We missed it by hours, but jumped out of the car in the middle of the night and rushed to glimpse the depths. At the North Chasm View Overlook that first time, in the dark, 18 years ago, my cocky enthusiasm turned rapidly to trepidation.
We planned to climb the Cruise, a 15-pitch 5.10 classic entailing offwidths, thin cracks, and route-finding cruxes. As I looked over the rail at the starlit ribbon of whitewater buried within the velvety blackness, 5.10 suddenly meant more than just gymnastic difficulty. It would be the only way to get out of that hole.
The next morning, after a half-hour of thrashing down the Cruise Gully, I promised myself the Cruise would be my first and last climb in the Black. We missed the first pitch and hiked almost to the river before discovering our mistake.
Once we were on the rock, however, the place cast its spell. The experience was vaguely alpine, with the sense of unknown adventure and intimidation, but heat was more of an issue than cold. We wore T-shirts and rock shoes, slamming in fingerlocks and crimping ebony edges. The wall was big. Black Canyon climbers call this rockaneering, and I quickly understood why.
I did return, and at belays, as I climbed the classics, I always found myself staring at the nearby walls, at dead-end cracks on blank faces, wondering if anyone had been there. The Black reeked of mystery. It rarely appeared in the climbing media, then or now. With no climb harder than 5.12 until recently, there was little to interest famous sponsored climbers, yet the Black was mostly way too gnarly for casual trad climbers. So both elite and recreational climbers stay away.
First-ascent climbing in the Black is unique. The stone changes many times along most routes, and the bottom of the canyon contains some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth. Natureroutesetters have been at it a while. Random cracks, just long enough to hold a jam and a bomber nut or cam, materialize out of the shadows, then disappear. Lines can be splintered like a broken windshield, leaving a hundred ways to stray.
In the mid-1990s, Scott Lazar, Kent Wheeler, Seth Shaw, and Tim Wagner climbed a couple of the blankest faces, and in the late 1990s, a bakerdozen of Coloradoand Utahfinest adventure climbers took the baton. Folks like Jeff Achey, Jonny Copp, Leonard Coyne, Andy Donson, Jeff Hollenbaugh, Steve Levin, Jason Nelson, Jared Ogden, Mike Pennings, Vera Schulte-Pelkum, Zach Smith, Robert Warren, Josh Wharton, and Heidi Wirtz quietly helped themselves to huge, unclimbed lines. I wager that, over the past decade, more new routes of 1,000 feet or longer have been done in the Black than at any other area in the country.
While helping myself to the virgin rock, I took a lot of bad photos, most with a point-and-shoot clipped to my harness and a few with a big camera while rapping over the rim. These are the best of the rude collection, which involved a dozen first ascents, thousands of miles of driving, poison ivy in the underwear, and a tequila bottle stashed near the river to ease the pain of repeated failures. Consider them the Canyon outtakes”—snapped while doing what it takes, in the Black, to get out.
These two photos are of Ryan Nelson working the first free ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall, a VI 5.11 A5 put up in 1980 that went all-free at 5.13… plus some dry-tooling.
Working the upper sections headpoint-style in 2004, Jared Ogden and Nelson freed multiple pitches of 5.13 face climbing, with massive runouts above aid mank, often on dubious thin edges. On the 13th pitch, a 50-foot bolt ladder, they were getting totally shut down. Over the winter, however, the Durango pair had climbed some extremely high-standard mixed routes in the icy caves of the San Juans, and a few beer-induced rants was probably all it took to connect this approach to a certain problematic pitch in the Black.
Nelson laid siege to the pitch 13 bolt-ladder with rock shoes and ice tools. One hook placement was so tenuous that he modified a beak piton and bolted it to a weapon”third tool. He climbed the pitch with two other tools, pulling out the supersharp beak only for the crux edge.
In an effort to free the areamost famous aid climb, Ogden and Nelson put up the worldhardest wall mixed head-point.”But since wall mixed headpoint”is not a recognized discipline, their ascent fell into obscurity.
The boys didnseem to care. For them, it was the adventure of a lifetime.
Exploring can feel safer than trying to repeat an existing route. Instead of rushing to make it all the way to the rim before dark, you take more time and can get into a Zen mindset. To squeeze quality pitches from the chaotic walls, we usually spend numerous days sorting out the passages.
We often take telephoto pictures from the opposite rim and carry the prints with us, and we can usually navigate more accurately and thoughtfully than when we follow a topo on a repeat. When we get shut down or reach an impasse where multiple bolts seem necessary, werap off and go top-down to suss out the rest of the climb. Power drills arenallowed in the Black, so you have to seek out very natural lines across blank areas. Here, I follow handholds on solid rock, hoping protection will appear, during the first of several days searching out the line of Cheap Hooker (5.11), on the Hooker Buttress in the BlackAretes sector.
Topher Donahue is a longtime contributor to Climbing and a freelance writer/photographer based in Nederland, Colorado. Visit alpinecreative.com to see more of his work.