read the route description.
Opened by legendary climber Layton Kor in 1964, modified by legendary Ed Webster 15 years later to avoid 3 pitches of offwidth, the route has made it into the hall of fame of the best rock in the US. The rock is certainly good since the second ascent has been done free solo... And unlike most routes in the canyon, no aid here, it all goes free, but at a price: almost all of the 14 pitches are between 5.9 and 5.10+. I'm beginning to wonder if we should have done some pull-ups. After dinner I have a little walk around the campground. The population is quite different than what you find in other places: all the climbers are in their 40s, looking well seasoned and silently sorting their gear. None of those young noisy beer drinking pot smoking gym rats fattened on steroids you find at most other campgrounds. As soon as it gets dark the campground becomes dead silent, with only a worried ranger asking about a soloist not seen for 3 days.
Right: End of the 5.9 pitch...
Left: ...and start of the sustained 5.10 pitch
At 6:00 we begin the descent of the Cruise gully in the dark, going faster on dryer mud than yesterday. I now know not to throw the rope too far on the 2nd rappel and by 7:15 we are at the base of the route, feeling cramped in the only tiny spot without poison ivy. Power bar breakfast and off we go, Jenny carrying the tiny pack and me leading the assault. 15 minutes for the first pitch. 20 minutes for the 2nd one. So far so good, at this speed we'll be out for lunch. Amen.
We abandon the Cruise for its scenic variation. No thanks Layton, but we prefer to avoid your offwidth (...a scalded cat fears cold water). That 5.9 overhang gets us on the vertical part of the wall. It will stay this way for the rest of the day. High above we hear some voices from a party that bivied on the large ledge on pitch 7; they are probably starting again. One hour for that pitch, damn, and the hardest is still above. The sun hits the face just as I start the 5.10 pitch. After starting the hand jams I loose some time trying to traverse there, one pitch too early, fooled by a flake on the left. Then I figure than I'm just trying to postpone the inevitable: the crack above. I gather my guts and finish off that long, long hand crack. The rock is excellent, not polished, and there's no trace of chalk. A stuck blue Camalot makes a good piece of additional pro. I finish the pitch with my left forearm as hard as a coke bottle under pressure. It won't even go away as I belay Jenny up. Personally I found that pitch harder than the 10+ two pitches above. I'd like to see Tom cruise that one on whatever mission (ha! ha! get it?).
Right: Ropes hanging from the belay at the end of the fourth pitch. The 5.10 is about to start.
Left: Jenny on the downclimbing section of the much feared 5.10 traverse of pitch 6.
The next pitch is the much feared 5.10 traverse. Once I figure a way to grab the sling hanging around the corner it proves no big deal. I mean I can then see a good jug and start traversing on it, some tricky downclimbing moves, then some easier traversing takes me to the base of a right facing flake. It's not protectable and the last piece of pro is 10 meters to the right. I try to layback it (lay it back ?) but find myself in an awkward position: by then the view to the left enlarges considerably due to the position right on the corner. Impressive ball shrinkage ensues. I back off and have a breather. I hook up the flake with my right heel and power off a few ugly moves to the top of it. Off belay.
Right: End of pitch 6. Here comes the crux
It takes Jenny a few minutes to figure out the moves on the slabby traverse. The backpack doesn't help on the flake moves. At the belay we eat a Goo package for product placement in the TR... err, I mean for the energy, but we are already past the halfway on our water. It's hot. We are back on Kor's Cruise and I finally get the guts to look at the next pitch, the crux 5.10+ overhang: "Take pictures !". From the belay that pitch looks very impressive. And quite long too, with a 5.8 crack topping the crux. The roof itself is an excellent piece of rock climbing, which would get 3 stars in any sport climbing guidebook, like most other pitches on that route. Not too hard for a 10+, good jugs, tricky stemming, a little runout at the base but excellent pro once you get started, but so pumpy... I end up needing a rest near the end, and the 5.8 doesn't look so much easier. I finish it with an Elvis leg and steaming forearms, only to find myself at the base of an offwidth.
I get the Xerox out of my leg pocket with one hand: yes, apparently I've overlooked the fact that there's an offwidth to top it all. My largest piece just fits and I start worming my way up. I'm almost through when I feel resistance: looking down I see the cams upside down, the sling caught on my gear loop. When I try to free it it's even worse: the biner on the sling actually clipped in my mess of stoppers. The kind of thing that makes you want to dump your entire gear loop... Just above there's a tiny shaded spot deep in the crack, I don't care where the belay's supposed to be, I need a vacation. And some shade, the black walls are taking their toll. When Jenny joins me she's not in much better shape, but after 5 minutes in the shade and starting our last waterbottle, we regain some wits. We've passed the halfway point but it's now 3:00, only 4 hours of daylight left.
Left: The 5.10+ roof corner, followed by a little traverse to the right and a 5.8 layback. The pitch is a lot longer than a 28mm lens can retain.
Right: Resting in the shade of the bivy ledge of the seventh pitch. Exactly halfway up.
We reach the excellent bivy ledge but don't want to spend the night on it, then cruise up to the 'large flake'. The climbing is very varied: overhangs, cracks, jams, tiny edges. I even try a quick face climbing for a change, but the voice of the Ancients drag me back in after only a few meters: "No bolts! No bolts!". The belay is in full sun again but when I squeeze behind the flake the flow of cool air brings me back to life. Finishing the layback moves above the large flake I have a shock: two bolts ! The first ones on the route. Brings back old memories of sport climbing and such which seem to have no room in the Black Canyon. The next traverse pitch takes us into the shade for good and even has what passes for bolts: an old rusty 1/4", a good one with the screw sticking out a good inch, and a broken hanger that I clip with a stopper's wire. I wonder about the long screw: is it because they didn't hammer it all the way ? Or is it to make a good foothold just where I might need it ? Hmmm...
Left: Jenny standing on the flake of the short 9th pitch, after an awkward squeeze and before a committing layback.
Right: 10th belay on a narrow but comfortable ledge. The last 5.9+ is right above.
More and more pumpy climbing while the shade of our pillar grows farther away down the canyon. Lots of big jugs alternating with serious hand jams on always steep terrain. We get to the last pitch when the sun disappears. I don't want to fish out the headlamps at the bottom of the pack: we'll make it. I climb as fast as I can on that 5.8, risking a few moves and even more so risking to end up off route in the remaining glow. The last part is a large dusty ledge with a garden of cacti. I have to stretch the rope to make it to a lone pine tree before it gets truly dark. I expect to see Jenny arrive with a headlamp but I can hardly see her arrive on the ledge. I'm about to warn her about the cacti when a scream tells me she's found the first one all right.
Left: It's almost over, Jenny on the 13th belay, reaching for the headlamp. Just a short walk and we'll be out. We'll skip the optional 5.9 14th pitch for this time...
Right: That's it. Above the rim vertigo becomes horizonto. The rope is still dangling behind the railing.
We take the shoes off, grab the headlamps, drink the last gulp of water, do a few coils on the rope and follow the ledge to the left, almost right underneath the tourists' viewpoint. I guess we'll do the optional 5.9 14th pitch some other time... A final 4th class move over the rim take us into horizontal land under the incredulous stare of a lone tourist and her two dogs: "I though I was hearing voice !". Jenny's spent but beaming, as for me it's been a long time since I've done anything that sustained and I look like something half digested and abandoned; at least that's what her two dogs are thinking. The great thing about the Canyon is that 5 minutes after topping out you are at the car rummaging in the cooler for some fresh beer. The 6 hour drive back home is not going to be pleasant. Oh no... But it gives me insight on how to write a page about staying awake while driving... A few days later, as the stiffness wore out and we had time to reflect on that day, we both concluded it had been one of the finest climb ever done in our life.