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The Black is Beautiful

27-Feb-2012
By Josh Wharton

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in Western Colorado, has been variously described as “a rocky, forbidding hole” (San Juan Mountaineers Guide to Southwestern Colorado, 1932), “a place of primordial wonder” (Black Canyon Rock Climbs, 2002) and “an incredible resource” by Josh Wharton in his essay here. With the passage of time the descriptions have become rosier, but, as the longtime activist Leonard Coyne points out in his retrospective about his 28-year bid to free Air City (V 5.12), the canyon itself hasn’t changed one iota.


The Black Canyon, carved by the Gunnison River, is home to the tallest sheer walls in Colorado. The Painted Wall, first climbed in 1972 by Bill Forrest and Kris Walker, is 2,250 feet high. Only El Capitan and Utah’s Notch Peak are taller. The 1,500-foot North Chasm View Wall offers some of the canyon’s best rock quality and easy access to moderate classics like the Scenic Cruise (V 5.10+) and Journey Home (IV 5.10-). 

Despite having some of the best big wall routes in the United States, the Black has retained a fierce reputation for epic descents, loose rock and runout climbing. In some cases, this rep is warranted, but a growing number of climbers are checking out the Black these days and coming back with glowing reviews. The classic lines have cleaned up and, as skills and gear have evolved, new classics are being opened by protagonists honed on sport and hard trad climbs, looking for adventure in a big and mentally challenging arena.

The following essays recount the recent efforts of two of these first ascentionists who stand at the vanguard of the Black’s modern renaissance.

 - JEFF JACKSON

You could say I’ve been trying to free climb Air City for the last 28 years. This climb, located on North Chasm View Wall in Colorado’s Black Canyon, had been the stuff of campfire legend among the Colorado Springs climbing fraternity ever since Harvey Miller and Steve Hong put it up in the early 1970s. Their ascent, even with some aid, was ahead of its time. Tales of Steve chipping the side of an expanding flake to hang hooks and a monster 40-foot roof that trapped the duo overnight only a few hundred feet from the canyon rim had deterred other ascents. 

Ed Russell and I did our best to ignore the crippling vibe, however, and in the fall of 1977 we shouldered our single rope, rack of hexes, Stoppers and a few tube chocks. Starting up the Diagonal slabs we hit the first real climbing, several moderate and intricate “old school” pitches to the start of the corner system that comprised the center of the climb. Things were going well until the “Black Phenomenon” hit. Suddenly it was dusk, the rock had turned to crap and you could cut the tension in the air with a karate chop. A light drizzle started pissing down. We were also confronted with an extremely dangerous pitch, a hard 5.11 that linked to the 40-foot Air City roof. It soon became obvious that we weren’t going to get anywhere near the daunting roof, so we elected to link over to the neighboring Eighth Voyage to escape. I headed right and started laybacking up a car-sized sickle of rock wedged in an offwidth. As I climbed higher the sharp flake began leveraging out of the OW. The fact that it was nearly dark didn’t help. I scurried down to a good piece, then lowered to Ed. 

It gets bloody cold in the Black at night. We could see the rim and the silhouettes of some tourists looking over. “Are you planning on having a fire down there?” they asked. We yelled a curt “No!” and they disappeared.

We rapped to the canyon floor the next morning, sacrificing most of our rack.

==

I returned to the Black in the spring of 1978, this time with Bryan Becker, and rapped down to the sickle. Tying a few slings to my trusty Chouinard hammer, I latched the loose flake and pulled. The sickle broke free and whistled all the way to the canyon floor. The resulting explosion and spray of debris reminded me of my father’s photos of the allied bombing of Berlin. Friends of mine on the Painted Wall two miles downstream told me they heard it. The smell of ozone rising from the canyon’s depths was pleasantly intoxicating.

Maintenance done, Brian and I headed into the canyon and started up Air City. Before we even arrived at the Sickle Pitch, Brian pulled up on a large chockstone and nearly killed himself flipping backwards as the refrigerator block rolled over him. Surprisingly, his injuries were minor enough that he could continue climbing. The Sickle Pitch went well without the offending menace—pleasant but difficult at solid 5.11. We headed right towards Eighth Voyage on a fortuitous and improbable two-foot-wide shelf similar to Thank God Ledge on the Northwest Face of Half Dome. At the end of this ledge we were confronted by what Layton Kor had described as a “bad width crack,” a leaning, overhanging offwidth of the worst size: loose chicken wings and chest jams.

The sun was baking and 10 feet up the pitch, I was scared and about to pass out from the heat. Coming to my senses I slithered down to the ledge and drank our last sip of water (NEVER carry enough water in the Black Canyon—a tradition that adds to the adventure!). At least it wasn’t dark yet, but damn, it was an inferno on the dark rock in the sun! Bryan and I sat there pondering our options when Ken Simms’ head popped over the rim. 

“Kenny, Kenny, throw us a rope and some jugs!” I shouted. Ken, one of my best friends, trotted back to camp and returned with the requested rescue cache. Fortunately, the wall was not too overhanging and we retrieved the gear with little ado. 

Success in the Black Canyon is often measured in terms of escape. If you don’t die, you’ve succeeded.

Months later I came back with Ken, whose interest had been piqued by the rescue. We got to the base of the bad width crack and I started up. This was before large cams and we had to rely on tube chocks, which were less than inspiring in the parallel crack. I resorted to hammering on a tube with my fist for several minutes in an attempt to better secure it. Eventually, with one huge “umph” I pulled through the worst of it and smooth sailing ensued to the rim. Air Voyage, as we named this climb was a great adventure, but not what I’d hoped for. The top seven pitches of Air City still remained.Decades went by and my interest in climbing waned as I unconsciously fell into the cesspit of the Great American Dream. Still, Air City loomed in the back of my mind. In 2006, Mick Haffner, one of England’s top climbers, approached me in the Blackheath Pub, a climber’s haunt in Australia’s Blue Mountains, with the proposition of heading stateside for a trip to the Black Canyon. As we were swilling pints, celebrating Mick’s 50th birthday, I couldn’t refuse.
Months later, Mick and I boarded a plane for our trip over the big pond. Mick had brought along a third companion in the form of a hideous virus, to which he graciously introduced me on the flight. We arrived in the States sick as dogs and spent days recuperating at my sister’s house in Grand Junction, Colorado. 

==

Once we got healthy, we did a number of warm-up routes in the Black (good first ascents in their own right), and Mick and I felt ready to give Air City a serious go. The first several pitches of familiar climbing went quickly, but the first big roof was a different proposition. After some horrendously difficult climbing in a thin dihedral protected with copper heads and the occasional Stopper, we were confronted by a 30-foot version of El Cap’s Great Roof. Having neither the finger size nor climbing ability of Lynn Hill, we prudently bailed. Heading down, Mick spied an improbable face that would circumvent the roof. Hmm, I thought, just might go.

We headed to Moab for R and R. After a couple of days, I was ready to return to the route we would soon name 827-GO, but scraping Mick off the drunken underbelly of Moab proved easier said than done. The difficult mission of retrieving Mick finally accomplished, we crossed the state border and rapped to our high point. The face proved much scarier than the Great Roof, requiring pins, copperheads and other jiggery pokery, but at least it was climbable. Leading out, I was surprised to find the pitch equipped with numerous copperheads, some in situ and others lying about on little edges, having dropped out of their naturally expanding placements. The occasional TCU provided a decent piece here and there keeping the pitch from being a total death fest. We discovered later that this pitch is part of the Jim Beyer aid route Black Planet and is rated A4. 

I was nearly at the end of the rope when a hold snapped and sent me flying. Head after head popped and I wondered if I was ever going to stop. After 50 feet, the rope came taut. Mick looked across at me like a stunned mullet. Twelve ripped heads, a few TCU’s and a RURP hung from my rope. 

A few hundred feet higher we met The Serrator, an overhanging, expanding flake with a perfect hand crack behind it. I remembered the stories of Steve Hong chipping the edge of this flake for hooks, but The Serrator proved more tenable when armed with a big rack of Friends. In fact, it was absolutely gob-smacking—overhanging 100 degrees and ending in a 30-foot rail traverse. 

We found ourselves hanging in slings beneath a downward sloping 20-foot roof where Steve and Harvey had bivied back in the 1970s on the first ascent. Out of water and dead-ended by this beast, I can imagine the trepidation they felt that night. They rated the roof A4, and with the gear of the day it surely was. 

The offwidth portion of the pitch looked vaguely climbable, but the rest appeared impossible. Mick reckoned we should give it a go anyhow so he headed out with a #6 Camalot, sent the offwidth and promptly jumped off. The big cam ripped and he factor-two’d onto my belay. Then the cam slipped down the rope and slapped him in the face, followed by a pancake-sized flake, which broke over his head.

We traded ends and I headed up and out with a distinct lack of confidence, but surprisingly found myself at the end of the offwidth section in no time. 

“Stick your head inside there and hang off it!” Mick shouted.

“No way!”

“Go on, or maybe try your left foot.”

I reluctantly heeded Mick’s advice and after much fiddling found a heel-toe combo. Hanging upside down a thousand feet over the river I shouted, “Mick, check this out!”

==

“Probably feel better if you used your head,” he retorted. “Aren’t you getting dizzy?”

Hanging upside down in the most exposed position in the Black was dizzying, but it provided an ideal position to scope the roof. It didn’t look good—another eight feet or so to the lip with nothing but an RP-sized crack in a large flake that blocked the offwidth.

“This isn’t going to go free.”

“Oh, it might. Can’t you use those slopers and hook out to the lip?”

Mick is the consummate back-seat climber, but his advice had been spot on thus far. Difficult heel hooking took me to a point where I could dyno for the lip and hit … a jug! I found myself swinging free, a thousand or so feet up and actually feeling good about it. I manteled and scrambled to a stance.

“Off belay!” I shouted. 

I reeled in 10 feet of rope as Mick moved out, then nothing. I assumed he was contemplating the exit gymnastics. After another 10 minutes I gave him a shout. A gurgled, unintelligible reply echoed up. Several more minutes passed with no action. Suddenly I heard a blood-curdling scream and immediately locked the belay thinking Mick had fallen. Hearing another scream (something about a rope) I realized Mick hadn’t fallen so I reeled in slack. A bloodied Mick appeared at the lip. The right side of his head was badly lacerated and he had a hole in his ear. His headlamp was securely affixed to his nose.

I had to laugh. 

“My head got stuck in the bloody thing!” Mick replied.

As always in the Black Canyon, it was dusk bordering on dark and we had no idea where to go. Another roof loomed overhead. Despite his disfigurement, Mick headed straight up. Not even stopping to place gear, he pulled the roof and landed on the first ledge we’d seen in a while. 

“That was a bit game!” I said at the top, surprised at the difficulty, and that Mick had not placed a single piece.

“It’s about time one of us leads a pitch in proper style,” he said.

Mick passed me the headlamp and I wandered through vague but easy climbing. Suddenly it was over—20-odd years after it first began. Rather anticlimactic, all said and done. We stumbled back to camp and quaffed a gallon of water quickly followed by a celebratory beer. It was long past dark, we were tired and hungry, and the campground was as empty as a tomb. Same as it ever was.

Leonard Coyne has climbed in the Black Canyon and Desert Southwest for 35 years.

The one thing that really pisses me off about the Black is the damn pricker bushes.” I said, expecting some sort of consolation. 

Mike Pennings grinned, his head half-hidden by the thorny Jurassic-era plants. “I kind of like ‘em,” he said. “They add character.”

==

‘Psychotic’ came to mind as I absorbed Mike’s comment, but the rare few who actually love climbing in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the infamous granite gash in Western Colorado, enjoy even the area’s worst climbs.

We had just bailed from our first attempt on the Black Sheep, and so far, the line was phenomenal. Three rope-stretching pitches of thin fingers in a corner, delicate stemming, and a long splitter that faded into crisp edges—brilliant! Unfortunately, our try ended abruptly at a bulging and seemingly blank wall. Mike and I placed a couple of bolts before we retreated. 

Over the next few years we slowly added bolts over a series of ground-up attempts to the steep bulge and the upper slab. We were skeptical that the blank section of the route could be free climbed, but the climbing below was so good that we decided the route was worth the effort even if the end result had 40 feet of A0. In the spring of 2007, Mike finally drilled the last bolt in the headwall and pulled over onto the slabby face above it. It looked as if more bolts were necessary on the upper face, so Mike and I retreated yet again. I had to wonder if the arduous hand-drilling was worth it.

Since the late 1970s, Black Canyon free climbing has lagged behind places like Yosemite. Its adventurous reputation, traditional ethic and scruffy, relatively featured rock have kept the emphasis on boldness rather than hard moves. In the Black, the hardest routes aren’t necessarily the climbs with the biggest grades, but rather those that demand the widest skill set. Despite its modest grade of 5.11+, Jeff Achey and Kennan Harvey’s free ascent of The Serpent, completed in impressive onsight ground-up style in 1999, was the Black Canyon testpiece until only recently. 

However, this trend has started to change in the last ten years. Technical difficulties have begun to creep upward as climbers have sought out thinner, more demanding lines. The inspired first “free” ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall (sadly overshadowed by the controversial use of ice tools to “free” a steep rivet ladder) by Jared Ogden and Ryan Nelson demonstrated the Black’s potential for climbs with high technical standards in dangerous situations. A ground-up, free ascent of the Hallucinogen remains one of the Canyon’s greatest challenges. 

The best routes in the Canyon are often the hardest, away from the large choss and vegetation-choked features that often plague easier climbs. Up until the late 1990s, the Black Canyon was a National Monument (not yet a Park), and although it was not the norm, climbers sometimes used power drills to establish routes on these steep, clean and difficult faces. This tactic produced routes like Apparition (IV 5.12c R), Qualgeist (IV 5.12b) and the Free Nose (V 5.12). First ascentionists of these climbs inspected all, or part, of the route on rappel, perhaps placed a few anchors, then returned to bolt pitches on lead. 

This hybrid style made sense in a place where throwing a rope off the rim is a two-minute walk from the car. Bolting on lead kept climbs adventurous and sparsely protected, preserving the feeling of seriousness and commitment that is distinctive to Black Canyon climbing. When the Black recently became a National Park, power drills were banned, and the prospect of a first ascent on a wall without continuous cracks instantly became more daunting. 

A few climbers, however, have not shied away from seeking out hard lines. Kent Wheeler, Jonny Copp, Zack Smith and particularly Leonard Coyne have established difficult new routes. Jared Ogden and Topher Donahue have been especially driven, opening some of the Canyon’s best lines: Tague Yer Time, Shadowboxing and Blacksmiths often link small incipient features with the occasional stretch of bolt-protected face climbing. Tague Yer Time, for instance, is one of the preeminent long 5.12s in the country, with elegant stemming, and thin-crack climbing that rivals Romantic Warrior (5.12c) in the Needles and the Rainbow Wall (5.12b) at Red Rock.

==

A week after Mike and I reached the slab, I gave in to the temptation to rap our route to see if continuing was worth the effort. I was delighted by what I found. A wandering face pitch gained a series of small corners and overlaps. A few more bolts and we would be finished with the drilling.

I called Mike to report this good news and we quickly hatched plans to get back to work. I invited my strong young roommate Jed Wareham-Morris along, hopeful that he might shed some light on the troubling stretch of AO. We laughed and bumbled our way up the initial pitches, battling a hard stemming corner drenched by a few inches of fresh snow. At our high point, I cast off into wandering face climbing above.

With no opportunities for natural protection I was forced to drill two bolts to protect the first 40 feet of the pitch. My slow hand–drilling gave Jed and Mike the opportunity to tie me off at the belay, and take turns lowering into the problematic headwall on toprope. Too impatient to drill a third bolt, I placed a hook on a flake and ran it out to a natural belay. The pitch was a great complement to the steep, sport-like crux pitch: teetering slab moves on small face holds and slightly loose pegmatite, with significant run-outs on insecure 5.10—quintessential old-school Black.

Hanging at the end of pitch five, I heard Jed’s grunts and shouts as he wrestled with the steep bulge.

“See? I told you it’s 5.15c!” I yelled, delighted by throwing outrageous ratings at Jed, knowing that he’d try to show me that, “It’s not that hard!” It worked, because Jed did his best to prove me wrong. Mike lowered into the difficult stretch as well, and after a couple hours of burns, both Jed and Mike agreed that the 40 feet of slightly bulging granite was very hard, but possible. We finished the remaining pitches to the rim, and Mike dubbed the climb the Black Sheep. 

On the drive home, Jed and I spewed beta back and forth, excited about the potential of freeing the route’s last remaining aid. Mike looked blue in the face and was ready to vomit after listening to our incessant spray. Mike is one of the best all-around climbers I know, with badass climbs all over the world under his belt. He always makes climbing look easy and fun, laughing and smiling even in the grimmest situations. Yet when it comes to high-end climbing, with lots of hanging around and fiddling with beta, Mike would rather chase down another adventure. Ordinarily I’d agree, especially in the Black, but the quality of the Black Sheep made me want to take an extra step.

With the crux pitch halfway down an 1,800-foot wall, it was a major effort to access the route from above, but after two solo missions from the rim, and several hours of working on the crux moves, I finally started feeling like I had a chance with this crazy section of technical knee scums and big moves between small holds. The experience was increasing my already huge respect for climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Justen Sjong, who have redpointed many difficult El Cap walls. My free-climbing abilities pale in comparison, and it became clear why most people free-climbing 5.13 big walls regularly climb 5.14 sport routes. Climbing at the upper end of your ability on a big cliff is a lot of work. 

I was, however, learning. As I worked the climb through May, I discovered new tricks like bringing extra shoes, the tightest I could squeeze into, to stand on tiny holds. I employed a special kneepad made for the technical kneebarring on the pitch, and made incremental improvements to my beta. The process was frustrating but rewarding. The time and energy invested by me and my partners—people like Jed, Chris Goplerud and Allan Porter—made each attempt feel important and more attractive than any sport-climbing project.

==

Finally, on the last day of May, Jason Nelson joined me for a last attempt before the summer heat set in. The temperatures were relatively cool; Jason and I were having fun and I felt strong. After botching my first attempt, I lowered, pulled myself together and redpointed the crux pitch. We cruised the remaining 600 feet to the rim, and the Black Sheep was finally free.

Ordinarily, when I finish a project I immediately look toward the next one. In the past only big mountain routes had given me the kind of multi-facetted experience that leaves a lasting impression. But this route was different. For the first time a rock climb left me satisfied. The help and generosity of friends, my partnership with Mike, a beautiful route in a special setting, all came together to form a memorable experience.
Despite some climbers’ hope that the Black remains an obscure, rarely visited area, I hope the opposite. I hope more people will realize what an incredible resource the canyon is, and begin to venture off the well-trod routes, and onto the lesser known gems. I hope someone will onsight the Black Sheep and the Hallucinogen, and that another motivated team will pick up the reins when Jared and Topher leave off.

Josh Wharton has climbed more than 70 routes in the Black Canyon, but still hates thorn bushes.

OFF THE BEATEN BLACK 

SELDOM VISITED BLACK CANYON MODERATES

The Black Canyon isn’t a haven for moderates. The best climbs start at 5.10 and the easier routes tend to be ledgy, choss-choked, bush-wrangling affairs that have added to the Canyon’s dismal reputation. The classics, however, are good, and even the pickiest rock snob is unlikely to be disappointed by routes such as Maiden Voyage (III 5.9), Escape Artist (III 5.10- or 5.11-), Comic Relief (III 5.10 or 5.11-), Journey Home (IV 5.10-), and The Scenic Cruise (V 5.10+), all offer high quality climbing and tastes of Black adventure. But for those looking for moderate gems away from the crowds here are my top five recommendations.

Tourist Route (IV 5.9 R): Located in the lower reaches of the Fisherman’s Gully, this climb serves up a long day of quality, spicy face climbing broken up by comfortable ledges. The featured, climbable nature of the wall means you’ll never have to worry about following your topo—you’ll always be lost!

Moveable Stoned Voyage (IV 510): Great crack climbing that takes you up into the biggest, steepest section of the North Chasm View Wall at an improbable grade.

Great White Wall (IV 5.10+): The Tourist Route’s big brother, with intricate face climbing on a steeper section of the same cliff. A topo will come in handy; a wrong turn could lead you into the late Cameron Tague’s fantastic, but serious, Tufnell-Mcgee (5.11+ R).

Southern Arete (V 5.10+): A proper Black Canyon adventure, with over 2,000 feet of climbing on the mighty Painted Wall’s left flank. Some incredible hand and finger cracks high on the wall make the early groveling worthwhile.

Atlantis (V 5.11-): One of the best new routes in the Black, and perhaps the best route of its grade in the Canyon. Head down the Prisoner of Your Haido Gully all the way to the river, and delight in loads of high quality enjoyable climbing, with short lived cruxes that take the bite out of the route’s grade. Topo available at the North Rim Ranger Station. 

 - JOSH WHARTON

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