Back in Black

My friend Matt from Cilogear Backpacks was in Colorado for a week to get some rock climbing mileage under his belt and get ready for an upcoming trip to Mount Desire, for which his team had won an American Alpine Club grant.

The day before we took off from Denver, I found out that I won a Mountain Fellowship grant from the AAC as well, which I am going to put towards a July trip onto the Juneau Icefield. With good news all around, we headed out from Denver to the sporty limestone walls of Rifle, CO.

Only about 10 minutes outside Denver, Matt realized he didn't have his wallet. He'd used it to buy Star Trek tickets the night before, and afterward we had gone only to my house, so it had to be in one of two locations. After calling the theater and hearing that nobody had turned in the wallet, we assumed it must have been left at my house and chose not to turn around and drive back. More on this as the situation develops...

We rolled over the Rockies and into Rifle by early afternoon. The limestone was steep and gymnastic, definitely unlike the lower-angle trad climbing that I am used to. However, we both had a lot of fun messing about on the sport routes at the Ruckman Cave area. After half a dozen pitches we re-embarked on the road to Colorado's famed Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

While driving we phoned my roommate to have him check on the mystery wallet's location, assuming it must be around my house. But a thorough search turned up nothing, and the mystery continued. Being 4 hours from Denver, we decided to stay and climb in the Black Canyon, rather than chase wild geese.

The Black Canyon is, like much of Colorado, fairly over-blown in terms of remoteness, scariness, or general wildness. The cracks are even halfway solid!

The setting is beautiful and unique, but the classic routes feature solid rock, easy approaches, and non-existent descents. I am sure that getting off the classics will provide more adventure than I'd know what to do wtih, but while running the risk of collapsing my soap-box from overuse, I also want to pick at two more nits about the Black Canyon.

#1 - Grades in guidebook are smaller than they appear.

Rock climbs in the USA are given a technical difficulty grade of the hardest move (such as 5.11+) and a commitment grade, describing the amount of time it would typically take a party from the base of the route to the summit of the climb.

As per the American Alpine Journal:

NCCS grades, often called 'commitment grades,' indicate the time investment in a route for an average climbing team. I and II: Half a day or less for the technical (5th class) portion of the route. III:Most of a day of roped climbing. IV: A full day of technical climbing. V: Typically requires an overnight on the route, or done fast and free in a day. VI: Two or more days of hard climbing.

Our second day in the canyon we climbed The Scenic Cruise, perhaps Colorado's best route.

There were 13 or 14 pitches, with several 5.10 pitches and the remainder was somewhat less difficult. This route has become the most popular route in the park, getting climbed in a day for 99% of its ascents. The second ascent of the route was done by Earl Wiggins, free solo, in three hours. Yet the route is given a grade V commitment designation. In reality it is more of a III+, most parties spend somewhere around ten hours on the climb.

#2: The Black Canyon is not some kind of crazy land of horrible brush and swarming ticks.

In descending two different gullies and spending 3 days in the park, we found one tick and only really observed poison ivy growing near the bottom of one gully, well off the established trail. The Black Canyon guidebook also states that in the lower 48, only Utah's Notch Peak and Yosemite's El Capitan rival the canyon walls in size, clocking in at over 2,000' tall. In addition to Montana's Mount Siyeh, the North Cascades alone has peaks such as Johanesburg, Bear, Index, Mox, Goode, and Bonanza, all of which have cliffs or faces with well in excess of 2000' of technical rock. This is not to say that the Black Canyon isn't big and impressive, but perhaps the world might not revolve around Colorado after all...

Here are some photos from Comic Relief and its variations.

-The Lightning Bolt Crack -

For the Scenic Cruise we opted to start late and get afternoon shade on route.

There is a famous quote that states "The average person thinks he isn't". This especially applies to climbers. And thinking ourselves above-average climbers, we made little effort to hurry up the route. The result was a final pitch climbed in near darkness, but an extra large smile on my face as I topped out and clipped into the overlook guard-rail to belay Matt up to the final pitch.

Matt's newly resoled climbing shoes gave him a frightening blister on his heel, preventing another day of climbing. However, upon returning to Denver, Matt snuck into the movie theater we'd been to, walked into Star Trek halfway through the film, sat down exactly where he had been 4 days prior, and used my Petzl headlamp to find his wallet sitting on the floor where it had fallen out of his pocket before our trip began. It makes you wonder how long the moldy popcorn must hang out in those theaters...

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