Climbing the Black Canyon of Gunnison

By: Ian Havlick

After a long stretch of work, a day off loomed on the horizon, and I shot a few texts to try and arrange a partner for a much needed fix of any or all of the following: no cell service, a semi-committing adventure, a few beers around a campfire, some sweat, some new scratches, and maybe just a little fear thrown in the mix. 

A visit to “The Black” was just the fix. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the least visited and underrated National Parks in the country, and that is just fine by me. No lines, no noisy RVs in the campground, no Cheetos bags and McDonalds wrappers littering the trails. Just raw, real, untamed nature, and arguably some of the best climbing in North America. Right up there with Yosemite, Zion, Squamish, and the Bugaboos. 

The North Rim campground is basecamp, and car camping at its best. Potable water, nice bathrooms, and 15 campsites with picnic tables, fire-rings and a 3 minute walk to the intimidating viewpoint where the roaring Gunnison river and 2000’+ walls drop below the rickety overlook railing. 

Before each climb, it is asked you scribble your desired route on the dry erase board outside the Ranger Cabin, to have a rough estimation of whose is climbing where in case of rescue, as well as to prevent two parties gunning for the same route. I look forward to this ritual, not necessarily to write the route down, but the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment erasing my name and route at the end of a solid day of climbing. 

Now, The Black has an intimidating reputation for good reason. Big routes, poison ivy, loose rock, route finding, stout grades and above all… both literally and figuratively… Escape (some may even say Salvation) is only by climbing out. Up. It is hard to not feel the commitment increase with every step taken into the canyon before a climb here. The metaphors are endless, Dante’s Inferno, the rings of hell, they all can apply in The Black. 

With the doom and gloom aside… there are some incredible climbs to be had in The Black, without too much suffering. The most modest and most frequently climbed, Maiden Voyage 5.9-, is the best introductory to the canyon. A hike down the Cruise Gully leads to a few fixed rope rappels, a little (avoidable) poison ivy, and just a bit of loose rock brings you to five pitches of sustained 5.7 to 5.9 climbing. Immaculate views of the canyon and bigger routes such as the mega-classic Scenic Cruise (13 pitches, 5.10+) are in your face. Maiden Voyage is a good half-day mission in itself, or the potential for extra helpings of the Black linking Newberry’s Slabs (5.8) and/or King Me (5.10) can make it a long day. 

Other “popular” climbs and relative moderates found on the North Rim include The Dragon’s Tooth (5.8+), Casual Route (5.8), Casually Off Route (5.9), Escape Artist (5.9+), Comic Relief (5.10b), Cloak and Dagger (5.10+). All these climbs are accessed from about half way down the canyon, so the typical day starts around sunrise, and you can be swilling a cold one early afternoon. Longer Grade IV routes in the area such as Russian Arête (5.9+) are truly big days, heavy on adventure, and will most definitely leave you with the Black Canyon itch (not always from poison ivy!!) to get back for another fix. 

Despite popular belief, excellent climbing can be had in The Black nearly year round, but spring and fall undoubtedly primetime. The rim of the canyon is at about 8,000ft, so days can be hot, and nights cool and crisp. The old mantra in the Black is, “a rope, a rack, and the shirt on your back.” While this still holds true, a hydration bladder, and small <12L pack with an extra layer and food is recommended. All the climbing in the Black is with traditional protection (Cams, nuts, etc). We recommend those looking to climb in the Black be solid 5.8-5.9 followers, with a general knowledge of cleaning gear, and a few multi-pitch climbs under their belt. Our guides are happy to train with you to make sure all have the proper climbing ability and skill set before heading to the Black. Taylor Canyon has long been the proving ground for climbers headed into The Black. 

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is truly a world-class gem in Colorado’s backyard. It is well worth making the effort to experience because words only bring you so close. If you’re lucky, you can even erase your route from the Ranger’s whiteboard at the end of the day.

Filed under: Adventure Bucket List

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