The Canyon With Two Mouths

The secret history and modern rebirth of Western Colorado’s sleepy Unaweep Canyon.
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Rob Pizem on the crux, second pitch of Van Candy (5.12+), Quarry Wall, Unaweep Canyon, Colorado, climbing what he calls a “dreamy triple-crack switch on steep, smooth, streaked granite.” 

Rob Pizem on the crux, second pitch of Van Candy (5.12+), Quarry Wall, Unaweep Canyon, Colorado, climbing what he calls a “dreamy triple-crack switch on steep, smooth, streaked granite.” 

Heat, cactus, loose rock, dehydration

August 2011: Jesse Zacher and I sweated profusely as we battled through fabric-tearing, soul-sucking, eight-foot-tall thorn bushes next to West Creek in Unaweep Canyon, in the high desert of western Colorado. My first son, Rowan, had just been born, and I hadn’t climbed in weeks. Our goal was to establish a climb on the obscure Unaweep Wall on the canyon’s west end, just outside the town of Gateway. Jesse, a diehard Unaweep local who’d introduced me to the granite canyon’s raw beauty and secrets—and who is the current president of the Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition (WCCC)—had said the approach would be “mellow.”

After the slippery initial river crossing, a cattle path took us up a steep, loose drainage through the aforementioned berry patch. As the late-afternoon heat pounded us, our heavy packs slowed our pace to a crawl. We’d brought food and water for two days, our climbing equipment, bolts and drill kit, a tent, and sleeping bags. Both experienced at new-routing in the canyon—familiar with its cracks that randomly end, grainy flares, Black Canyon–like pegmatite bands, and tiny, often-flaky crimpers—we’d figured that sneaking in a new line on the 1,000-foot, hyper-featured Unaweep Wall would be quick and painless.

We camped at the base of the wall’s left flank amidst cactus and talus. The sole climb here, according to the 1997 guidebook Grand Junction Rock, was Ancient Wisdom, a gnarly KC Baum and Kevin Rusk A3+ hundreds of feet east. Unaweep Wall is one of the least—if ever—visited walls in the canyon, which comprises some 30 granite crags spread along the highlands between Whitewater and Gateway. We hoped to establish a moderate free climb here to recon harder potential. As the sunset turned the sky pink and orange and the air began to cool, we bedded down. Then: Crash! Smash! “What’s that noise?” Jesse screamed. I flailed out of the tent and ran from the wall. The ancient granite was shedding its skin, and our tent—well, Jesse’s girlfriend’s tent—was now sporting holes through the rainfly. Though no more rocks fell, we slept poorly the rest of the night, our tent stuck on its exposed perch.

Pizem on Walk Hard (5.11+), a 40-meter mega-classic on the Quarry Wall that follows a face/dihedral to a crimp-crux exit.

Pizem on Walk Hard (5.11+), a 40-meter mega-classic on the Quarry Wall that follows a face/dihedral to a crimp-crux exit.

When first light broke over Grand Mesa, we began up a sunny, moderate-looking corner system above camp. I led through thorny bushes and entered a water-polished corner. The climbing was no harder than 5.9, but lacked pro. I couldn’t even fish micronuts into the tightly sealed corner, and each balance move up to a higher stance became more and more committing. Sun burning the rock and sweat stinging my eyes, I inched closer toward overheating with each desperate move.

At about 100 feet, I built an anchor and brought Jesse up. He took the lead, and in his easygoing fashion navigated the corner with style, firmly pressing down on miniscule smears to connect the imperceptible dots. His lead ended with a courageous traverse right into a second low-angle dihedral below a heart-shaped prow. The logical line snaked right of this feature, and we continued upward on ever-steepening ground.

On pitch five, my initial foray up the second corner came to a dead end, and I downclimbed back to Jesse; the heat, dehydration (we had only one liter of water and a Clif bar), hauling, and our slow progress crushed us. I made a foray into another “moderate” corner, gunning for the top of the wall. Two hours later, after digging dirt from the crack with a nut tool, chopping small shrubs from the ledges, and scraping away loose rock, I reached a belay. I’d also drilled two bolts to protect a bouldery crux at 60 feet. After working the pitch on toprope and after a couple of attempts, we both freed it. By then we were out of water, temps were in the 90s, and we were cooking like bacon. A few hours later, after a final pitch of nondescript slabs, corners, and ledges, we topped out in twilight, completing That’s All I’m Asking For (5.11; 1,000 feet).

Back at camp after a few double-rope rappels, Jesse and I talked through the day’s challenges. We agreed it would be awhile before we came back to Unaweep Wall. Unaweep can be a punishing mistress—and that’s on the “traveled” walls. On a rarely, if ever, climbed cliff like Unaweep Wall, the choss factor is even higher. But so is the adventure.

Andrew Park deep inside some Unaweep flaring wideness on Let's Duet (5.12+).

Andrew Park deep inside some Unaweep flaring wideness on Let's Duet (5.12+).

The Canyon with Two Mouths

The Utes of southwest Colorado named Unaweep the “canyon with two mouths,” referencing its rise to a middle high point then drop to dueling canyon mouths to the north and south. Ironically, despite these two mouths, the early Unaweep climbers rarely spoke about its steep granite, green pastures, and wild side canyons. Even today, despite a proliferation of Mountain Project beta and an upcoming guidebook by Jesse and Michael Schneiter, it remains a backwater. Unaweep’s geologic history is just as obscure, since there is no consensus about how the canyon’s combo of metamorphic gneiss, quartz monzonite, and sandstone areas came to be. The current hypothesis was that Unaweep formed in stages—the Gunnison River initially carved the canyon until a landslide dammed it, and then the river changed course in the opposite direction. Hence, the two mouths.

In terms of climbing, Unaweep has always had a loose community. It’s not far from western Colorado’s largest city, Grand Junction, but is overshadowed by its bigger sister, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, to the south. Or most climbers simply drive by en route to Moab, or maybe stop to boulder down low on the black sandstone, failing to realize that just a few more miles up the road rise 1,000-foot granite walls.

Still, this trove of featured gray stone just a few minutes’ walk from CO 141, a winding two-lane back road from Junction to Naturita, is a worthy destination. With over 600 routes from 5.4 to 5.14, ranging from thin slabs to grinder offwidths to neo-classic multi-pitch sport and mixed climbs on wild flake, crack, flare, and roof features, Unaweep is stacked. And in a world of ever more crowded cliffs, it remains as sleepy as ever 32 years after the first documented climb.

KC Baum on his classic route Sidewinder (5.11+; 2 pitches; FA: 1989), Quarry Wall.

KC Baum on his classic route Sidewinder (5.11+; 2 pitches; FA: 1989), Quarry Wall.

The Age of Discovery

Welcome to Unaweep Canyon, where the Access Fund (AF) made its first-ever land acquisition for climbing, in 1992, and where the WCCC currently manages the rock that no one speaks about. Unaweep’s climbing history begins with Andy Petefish, a climber of 50 years and current owner of Above Ouray Ice & Tower Rock Guides. Petefish grew up in Grand Junction and began new-routing in Unaweep as a youth, inspired by Layton Kor and other Colorado legends. He would bike from Junction—a round-trip of more than 45 miles—to climb since gas was too expensive, his pack laden with a rope, chocks, and pitons.

One of Petefish’s best routes here is Questions and Answers (5.10), a three-pitch crack on Mother’s Buttress in the southerly central canyon. A long pitch of 5.8 jamming up a steep, smooth corner leads to the notorious second pitch, which tackles slippery face holds, laybacks, and finger cracks until reaching a well-protected traverse rightward under a roof. I recently caught my partner’s fall here as he pumped off near the roof, a not-uncommon scenario.

Another Petefish classic is Sweet Sunday Serenade (5.9; three pitches), perhaps the canyon’s most popular climb on its most popular cliff, the central Sunday Wall. Pitch two is the most enjoyable vertical fingers pitch in Unaweep. The smooth, constricting crack allows comfy jams and placements, while the corner walls drop away to the piñon-studded desert. Above, on a comfy belay ledge, you take in views of arêtes and lichen streaks on faraway walls, the crenellated granite fading into the distance.

Petefish also pushed the grades in Unaweep in the late 1980s, focusing on the faces between the cracks, which revealed skin-slicing crimps, technical rockover moves, and powerful lock-offs. His thin, sustained Bridge of Air (5.12) is a sport-style masterpiece that joins other Petefish Unaweep testpieces like Monkey Gone to Heaven (5.12+/13-) and Flight Without Wings (5.12). These routes were significant because they were harder than 5.11, on the best stone, and required strong fingers and power rather than just slab-and-crack skills. Petefish’s passion for climbing led him to become one of America’s first USMGA Endorsed Rock Guides; he began guiding at Mountain Sense, a now-defunct side project started by Eric Reynolds and Dave Huntley, the founders of Marmot, which was originally headquartered in Grand Junction.

A young (age 14 or 15) Andy Petefish on the FA of Slip Sliding Away, Mother’s Buttress, ca. 1975-1976, for the first free ascent of the wall with Marmot co-founder Dave Huntley.

A young (age 14 or 15) Andy Petefish on the FA of Slip Sliding Away, Mother’s Buttress, ca. 1975-1976, for the first free ascent of the wall with Marmot co-founder Dave Huntley.

Another key player has been KC Baum, who began his climbing career in 1976 while working as a geologist in Fort Collins, Colorado. Baum and his family moved to Grand Junction in spring 1987 when he took a job developing the climbing program for Mesa State College. In January 1989, Baum started his Desert Rock Guides, and also joined the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). In 1991, he was drafted onto the AMGA Instructor Team and has remained in this position to the present day.

Still, as traveled and experienced of a climber/guide as he is, Baum’s favorite area remains Unaweep. As he says, “Unaweep will always remain very sacred to me, and was without a doubt the pinnacle of my climbing career.” During his 6.5 years of establishing routes here, Baum is credited with over 100 FAs—many cracks but also mixed and bolted climbs. (Unaweep, fortuitously, escaped the 1980s “bolt wars.” Baum recalls that the few climbers then new-routing in Unaweep climbed together, and respected each other’s visions.) In 1992, he published Grand Junction Rock – Rock Climbs of Unaweep Canyon and Adjacent Areas, the area’s first guidebook, and followed up with a second edition in 1997. He also takes pride in having convinced the Access Fund to donate two $5,000 grants to buy three popular walls on private property—Sunday, Hidden Valley, and Fortress walls—marking AF’s precedent-setting first purchase of a climbing area. While Baum has since moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, his influence on the canyon cannot
be underestimated.

Rite of Passage, a 5.11 on the Quarry Wall, is perhaps Baum’s most treasured Unaweep FA. Using a Soloist self-belay plate, Baum climbed ground-up—the first time he’d done an FA self-belaying—around the time the alpinist Mugs Stump passed away (1992), naming the route as a tribute to his friend. The Quarry Wall is perhaps Unaweep’s crown jewel for hard climbing—north facing, about a quarter-mile long, 200 to 300 feet tall, and lined with over 100 sport, mixed, and crack climbs. As the lower wall is largely blank, most cracks begin at half height, but Rite of Passage is one of the few that begins from the scrub-oak-lined canyon floor. At the crux, 25 feet above a thin nut in the exfoliating granite, Baum “was in a full-body stem and shaking like a leaf. I remember thinking, ‘Well, you idiot, this is how it's going to end and you’re about to kill yourself!’” Baum somehow held it together, gunning for an archetypal Unaweep no-hands rest. Here, he collected himself and finished up a stemming hand crack/chimney to the canyon rim.

Another of Baum’s most vivid memories came while establishing a new route on the 800-foot Thimble, near the beginning of West Creek. There, he found old ring pitons and tattered hemp rope from the Tenth Mountain Division, Army soldiers who conducted intense, specialized training in Colorado to prepare for mountain combat during World War II. My experience while new-routing on the Thimble was less illuminating. In 2013, my friend Chris Righter and I were threatened by the landowner’s land manager at gunpoint and given five minutes to vacate—when we were already 600 feet off the deck, with no natural rap anchors and our only descent option being hand-drilling bolts (try doing that in five minutes!). Fortunately, Chris clarified, yelling that the guidebook stated climbing was legal and we didn’t know we were trespassing. The land had changed hands since the book came out, and the new owners, it seems, were not “climber friendly.”

Pizem “Unacreeping” on his latest Unaweep testpiece Ramsis (5.14-; May 2019), Quarry Wall.

Pizem “Unacreeping” on his latest Unaweep testpiece Ramsis (5.14-; May 2019), Quarry Wall.

The Modern Age Begins

In the 1990s and early 2000s, itinerant climbers put up most of the new climbs, from mixed routes to increasingly difficult sport climbs. However, with no updated guide and Mountain Project still in its infancy, many climbs went undocumented. Nonetheless, one climber made a notable influence: Jim Beyer, the legendary, reclusive solo wall climber.

Beyer had generally been a loner while living near Grand Junction, as with his overall career. He has established difficult free and aid climbs from Colorado to Yosemite to Baffin Island, his first-ascent efforts living on the fringe of the possible. He is also a notorious character—take this comment he appended to his Mountain Project route description for his Hardscrabble Tower (Canyonlands) FA Cult of Suicidal (A5+) in 2016:

After summiting Cult of Suicidal, I noticed a park ranger on the road. Upon descent the ranger notified me that bikers on the White Rim had snitched on me (hammering is against the stupid rules) in Canyonlands NP. He wrote me a ticket for $50 and left. Later, driving out, fast and reckless, I approached a group of bikers. I passed some riders then four-wheel-drifted round a corner, spotting an exhausted woman pushing her bike in the sandy doubletrack ahead. She stepped up out of the doubletrack “ditch” and I didn’t slow down. I expected her to pull her bike up out of the ditch in the nick of time. She didn’t and I drove right over her bike. She started screaming immediately but I didn't stop because I was laughing too hard.

In Unaweep, the majority of Beyer’s 100 single- and multi-pitch, mostly free and aid lines routes climb paradoxical features like cracks with no gear or smears with no friction. His climbs often require out-of-the-box movements like two-handed mantels or desperately “falling upward” from one stance to the next, while the “pro” often takes the forms of fixed bashies smashed into seams and similar oddities. Take Beyer 2, an infamous 5.11+ on the Sunday Wall. The route trends leftward, following barely climbable features, involving balancey stances, hard slabbing, and awkward sidepulls that force you to cut your feet on the slippery granite. I’ve loved every one of Beyer’s routes because he allows you to feel what it’s truly like to be on lead, in a committing but not necessarily dangerous way. His routes typically end at anchors consisting of hangerless studs with washers and one chain link, equalized with a bashie.

At the same time Beyer left Grand Junction, Jesse Zacher moved in from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to take the lead. In 2005, he not only found a wide-open first-ascent canvas but also the chance to help with local stewardship, joining with Eve Tallman to form the WCCC. Zacher made it a goal to climb all the routes along the base of the Sunday Wall and Mother’s Buttress in order to begin the arduous process of compiling an updated guidebook. As he explored the canyon, Zacher began to unlock many neo-classics of his own.

One of Zacher’s best new routes must be The Velvet Hammer (5.11+), a left-facing corner on the Massey Wall sector of Quarry Wall, sent in April 2012. Rapping the route that winter, he saw that it was a natural drainage for the plateau above and was grown over with moss and lichen. Zacher spent hours toproping, cleaning, sussing, and debating whether to place a crux bolt. Eventually, he decided that the fall wasn’t that big (it’s not, and is well protected), and when he freed the climb on gear he broke through a climbing plateau, marking a major turning point for his journey toward repeating and establishing harder routes in the canyon, including Comb the Desert (5.11+), Frozen Will (5.11+), and Bachelor Party (5.11+).

Sarah Watson and Pizem getting ready for battle in the canyon.

Sarah Watson and Pizem getting ready for battle in the canyon.

The Velvet Hammer’s rock is impeccable, and the dihedral allows you to back-scum, stem, jam, and rest, with just enough small edges to keep the grade consistent. Another notable Zacher FA at the same cliff is Frozen Will (5.11+), a two-pitch climb established in winter 2015 up a giant shield of fissure-riddled rock. On one attempt on a 25-degree day, Zacher’s partner, with frozen hands, accidentally dropped his belay device. This led to his partner hand-over-hand “rappelling” and bushwhacking out to the road, as Zacher was already up top and his partner felt safer descending.

Zacher’s ability to find new routes is only rivaled by his work with the WCCC. With “no term limits” on his presidency, he has developed a strong relationship with the AF to navigate land acquisition and the preservation of access in Unaweep. In the canyon, most of the rock lies on private land. Additionally, there are only a few legal access points to reach the walls on BLM or National Forest land, which creates sometimes-lengthy approaches without an established trail. Fortunately, Mother’s Buttress, Sunday Wall, Quarry Wall, Spaceballs Wall, and Unaweep Wall all have easy and legal access. As Zacher puts it, our voice through the WCCC is based on climber numbers. The organization currently has 150 members, a mere fraction of the estimated 1,000 climbers in the Grand Valley. Busy weekends in Unaweep consist of maybe two dozen climber cars spread out between the sandstone routes and boulders near the bottom of the canyon and the granite up higher. Zacher hopes, with his new guidebook forthcoming, that interest in the area will continue to grow, with increased climber numbers providing a louder voice.

Unaweep Today

For the past seven years, friends and I have slowly been establishing new routes in the canyon—nearly 100 new pitches. Though I work as a science teacher at R-5 High School in Junction, my passion is establishing new rock climbs. Since the majority of obvious crack and slightly mixed routes were climbed years ago, I’ve been pursuing the highly featured, yet often exfoliating, discontinuous, flaky, licheny, and overhanging sporty sections.

I remain fondest of my first new line in the canyon, Echoes, a 600-foot, six-pitch 5.12+ up the steepest, tallest portion of the Sunday Wall. After getting skunked on my dream crack pitch near the top during a scoping mission (there was a six-foot blank section), I relocated eastward into an unlikely dihedral and face. Pitch three is wild, tackling a right-trending, gear-protected traverse that eventually turns into a bulging undercling crack with a bouldery, bolt-protected vertical slab exit. While redpointing, I would end up 50 feet or more to the right, way above my belayer, only to take monster whippers. Pitch five is memorable as well, a 35-meter rope-stretcher that combines pumpy corner laybacking with a crimpy iron-cross boulder problem and thin deadpointing to a techno-freak finish. Echoes opened my eyes to the vast potential on Unaweep’s discontinuous cracks. As a rule, each new pitch requires one-plus hours of scaling away the exfoliating outer skin to reach better stone beneath. Then it’s time for some “Unacreeping,” in which you balance, smear, swear, layback, crawl, and otherwise improvise your way up the rock.

Another standout is the 190-foot Jane’s Marathon, a gently overhanging 5.13 I put up in August 2016 on the Quarry Wall and named for a race my wife was training for. When I first rapped the line, I thought that it would be 5.11—Unaweep can be deceptive that way. After working the moves on Mini Traxion, I realized I was wrong. The climb only had a natural stance very near the bottom, so I climbed it in one big pitch. The final redpoint involved carrying 20-plus pieces, 15 slings, patience, power, and total precision. The route has everything: overhanging finger cracks, slopey laybacks, boulder problems, crux roofs, and committing slabs. Righter described it as one of the best routes he’s climbed, akin to rope-stretchers like Beer Run and The Anti-Phil at Rifle Mountain Park—only longer. Our respective sends each took 45 minutes, a meticulously organized rack, and perfectly rehearsed beta.

The correct word is “Psssaaattt!”—Pizem giving it on his route Dance Erotically (5.13-), Quarry Wall.

The correct word is “Psssaaattt!”—Pizem giving it on his route Dance Erotically (5.13-), Quarry Wall.

Today, Unaweep Canyon has its small cadre of active locals, its weekend visitors nabbing an ascent of Sweet Sunday Serenade, and traveling outdoor-education programs stopping through. Mother’s Buttress and Sunday Wall are chockfull of 5.10 and 5.11s to help you prep for the Black Canyon or any other granite venue, and even the sleepy Unaweep Wall now has five big lines from 5.11 to 5.13. And in summer, the north-facing Quarry Wall offers its 100-odd pitches varying from pure traditional to mixed to bolt protected—it’s almost getting used! There are too many new routes to detail here, from 5.5 clip-ups to 5.14 sport climbs, with many more to come. Unaweep remains under the radar, a little wild, and still ripe with the potential for adventure. But now its two mouths are speaking more loudly. Maybe somebody will listen.

Unaweep 101

Season

The Quarry and Spaceballs walls are great spring through fall, with winter climbing possible on south-facing walls like Unaweep Wall, Mother’s Buttress, Sunday Wall, Hidden Valley Wall, and Fortress Wall.

Guidebook

Wolverine Publishing will showcase Unaweep, Colorado National Monument, Escalante, Grand Mesa, and other Western Slope areas in an upcoming guidebook.

Camping

Free BLM camping on 141 down in the sandstone and free national forest camping on Divide Road. Do not camp in the pullouts/parking areas for the granite crags.

Unaweep Must-Dos:

Welcoming Party (5.7)

A short, smooth corner system, full of secure stems and jams.

A Fine Line (5.8)

A Mother's Buttress classic, with a well-protected chimney to fingers.

Sweet Sunday Serenade (5.9)

A trad-climber’s dream, with old-school hands, fists, and fingers.

Questions and Answers (5.10)

A stout combination of workingman’s hands in a dihedral followed by delicate face moves protected by thin gear.

Lonestar (5.11)

Vertical terrain on jugs leads you through a few balance moves and out a bulge; this route is reminiscent of Rifle, with big, blocky holds and steep terrain.

Wintertime Joy (5.11+)

A wild and varied 1,000-foot monster up Unaweep Wall that includes corners, slabs, jamming, and mixed pitches.

Pig Nose (5.12-)

This long mixed line begins with gear in a swerving crack and ends on bolts and a pumpfest out a juggy bulge.

Echoes (5.12+)

Six hundred feet of smooth, fine-grained granite, mixing face, slab, and bulges to technical stemming and underclings into a laybacking headwall dihedral.

Dance Erotically (5.13-)

Three unique pitches: clean, vertical, varied jams; powerful underclings and smears under a roof; mixed face and offwidth moves to the canyon rim.

Jane’s Marathon (5.13)

190 feet of everything—roofs, slab, fingers, flares, boulder problems, and exposure.

Infinity Round (5.14-)

A two-pitch sport climb. P1: Desperate, pumpy sloper laybacking. P2: A series of stacked, short boulder problems. 

Rob Pizem, a high school science teacher in Grand Junction, Colorado, has been climbing and new-routing for more than 25 years.