Into The Black……..Canyon of The Gunnison
Gunnison Camping and Climbing
The Black Canyon of The Gunnison even sounds intimidating. I had been putting off this trip for a while, making excuses that I wasn’t in shape enough, needed to train more, or just didn’t have the time. But now, I couldn’t put it off any longer. My partner Tim and I committed to two days of climbing in “The Black” with the goal of doing both The Scenic Cruise as well as A Midnight Summers Dream, close to 20 pitches of climbing in two days. But, like all climbing trips, or surf trips, or backpacking trips, or any trip at all, things don’t always go as expected. Weather is the ultimate trump card. You can plan all you want, but weather can come in and put the smack-down on your plans when you least expect it. Luckily we didn’t get the full smack-down on this trip, just enough to keep us in check and alter our plans. If there is one lesson I have learned over the past 20 years of adventuring, it’s that you always need to have a plan B and C, and be okay with changes in the itinerary. As soon as you get too attached to a specific outcome, you are destined for frustration and failure (I wish I did a better job of applying this mantra to other areas of my life as well).
We rolled into the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a very remote campground that takes some navigating through farm houses, small towns and dirt roads at elevation to reach. You feel like you are entering into a small county park, not a National Park, which I kind of appreciated. This was the park system at it’s best. Just the amenities you need, no major paved 4 lane highways, no tour buses, no shops to buy little stuffed animals for the kids. Just the great outdoors and some campsites at the rim of Colorado’s deepest canyon, and the starting point to some of the most intimidating rock climbs in the country. The Painted Wall from river to rim, stands 2,250 feet tall just to give you an idea of the height and magnitude of some of these climbs squeezed down into this narrow canyon. At the ranger station we met up with my friend Vic Zeilman, who is the climbing ranger at the park and had some helpful advice for how to get to the base of certain routes, and of course that there was rain in the forecast. Great!
As we started racking up, we could feel the drizzle from the dark clouds above, and hear thunder in the distance. The clock was ticking loud at 3PM, so we decided we would just dip our toes in the water and climb a shorter route to begin with. We scrambled and rappelled down into the belly of the north Chasm View gully. Only one way to go from there, UP. We worked our way to the base of Maiden Voyage and King Me. About 6 pitches of mediocre, uneventful, and slightly disappointing climbing. The views were better than the rock itself, and I kept having this sinking feeling that the bigger, cleaner routes would have to go down (or up) on another trip. My instincts were accurate. We woke up the next morning to a huge downpour and lightning storm. On to Plan B!
There are some great hiking trails both on the South and North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Here is a link to some the trails if you are just camping and hiking, birdwatching etc. Black Canyon Hiking Trails The camping was fantastic, and perfect for the Adventure Tow trailer. Here are some details on camping: Black Canyon Camping
Plan B started with pulling over in Crawford, CO during the rainstorm to get some hot breakfast and re-group. When plans change, new opportunities and adventures begin, and it started with the hottest green chile salsa on a plate of huevos rancheros I have ever eaten (the chef and owner did give me fair warning). This came back to haunt me later in the day, mid-climb, but for now, we were happy, warm, and planning our next stop. The breakfast cafe was called Old Mad Dog Cafe and was previously owned by the famous English rocker Joe Cocker. The interior was incredible and the food was great (besides burning my lips off, and wrecking my gut the rest of the day). Stopping over in this small mountain town, and grabbing a drink at this cool, renovated bar/cafe is a must-do. Old Mad Dog Cafe
On to Rifle! Neither of us had climbed in Rifle, mostly because of the stories of crowds of shirtless hard-men waiting to get on climbs, literally right off the road. The biggest “approach in the park” is 3 minutes. This doesn’t paint the picture of the type of area I like to climb at, regardless of how fun the climbing is, or how good the rock quality is. I was already anticipating the loud yelling of “beta moves”, the music blasting from portable speakers that inevitably are playing something I don’t like, the Chris Sharmaesque screams of another attempt on someone’s 5.13 project. This scene is more intimidating than the Black Canyon for me. But as we rolled up with our Adventure Tow camper trailer, we were happy to see only a few people climbing, and were both surprised at how beautiful and somewhat remote feeling the climbing is. Even though the rock is in fact, literally right of the road, a flowing river and blanket of trees gives you just enough of an isolated setting to make you feel like you’re not in the climbing gym.
We “warmed up” on a 5.12, as it was still raining and it looked like the easiest route that was still dry. We then moved on to another area where there were plenty of 5.11’s blocked from the rain. This seemed like a good plan, especially considering that I was now running to the porta-potty every 30 minutes after my green chile breakfast had officially settled in. I didn’t want to push my limits too much and end up pushing too hard if you know what I mean. So we chose an “11a” that felt way too hard. I refused to fall on it, mainly on the principle that it was the easiest route on the wall, and I didn’t want to crap my pants……..literally. After barely making it to the chains, we realized that it was, to my approval, a 5.12b. So now, we were both about ready to call it a day, and say that we had “conquered” Rifle. All in all, we both had a fun time here and will be back to push our limits again. Because it was mid-week and raining, we avoided the onslaught of hard men and women from all over the country, and actually found solitude on great rock. You can’t ask for more than that!
Our trip was coming to a close, and although it turned out to be completely different than the original plan, we both climbed in two new areas, explored some cool spots along the way, including Grand Mesa National Forest, and a bunch of small Colorado towns that I had never heard of. This is what it’s all about, exploring new places with a good friend, being open to the unpredictable and inevitable turns of the weather, and getting spanked on hard overhanging sport climbs when you’d rather be placing gear.