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Traditional Moderates in the Black Canyon: AKA…Welcome to the Black!
by Phil Wortmann
To start with, the term “moderate” should not be misconstrued as meaning lacking in difficulty, especially in the Black. Advanced traditional climbers would identify a moderate route as a long climb rated around 5.9 or 5.10. That being said, one must remember the words of Jim Newberry: “It’s always desperate in the Black.” A run-out, 5.8 lead on pegmatite with a sketchy #2 stopper will not feel “moderate” to mere mortals. Many routes have cleaned well with traffic, but loose rock can easily be found. It’s a horrific feeling to glance down the back of a flake you were lie-backing to see that it is simply leaning against the wall with little or no attachment.
Any route in the Black must be taken seriously. People have died or have been seriously injured on the easiest routes. Do not bite off more than you can chew. If you want to climb a route at 5.9, you’d better be comfortable and confident at the grade. This is not the place for a first time trad lead. If hurt, do not count on rescue any time soon. You will have to leave your own gear if you bail, which is good because it will lighten your load on the 2,000 foot slog of shame back to the rim.
Climbing here is an adventure. To start a climb, you must first hike down 2,000 feet of treacherous gullies barred by poison ivy trees. Yes, trees. Also, I’ve personally found snakes out sunning on rocks, and once almost tripped over a deer skull with antlers still attached. He must have stumbled over the edge. Even the nimblest of creatures must be careful here.
The best climbing is found along the North Rim, and is accessed from the North Rim Campground. If you decide to climb here, you will be rewarded with one of the best climbing atmospheres in the state. Those who populate this Campground are not the teenage, gym-rat type sporting beanies and slamming power bars, spraying the latest climbing slang. Talk is casual, not boastful, and people seem to converse in a whisper out of respect for the ghosts who linger here. You’ll likely fall asleep listening to campfire talk about Indian Creek splitters or Yosemite big walls. All the while, the dampened sound of the raging Gunnison River rises up from below to haunt your dreams.
Listed below is a selection of moderate routes for trad climbers looking to take it to the next level. They are listed from easier to harder. Do not use this as a primary guide, only as a suggestion. You must consult Robbie Williams’ guidebook: Black Canyon Rock Climbs, available at Mountain Chalet. This book includes directions, maps, topos, and well written trip reports and stories that chronicle the exploits of the men who established these lines. These routes are long, but enjoyable if done right. Pay attention and pull hard. Bring a large rack, maybe doubles if you wish to sew it up, and enough water to get you back to the rim.
Approach via Cruise Gully. After you finish the last fixed rappel, the gully widens out. Stay to the right along the wall and start looking up. You will see an easy, right-facing corner that leads to a left-facing, off-width flake. Scramble up to the base of the first crack and belay from big ledge. P1- Ascend the combination of the initial 5.7 crack with the steeper large flake(5.8) to a good ledge atop said flake. P2- The crux. Climb the face, using small edges and thin cracks to surmount a small roof. This pitch is a little run-out and the pro is thin at best. Avoid the temptation to move left into the large X rated corner. Belay above the roof where the rating eases off. P3- (5.6) Follow the easy Chimney to the left and veer back right on big face holds (runout 5.5). P4-6 Head straight up the loose gully and finish at the rim.
Approach via Cruise Gully. After the second fixed rappel, head across the widening gully towards the obvious Checkerboard Wall. Your climb begins at the west end of the north face. You will see the obvious splitter crack rising through a short roof. P1- Begin the route by face climbing up loose run-out, 5.6 to the base of the roof. P2- Surmount the roof using the perfect finger crack. Continue up to the base of a wide crack and belay. P3-5 Continue up cracks and eventually over another, easier overhang (5.8) The rest of the route goes at 5.5 to 5.7. Once you reach the large ledge below the final summit point, you have the option to exit from here or continue up. The final pitch is easy but run-out, and you’ll have to rap back down to this ledge to exit.
5.9 ish III
The inconsistent nature of the rock and the amount of time necessary to complete it makes this one feel like a rough mountaineering route. Approach via the S.O.B. Gully and follow it all the way down to the river. Lauren’s Arete is along your right as you make your way down. Just above the river is the initial headwall. P1- Start the first pitch in a crack just above the river. Stretch it out for two hundred feet. P2-7 or 9 Follow the path of least resistance until near the rim. Stay near the top of the arête, and stretch full rope lengths to save time. You will encounter a little of everything, including a knife blade traverse that offers unique photo ops. Avoid the last final headwall by walking right to a traverse into S.O.B. gully. Some rate this at third class, but I’d rope up for this one. This was the site of the route’s first fatality. Lauren Husted fell to her death just after completing the route’s first ascent.
The Robbie Williams guidebook calls this one .10a, but I don’t think it deserves it. Follow SOB gully down until about 200 feet above the river. Look for the striking Vector traverse of the second pitch as a reference. Climb easy terraces on left (south) and anchor at a flat ledge on right or from cracks on left. P1- (200ft.) The climb works left on easy 5th class to a set of finger cracks. Choose the one on right (.9), staying well left of the big, dark chimney. If you choose the left most finger crack it will squeeze into low 5.10 at the top.
Continue up under the overhanging roof and set a belay where it forces you out for the traverse. This is a long pitch needing a full 60 m. rope, or it can be split into two pitches. P2-(100+ft.) Starts on easy ground, gets narrower towards end. The last ten feet has incredible exposure. For some, this is the crux mental pitch. Belay at large ledge below dihedral. P3- (200ft., .9+/.10a) Another long pitch. Needs a 60m. rope or scary simul lead for last ten feet. Crux is at the top of the dihedral. Belay atop sloped ledge at a manky pin. P4- (100 ft, 5.8) Climb cracks to large ledge below the dark corner and striking LIGHTNING BOLT CRACK. If climbing the corner, set up belay at the L.B. Crack. The corner starts hard and this will give the lead climber some room to work. P5- (150 ft., .9+/10a or .11a) Dark corner- climb straight up the crack, being careful for loose blocks, then climb right at the pegmatite band. Gain ledge and belay. P6-8?-(300ft.) Easy 5th class to top of buttress. Goes quicker if Simuled or soloed. Top out on the far left. Rap station is at very edge.
Approach same as Escape Artist. P1- (.9) Follow great hand and finger cracks for about 100 ft. or more to the base of the arching crack. P2- (.10c) Thin at first, turning to fist jam up top with slick foot placements. P3- (.8) Meander above using long runners to reduce drag. Belay atop a sloping ledge just below a black corner. P4- (.6) Traverse left across a nice ledge until meeting an open book corner with a crack in the back. P5- (.9+) Climb the corner using hand and fist jams combined with stemming. Find a good place to belay on top of a large block. P6- (.10a) Climb a short corner on your right to a big ledge. P7- Lead up the manky corner and hang a right once you gain a pegmatite band. Find a nice spot and belay. OPTION: take it to the next level by climbing the Lightning Bolt Crack, .11a. P8-10 same as Escape Artist 6-8.
Better have your head right. Not a good introduction to the black unless you’re very strong at leading pitch after pitch of 9+/10- trad. Journey is almost entirely vertical until the very end, so comeprepared. Approach via Cruise gully, and follow it down toward the river. Aim for the large, too big to miss, right-facing dihedral with a thick pegmatite band running across it. Don’t worry, this is not your route; it’s Kachina Wings. Journey Home follows the left facing dihedral around to the left. Scramble or simul up 200 ft. of lower 5th class nearly to the base of Kachina Wings. Then, traverse left on ledges to the base of Journey Home. P1- The business starts immediately with a run-out face climb. Fall potential is real here, so get composed. Aim left for an undercling flake for your first piece of gear (bomber), then strike out right, aiming for the corner above. Belay from a big ledge. P2- Head up using the crack and smearing the sides. Tackle the roof, probably the hardest single move on the climb (.10b), and belay above on a large ledge. P3- (.9+/.10a) Climb the obvious corner until through the pegmatite. This part
feels a little insecure due to the slick peg band, but the cracks allow for descent jams and solid placements. Belay at a ledge below the crux corner. P4- (.10b) Sustained climbing on discontinuous finger cracks. This pitch gets steeper the higher you go, and be sure to look for small edges for footing. Belay on easy ground above corner. P5- (.9++) Climb the hand crack to the right and squirm your way up the smooth chimney. Empties out onto ledge on your right. P6- (.7) Lead or simul up until reaching a broad ledge 20 ft. below the rim. Traverse broad ledge left, until arriving at the corner above Scenic Cruise, where you will find easy third class to the top.