Going beyond the ordinary in the Black Canyon

"Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence." - Henry David Thoreau

I slam the truck door. It sounds clunky and metallic, out of place in the predawn hours. The nearby animals must take in a sharp breath, curious, wondering what has entered their universe. My footsteps crunch through the sandy dust to the edge of a void. A thrill hits me as I peer over, down into the dusky unknown of the Black Canyon. It’s going to be quite a day. One more gulp of coffee, and it’s time to grab my gear. My partner’s smile mirrors my own enthusiasm, big wide grins plastering our faces. It’s time to begin our hike down into the chasm followed by a return ascent anchored to vertical walls. This day will not be easy. And I love it.

A rare beauty. Vast and grand, with huge exposure and dizzying steep cliffs. I have lived here for almost four decades. I have never once looked out over the rim without awe and a hint of fear. She’s intimidating.

This place appeals to so many of us. Her towering, sheer vertical walls disappear into disquieting depths. And that, combined with such a startlingly narrow gorge — a mere 40 feet across at the narrowest point, aptly named The Narrows — forms a canyon like no other in North America. Many agree that the Black Canyon is far more striking than the famed Grand Canyon. And while both prompt that peculiar vertigo when you crane over the railings to gaze into their rocky depths, the hard stone did not crumble away as the Gunnison River carved the narrow, deep crack. Instead this rock — some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet — held firm, creating a sharp, almost unfathomably deep fissure plummeting straight down over 2,000 feet — a shocking vertical drop that swims before your eyes when peering into the dark abyss.

She’s called the Black Canyon because of the darkness within. Looking below is a shadowy business, and while it’s a terrifying plunge before you, she is the most stunning and pleasant playground for those outdoorsy folks who wish to explore.

The entire world of climbing enthusiasts knows of The Black — the term climbers use for the park — renowned for her rare and precious offerings. And given the countless options for outdoor adventure in the sportsmen’s paradise that is the Western Slope of Colorado, sometimes what’s happening at the Black Canyon can come as news even to locals.

She is beloved by many, and they come in a variety of flavors.

Folks roun’ here: Montrose natives

There’s the Carhartt, 4-H, rancher crew. They may have that faded round circle on their back pockets. They can rope a calf and bow hunt an elk. Their families have likely lived in the Uncompahgre Valley for generations, and some can point to a few streets in town that bear ancestors’ names. For them the Black Canyon has been mostly about the land. And while there has been no hunting or trapping here for years, many often come for a chance to spot a mountain lion or hike down into the canyon for a day spent fishing.

Perspectives from the basin: water rats

Then there are the river groups, spending their free time down in the canyon’s basin, the Gunnison River roaring or trickling, depending upon the locale. Water lovers on the river vary from kayakers and rafters pounding through breathtaking sections of world-class rapids and smooth eddies, to the fly fishers wading along the calmer sections, expertly whipping their custom flies in an elegant dance over the river’s surface, and using terms like “catch and release” and “Gold Medal water.”

Hikers and trail runners: landlubbers

Most visitors experience the canyon by simply wandering the different overlooks to risk a glance below, walking a short trail along the rim, hiking one that might take a half day, or biting off one of the more challenging trails — and maybe even running it full tilt. Equipped perhaps with hiking poles and maybe a can of bear spray in a day pack, all this group really needs is a great appreciation for natural beauty, a variety of paths from which to choose, and a desire for open spaces, fresh air, sunshine, and adventure.

Road biking: wheels with a view

These folks are obsessed with light gear — really, really light gear — and spandex. Road biking enthusiasts are taking over the world, and the Black Canyon belongs on their list. If you haven’t tracked your progress on the South Rim Road on Strava, then you haven’t experienced road biking in the park. Bikers may take in the view while zooming along or opt for a more leisurely trek along the gently rolling rim route.

Big wall climbers, aka dirt bags

But, it’s a smaller, lesser-known band of outdoor enthusiasts that I am most familiar with, whose story I will share. Known with endearment as “dirt bag climbers,” they sport Patagonia or Black Diamond brands and own gutted vans and large foam crash pads. In the warmer months world-renown rock climbers from across the planet, celebrities in the climbing community, descend upon Montrose, Colorado, to join the exclusive, hardcore clan.

For these climbers, the Black Canyon is an international destination — it’s on all their bucket lists. While the Yosemite Valley is considered the mecca of world-class climbing, and The Black may have less name recognition, she is considered far more committing. With dangerous exposure and limited protection, The Black is potentially deadly, no doubt. Many will journey here to earn the distinction of noting this coveted location on their tick-lists.

Last summer, legendary climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen were featured on Good Morning America as they spent the night in the canyon, sleeping on a porta-ledge, dangling 2,000 feet above the Gunnison River. Many, even within Montrose, the gateway to the Black Canyon, may be completely unaware of the international celebrities who spend weeks of every climbing season hanging from her brilliant cliff faces.

It begins with a single step

Today we are on the North Rim. We made the drive around the canyon and through the tiny town of Crawford. The North Rim feels far more rural and rugged — with its gravel approach, secluded camping venues, and trail system of adventure-hikes — than the more frequented South Rim. We hike down SOB Gully — aptly named as completing it is an achievement in itself. The trek down is quiet in the predawn hours, the crunch of pebbles and scree gradually muffled by the river’s growing voice. Reaching the bottom, we wander through brush, dodging poison ivy to reach our starting point. Long, heavy lengths of dynamic rope are flaked out to avoid knots or tangles. The sun begins to light the walls of the southeast faces. The marbled streaks of the Painted Wall glow in the early morning sun. The view of the Painted Wall will be stunning today from the Debutant’s Buttress formation, where we’ll climb our route, “Veterans with Vertigo.” I keep the puffy jacket on. I will need its warmth for the first couple of pitches.

Solid metal cams and carabiners are clipped to our harnesses, and our rack of climbing equipment gives off a distinctive clank. Water and Clif bars (get it?!) will keep our energy up as we grip the cool ridges of the rock to make our ascent.

We perform the cursory checks — our harnesses are correct, our knots tied properly. The gear for the first pitch is lined up in the loops of my harness. It’s time.

I dip my hands deep into the chalk bag hanging from my waist, and the dry starchy feeling settles into the creases of my hands. A deep breath, a sharp clap to shake off the excess, and I hike my foot up onto the first small chip of rock to balance my weight.

I top out the first pitch and set up an anchor. I tie myself in and begin to belay my partner up to meet me. While he climbs, I gaze across the canyon. The river is almost 300 feet below, and as the day moves on the view of the base will grow smaller and smaller. The smell of pinyon pine is subtle and fresh. I love the arid beauty. Ravens fly through the canyon often swooping just inches from me.

A day in the life of Black Canyon

Only a lucky few people who visit this place will ever glimpse the perspectives I will see today or experience the canyon’s shocking exposure from this particular vantage point. And that’s fine. Of the climbers who have scaled these walls, relatively few of them actually live in Montrose. Most locals I know experience the canyon on a bike, in a raft, fishing, or perhaps just hiking.

On the North Rim, many prefer hiking the North Vista Trail. It’s a beauty, skirting the rim of the canyon. It’s an easy hike that winds from vista to vista, giving the visitor repeated doses of splendor, and eventually concludes by summiting the somewhat over-dramatically named “green mountain.” A more challenging hike that starts on the rim and reaches all the way to the river, Hermit’s Rest Trail is another favorite located just a few miles east on State Highway 92.

Many more take in the Black Canyon from the water. The view from below, while not as dramatic, offers still another stunning perspective.

When I come here with my family, we most often eat al fresco along the South Rim where picnic tables are available at Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock, Sunset View, and High Point or even down along the water’s edge at East Portal, all excellent spots for a stop.

Like most locals, when we host visitors we usually opt to walk the trails and outlooks on the South Rim. The Chasm View outlook has become our family’s clear favorite. There is a nearvertical plunge that is positively dizzying. It always makes a good impression.

Modern art a la Black

Every year the canyon grows only 1/100th of an inch deeper — the mere width of a human hair — the Gunnison River taking just a little more earth with every second it roars through. The strata of rock is shockingly beautiful, the iconic Painted Wall so named for the distinctive cream-to-salmon colored streaks of pegmatite that splash across its face. The green and yellow hues of lichen light up in patches around the canyon. The effect is a massive Jackson Pollack on a scale so large you cannot possibly see it all. I recognize just how special, just how breathtaking this vantage point is, and for much of the day, I soak in more art than a world-class gallery could offer.

Hanging by a thread

My feet start to swell in the tight climbing shoes and the harness digs into my thighs, but I keep climbing, pitch after pitch. The gritty rock slowly eats away at the skin of my hands. I begin to fatigue as the day wears on, but I am granted frequent stops to belay my partner and relish the chance to stare out at the vast, implausible views afforded only to those who choose this path. The sun’s course across the sky changes the patterns and colors of the surrounding walls minute by minute. The magnificent cathedral-like spires and sharp angles shift through the course of the day, appearing initially as striking towers above, then transitioning into sheer enormous rock faces around, and finishing as pointed summits below. Pitch after pitch the roar of the river rumbles below.

Water, water everywhere …

As the heat sets in, I envy those on the river. Some are fly fishing with waders on, feeling the mist of the river as it splashes through the canyon; others are rafting the Gunnison Gorge, enjoying bursts of adrenaline as they crash through a section of particularly tumultuous rapids, followed by sandwiches and soda pop as they glide through the calmer parts. I know how fun a day on this river can be, and as much as I am loving my climb, I wouldn’t mind trading place with them for just a moment as I drink the tepid water growing warm and low in the bottle.

Ever evolving views and vantage points

The sun sets low in the west, casting a unique form of Alpenglow across the canyon and Painted Wall. Vivid pinks and oranges blaze across the face, radiating the final bursts of the sun’s rays. And slowly the cool of dusk transforms the park into the twilight greys and finally the dark of night.

A single point of light

The last few pitches are scaled wearing a headlamp. The world becomes singular now. A vertical landscape stretching 2,000 feet below has narrowed into a space only as large as the patch of light illuminated from my forehead. I jerk my head up and down to give myself as much perspective as possible. I lose the joy of the ascent and the beauty of the climb, and resign myself to the struggle with dehydration and fatigue. The last pitch is drudgery.

Topping out

We reach the top in the dark, spent yet elated. One of the beauties of climbing in The Black, unlike many great climbing locations, is that when you top out, you are only feet from your vehicle. The cold drink that awaits is a bit of heaven as we unload our packs and sort through our gear, chatting about the day and reflecting on the magnitude of our humbling experience. With a quick hug and a promise to try a new route again soon, our challenging journey for today is done.

Not many will follow us on this route of seeming vertical madness. Many people will recount a trip to Disneyland or a day visiting Mount Rushmore, and that’s cool. Days spent rock climbing The Black, though, will be a bit more individualistic, a fringe undertaking that demonstrates a true willingness to take the road less traveled. Every one of us who has spent a day climbing in the creases and pitches of this legend share a common bond. She gave us a day of fun and adventure, memories for a lifetime. Those who delight in the more extreme possibilities that the great outdoors can offer up will be thrilled to find this jewel, still a bit less known, a bit more wild and remote.

The canyon is everyone’s — yet uniquely yours.