Into the Black

Nick Bullock and Tim Neill | 22 November, 2019

Nick Bullock and Tim Neill recently returned wide-eyed with excitement from a four-week climbing trip to the imposing Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. Below they share their impressions and choose some must-do routes.

Nick recalls:

“While on my most recent trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I lost count of the people who asked, ‘How the hell did you hear about the Black?’ At first this question took me by surprise, because the Black had been in my mind for years, almost as many years as I’d been climbing. But in the end, I realised that the Black is under the radar for many Brits and we were something of a rare breed that many local climbers were surprised to spot.

It took a while to remember, but I’m sure it was while reading about a climber from the States called Charlie Fowler, that I first heard about the Black. Almost from the start of my own interest in climbing, the people that have inspired and influenced me are people who, like Fowler, appear to value exploration and adventure climbing over big numbers, a person with a quest for the unknown. I’ve attempted in vain to find the piece of writing that described a failed solo attempt by Fowler to climb from the base of the Black in winter; maybe it’s another of my made-up mind tricks. However, there is no doubting that on rock and in warmer temperatures, Fowler climbed some pretty impressive stuff in the Black. Whatever, it was certainly reading about Charlie Fowler that piqued my initial interest in the Black many years ago.

Tim Neill on pitch 7 of the 2000 ft Black Canyon mega-classic, Astro Dog (5.11+). © Nick Bullock
Tim Neill on pitch 7 of the 2000 ft Black Canyon mega-classic, Astro Dog (5.11+). © Nick Bullock
A river runs through it. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. © Nick Bullock
A river runs through it. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. © Nick Bullock

The Black has a reputation, especially with climbers from the States, and I suppose, rightly so. The canyon is about 2000 feet deep with a large river running through its length. At its most narrow, it’s only 40 feet wide where the river butts the cliffs. It’s difficult to see a climb before getting on it, never mind inspect it, so it’s more often than not, a case of setting out, hoping the guidebook description is correct. There are very few climbs with less than six pitches, most have far more. 

On the well-travelled routes, there will be suspect rock, and on the less frequented climbs more so. The climbing is predominantly traditionally protected, there are very few bolts—in-fact, there is hardly any in-situ protection anywhere, not even for belays. Once you’ve started to climb, escape—should you discover that 5.9 you thought you would float up is actually really difficult—is a mission, and a big chunk of rack will have to be abandoned. If you do have to abseil, it’ll take a few hours, or longer to get out, and the sun will beat you for your lack of staying power. Even if you manage to get up your route, you’ll possibly have underestimated the sustained nature of the climbing, the effect of the sun (or cold), or altitude, and top out in the dark, or maybe you’ll have an enforced bivouac, shivering the night on a ledge 100 metres below the campground.

While Tim and I were climbing in the Canyon we completed 15 routes. I would say this was the perfect amount of time for many people to get into it, and then climb some of the longer, more adventurous routes. At the end of four weeks I was both physically and mentally exhausted, but I’m sure there are loads of folk that could last it out longer, although a big consideration (especially for Brits), will be the weather. When we arrived in later September the sun directly on some climbs, made it almost unbearable and by the time we left, only four weeks later, we were waiting for the sun because it was too cold to climb.

My favourite three climbs were Atlantis, Journey Home and Scenic Cruise, although for a really memorable, and low maintenance day out I’d recommend the final three pitches of Lost Cities, (relatively easy to get to by abseil) that is similar to climbing the longest and best pitch you can think of on Gogarth Main Cliff three times.”

Tim Neill starting out on the Journey Home (5.10a/b). © Nick Bullock
Tim Neill starting out on the Journey Home (5.10a/b). © Nick Bullock

Tim writes:

“Climbing in the Black Canyon had been on my mind for a really long time. If you’re really into big trad climbing, rather than just the idea of it, just go and climb there. Best visited during October when it becomes just about o.k. to climb in the sun, but before the snow makes access tricky. The days are still long enough to make benightment on the longer routes a strong possibility rather than inevitable, and the poison ivy and ticks aren’t such a problem.

Nick had bought the new guidebook during an ice climbing trip to Colorado. Seeing the place on his way to Ouray the previous winter had left a strong impression—enough for him to part with good money for a material object. This fact on its own made me realise this place must be shit hot. Shortly after it also featured in the excellent Alpinist magazine.

The Black has a big reputation, mostly for choss rock and epics. Undeniably, there’s probably plenty of poor quality rock but you’d actually have to go out of your way to find it. Perhaps because the access is from the top, looking into the Black is pretty overwhelming. Imagine if you’d never been to the Main Cliff at Gogarth and crept to the top and peered over. That’d probably be enough to put you off. Well, imagine looking down something from an abrupt edge that is over 10 times that height, with a roaring river below and a mirror image wall sometimes only 500 feet away, and you get the idea.

Nick Bullock with a long way still to go on Astro Dog (5.11+). © Tim Neill
Nick Bullock with a long way still to go on Astro Dog (5.11+). © Tim Neill
"Super friendly climbing rangers left us beers at the top of The Scenic Cruise (5.10d) to help with our sunstroke recovery". © Tim Neill
Nick following pitch 8 of Astro Dog (5.11+).
Nick following pitch 8 of Astro Dog (5.11+). "Pretty testing… probably couldn't have squeezed another jam by the top". © Tim Neill

We climbed mostly classics up to 5.11+ and encountered rock that’d be called bomber in north Wales. Pitches were generally in the 45 to 60+ metre bracket, on routes that were between 6 and 15 pitches in length. Mostly on steep terrain the in-situ protection is negligible. However, runners were good as long as you eked out your rack over such long pitches.

The beautiful North Rim Campground amongst the Pinyon pines was only full at weekends. Other climbers we met were all well-travelled and very adept at ‘big rock climbing’. And the evening campfire chat was great with mesmerising night skies barely affected by light pollution.

Being a National Park there are rangers. They look after the place, make sure everyone else does too, but in a charming and friendly way. This extended to caching us beer at the top of one of our first big routes. This is no heavily regulated Yosemite.

The new guidebook will steer you onto the best routes where you’ll get rock that’s solid with obvious worn gear placements. Even if you’ve climbed extensively across the US the grading is all over the place. 5.9 could be VS to E2 and 5.11+ perhaps E2 or E5+. Heads up as they say there. I doubt you’ll find many better climbing experiences than classics like Scenic Cruise or Journey Home on North Chasm View Wall. Pretty chunky outings in the 5.10+ bracket. On the shady side Astro Dog, 5.11+ gives 15 varied pitches with a very classic UK trad feel. It’s got a prime bivi site halfway so you can relax the throttle and take in the powerful vibe of the Gunnison river and wild vertical space between the Chasm View walls. In the way that often only the US offers, this is true big country.”