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Climbing in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

9/29 to 10/3/98

Author: Mike Sullivan

Participants: Mike Sullivan and Tim Gale

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, located northeast of Montrose, Colorado, is home to the largest rock walls in the United States. (Uh, except for Alaska and Yosemite Valley, anyway...) Many of the routes in the Black have ratings like grade V, 5.11R A4. To top it off, the climbs have a reputation for some loose rock, and the steep approach gullies are full of poison ivy, loose scree, and an occasional rattlesnake. Yet the Black is not just a training ground for psycho hardmen and North Face wannabees - there are also several fun and aesthetic routes for intermediate level climbers with a taste for adventure. The largest concentration of clean moderate climbs can be found in the area of North Chasm View Wall, which has the additional advantage of being located adjacent to the North Rim Campground. A mini guide to the area can be found in Stewart M. Green's "Rock Climbing Colorado."

Tim and I arrived on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of September... the campground was beautiful, undeveloped, and almost totally deserted. The rim was full of pinons, scrub oak, and other shrubs in full autumn splendor. We checked out the incredible views into the chasm, and pitched our tents at a site near the rim. We then took a hike two-thirds of the way down the S.O.B. Gully to take a look at the start of our main objective, a 12-pitch route called Comic Relief. The gully wasn't all that bad, and the poison ivy had a beautiful autumn fluorescent orange hue... We puffed back up to our camp, and racked up for the morning, totally psyched.

Unfortunately, a large thunderstorm rolled in before dawn and gave the canyon a good soaking. By 10 AM, the weather was sunny and the rock was drying out, so we decided to go for a shorter climb. We descended the Cruise Gully to just past the second rappel, and did Leisure Climb, a 6-pitch route of mostly 5.6 to 5.8, with a short 5.9 crux. It was a fun, sunny route, with only a small amount of loose rock in some of the easier sections, and we found it to be very enjoyable. We also got wonderful views of the awesome Checkerboard Wall, first climbed by Kor in the 60's. All-in-all, it was a great Black Canyon introductory climb.

The next morning provided some more unsettled weather, and we narrowly decided to postpone climbing and head into Hotchkiss for some groceries. That afternoon back at camp, we were absolutely pounded by an intense thunderstorm. Visibility was reduced to under 20 yards as the rain fell so hard that more than an inch of water flowed everywhere over the entire surface of the campground and out towards the rim. I squatted on top of our campsite's picnic table and huddled underneath a tarp, considering what our fate might have been if we had chosen to do the climb that day.

A few hours later, the storm blew over, and Tim and I brought mugs of hot tea down to the overlook. We sipped tea and took photos as great banks of fog rose out of the chasm, snagged briefly amongst the side-canyons and pinnacles along the rim, and gradually dissipated over the mesas. The wet canyon walls were wildly psychedelic in the clearing mists - the black granite glistened, swirling with dikes and veins of pink pegmatite. The overall experience was indescribably beautiful.

The following day dawned bright and clear. We left camp at 7 AM, and quickly hiked down the approach to Comic Relief. It turned out to be a steep and superb route, with several pitches of 9+ cracks and dihedrals and one pitch of clean 10a crack, which Tim led with complete grace. The weather was clear and cool; we didn't get any sun on our north-facing route until about the 10th pitch, when the angle began to ease off. From there, a couple of long pitches of runout slab climbing brought us to the top of a detached tower. A short rappel and 20 minutes of gully scrambling led us directly up to our tents. We were back at camp at 5:30, grinning with glee and basking in the glow of a wonderful outing.

It was now Friday evening, and three of four groups of climbers began arriving for the weekend. Up until then, we'd had the whole area to ourselves... Saturday morning was cold and cloudy, so Tim and I bailed for Unaweep Canyon, outside of Grand Junction. We did some cragging at The Fortress, which reminded me of Vedauwoo or Turkey Rocks, with steep wide cracks and nubbly granite. The rock was enjoyable, but the wind was cold and we were getting spattered with graupel. We decided to call it quits; Tim returned home to Boulder, and I headed west - bound for Yosemite and more adventures.


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