Friday, October 1, 2010

Out of the Blue

-and into THE BLACK-

Black Canyon trip report, part one

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is home to the biggest vertical rock walls on the state of Colorado. The fact that I had never climbed there seemed to be a grave oversight. One that had to be remedied.
Blake Herrington would help me remedy it.

Two weeks ago, after four+ hours of in-the-dark, twisty-mountain-road, eager-anticipation driving, we arrived at the North Rim of the Black Canyon. There was nothing visible at night that would indicate the massive vertical relief, literally a hundred yards from where we would set up camp, just the uniform high desert plains of Western Colorado.

Making breakfast in camp
Even in the morning, making coffee and sorting the rack in our campsite, I was confused as to where the canyon was supposed to be. Luckily Blake had been here before, and knew where to find the canyon.
Found it!

After making the short walk over to the ranger station to sign in and declare our route (now we're committed!), we found the start of the Cruise gully and began to descend. 2 rappels, much poison-ivy avoidance, and 1500 vertical feet later, we were at the base of the day's objective: the Dylan Wall.

Dylan Wall starts up one of the most well-defined route on the North Chasm view wall, the Scenic Cruise. After just a few pitches, though, it leaves the perfect, clean hand crack and embarks on a diagonaling course up and right, following an obvious, but slightly chossy crack system. Blake led the first two pitches of Dylan, including a slightly scary overhanging choss band, and set me up below the crux. And I mean, 10' below the crux, with no obvious gear between his belay and the not-too-inspiring fixed pin at the crux.

I lead off the belay, vainly searching for gear, but get just one tiny RP before clipping the crucial piton, which sticks out of the crack at a disturbing angle. I pull into the small roof/corner system, find all the holds I need, but refuse to commit off the questionable gear. I hang on the pin, reach high to get a bomber piece, and then lower back to fire the tricky sequence.

Leaving Scenic Cruise, the trade route, for Dylan Wall. Sorry for the poor video, it was shot with my ipod.

By now, though, there's another thought at the forefront of our minds, besides awe for the size of the canyon, fear of the sometimes scary rock, and anticipation for the many hard pitches waiting above. The new factor that is consuming our thoughts is the overwhelming heat! The sun is now fully on us, and we are baking on the exposed wall. Dylan Wall joins Journey Home (a much easier 5.9) halfway up, and we had intended to break off left to finish with Twisted, which would include much more hard climbing. When we reach Journey Home, however, the heat is too oppressive to consider anything other than the fastest possible escape. Racing up Journey Home, we reach the canyon rim, and are soon back in the shade of our campsite, drinking cold beer and enjoying music and food. How quickly things change!

Discussing heat, sandwiches, and what we should rename "Journey Home"

The next morning, we leave camp with a plan. We now know our greatest enemy: the Sun! So we start on the Checkerboard wall, which faces South-West. It will hold a few hours of morning shade, hopefully enough to let us navigate its tricky 5.10+ cruxes and runouts.

Checkerboard wall goes well, with Blake styling the heads-up crux lead, and me sketching my way up the final runout slab just as the comes into the sun. We improvise a gully descent with a few easy rappels back down into the depths of the canyon, and make a run for the river! Reaching the beautiful Gunnison river in the heat of the day is refreshing, but even still its a bit too cold for prolonged swimming. We each take a quick dip, and then relax on the shore, eating lunch and refilling water.

So now it's 1pm, we're lounging at the bottom of a 2000' canyon, and we have no intention of hiking back out that poison-ivy choked gully. No, we'll simply wait until the sun leaves the wall, and then scurry up the Scenic Cruise.

2:30 comes and goes, and the wall still looks as hot as black pavement in the desert. By 2:45, we feel we can't wait any longer, so we start up the lower easy pitches. I take the lead, and Blake simuls behind, linking the first fours pitches. I aim for a shallow right facing corner, thankfully with some shade, to set my belay. By the time Blake reaches my belay and I set out on the next lead, the wall has mercifully gone into shade, and I continue up the sustained, gorgeous 5.10 cracks. I learn to avoid the darker colored holds, as they are the warmest.

After two more pitches, now through the 5.10+ crux, Blake takes the sharp end and leads up out the wandering top pitches. He leads in fine style, with an emphasis on speed, as between us we only have one mini-headlamp, more suitable for a keychain than a Grade V climb.

Sunset in the Black
Just as the sky is finishing its daily journey from blue-to orange-to red-to purple, we pull over the rim and onto the fenced off tourist overlook. Another day of climbing is over, and another round of beer, music and food at the campsite begins.

Day three, and we're looking for maybe a shorter objective, and of course something in the shade. We hike over to the SOB gully, and down to Comic Relief. This classic climb features a number of harder variations, and we enjoy all of them, including an amazing 5.11+ finger crack/corner. We bring my ipod and speakers, and enjoy plentiful tune-age all the way up the climb. Topping out midday, we have enough time to enjoy sandwiches and cold drinks at camp before packing up for the drive home.

My first visit to the Black was so much fun, we planned another trip, two weeks later. Check back here for part two of the Black Canyon report, when we revisit an even hotter Black Canyon, but this time on the South (shadier) side of the canyon. Next up: Astro-Dog!

Also, check out Blake's account of the trip.

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