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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado Big adventure, monster solitude — classic Black Canyon “cragging”
“Every route in the Black Canyon has spots with the funnest moves you’ll ever climb, and spots where it’s not a good idea to fall,” says the Black veteran Topher Donahue. “Comic Relief is no exception.” In 1983, Ed Webster and Chester Dreiman, two peerless Black pioneers, ducked into morning shade in the SOB gully. Their goal? A clean, grey thousand-foot buttress walking the thin line between spectacular multi-pitch trad and begging for a tasty epic.
This fine intro to Black 5.10 treats all with dreamy fingers, athletic flares, widening tips, hands, and fists. Couple these elements with the Black’s typical rock quality (“mixed”) but good pro, and the word “classic” begins to seem loaded.
, mind you, is classic adventure.
The aptly named SOB Gully begins Comic Relief’s approach, with ankle-turning talus and healthy stands of poison ivy gobbling up time and energy. Begin at a groove (5.9-) at the toe of the buttress proper, orienting off the curving, splitter pitch-two crack. This champion ropelength (5.10b, 100 feet) starts off on a seam, goes fingers, and later beelines up thin then slammer hands to a belay. Above, mid-fifth-class nebulous climbing on wide laybacks and face holds takes you to a stance at a sloping furrow a good spell higher.
On pitch four, traverse left — or step it up for strenuous 5.10, straight up the Black Corner — and then continue around an arête to a chimney housing vertical wide-hands/fists, ending at a big ledge. Next, climb fingers to hands in a discontinuous crack, and then move into 5.9 tight hands and fingers in a flare. From the sloping stance above, the feisty will test their mettle on the 5.11 fingers of Lightning Bolt Crack (up the obvious sidewall), while the rest of us cowbell up the flake-filled corner on the left (grumpy/grungy 5.9+). Above, 400 feet of runout, lower-fifth class lead to a spire summit, a rappel (hard to climber’s left), and an exposed, somewhat rancid final gully (again, to climber’s left) that takes you back to the rim.
Wide cracks, chossy scrambling, jagged stone walls, night falling fast, the Gunnison raging below — you are now a hardperson. To quote Webster, “Welcome to the Black!”
Black Canyon Rock Climbs, by Robbie Williams
Equipment Shop: REI: 644 North Avenue, Grand Junction, Colorado
Season: Late spring through early autumn
Rack: A helmet (yes!), two ropes, wired nuts (up through the large sizes), double cams up to 2 inches, and triples from 2.5 to 3 inches
Show us your classic photo of Comic Relief and win an Elios Helmet from Petzl! Log on to climbing.com’s Photo Post, submit your Comic Relief images to the Classic Climbs folder, and on January 1, photographer Cody Blair will pick his favorite. The winning photographer will receive a superlight Elios, the all-around mega-player from Petzl.
Five more classic routes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
By Luke Laeser
The Casual Route (II 5.8)
Ideal for the first time visitor to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and perfect if you only have a couple hours. It is located on the first good section of cliff as you descend into SOB Gully before you get the
Buttress and the Comic Relief Buttress (
IV 5.11 is also a great route with a few quality pitches).
The Casual Route
doesn’t have much splitter climbing in its 4-7 pitches but it gives you a good taste of what the climbing and rock are like. Bring a standard Black rack.
The Russian Arête (IV 5.9)This 1962 Layton Kor classic was usually chosen as one’s first Black Canyon route until Comic Relief gained popularity. Don’t let the route’s discouraging name deter you; it’s not really like Russian roulette and has cleaned up quite a bit over the last 45 years. The approach to the start of the route is a little bit longer than SOB Gully routes but should only take 45 minutes. Climb for 6 to 8 pitches up mostly solid rock through some splitter sections until the climbing eases off to scrambling. Bring a standard Black rack and start early.Southern Arête (V 5.10+)Another Kor classic, this route offers a Black-load of adventure at a “moderate” grade on the biggest formation in the canyon. A long approach guards lots of difficult route finding and a crux near the top of the wall. A team from Colorado had an epic experience on this route over 4 days in winter 2001 that began with a 5-mile ski to the rim since the road into the park is closed in winter and rarely plowed. Unless you are speedy and able to do some simul-climbing, you could epic — so be prepared on all routes in the canyon. Bring a standard Black rack and start very early.
Checkerboard Wall (III 5.10+)The pegmatite criss-crosser is a quality 4- to 6-pitch climb on good stone with a short approach that’s ideal if you don’t have enough time for a full route. If you dispatch Comic Relief in a hurry and are not ready to drink beers on the rim — run over and do this. Bring a standard Black rack.
The Scenic Cruise (V 5.10+)Without a doubt, this is the most sought-after route in the canyon, drawing a majority of the traffic in the Black every weekend. The climbing is very sustained between countless ledges on which to recover. Many climbers finish in the dark, due to traffic congestion. Be prepared with a headlamp, lots of food and water, and sunscreen (don’t forget that every route on this side of the canyon bakes). There is always someone on this route — so if you want it to yourself — schedule a weekday visit or start really, really, REALLY early. If you get to the base of the route and decide there’s too much traffic to deal with (the board at the ranger station where you registered will indicate activity to help you avoid this problem) Journey Home IV 5.10- back up the Cruise gully is also a great climb. Bring a standard Black rack with a few extra finger-to-hand sized pieces, and lots of runners and draws.