So our last post was somewhat lacking in detail since we didn’t have a whole lot of time. This time, I promise a somewhat more detailed and more interesting account of our goings-on!
The Gunnison River has carved deep to form the Black Canyon – a fisherman’s paradise and also home to the biggest cliffs in Colorado. This place has a reputation for scary climbing, loose rock, poor protection, poison-ivy choked gullies, and tick-infested bushwacks. After hearing this, Joanne was not thrilled about the prospect of climbing here. But I managed to convince her that it was a must-visit place in Colorado.
The Black Canyon – the Painted Wall, shown here, is about 2200 feet and is supposedly the tallest cliff in the state. But while we were staying in the park, this wall was closed to climbing for raptor nesting so no-go – fortunately, there are plenty of other BIG cliffs in the canyon that were open to climbing.
We decided to avoid getting in over our heads so we started with some of the more mellow routes in the Canyon. Shown above is the Casual Route. It involved plenty of wandering over a bushy face following crack systems every now and then. We didn’t feel it was very enjoyable – fortunately, the other routes we did were much better!
Here’s Joanne heading up into a short offwidth on the 2nd pitch of Maiden Voyage – we felt this route made a better introduction to climbing in the Black than the Casual Route.
Stemming up into the “crux” of Escape Artist. I can’t say this pitch was any harder than the others – seemed like 5.9 climbing on every pitch. Joanne thinks the crux is at the Vector Traverse instead which is a very unique traverse pitch with lots of undercling and staying in balance.
Enjoying the views of the Canyon somewhere near the top of Escape Artist.
Here’s a hungry squirrel hanging out in a tree. The chipmunks in the campground were very bold, running right up to you or trying to grab food off your picnic table. Everyday in the campground we also had a hummingbird buzz around us. Speaking of the campground, this is the most laid-back National Park campground (North Rim) I’ve ever seen. There’s only 13 campsites, first-come first-serve and even during the 4th of July weekend it was quiet – as soon as it got dark all you can hear in the campground are whispers.
As an additional bonus, the Rangers here must be among the friendliest in the Park system. Brent, the head climbing ranger, came up and chatted with us a few times and talked about climbs. All the other rangers seemed to know we were climbers and were quick to say hello. Apparently July is not one of their peak climbing months – we were the only climbers in the entire park most days! While it was a little hot in the sun, many of the routes stay shaded for part of the day. Even though there is no fancy YOSAR here, from our chats with the locals, the rangers definitely keep their eyes out on climbers (possibly spying with a binocular??).
Jeremy, a local that approached us when we were in Ponia (20 miles away) because he knew Brent and he recognized us from his description, an asian girl with a Oregon license plate . Anyway, he told us story on a rescue mission on a party that did Scenic cruise. The rangers were watching the party everyday and they were moving really slow on it. On the 4th day, the climbers were barely moving and curled up into a ball, triggering the rescue mission.
After climbing some of the shorter routes we decided to try our luck on Journey Home, 1000+ foot route up the North Chasm View Wall. The first pitch has a reputation for being a bit…interesting. Fortunately it was not too big of a deal and the rest of the climb protected very well and involved some fantastic climbing. We did the climb in 7 hrs camp to camp so we thought we are now ready for the big stuff.
After climbing 4 days in a row we took 1 day off in preparation for the biggest climb we’ve ever done. The Scenic Cruise, touted as the best route in the Canyon, climbs steeply up the 1700 foot North Chasm View Wall in 12 pitches. We woke up at 4 AM, grabbed a quick breakfast, and started hiking down the Cruise Gully with headlamps. We wanted to get as high on the wall as possible before the sun hit us.
The first few pitches flew by and we started to get into the meat of the climb, beginning with the 5th pitch. This is the first difficult pitch – almost 60 meters long in a sustained finger and hand crack with several tricky sections. After this warms you up (or wears you out) you get to do the pegmatite traverse. Joanne didn’t want to do this climb just because of this pitch. It traverses through a band of pegmatite to reach another system of cracks. I won’t tell all the details here but just ask Joanne how much she enjoyed this pitch
After the traverse comes the crux of the route, a 5.10+ dihedral – the holds were mostly positive so the climbing didn’t seem too bad but it is steep and you’ll be happy when you pull onto the belay ledge at the end of this pitch. The picture above is taken looking down from this ledge. If you look real closely you might see Joanne in the middle.
The final half of the climb wanders around with some interesting route finding and with plenty of 5.9 climbing to keep things interesting. Here’s the beginning of one of the traverses – the only bolts on the entire climb are on this pitch. And this is somewhat unusual for climbs in the Black Canyon: I think these were the only bolts that we saw anywhere while climbing. So if you want to bail from a route, expect to leave lots of your own gear!
Hooray! On the summit at last – we took about 9 hours to climb the route (10.5 hrs camp to camp), which isn’t fast by any means, but we were pretty excited to have completed such a long climb. We brought 3 liters of water and 1 liter of gatorade and finished it all. Even then, my mouth was so dry and I drank another 3 liters of root beer, gatorade, juice, and water that evening. After finishing this climb, we both agreed that we could leave the Black Canyon without any regrets!
Route Info + Beta!
When To Climb: Spring + Fall are best but you can avoid traffic with an off-season visit! We were there in early July and with highs around 85 and few climbers, conditions were perfect (we were completely ALONE in the canyon when we did The Scenic Cruise!). Winter and early spring climbing require a ski approach but the rock is supposedly still climbable!
Climbing Quality: Jaw dropping canyon with incredibly long routes and high adventure. What more could you want?
Camping: Shaded spots nestled along the rim make this campground a top choice. Quietest campground I’ve ever stayed in…stayed on the 4th of July and we didn’t deal with any fireworks or drunken campers.
Rest Day Activities: Set up a hammock and read or go fishing!
So is the Black Canyon quite as scary as it’s reputation? No, not really – if you climb the most popular routes you’ll find mostly good rock. That being said, all the routes have questionable flakes that vibrate when you touch them. Most of them appear somewhat solid but it would probably ruin your day if one of the bigger ones decided to pull off. We both agreed that in some ways, climbing in Black Canyon is quite enjoyable. You always start the day with the descent into gully and then when you are done climbing, you are already back on the rim, no more descent needed which is really nice.
And at least in July, we found no ticks. As for poison ivy I’m not sure if I’m good at identifying it so we tried to stay away from 3-leaved plants. We were looking at the so-called poison-ivy at the base of Scenic Cruise – I didn’t know poison ivy could grow so big (up to my knees)! I always thought it was just a small little plant. But we’ll find out in a couple days if that stuff really was poison ivy since I’m pretty sure I brushed through some of it. (Update: If it was poison ivy, maybe I’m no longer allergic? Seems doubtful since I got it 5 or 6 times when I was younger.)
Also, unless you’re a climber or a fisherman, there’s not much to do at the Black Canyon. To give you an idea of what things are like, the hiking “trail” down to the canyon is called the SOB Gully. But this is a pretty cool place and the canyon viewpoints force you to gulp as you look down into the yawning chasm. Hmmm, am I starting to itch?