Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

Maiden Voyage

October 19, 2003

Dave Svilar, Jared Vilhauer


The first part of the route was already in the shadows by the time I was able to get a picture.

"What is your climbing ability?", demanded the ranger after I had inquired about how to access the Cruise Gully.  I looked to Jared for an answer while numbers like 5.5, 5.7, and 5.4 floated through my head.  We both shrugged our shoulders and gave our answer, "Mmm, hmmm."  Looking us over like a couple of frat boys the ranger informed us that the Black Canyon was no place for rookies.  The message was clear: if you can climb 5.10 in Yosemite, Red Rocks, or your favorite local crag don't think you can come and do the same thing here.  The Black Canyon is known to swallow climbers whole with its poor rock, lack of rescue options and by tempting climbers to get off route.  Basically, the place is a climber's recipe for an epic.

Approaching the north rim of the canyon in the Toyota there was no indication that a 2,500 foot deep canyon was just ahead as all we could see in either direction was flat, barren sage brush.  It wasn't hard to imagine unsuspecting pioneers accidentally riding their horses over the edge of the hidden chasm.  Perhaps it's the sudden hole in the ground, or perhaps it's just the fact that the canyon itself is so impressive, but either way it's a site that will take your breath away.  Sheer canyon walls of the north and south rims are so close that one can almost carry on a conversation with another on the opposite rim.  The narrow Gunnison River rages in a broth of white, angry foam giving the visitor the sensation that it was the ocean if only your eyes were closed.  The narrow winding chasm of the canyon is cut in a striking fashion from it's mundane surroundings - almost as if God himself had carved it with a laser beam.

Growing up, my family's favorite vacation was taking trips through the desert southwest to stare at canyons.  Being an expert on these geologic wonders, I immediately noticed something different about the aura of this canyon.  Unlike the enchanting feeling one gets by staring into the magnificent depths of the Grand or at the eternally beautiful cliffs of Zion, this canyon gave the sense of foreboding.  This sinister feeling may have come from the dark colored rock with its marble-like texturing or from the constant roar echoing up the canyon walls produced by the river 2,000 feet below.  More likely, my sense of dread was a result of the understanding that the day's mission was to rappel into this forbidden abyss and then find a way to climb back out.

Another poor picture, but you can see the sheer nature of the walls and the marble-like texturing.

After parking the Toyota my first move was a visit to the outhouse where I was about to find out that things really are harder here at the Black Canyon.  After shoving, pounding and finally kicking I hoped that my inability to shut the outhouse door wouldn't serve as a precursor to the day's climb.  Racked and ready we set off down an unmarked footpath towards the Cruise Gully, a dirty scrambling descent with two rappel stations that serve as an access point to many north rim climbs.  Unlike most climbs that start at the bottom and go up, this one would start at the top and go down.  Even though I'm supposedly a climber, the notion that someone would go down to climb back up seems counter-intuitive.  Another solid example of why climbing is such a dumb sport.

Last chance to turn back.

The description in the guidebook (which I had forgotten) mentions a dirty, loose downclimb followed by two rappels followed by more downclimbing through thickets of poison ivy featuring blood thirsty ticks.  Contrary to what I had just experienced with the outhouse door the descent was much more straightforward than expected which renewed my hope that we may be able to find our way out of the canyon.  We selected Maiden Voyage on the Checkerboard Wall as our exit means, and quickly after we arrived our low point in the canyon Jared was leading out on the first pitch.

The route was first climbed by desert legend Layton Kor, which is basically meaningless except that I would probably never forget my first run-in with a Kor route on the Castleton Tower.  Remembering how hard the ratings seemed on that tower I wasn't surprised to see Jared stalling out on what was supposed to be a 5.7 first pitch.  After much grunting Jared finally pulled through the first bit of tricky face moves to the first belay under an overhang.  Our double rope technique was new to me, so I let Jared have the first couple of pitches until I got the hang of it.  Actually, I wasn't feeling much like leading the crux overhang, so the new rope technique made a great excuse.  Jared led effortlessly through the overhang using bomber finger locks and expertly stemming his feet to give his arms a rest.  Surprisingly the overhang felt easy for me as well, even with a somewhat heavy pack, which led me to believe that the move wasn't as hard as its 5.9+ billing.

Dave posing on a ledge after the second pitch.  South rim in the distance and North Chasm View Wall to the right.


Dave just after the wide crack and just before getting off-route.

Becoming more comfortable with managing two ropes I set out on the third pitch.  My route description scribbled on an old envelope said something about off-width, move to the right of a roof, etc.  Thinking it would become obvious as I climbed higher I set off up the wide crack directly above the belay using my only #4 cam.  After ascending another wide crack that took a #3 the route traversed under a roof on a thin finger traverse just as the description said.  However, after skirting the roof I found myself directly under another.  To the left it looked like a dead end and to the right of the roof was a large bush blocking any hopes for progress.  I rolled the dice and decided I would use my experience as a North Cascades bushwhacker to take on the prickly piece of vegetation.  After yelling 'watch me' to Jared I took on the vicious bush sending pieces of twig and branch onto Jared's head below.  I pulled through the bush feeling relieved until I realized where I was... standing on a nubbin over the dreadfully exposed face of the wall with my hand jammed into a crack that would be too wide to protect.  Unfortunately, retreat through the bush was not an option, so the only way to go was up.  If the fact that I had to trample a bush wasn't evidence enough, then the virgin lichen surrounding the off-width crack above was proof that I was indeed off-route.  For the sake of comfort I placed a #2 cam into the crack made for a #4.  To this point in the climb I had impressed myself with how effortlessly I had executed the climbing moves - not even a grunt or a groan.  The time for finesse was over.  To me, falling and likely blowing my last piece to find myself hanging 30 feet down on the featureless wall was not an option, so I threw out all my ideas about pretty climbing and adopted a technique learned through watching a certain Redheaded climbing partner.  Ascending the heinous, off-width, lichen-covered crack I stuck knees, feet, torso - basically everything but my head - into the crack.  Upon reaching the belay I felt relief and then satisfaction knowing that although I had created more work for myself by getting slightly off-route, I had experienced a bit of the difficulties of Black Canyon climbing.

By listening to Jared's grunting and cursing as I reeled him into the belay I realized he too was not having fun with the off-route off-width.  According to his report I had done a fine job of cutting a swath through the bush (he termed it 'Dave's Bush') as he had no trouble with the devious plant.  After several chugs of water Jared raced up the next pitch that featured an excellent double hand crack.  I finished up the last pitch and as Jared reached the belay we gave a high five to congratulate our fine work.  By Black Canyon standards our route was considered an introductory climb that featured mostly solid rock and straight forward route-finding.  Even when I got off route it wasn't as bad as I make it sound.  Still, with the mystique that surrounds the canyon, a place known to have no 'easy' routes, and a place to be avoided by anything less than expert climbers we felt pleased with our success.  We sat in pleasant 70F late October sunshine watching climbers on the adjacent North Chasm Wall while taking in the grandeur of this spectacular place before traversing over and up to the Toyota.

Jared, looking like a high school aged kid in his helmet, poses after topping out.


Climber (with white helmet) on the North Chasm Wall.


After a quick tour of the nature trail, a few pictures of the canyon now mostly covered in shadow, and a nod to the ranger we pointed the Toyota back towards Telluride.  With Saturday's ascent of the locally famous Ophir Wall and this trip to the Black Canyon we felt satisfied to check off two adventures on our tick list.  At least on this trip we had come and tamed the wild Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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