Scenic Cruise (Black Canyon of the Gunnison)

By: Josh Smith | Climbers: Josh Smith, Scott Crane |Trip Dates: September 27, 2001

Photo: Lynn Clark

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Scott and I had been discussing "warm up" climbs for our upcoming trip to Yosemite in October. We'd been cragging around Northern New Mexico and had made two trips up to Indian Creek, but we felt as if we needed something longer and perhaps a little more committing than the routes we'd done recently.

I had been hearing about Scenic Cruise for years, but had never really looked into it. I had a vague impression the Black Canyon was loose and filled with poison ivy, but that the Cruise was a good route. I suggested it to Scott, and when I got a favorable response, described the little I knew about the route. And little was the operative word. I didn't even know where the Black Canyon was in relation to Los Alamos, and I had no idea it looked like or even what kind of rock formed its walls. A few minutes searching on the web turned up a description or two, including one by Gary Clark. That didn't surprise me, but it was nice. I know Gary and knew that he would be happy to offer beta.

Scott did a little research of his own. He met his parents in Colorado the weekend before we planned to go climb the route, and they drove over to the South Rim to look at the Black. Scott took photos of the North Rim and the Cruise, which he shared with me. I compared the photos to the topo and the descriptions I had and decided that I still didn't have a clear idea of the scale. In the photo, the route just didn't look like it could be 1700 feet long! But the descriptions I found almost all described the route as serious and committing. Gary had one quote in which the Black was described as, "Yosemite for grownups," which definitely made it sound scary.

Our planning and departure was somewhat haphazard. We left Los Alamos at 6:30 Thursday night to make the six and a half-hour drive to the Black North Rim. I grew more and more tired as we drew near, but Scott seemed to be gaining energy. Between Gunnison and the Black proper, we began to see an unprecedented number of deer along the highway. Scott amused himself by shining a spotlight at them from his Isuzu and trying to guess the size of their racks. In all, we must have seen thirty deer lounging along the highway.

We pulled into the North Rim campground at about 12:30 a.m. We looked briefly and thought we had spotted the trail that would lead to the descent gully, but we were eager to get to bed and so didn't explore further. As lay down to sleep, I could hear the soughing of a bass wind off in the direction of the canyon. I was extremely curious as to what the canon would look like, and the distant noise sounded ominous. The next morning, we arouse at 5:45 a.m., intending to descend in the dark and be at the base of the climb by first light at 7:00 (one of the penalties of climbing late season is the short days). We were out of camp shortly after six and were at the small trail we had seen in no time. Unfortunately, it almost immediately vanished into brush. We stumbled onto what was obviously the main Park Service trail, but we knew that wouldn't lead us to the gully. I was a little worried about the lost time, but knew that there was nothing we could do. We wandered over toward the rim, trying to pick out the canyon edge in the dim light from our LED headlamps.

We hit the canyon rim without finding anything resembling a trail. We turned left, and seemed to see a gully breaking in the cliff edge. We walked over and could see that steep dirt fed into a large vertical drop. It didn't feel right. This gully didn't appear to have received nearly enough traffic, given the amount of people that descend into the Black to climb, and the drop looked too steep and too long. We continued to skirt the cliff, walking through the sparse brush, looking for a second gully. Eventually, we hit what was much more obviously a climbers trail. We followed it to the canyon rim, and it dropped sharply in a gully. Though we had missed the "Cruise Gully" sign that unequivocally marks the descent, this was obviously where we wanted to go.

We descended as quickly as we could and were soon at the first rappel. Light was slowly beginning to seep into the canyon, and I could faintly see the enormous walls across the river from the descent gully. There was no fixed line at the rappel, so we tossed off our 60m rope and Scott rapped into the semi-darkness. I was a little concerned because the guide we had claimed that both raps were 120 feet, however Gary had assured me that we could down-climb if we needed to. The first rap turned out to be 110 feet. Scott rapped off the end of the rope onto a stance and down climbed the easy 4th class to the gully proper. I rapped and pulled the rope from my stance, then down climbed. We were soon at the second rap, which turned out to be 90 feet.

The light increased as we descended the gully, and I could see poison ivy off to the sides of the trail, however it was easy to avoid. We moved as quickly as we could, and we soon saw where the cliff bent away to the right. I looked up and easily identified the Cruise crack system. The largest clump of poison ivy we had seen to that point was directly at the base of the route, however, there was a well-trampled area free of the noxious vine next to the start of the route. Next to the start of the route, in the middle of a patch of poison ivy, were two pairs of shoes. Someone had obviously hiked down in cheap sneakers and then left them to save the weight on the way up the route. To whoever left those shoes: you're a bad person, and I hope you got a terrible case of poison ivy!

We racked up and started climbing at about 7:30 a.m. We had lost a little time with our initial route finding error, but I wasn't too worried about our late start. We had 12 hours of daylight, and if we didn't get lost, we should be fine. I led out, starting on the left of the dihedral on the easy face climbing that the topo recommends. We were planning on simulclimbing the first three pitches, so when I reached the end of the rope Scott started up. The initial section of the climb, which we did in one long pitch, consists of low 5th class climbing with several short sections that go at about 5.8. Perhaps 350 feet up the route, the wall rears back to vertical, and I set a belay at stance protected by gear and two pins. The divergence of the Cruise and the Scenic was obvious, and the "classic" status of the route had guaranteed that we could follow chalk marks and scuffed granite when ever we were in doubt of route finding.

Scott took the first real pitch, which was consistent and sustained 5.9. I took the pitch after that, which the topo had marked as 5.10. I would agree with the 5.10 rating, though Scott felt that it contained the hardest climbing on the entire route.

Scott took the Peg traverse, which joins the two routes. He hesitated only slightly, then balanced over the delicate first moves. I didn't lead it; however, my feeling is that it isn't as horrible as it is made to sound in some of the descriptions. The hardest moves, and the only ones that might qualify as 5.10, are fairly well protected. The easier, run-out section is really quite a bit easier. When I joined Scott at the belay, I told him that the Rock Climbing Colorado description had claimed that the Peg traverse was the technical crux of the route. Scott said that he doubted that it was even 5.10. It is, however, very exposed and run out.

I had a topo that showed the next pitch to be the technical crux at 10+, in direct contradiction to the book description. The corner above my head was overhanging for a short ways, after which it looked thin and difficult. I puzzled my way through, taking twice as long as I had on the first 5.10 pitch. When I reached the large ledge at the top of the pitch, I felt that the 10+ rating was right on the money. I put Scott on belay, and he climbed so fast that I had a difficult time reeling him in. When he reached the belay, he said that he had found the pitch much easier than the initial 5.10 pitch, which makes me again reflect on the highly individual nature of ratings.

Scott took the next pitch up to the belay behind the large flake. It was extremely long, perhaps 160 feet. When I followed it, I saw that at one point, it was possible to skirt around a bulge and climb 4th class most of the way to the belay. Scott had instead chosen to go directly up through a poorly protected section of 5.9 climbing. When I asked him later if he had missed the easy way, he said no, that he just preferred to climb rather than walk. I found the distinction interesting. I will invariably take the easy way on a long route, if for no other reason than to save time, but I can see his point.

I led out behind the flake and soon realized that my pitch was only 50 feet long. From the three bolts of the belay at the top of the large flake, I could see the traverse leading out to the right. According to my topo, the pitch was 150 feet long, so I should be able to just make it to the next belay. I told Scott that I was going to run the two pitches together, then moved out over the traverse. It was adequately protected, and where it turned upward, I could see three bolts, the last of which was an aluminum rod with a small cord attached to it. I clipped the bolts and I even clipped the cord, though it was only four feet above the newer bolt. The moves above the aluminum rod are graded as 5.8 on the topo, but I felt that they were considerably harder, possibly even 10-. However, we were in full sun, and my feet were roasting in my shoes and I was having a difficult time edging well. I reached the next belay with about 20 feet of rope to spare.

Scott took the next pitch, which is graded as a 9+. From the topo, it looked like the pitch was short, and 100 feet up, we could see a ledge. I pointed it out to Scott and suggested that we take the 5.7 traverse to the left at the ledge. He reached the ledge and then started directly up the face from it, obviously intending to run more pitches together and do the 5.9 straight up variation. The descriptions I had read of the straight up variation had made it sound both run-out and sand-bag. I yelled up at him, "So you're taking the variation, huh?" and he responded, "Maybe." He slowed down considerably, then worked his way upward. Eventually, about 170 feet out, he set a belay.

As second, I found the straight up variation quite fun. It had interesting climbing and seemed to be about 5.9. However, it didn't have much protection. At the belay, Scott was somewhat subdued and admitted that the serious runouts on the pitch had scared him a little. I took the next pitch, which was another 5.9 dihedral. It was outstanding, and in 100 feet, I was on the large grassy ledge just below the rim. I belayed Scott up. He moved over to the large tree at the back of the ledge, then belayed me over to it over the 4th class terrain.

I pulled out my watch and looked at it, curious to see how long we had taken. I felt that we had been climbing slowly. I had taken far longer than I had needed on the 10+ pitch, and Scott had been a little slow on the pitch leading up to the big flake. However, my watch reported that it was 1:33, which seems a decent time given that we had started at 7:30.

My overall opinion of the route is that it is excellent and the climbing is consistently high quality. There is little loose rock, and the protection is generally adequate for a solid 5.10 leader. I think that the grading is probably dead-on at 10+, particularly for a route that receives as much traffic as this one does. The amount of traffic also makes route finding relatively easy for an alert team, which reduces the adventure factor some. However, It is a long, serious route, and there are several sections where you wouldn't want to fall. Retreat after the Peg traverse might also be a little difficult. I'd say take the 5.7 traverse at the top rather than going straight up unless you feel pretty darn solid on 5.9R.

Conclusion: great route in a fantastic setting. I don't think I've ever seen a canyon as dramatic as the Black, and I'd love to go back, either to do the Cruise variation or some other route there.