Scenic Cruise (Black Canyon of the Gunnison)

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Courtney Scales |Trip Dates: May 20, 2001

Photo: Lynn Clark

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Scenic, Yes, but Hardly a Cruise

I had been hearing about this route, one of the first to be established in Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, ever since I moved to the Southwest. The Canyon has a reputation for big, adventurous climbing. As one Canyon regular puts it, "This is Yosemite for Grownups". A term coined just for the Canyon was "Rockaineering", to reflect the fact that although the routes are purely on rock, the climbing environment bears more similarity to an alpine region than to other major canyons that have been civilized by addition of permanent anchors, by the familiarity that comes with thousands of ascents of the popular routes, and by roads and villages at the bottom. At the bottom of the Black Canyon there is only a river - an untamed, tumbling, turbulent ribbon of a river that perfectly complements the dark rugged walls above. Even getting to the river is an adventure - one of the most popular and easiest descents, the Cruise Gully, involves 4th class down-climbing and two rappels.

The gully takes its name from the route that attacks the most obvious weakness up the steep monolithic wall that forms its western side. The line, first climbed as a multi-day aid climb by legendary Colorado "Golden Years" climber Layton Kor and his frequent partner Larry Dalke, was a bold venture for the time. A few years later, free climbing visionaries Jimmy Dunn and Earl Wiggins decided it might be a candidate for a free ascent, and upped the ante considerably by boldly attacking it carrying only a rack of chocks, a single piton, a couple of sandwiches, and rain jackets. When they reported on their sub-6hour totally free climb later to friends, they exclaimed "We cruised it!" The free climb thus came to be known as The Cruise. Later a 4-pitch variation was established by climbers interesting in avoiding a hard, strenuous off-width that was out of character with the rest of the route. This they called The Scenic Cruise, for no other reason, I suspect, than the play on words. Both the original and the Scenic variation are equally scenic, but the latter has become the route of choice. Dunn has by now repeated the climb over 20 times, but never again by the original route - always by the Scenic variation. The quality of the rock, the environment, and the consistently challenging nature of the climbing lead to a reputation as one of the best free climbs in Colorado.

I had an ambitious year planned. Sometime during the winter when cabin fever and ambitions for warmer seasons ran high, I sat down to plan the coming season. Choosing the routes first, I placed each on the calendar at what I thought would be the optimum window of opportunity. The Cruise of the Black Canyon faces southeast, and although fairly high in elevation, it is in an area that can be brutally hot in mid-summer. Clearly this climb should be scheduled early in the season. I had also heard that late May wasn't too late for a late snowfall, so it was a crapshoot in any case, but I didn't savor the prospect of being char-broiled by the mid-summer sun on the walls of a canyon called "The Black". Late May seemed about right. Now to find a partner; Hmmm, this puppy is hard; conservative ratings have 4 pitches of 5.10, with one rumored to be "probably easy 5.11". I wanted a very strong partner to at least share the leads, and perhaps simply take over on the sharp end if it turned out I was in over my head. I went through my list of potential partners rather quickly, and they all seemed to be busy. A good percentage were headed to Alaska to take advantage of that small coincident window of opportunity in late Spring.

Just about to give up, I finally decided to turn to the Internet. I located several guide services in the immediate area, but when I called, they indicated that the newly formed National Park had not yet issued permits for guiding in the Canyon, so they couldn't help. However, they pointed me to a local who had extensive experience climbing there, had done the route, and might like to do it again. Thus I met Courtney Scales.

After an all-day drive from my home in New Mexico, I pulled into the campground on the North Rim. It was full. I was lucky to immediately find Courtney, who had saved a spot for me in his campsite. We had very little time to chat, as it was already dark and we both wanted a very early start. I packed for the morrow then tried to get a good night's sleep. Courtney had already made the rounds of the campground, determining who was doing what the next day. It looked like one other party had plans for the Scenic Cruise and was planning a "way early" start. We didn't relish stacking up behind them, but we weren't going to get into a race, either. We set the alarm conservatively for 5:30, and were on the trail by 6:00. The other party was still in their bags. My wife Lynn was coming along on the approach as support and to enjoy a day in the canyon. The three of us dropped quickly down the top part of the gully; a rugged climber's trail motivating me to remark "Somebody should organize a trail-building party here". Courtney responded that the Park Service expressly denied such a request because they didn't want to make the descent more attractive to tourists. I soon saw why - after a couple of short boulder problem steps, we came to a longer drop-off. Here the locals have established a solid double-bolt anchor and placed a fixed rope for rappel. More scrambling brought us to a shorter rap, this one sans rope, but we fixed our own for Lynn's return to the rim.

I had read a lot about another aspect of the gully - the poison ivy. Some climbers have even gone to the trouble of buying full Tyvex painters' suits that they could carry up the climb and later discard. It might be worse after the ivy grows up more later in the season, but on this date the risk was trivial - there were a few plants we had to step over, and occasionally a pack or rope dragged on them, but on the whole they were easily avoidable. The biggest thicket was directly at the base of the route, an open book several hundred feet above the river. As we approached, I noticed a group several pitches up, but seemingly off to the side of what I thought was to be our line. Courtney confirmed that they were on the Goss-Logan, an even more serious route to the left of the Cruise. We were first on the route! Now I began to worry that the other Cruise party would show up, find us slow, and we'd have to suffer the embarrassment and delay of letting them pass. Our plans for the climb were designed to minimize this possibility, though - I was to take the lead on the lower apron pitches. Courtney thought we could run out the first four traditional pitches as a simul-climb, since most of the climbing was of the 5.6 - 5.7 genre, punctuated by well-protected short stretches of 5.8 and 5.9. This was to save considerable time that we would need on the more serious pitches above where the wall rears up to slightly overhanging.

After about 80m of simul-climbing past several short roofs and corners, I was growing weary of the considerable rope drag. I arrived at what was clearly a belay/rappel station, where the best route above was less than glaringly obvious, and decided to take a breather. I belayed Courtney up, we re-racked, and he took off to finish off the easy terrain then begin the headwall. By running out the full 60-meter rope out, he figured he could make the first regular stance on the headwall. I couldn't help but notice a dramatic decrease in speed when he met the headwall and began climbing the perfect Yosemite Valley type crack. No corner, no open book, just a smooth wall with a finger crack soaring upwards. I had been on a few pitches like this in recent years, but usually it had been in aiders. Steep and unrelenting, this was just about at my limit to climb cleanly, and I could easily see why it had taken so long to lead. I complimented Courtney when I arrived at the belay. He was gracious enough to offer "You cruised it!" which made me feel good, but I knew the truth was otherwise. I already felt as if I'd spent a good long session in the climbing gym, and it was time to go home. The next pitch looked even steeper, harder, and longer. Courtney confirmed that this was to be the crux pitch - 50 meters of unrelenting technical crack climbing. He was still carrying almost 3 liters of water in his hydration pack plus rain gear, pulling the lead rope and a haul line, and carrying a monster rack of cams, stoppers, carabiners, draws, and slings. I can confidently state that I wouldn't have had a chance leading any of these pitches with such a load; indeed, it was all I could do to pull the moves relatively unencumbered by anything but my own water and a rain jacket.

I could see Courtney was challenged at the crux, but with some careful study, he pulled it - a 40ft stretch where a relatively good jam crack squeezes down to a series of intermittent finger locks set in an almost vanishing crack. This pitch was to consume more time than the entire climb to this point, and I knew I'd be at my limit as I left the uncomfortable hanging stance to attempt to follow it. At first it went fine - although challenging, I was feeling a bit smug at pulling each successive move cleanly and quickly. Then I came, unmistakably, to "the business". Realizing I couldn't spend the time I probably needed to work the moves out, I just kept leap-frogging the tenuous jams, but my feet were getting more and more useless. The fingers were fading as I tried to pull off a fingertip lieback, feet smeared on featureless vertical granite. Then, suddenly, I was no longer connected to the rock in any fashion, with the last torturously gained 10 feet of altitude rushing past. A springy landing terminated the thought beginning to form in the back of my mind that I wasn't going to stop at all. I quickly realized that I'd only taken the slack out of the anchor, the belay, and the natural stretch of a considerable length of 10mm nylon. I was not going to die, of course, but I was bitterly disappointed. My previous confidence was replaced with doubts as I dangled, arms and head hung dejectedly while barely brushing this brutally steep wall, as to whether I really belonged here. Let's see . . . if I can finish this pitch, the next is supposed to be only sustained 5.9, then there's another 5.10, then it's supposed to mellow considerably for the remaining pitches to the top. Maybe I don't really belong here, but I can probably get up it. After shaking out, my determination renewed somewhat after quickly dispatching the section that had just spit me out. Now it was only "easy 5.10" to the belay.

Courtney admitted that he had been on the ragged edge at the crux, and was happy to have it behind him. This was his third time up the route; the second on the Cruise variation itself, and he knew well where the cruxes would be. The next was an overhanging section in a broken corner on the final 5.10 pitch. He headed across a wild traverse section to begin this, presenting some good photo opportunities as he came to grips with one of the signature sections of both routes; by now we had rejoined the regular Cruise route. This pitch was a delight; although solid 5.10 due to its strenuous nature, there were far more positive holds on the darker, more broken pegmatite. It was more like the basalt cliffs at my home area, and I felt considerably more at home with the wild stemming required to keep in balance over a series of small roofs. By now my arms were beginning to complain at the constant demands I was making on them; some necessary, and some due to technique that just wasn't up to the task. I realized that I'd be far more comfortable on such a climb in late season when both strength and technique were honed from real rock rather than gym plastic; the sad fact was this was only my third climb of the calendar year, and I was coming off of a completely idle season. In the spring of 2000 I had temporarily lost the use of my right arm when I severely strained two major tendons trying to climb too hard too soon. "Lateral and medial epicondilytis", the Doc said. Instead of working on my climbing, I worked on learning to eat, drink, and use a computer mouse with my left hand - perhaps a useful exercise in ambidexterity, but a depressing scenario just the same. The net effect of my own personal "Y2K bug" was that I hadn't climbed a challenging multi-pitch route in over a year. There would be little hope of success if I had been in the normal mode of leading everything myself; now, with Courtney at the sharp end, I knew I could reach deep into a bag of tricks learned on big walls to get up almost any stretch of rock, even if I might have trouble facing myself in the mirror in the morning.

And so it went; whenever possible I climbed with all the technique I could muster. At least once in each of the remaining harder pitches, I took advantage of a well-placed piece part way up the pitch to rest and regroup. Our early start and strategy of dispatching the pitches at the base quickly was paying off; the sun had now left the wall for the day as we began on yet another famous pitch of this always surprising, always challenging route. From a good ledge above the overhanging central wall, the leader heads directly right on a smooth, sloping foot ledge, soon to disappear from sight of the belayer. I was reminded of "Thank God Ledge" on Half Dome for several reasons; first, because it is a key passage without which a reasonable passage almost vaporizes; second, the exposure, which is in both cases so extreme as to seem downright comical. Finally, because in both cases the bulging wall above forces some unnatural contortions as the climber realizes it will not be possible to move along it conventionally upright. Courtney moved lower to a line of smooth improbable foot-scoops, using first a draw attached to an old bolt as a handhold, then the ledge itself. When almost around the corner, he made a few moves back up to the ledge, which then mercifully widened to provide the first genuinely easy terrain of the day. It was not to last long - the horizontal traverse soon turned upward. This was good news for me as far as protection with the rope. However, I had assumed that the 5.8 rating of the pitch had already been fulfilled by at the first corner. I was wrong. Suddenly I was faced with a steep, smooth piece of wall of the kind I thought we were finished with for the day. There was a good modern bolt near the base of this, and a ridiculously inadequate aluminum dowel about 5 feet higher. Sticking out from the surface about a half inch, it had a shoe-lace sized loop of old nylon tied to it with a simple water knot. I would not have used that loop as a keychain. However, Courtney had clipped it, and I pulled on it shamelessly when I ran out of options on this supposed 5.8 move.

For the past hour or so our every move had been photographed by Robbie Williams, who had a new guidebook to the Black Canyon almost ready for publication - He just lacked a cover photo. He had spent the day laboriously rappelling and fixing lines hoping to get that photo. I was highly self conscious in my exertions, and finally blurted "Don't waste film on me, find somebody who knows how to climb!" He laughed and said something to the effect that I was just another victim of sandbagged Black Canyon ratings. Apparently it is not uncommon for routes climbed in the pioneering era to bear ratings a number grade below the modern scale. The Cruise route itself was originally rated 5.9! Now it is perhaps only respect for the pioneers that keeps it from being called 5.11. Later, on the rim, Robbie showed me the topo diagram of the route in the notebook that will soon become the guidebook. I was pleased to see that many of the individual pitch ratings had been upgraded. Almost every pitch was rated at least 5.9, and the crux was pegged at 5.10+. This elevates the route to it's appropriate place as a serious route that should only be attempted by leaders with the experience and confidence to pull hard moves with limited protection above indecent exposure and not waste a lot of time in the process.

Other than the one misadventure described above, the traverse pitch was one of the most enjoyable of the route for me. From a photo in the magazine Rock & Ice I had been ready for a long, almost horizontal stretch of mind-bending delicate moves with little protection. I now realize that photo must have been taken with a very wide-angle lens. The fact was, at least for the follower, the traverse was mercifully short, the protection was reasonable if not plentiful, the moves were exciting but not desperate, and we dispatched it quickly. Now only one long pitch remained to the rim and a cold beer - I was certainly ready for both.

Courtney took off on yet another traverse, this time to the left. This was unobvious, and as I looked straight up, I could see that other parties had missed this bit of route finding. A line of holds was chalked directly above us up a steep wall. Although clearly climbable at perhaps not an extreme standard, I could see no obvious protection for at least 40 feet. At this point the leader of a party who had been on our heels since the junction of the regular Cruise and the Scenic arrived, and confirmed that on her last time up this route, her partner went that way, ignoring the guidebook advice to traverse well left, and was humbled.

Courtney had assured me that he could reach easy ground just below the rim in one full 60m pitch. Thus when the rope got down to the last few meters, I didn't bother to call up to him. The last foot of rope went through the belay device, then I heard a yell, which I took to be "OFF BELAY!", and began to get ready to follow. However, this time the yell was repeated, and I knew something was not right. Robbie was fortunately still taking photos from Jumars about halfway up the pitch. Although I could not make out the signals, he just barely could, and yelled down to me that what I was hearing was a call of "SLACK!". Courtney was on very difficult ground, trying to stretch it out to a ledge about 10 feet above. I quickly unclipped everything and climbed out on the traverse to the point where some very exposed moves awaited. We were simul-climbing with both of us on difficult rock. I decided I had given as much rope as I could afford to, and stood fast with the rope straining upwards. It was just enough; he got the belay established, the haul line moved up, and then it was my turn. The moves I had refused to do without a belay turned out to be routine; perhaps 5.7, and I felt very guilty in not going further; he must have been seriously strung out up there while I worked to remove the substantial traditional anchor he had set below.

By the time arrived at the anchor, he had realized that he had a false impression of the amount of rock left to climb because his partners on the previous climb had simul-climbed without telling him; about 80m of climbing was remembered as a single long pitch. Now only 10m remained to 3rd-class terrain. When I pulled over the final short roof, I was surprised and delighted by the sight of a large grassy terrace decorated liberally with Claret Cup Cactus in full bloom. I stopped to take photos to record and remember the impression it had on me. A beautiful finish to a spectacular route and as much adventure as I had had in a single day in quite a long time. Having long since arrived at the rim by reversing the Cruise gully with the help of Jumars and the fixed lines, Lynn was perched on the rim with camera in hand to record the process of unroping and divesting ourselves of tens of pounds of cams, carabiners, slings, packs, and harnesses. Intent on the business at hand, I had not even glanced over my shoulder at the canyon for many hours. Now the walls lit up with the delicate tones of sunset and I realized what I had been missing. I realized I had not done this place justice with my single-minded concentration on this route. I'd be back, but it might be just to explore and really see this place of singular wild beauty that the Ute Indians knew as "Tomichi" - wild and deep place.

Courtney had turned out to be a partner sans pareil. He is currently applying for the first permit to guide in the Canyon. Should he be successful in his permit, I expect many climbers will enjoy this and other routes in the Black under his excellent leadership. Courtney owns and operates Gunnison Valley Adventure Guides, Inc.