Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park should be on every rock climber’s bucket list — even rookies
Rolling high desert pinyon pine and juniper trees are incandescent against the rising 6:50 a.m. sun. To beat the afternoon heat, we’re on our approach — a 5-minute hike on an unmarked spur trail — south of the North Rim Ranger Station in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s hard to believe that one of the country’s deepest gorges exists here amid farmland — and suddenly, the earth gives way.
Deep and immense
I gape at the ethereal 1,800-foot deep chasm, which stretches 1,100 feet across to the south rim. Pink-toned pegmatite dikes create lightning-bolts across the black and gold-hued walls. Gunnison River, which roars below, incised this 2 billion-year-old Precambrian rock. I shudder at the canyon’s sheer size. “Whoa,” I said to my friend and climbing partner, Lance Sullins, owner of Peak Mountain Guides, based in Ridgway, Colorado.
The Black, as it’s known among climbers, has an intimidating reputation for choss-tossed, committing, challenging multi-thousand-foot walls. Fourteen miles of rim lies within park boundaries including Warner Point, which drops 2,722 feet: more than double the height of the Empire State Building. We start our 1,000-foot Cruise Gully descent via scrambles, steep and exposed singletrack, and two zesty rappels.
“Eldorado Canyon’s rock could probably fit into Cruise Gully, which is less than 10% of the entire Black Canyon,” Sullins said.
Popular and well-trafficked, Eldorado Canyon State Park is a climbing mecca and traditional hub nine miles south of Boulder, Colorado. More than 1,200 routes exist there while the Black has closer to 150, which are spread across a vast area with fewer crowds.
Once down, we skirt by foot to the base of Checkerboard Wall for our objective, Maiden Voyage (5.9): the Black’s most climbed, clean crack system, according to Vic Zeilman’s 2016 guidebook, “The Black: A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.” We plan to skip the summit block — if all goes to plan — and traverse 300 feet to King Me (5.10), for a seven-pitch, 800-foot day: my longest line, yet.
I first rock climbed at age 6 with Telluride Academy then dabbled in the sport including trips to Shelf Road, Moab and Thailand. During the climbing-gym boom, I lived in Denver and consistently roped-up indoors. Then last winter, Sullins taught me how to scale ice, which gave me an unexpected confidence boost. The sport’s formulaic technique, gear reliance and time-sensitivity forced me to trust the system. After my first-ever multi-pitch ascents, on frozen falls, Sullins suggested I venture to the Black — to which, I was surprised. I had imagined the Black as rugged and sketchy at best: not a destination I would be capable of scaling in the near future, if ever.
Pioneer Jared Ogden
My inaugural impression of the Black’s elusiveness hails from the 2006 Sender Films’, “First Ascent,” featuring first ascensionist Jared Ogden, a 30-year San Juan local. According to the film, this canyon is one of the last great adventure climbing spots in North America. Ogden, 48, still climbs these colossal faces.
“I encourage everyone, especially gym climbers, to have this adventurous experience placing gear in the Black. It’s breathtaking,” Ogden said.
Beyond grades, the canyon embodies a pure wildness, which Ogden understands well. As a pioneer, he first ventured to the canyon in 1992, when it was still a national monument.
“We’d go to the ranger station to ask about where a climb was. The ranger would pull out a notebook and say, ‘Take a picture, and good luck.’ Climbing there was vague, mysterious and word-of-mouth with no guide book…it really hasn’t changed much,” Ogden said.
Beyond the tricky route-finding, bushwhacking and lack of signage, the greatest limiting factor is that the majority climbs are rated at 5.11 and higher. In contrast, two-thirds of Eldorado’s routes are 5.10+ or lower.
“Once you step up to 5.11 and 5.12 [grades] in the Black, you get into really good rock, but you have to be able to climb hard. That limits what a lot of people are willing to do to experience the best rock in the canyon,” said Ogden, whose majority first ascents are on 5.12 – 5.13 routes, and at least 10 are on the canyon’s best quality walls, he recalls.
However, a handful of the most classic, gorgeous routes in the Black are an easier grade and more approachable for a novice, such as myself, which I’m excited to learn after years of believing the barrier to entry was too high for me to ever explore here. It helped, too, that I had a climbing partner and mentor with the same goals who was familiar with the route and able to lead the way. To build my skills and confidence, Sullins and I climbed multi-pitch routes in Unaweep Canyon, in the spring. Over the summer, I got stronger for autumn, the Black’s other cool-season window. The formula worked.
My hands and feet criss-cross each other in a long, continuous corner crack on King Me’s second pitch, near the day’s top-out. I feel surprisingly good, as I stem to clean the topmost gear—then realize, the subsequent move is a big airy gap left to a ledge with no immediate handholds and a side-step to reach Sullins. My heart spikes. A whipper here would be huge, which I feel nauseous thinking about. I take a deep, calming breath and remember everything I’ve done to get here. The nourishing sound of trees rustling in the breeze and chirping birds, as I stood on belay below, replay in my mind. I calm my nerves and stick the move.
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel and adventure writer for close to 60 publications. She lives in the Elk Mountains, where she scrambles and ropes-up for rock ascents, ties into trail running shoes, clicks into skis or bike, and clips into a snowboard or splitboard. When the snow melts, her next goal is to learn how to lead climb.