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Big New Free Route in the Black Canyon

Three months of effort in the Black Canyon produce a big new free route, Black Cloud (IV 5.12- PG) by Robert Pizem and Chris Righter.

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Looking up at the lower section of Black Cloud. All photos by Robert PizemRob Pizem and Chris Righter have wrapped up a monumental effort in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison, establishing a new all free route Black Cloud (IV 5.12- PG) on a difficult to access wall on the south side.

Black Cloud took three to four months to complete “due to scheduling conflicts,” says Pizem. “ We both have families, and family comes first.”

The two began the route in early July and sent it in a one day push in mid October. Intending to establish the line ground up, the two abandoned that plan when they encountered extremely loose and dangerous rock low on the climb. “As much as I appreciate the style of ground up,” says Piezm, “I have found that the best modern routes are established top down. Chris and I didn’t want to create a turd, yet we didn’t want to dishonor the experience of climbing in the Black.”

Righter and Pizem rapped in, fixed ropes, sussed the line then each of them freed every pitch either on lead or while seconding. The first crux, says Pizem, “Is a 40+ meter pitch of mixed face and crack climbing. It is vertical to slightly overhanging on the best stone that I have ever climbed on in the Black. It is technical, edgy and balancy the whole way and ends by giving you a slight pump 5.11+.”

A second 5.12- 60-meter crux with suspect pro leads to a dihedral and a thin undercling to lie back roof and into perfect stone with a placement every few feet. “The river is way below,” says Pizem, “you are pumped and you can’t see or hear your partner. It’s an amazing feeling be way out on your own in the middle of an ocean of rock!”

Pizem’s most exciting moment, however, was found on the canyon floor. Ducking into a massive cave to get out of the rain and rockfall he found mountain-lion scat and animal bones. “I actually thought that I was going to get eaten,” he says. I was scared shitless.”

Ducking into a massive cave to get out of the rain and rockfall he found mountain-lion scat and animal bones.

No stranger to adventure, Pizem is best know for freeing big routes, notably Arcturus (VI 5.13+/5.14a) on Half Dome in 2006. Attempting to free Robbins’ original line, Pizem fell and broke a vertebrae in his back. After nearly a year of recovery, he returned with Mike Anderson and made that route’s first—and still only—free ascent. “I love climbing big routes because I am an endurance guy by nature and I like to climb all day long,” he says. “The physcial/mental challenge of having to keep going without falling after you climb one or more hard pitches, then climb more hard pitches is way more satisfying than just sending a single pitch route or boulder problem.”Chris Righter casts off on the new route Black Cloud.Righter rambling up typically loose and blocky Black Canyon rim rock.