Scenic Cruise (Black Canyon of the Gunnison)

By: Charles Vernon | Climbers: Charles Vernon, Luna Kylie |Trip Dates: May, 2001

Photo: Lynn Clark

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Climbers have strange and varied ways of relieving stress before and during big and/or hard routes. A former steady partner of mine would emit loud burps after every couple of moves if leading at his limit. My brother Pat begins chalking heavily the closer he gets (as in miles and weeks) to actually getting on the route.

And then me: I have a lot of "special moments in nature". Usually of the nasty variety. I also like to go on to no one or anyone in particular, ad nauseum with varying interpretations of the endless beta storage I manage to build for nearly every climb that I do or intend to do. This either annoys or amuses my partners to no end (though I'm becoming much better at controlling it!).

We were a threesome headed for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Luna was the group rope-gun, being a 5.13 sport climber and solid 5.11 trad leader. Heck, I guess you could consider him the car-gun, gear-gun, and who-knows-what-else-gun, as he would be supplying all of that as well. My car wasn't working and nobody I've ever met has enjoyed climbing with my rigid-stem infested mess of "diverse" used camming units and found stoppers. Hell, my rack has been dissed by people who've never seen it and even by one fellow to whom I generously loaned it for several days.

Luna, along with our third, my girlfriend Kathryn, were delighted to find that their discussion of my idiosyncracies could provide endless amusement on the ~6 hour drive from Boulder. In fact, Luna would keep it up, good-naturedly, through every climb we'd do. Great stuff! I even got in a few jabs at sport-climbers:)

On day one we climbed Maiden Voyage, a great 5.9 route on the Checkerboard Wall just east of Chasm View Wall. I was able to get a partial view of the Scenic Cruise (with climbers) and it looked spectacular! The Scenic Cruise is rated V, 5.10d and is about 1700 feet would be the longest/hardest route of my career. I immediately began to feel a churning sensation...on the Maiden Voyage, meanwhile, there was a bit of pegmatite, which forms the Black's infamous intermittent bands of crumbly rock, but it actually seemed pretty solid, which eased my mind a bit.

Luna even turned out to be my pillow-gun (by lending me one, that is) the night before the climb. Unfortunately, unease began to set back in, and the night did not go well. I ripped a large gash into my shin by walking into a stump, and another party woke me up later in the night, jingling through the campground and presumably headed for our route. When I did get back to sleep it was with considerable agony, and I dreamed of large whirling pegmatite flakes slicing my lower legs in two...

We started down the Cruise Gully at the (to me) unreasonably late hour of 7 am. I don't think Luna was too worried about this climb...hell, he's planning to go back this weekend for Astrodog or some such nightmare. Sure enough, when we reached the base another party was on the third pitch already. The first pitch seemed reasonable, so I tacked on the second up to some slings about 300 feet up. I knew that Luna wasn't going to fall following the 5.7 dihedral. I then led a fun pitch over a roof and up a nice variable-width crack in good rock. Luna's plan was to take the next two 5.10 pitches all the way up to the belay below the infamous "Pegmatite Traverse", which was to be my lead. We actually ended up doing a little simul-climbing on this pitch as well. I can't recommend linking these pitches this way unless you lead 5.11! I came off multiple times while following, and even grabbed a piece to get by one thuggish move. The climbing itself is incredible, easily the best on the route, however.

I reached the belay utterly exhausted to find that Luna had had to clip into the other party's gear. They were moving pretty slow, the leader essentially (like me) aiding the hard moves, and would let us pass on the bivy ledge after the crux pitch. Meantime I was faced with the lead I had been psyching up for ever since finding Bill Wright's great trip report. I'd been wanting to do this route for a while, and knew I wouldn't want to lead the endurance cracks or the overhanging crux, so I figured the Peg traverse would have to be my lead.

Now, you might think, "why not just let Luna lead the whole thing?", and indeed he probably could have done that. In the past, with my brother Pat, who is a solid 5.11 leader, I had done this several times (e.g. Naked Edge, etc.) and had always been miserable. I just can't get anything out of the route by doing it that way and hence I generally perform and feel miserably under such circumstances. In fact I'm far more likely to break down mentally in such a situation, because I'm not as personally committed to the route. It feels more like watching a video of the route and then being allowed to longingly touch a few of the holds...hell, that's essentially what actually happens, most of the time! I could hardly tell you a damn thing about the Naked Edge and usually I'm the master of ludicrously detailed beta. This might be an indication that I'm climbing for the wrong reasons, but there isn't much I can do about that now.

At any rate I had been psyching up for this pitch for a long time, and indeed it was important to me to swap leads for the entire route. This actually proved advantageous to us as I can often move very fast on 5.9 or easier terrain, probably the product of racing storms for the top on many alpine climbs. At the belay, I recalled the Rock and Ice Classic issue's description of the Peg traverse-- the psychological crux, wherein "sloping handholds...lead over bulging, unprotectable terrain" ... "a psychological nut gives so and so the courage to continue palming along a crumbling flake--halfway through the moves, his piece pops out"..."leaders who have experienced the 5.10- traverse unanimously agree: its the business"..."have your lead head in gear or prepare to cry"... (all this from memory!)

Thankfully, none of this really turned out to be totally true. I lead a lot of 5.10 but I'm a pretty shitty 5.10 climber. However, if there's any kind of stemming, or a stance to avoid a pump, I can usually sketch through, even with less than great gear. I have negative endurance, you see, and am the master of finding ways around that when possible.

The fact that I had just followed an arm-blowing 200 foot 10+ pitch made it all the more tempting to give up the lead, a fact Luna that indicated his awareness of with some "casual remarks". These only served to get me going, fortunately. Actually we had to wait a long time as the party ahead of us didn't want us to invade their belay again. The first few moves go up and left into a crack in the pegmatite and while they are quite hard and delicate, there is actually good pro (I avoiding swinging out of the upper corner with the aid sling as many people do). The sloping traverse wasn't too bad and seemed to be decently protected by the pro in the crack. I reached a stance on a ramp and was able to make a move up right to sling what seemed to be a good horn. Then I climbed across and slightly down the ramp, a ways out from the horn now, to a tenuous stance at the base of the "crumbling flake", which is actually really solid--?!? I hemmed and hawed about whether to place a marginal camming unit in the one good handhold on the low part of the flake, and finally went with it. There are absolutely no footholds here, but after some false starts, I managed a semi-calm lieback up to a good hold and easier ground. Whew!--about a year coming...

The pitch probably does deserve an R rating, but if you lead enough 5.10 and have some head for adventure climbing and going above your pro, it is far from a stopper pitch. The pitches before and after it are much, much harder and I would have been more worried to lead those. The crux pitch was next, in fact, and Luna took a long time leading it very solidly. The beginning of this pitch is almost as serious as the Peg traverse, with marginal pro and a hollow flake. With no wide gear he ran it out through the 5.8ish offwidths above, in another rope-stretching 200 foot pitch, which I nevertheless found to be much, much easier than his previous lead. Unfortunately we took a while on these two pitches, and the party ahead of us had left the "bivy" ledge. The next few 5.9 pitches went fast and we caught them again, slowed to a crawl on the final pitches. This time they didn't want us to pass as they were worried about time, and we ended up doing a lot of waiting at the belays. We estimated that we lost 2-3 hours on the route because of all the waiting. Luna attempted to climb straight up the face at one point to get around them, but this only resulted in him running out of gear and having to borrow theirs again for the belay. At the end of the day I was still unclear as to who owed whom beer. I should mention also that 1) they were extremely nice 2) a big part of the speed discrepancy was due to the fact that they were hauling, while we had only one rope, and 3) having been climbing with Luna all day, I gratefully felt a kinship with climbers of my own level!

All went smoothly, if slowly, until the final 5th-class moves of the entire climb. I placed a Friend low, a few feet above a big ledge, and charged up into a juggy-looking overhanging corner unfettered by placing gear. There were in fact no jugs and a nice-looking slot for a #3 camalot turned out to be flared on the inside. Leaving the tipped-out Camalot in place (about 15 feet above the ledge), I let out a string of obscenities (incidentally scaring Kathryn shitless, just out of sight on the rim), giving me enough energy to downclimb to the ledge and regroup. The second time around, I was able to fish in a small cam, yard on it to another, and finally, the jugs appeared. Swearing loudly...yet another great way to relieve stress! I think this episode provided Luna with his highlight of the day.