About ten years ago, I went to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for my first time with Katherine Fraser. We peered into the South rim through a haze of rain to see snow laced ledges on the shear vertical faces. We were inspired, but denied the climbing adventure we desired, and yet the seed was planted.
It’s not easy to find partners for “The Black”. Its committing and adventurous traditional climbing with a short season between too cold or wet and too hot.
This spring, my travels found me in the Utah/Colorado area and I found my way back to the black. I found a couple reluctant partners for two climbs, but I also tried my hand at “mini-tractioning” some pitches. (a way of ‘safely’ climbing by yourself on a rope)
The day I went to the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison with the intention of rappelling in and climbing out by myself, was the first time in my life I felt severely nauseous from exposure. I walked up to the Chasm Overlook to find the anchors. I felt terrified and anxious, my stomach pleading to remain on the rim. I now understand how ’normal’ people feel in exposed environments.
I decided to take a methodical approach, all the while wondering if all my anxiety was foreshadowing of impending doom. I spent a lot of time planning the execution of rappelling and rope ascending, trying to think of every possible mishap. I planned on practicing my systems within the top 40 feet of the rim to make sure they worked before I committed to descending further. Why didn’t I practice in Rifle when I had the chance to be so much closer to the ground and with friends for back up?
Chris Kalous had given me a hand drawn topo for rappelling in to climb the top half of Tague Your Time (TYT). I referred to these simple line drawings countless times. In the end I rappelled in twice to the top few pitches of TYT. No mishaps. I enjoyed climbing with the mini-traction system recommended to me by various friends. I didn’t enjoy rappelling in, the jumaring, or the hauling. Unfortunately, as often is the way with enjoyable things, it was 90% work for 10% pleasure. I felt immensely proud of myself for stepping up to this challenge. It was terrifying, but also strangely rewarding, as masochistic endeavors commonly are.
I felt like I had won the lottery when Topher said he would climb in The Black with me. He agreed to do TYT with me in a day. As it turned out, his friend Anthony would also be joining us, but we would just fix the line and he would mini-traction behind us. Anthony helped out with hauling and carrying extra gear, as well; he kept our moods lighter with his endless stories about previous epics and his grunts and yelps while struggling below us.
On the second pitch of the route, which was my first 5.12 lead in The Black, I had a hard time shaking my nerves.
I felt rushed by the size of our objective as I was racking up. A few times while I was trying to build up the courage to continue up the pitch, I thought about how big our day was and my fear: I wanted to lower off and just give Topher the lead, but instead I just focused on the next foothold or gear placement and continued up.
Near the anchor, I was so amazed that I was about to “on-site” the pitch, I was “over-milking” a rest and I lost my balance and peeled off. No on-site, but it helped to shake my nerves and I felt great about being able to send that pitch. I followed or lead the rest of the pitches to the 2-boulder bivy ledge cleanly. I found it exhausting both physically and mentally. I often seconded with more gear than normal and I think that added a bit to my fatigue. At the 2-boulder bivy, our ‘half-way point’, I was “wasted”. So bagged. I definitely appreciated why most teams take 2 days to climb/send this route.
I chose to lead the ‘crux’ pitch above the 2-boulder bivy. About a third of the way up the pitch I “had a moment”. I was doing some 5.11 climbing a few feet above good gear, which is not that big a deal for this route, but there were some ledges below me and I wasn’t confident about the route-finding. My foot slipped, adrenalin surged through my body, I thrutched like a novice and made it to a ledge. At this point my mental game was exhausted. The rest of the climb was a mental battle in which I was on the losing team. If my body was an elephant and my consciousness – the rider; this elephant was NOT going to climb above ledges without bomber gear at my waist, period. I, the rider, had no control.
I should mention that just prior to this adrenalin surge, I had a mental flashback of my accident which resulted in broken vertebrae after I hit some ledges about 18 months ago.
After trying to continue to lead the pitch, in which the elephant was in full control, I lowered back to the 2-boulder bivy ledge. My head hung low, I felt like I had just been benched or relegated to the ‘B’ team in a very important game. Anthony was a champ, generously sharing his own humbling stories to console me. My ego would like you to know that on top-rope, I mostly climbed well on this pitch 😉
I will let the photos tell the rest of the story of an amazing adventure in a spectacular place with 2 great spirits. I am grateful for this is experience I will not forget anytime soon.
By the way, Topher, who was one of the first ascentionists on this route, sent the entire route in great style.
So we all managed to get back to the rim, 17 hours after we slid down our ropes into the blackness. I feel proud of this effort, despite a marginal performance.