Into The Black

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a legendary adventure climbing destination – over 2,200ft deep and less than 1,000ft across “… no other North American canyon combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness, and sombre countenance of the Black Canyon“. It offers routes of up to 2,000ft on the third biggest walls in the US, with a strongly-held trad/adventure ethic, on gneiss and pegmatite (a crystalline quartz rock) – quality varies from finest Lake District mountain rock to Gogarth Yellow Wall sketchiness. The climbing scene is centred on the North Rim campground, with just 13 sites and no services (just quarter of a mile from the more developed South Rim, but involving a 2-hour drive!) Helen and I visited a few years ago but didn’t get to climb – it’s been on my “To Do” list ever since. “A route in The Black” is the other half of this Colorado trip’s objectives (having ticked off climbing The Diamond).Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Black is how such a huge gash in the earth’s crust can be completely invisible until you almost fall into it. Here’s the view crossing the National Park boundary, a couple of miles from the canyon.We arrived around lunchtime and were met with temperatures in the mid 30s, and unbroken blue skies, with forecast of the same for a week and more. No risk of thunderstorms but hardly ideal climbing conditions – we’d be seeking out the shade! Fortunately, much of the most travelled climbing is centred on the two massive gullies which bound the campsite on either side: Cruise and SOB. These run down due south into the main canyon (which runs E-W) and so offer east and west facing walls with morning and afternoon shade respectively (unfortunately, the most spectacular wall – North Chasm View Wall, faces due south and gets full sun all day – but that’s a bridge to maybe cross later in the trip).Looking to find shade and play ourselves in gently (The Black has a fearsome reputation and it’s usually best to calibrate these things yourself before getting carried away!) we headed down to do the classic Leisure – Summer combo, a 5 pitch 5.9+ on the short end of North Chasm View wall which overlooks Cruise Gully. Easily accessed in about 20 minutes with a couple of tricky downclimbs and a couple of 50m abs (fixed lines currently in place) Here’s Bill at the top of the first rap.… and the view across to Checkerboard Wall (definitely a morning crag and the site for our Day 2 plan)… and the view into the main Canyon.Here’s Bill following the first pitch – a fairly straightforward 5.8 (about VS/HVS)P2 is more of the same, but then you cross over onto Midsummer Night’s Dream for its excellent 3rd pitch, a huge corner with a series of small roofs to overcome.The remainder of the route is unremarkable, and we avoided the temptation of the direct finish, preferring to get back to the campsite for beers to celebrate our first route in The Black. Not before a summit selfie… and heading to the Ranger Station to cross our names off the board (you self register for a permit before each climb and write your name and planned route on a white board – we had the whole 14 mile canyon to ourselves!)For day two we switched sides for morning shade and headed back down Cruise Gully for Maiden Voyage which bounds the LHS of Checkerboard Wall.As the name suggests, this is a fairly “gentle” (by Black standards) 5-pitch 5.9, which represents the most popular intro to the climbing here for first time visitors.The first pitch is an overhanging off-width horrorshow chimney, graded 5.7 which well illustrates the vagaries of the American grading system, and serves as a warning to take nothing for granted. Happily it’s Bill’s lead!We run pitches together for the rest of climbing; much more straight forward despite being graded 5.9, and are topped out on the exit ramp after a couple of hours. With the wall still enjoying the morning shade we decided to add in King Me, a 3-pitch 5.10 which continues to the summit / rim. This gets a “PG13” rating for a bit of a runout on the 5.10 P1 but actually turns out to be the first pitch I’ve felt fully comfortable leading. Flat holds and crimpy layaways lead up a stepped corner protected by small wires before a “yellow wall-esque” traverse through roofs leads to easy ground. A couple more pitches up a huge corner system and that’s our 2nd and 3rd routes in the Black in the bag.Here’s Bill gazing down into the canyon with the whole of North Chasm View Wall in the background (The Scenic Cruise takes a 2,000ft line up the far left end of the wall – more of that later!)A long, hot afternoon of doing nothing beckoned, so I took a wander along the trail to the well-named Exclamation Point!OMG as a young person might say!Which filled the time nicely up to beer-o’clock, dinner and a nip down to the Chasm Rim Viewpoint to catch the sunset.

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