"Hey, did you get my message yesterday."
"Well, do you wanna go to the Black after we're done with the trip?"
"....um...it's kind of short notice..."
"We can just check it out and decide once we get there, we aren't picking you up for a few hours." "Ok, what should I bring?"
"Let's just bring our individual stuff and we'll figure it out more on our way."
A few hours later I picked up Busterman, we switched cars and headed for Grand Junction for a work trip. Despite it being fairly cool for August there's not much you can do when you're in the blazing sun of the desert. Fifty teenagers from the island of Cyprus mull around seeking shade while I belay for six hours in the blazing sun. I managed to completely ruin a rope. It had four core shots! That'll happen running over sandstone for hours with kids hanging all over the place. We're finally finished though and we carry out several hundred pounds of gear to the truck. Luckily, we had stayed at the house of Senor Verde's son so after the trip me and Busterman headed back to his house and took a shower and rested for a bit and then off we went to the Black.
Cruising down the highway we eventually came to the town of Hotchkiss where we stocked up on some supplies and cruised the rest of the way into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. As we drove in I expected to see I gigantic canyon opening before me but as we pulled into the ranger station I still only saw the slightest hint of the canyon. As we came to the campsite it finally opened up before me or so I thought. Giddy with the thought of the next days climbing we ran to the rim and were simply awe struck. I had only been seeing perhaps the top third of the canyon. As the full depth of two thousand feet opened below me I felt a shot of adrenaline and smiled. This was going to be awesome.
As Wallace Hansen says, "Several western canyons exceed the Black Canyon in overall size.... some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness, and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison."
So we awoke the next day and headed down into the Black. The previous night we had decided to do something with a minimum of commitment and shorter in length. The route that fit this description was either the Casual Route II 5.8 or Casually Off-Route II 5.9. As we headed down the gully I agreed we should go for Casually Off-Route. Not only clean but a route that is easy to find. So I combined the first two pitches a short 5.6 slab into a short 5.8 fingercrack corner. This ends at a ledge where one can go right into the Casual Route or do as we did and head left for Casually Off-Route. After some moving of the belay we ended up at a right facing flake. This was just fun, good hands and good feet, lots of good movement and it went by pretty quickly. From here I led up a short offwidth pitch leading to good hands and short bulge ending in a ledge. At this point we could head right for the 5.8 variation but we headed left into a 5.9 undercling traverse. Wild exposure through this pitch leads to a ledge and from here easy climbing to the top. This is not the end. Then you must contend with the gullies.
The thing that is unique about the Black are the approaches. You hike down a gully to get to the bottom. You climb out and away from the scary possibility of a cold bivy, but unless you do a route that ends at the rim (usually fourteen or more pitches) you still have to use another gully to get out. The gullies range in difficulty from second class to easy fifth class. So after hiking in, and climbing out, you must hike the rest of the way to the rim. Easily an all day event. But since we started out at around seven in the morning and were done before noon we decided to do another climb. First we had to go and pay for our camping. A little info about camping in the Black. It's a national park and you're probably going to stay more than a day which means it's cheaper to buy an annual pass for thirty dollars. Then you also have to pay for the camping which is currently twelve dollars a night. The ranger informed us that it's important to pay for camping before going climbing because apparently some jerks would say they'd pay after their climb and then simply leave. Don't skimp on the fees, it makes the rest of us look bad.
After paying our fees and chatting with the ranger we decided we would do another climb. One of the other classics of moderate difficulty is Maiden Voyage III 5.9. Around six pitches with a few hundred feet of low fifth class. Maiden Voyage is located on the Checkerboard Wall so to get there we needed to go down the Cruise Gully. This gully is a little faster since you rappel down two double rope rappels. A little easier on the knees. Finding the first pitch is a little difficult since there aren't a lot of obvious places to start but you know you're in the right area when you're to the right of a large overhanging corner on the southwest side of the wall.
After some difficult routefinding Busterman found the fingercrack he was looking for and combined the first two pitches. I proceeded up the next pitch a wide 5.7 with an akward move around a roof that felt closer to 5.9 than 5.7. We proceeded to simul-climb the rest of the easy fifth class up a right facing dihedral. Getting down is not that fun. We were rather tired and warm since the climb is in the sun most of the time. We had to traverse to the gully that would take us to the rim. After wandering up the gully pulling some hard moves around some boulders we eventually made the rim and then had to traverse the rim until we hit the Cruise Gully trail again. After walking for a while we hit the trail and shortly were back at camp where I proceeded to make myself some some rice and lentils with hot sauce and chicken.
We made no solid plans for the next day. We weren't even sure we would want to climb the next day. So we talked about some possible things to climb but decided to just sleep in tomorrow and see what we felt like doing. When we woke we decided to have a good breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes and then headed down the SOB Gully again. We were headed for Escape Artist III 5.10-. As we headed down I thought about what I was doing. I have a hard time on 5.9 as it is, so for some reason I wanted to lead 5.10 in the Black Canyon? I must be crazy, but I felt good, today was one of those low gravity days.
About three quarters of the way down the gully the wall came into view and soon I could make out the Vector Traverse, a wild and exposed pitch that we would be climbing shortly. Getting to the climb itself requires some routefinding. You come almost to the bottom of the gully and you see a faint path heading through the scree onto a ledge system. Unfortunately, this ledge system ends and you have to pull a few third class moves to get to another ledge. This is where I thought the pitch started so I roped up and got started. When I realized that the pitch actually started about fifty feet higher than where I started Busterman had already been simul-climbing with me for those fifty feet and I was in the midst of a runout. The guidebook says take the rightmost of the left leaning cracks. In my adrenalized and confused mind I got this mixed up and took the leftmost of the left leaning cracks, a nice hand crack that eventually pinches down to fingers and then nothing. When I came to the nothing I was already a good ten feet above my last nut and stretching on my tiptoes to try and reach something, anything. At this point I decided to traverse to the other crack. So instead of choosing the correct crack at 5.9 I chose the other crack and did a nice 5.10R traverse between the two. Busterman was just as relieved as I was once I made it across. After a few more moves I was at the beginning of the Vector Traverse.
After trading gear and changing over the belay Busterman was off. A few easy moves and I could no longer see him around the corner. Resting in the nice cool belay I looked at the Gunnison River below. The dull roar of the river below and the cool lay down belay spot had me at ease as the rope slowly ran through. A few sharp tugs on the rope and I knew I would be climbing soon. A few moves off the belay and you find yourself hanging above five hundred feet of air. Right past the crux is a fixed blue camalot and a knee bar of all things. I've recently had great pleasure in finding knee bars in places.
As I got to the belay I looked ahead to my pitch a two hundred foot 5.10- dihedral. The Black is not really the place to test yourself but I felt ready, so after racking up and a little pep talk from Busterman I started up. The first moves were nothing special, easy stemming with big holds. I conserved gear and after the belay I didn't place another piece for about fifteen feet. Then some more technical moves. Difficult stemming on small holds, the climbing suited my style and I felt ready to send, this pitch was mine. After about forty more feet of increasingly difficult stemming I came to a no hands rest in which to fiddle some gear. A few more difficult moves and I started to realize gear was becoming more sparse and more difficult to put in. I put in a small nut and pulled myself into the corner. Only about thirty more feet before good, easily placed protection, fifteen feet, calfs burning, five more feet, almost there, finally I hang off the hand jam and shake my feet one at a time, then my hands. A few more fairly easy moves and I'm at the belay feeling elated. Busterman comes up and congratulates me. The pitch didn't quite feel 5.10 but he confirms that some of the moves were tenish.
Unfortunately for him the next pitch is not as asthetic. Composed of crumbly pegmatite he carefully stems up the five seven corner till he can exit right. I come up and we're presented with three options: more crumbly 5.7, a nice looking 5.9 corner, and The Lighning Bolt Crack that comes in at a whopping 5.11. Busterman goes to look at the 5.11 crack and decides he's going for it. A day of pushing limits for both of us. He climbs up and places a piece then downclimbs to rest a bit. He heads up again and places another piece and after trying to move up again asks me to take. Fiddling with gear he makes his way up and eventually gets past the crux eventually moving over into the 5.9 corner. Out of sight he calls off belay and I get ready to crank. Starting off the first moves are bouldery, the feet are barely their and after pulling out the first piece I try to move up but fall. From fingerlock to hand jam I try several times before finally pulling the moves and having to hang once again. After a good rest I move to the section that traverses into the 5.9 corner. From the belay we simul-climb to the top but once again the adventure isn't over.
The summit is full of exposure and we snap a few pictures. Moving along the fourth class ridge to the rap station We look down. The description says to head up the west facing gully. The sun is near setting so the west facing gully should be in the sun, but the sun is sort of in the southern part of the sky. Where do we go. I argue that the gully in the sun must be facing west while Busterman argues that the other gully is the one we want. We rap down and after heading up my way it seems to difficult and we traverse to the other gully. We decide that it doesn't much matter because all the gullies here suck, we're in gully hell where loose scree and poison ivy are the norm. Having shared the last of his water with me we're both getting very parched. As we get to the rim it looks vaguely familiar. Busterman is farther ahead and yells back, "you're not gonna believe this." I wonder if we're getting ready for more gully hell but as I come higher up the hill I see a fence, the fence which is right behind our campsite. We've hiked right into the back of our campsite which is of great relief and I go to fill my water.
Our trip is over. We could leave, it's early enough to get home by a reasonable hour but I'm too tired and the Black has me under it's spell. I don't want to leave. This is climbing with a whole different tone to it. You don't come for the climbing you come for the experience that defines the Black. Both a mental and physical feat you need to have skills to escape the Black. Once their you find your self drawn to go back. It visits you in your dreams, that steep foreboding void.