Colorado Trail Northbound, 460 miles in eight days.
Post-ride analysis in italics
Colorado Trail Northbound, 460 miles in eight days.
Post-ride analysis in italics
This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I’d like to think that I’ve pushed myself pretty hard outdoors over the years — solo thru-hiking the CT in twenty-four days, redlining all-day MTB races, burning up on Black Canyon climbs and desert towers. But everything else pales in comparison to the sustained mental and physical depletion that I experienced in eight days of bikepacking the Colorado Trail.
For starters, I now realize that I was sick before I even cranked my first pedal stroke northbound. It was a stressful two weeks leading up to my departure: my wife and I were racing the clock to finish building out our Promaster van before our rental lease expired. I would go to work from 7 to 4, then come home and work on the van til 9, then get up at 5 and get in a bit more work before leaving again for the day. Nutrition was spotty; rest was non-existent — I was already burning the candle at both ends in the frontcountry before even hitting the trail.
Speaking of which, I rode a total of 460 miles in eight days on an average of six hours of sleep per night. Not exactly CTR race-caliber stats, but it felt pretty dang hard nonetheless!
This was by no means an “onsight” of the Colorado Trail. I took several wrong turns due to the surprising difficulty of reading the CT Databook backwards in the dark while sleep deprived and sick. I missed parts of some segments and rode an obscene amount of backtracking bonus miles on others (~40) , including some accidental Wilderness poaching (forgive me, John Muir, for I have sinned!).
I tried writing a blow-by-blow trip report but spent the week of my return violently ill in every possible way, so here are some disjointed pictures and notes.
When I hit Hwy 9, I realized that I was thoroughly sick and needed a break. I rode seven miles into Frisco and checked into a motel, shivering even in a hot shower and under the covers. The next morning I felt a bit better and caught the free bus to Breck to continue the trail, knowing that I was out of time to finish the entire trail within my time window.
Four miles out of Breck, I dug into a turn too hard and burped my front tire. When I went to throw in a tube, I realized that my pump was gone. Somewhere in the past however many miles, it had fallen out of my frame bag, probably when I flipped the bike upside-down to set up my tarp (most likely Tennessee Pass several days before). I shuddered to think that I just cleared the rocky Ten Mile Range with no way to inflate a spare!
I pushed a mile to a trailhead and borrowed a floor pump, then rode into Breck. My weather window for clearing the 32 miles Kenosha Pass segment was gone, so I rode over Boreas Pass to US-285 instead in a storm, rode seven miles of pavement to Jefferson, then hitched to Denver to stay with my sister, then meet my wife and drive home.
It wasn’t the way I expected the trip to go, but all things considered, it was an excellent journey, well worth the struggle. Much like my thru-hike six years ago, the Trail encapsulated a microcosm of the human experience in a short period of time. I experienced every conceivable human emotion — terror, elation, disappointment, loneliness, peace, joy — and had lots of time to reflect about Life and my small place in it.
Many thanks to the people I met along the way who signed my frame bag with encouragement. One quote in particular stands out, courtesy of a southbound thru-hiker in Segment 23:
“Feed your will to feel this moment…”
“Passion –> Purpose –> Peace.”
“Dig deep!” I yelled to Todd as the first snow flurries began to fall. We were a hundred feet from the summit of Storm King (13,752′) … the peak was starting to live up to its name, and it was a long way down.
The day started at 02:20, ten minutes before our alarm. “You awake?” Todd whispered. I grunted a regretful affirmative. I don’t think I’ve ever slept until my alarm on the morning of a big route.
The day before, we had hiked in thirteen miles from the Vallecito trailhead. It was as casual an approach as you can get for that length. I had the misfortune of carrying a … wait for it … ninety-meter rope since I had just downsized my nylon quiver to move into a van. (It weighed less than my other cords!).
Along the way, we ran into the remains of the last person who attempted the North Face.
On a cheerier note, we ate our fill of wild raspberries and forded a refreshing, knee-deep creek. Smaller creeks and mud were abundant, so my shoes stayed wet for all thirteen miles (in warm temps, I prefer this. On the CT, I went out of my way to stomp in every puddle).
We set up camp near a waterfall about a mile and half from the start of the route. There’s closer camping to be had, but our throbbing feet vetoed any attempts to push on farther. It’s a great spot, but be advised that the air stays wet even a hundred yards from the falls, so wet shoes don’t dry overnight.
While Todd set up camp, I finished the approach and stashed our cord and gear (cams with doubles of orange and red Metolius, nuts and a couple hexes). Spirits were high as we devoured some vague approximation of mesquite chicken-broccoli-rice, set our alarms for “the ass-crack of dawn” and hit the sack well before sunset.
The next morning we mechanically shoveled oatmeal and dried fruit into our gas tanks, strapped on two liters of Tailwind-infused water and stumbled out of camp at 03:00.
Thanks to the reflective markings on the new BD Ultralights, we found our gear cache without too many routefinding woes. We embarked on the first three hundred feet up an “escalator” scree slope — one step forward, two steps back. The start of the climbing was guarded by some bullet-hard snow, into which we chopped steps with a rock.
After a hundred feet of fourth-class, we roped up and began the first pitch just as dawn broke. We enjoyed heartwarming morning sun for most of the route.
A couple 5.7 moves on wet rock made me glad indeed to have the rope along (maybe not all ninety freaking meters of it). By and large, we enjoyed bomber stone.
At the start of the second pitch, I briefly eyed a splitter 5.9ish handcrack, but instead cut hard left and ran out about 150′ of 5.2 traversing or so. The route may have gone up a right-facing dihedral at this point, but it looked harder than 5.7, so whatever. We’re alpinists, not bloody rock climbers.
The third pitch had some real-deal sustained 5.7 (if there is such a thing) that included stemming around a roof. It ended at a commodious ledge (which may or may not have become commode-odious thanks to the generous contribution of an anonymous alpinist).
P4 had a fun, unprotected move right off the ledge that made me consider requesting an alpine shoulder stand, but Ethics Prevailed. After that, it wandered up 170’ish to a huge ledge littered with talus. (There may have been an extra pitch somewhere in there … it’s all good, clean fun). At that point, the official route might involve moving the belay two hundred feet to the right to a gully of sorts. That sounded like too much work, so we went straight up the headwall, which looked like steep 5.8.
A hundred feet and all of my cams later, I revised my initial assessment. In approach shoes, the moves felt like 5.10c, so let’s be fair and give it a 5.9+. I tiptoed onto a Honnold ledge and belayed off a #8 nut and upward-pull-only #0.75. As soon as Todd cleaned my blue Metolius, I sent him a loop and bolstered the anchor, much to everyone’s relief.
The next pitch had some legit 5.10 moves right off the belay, and I plugged cams above my head like it was going out of style. A hundred feet later, I crawled into a gearless chimney and belayed Todd up on a fat-free meat anchor.
On pitch 9 (?) the Beal Joker spread its wings and facilitated 280 feet of fast 5.6. Meanwhile, the clouds darkened, as did my disposition, and this allegedly “flower-strewn route” turned into a looming graveyard. A hundred feet from the ridge, I slammed in three little nuts and started hauling in rope.
The last pitch would’ve been much more fun had it not been framed by ugly cumulusses. Cumuli? Cumulatively, it was bad and we were hauling more ass than a midwestern homeschool family at a 4H festival.
We busted it to the summit as snowflakes began to fall. This was not the time to get the soundtrack to Frozen stuck in my head, but there ya go.
After a few quizzical moments of routefinding, found the correct ridge and descended with all deliberate speed.
As soon as we dropped a hundred feet from the summit, the snow blew past and the sun re-bestowed its benevolent gaze upon us. We greeted it with great fanfare and a rousing rendition of the Monarchy’s classic hit, “Sun.”
The descent was arduous but well-cairned, following the established Class 3 southwest ridge route to an everlasting boulderfield that dropped us to Lake Silex. From there, we glissaded a couple hundred feet, and then pounded more talus back to the meadows.
Camp to camp: fourteen hours. The day before, we had entertained notions of knocking out a couple hours of hiking after completing the route to get a jump start on the trip home. This we dismissed as puerile foolishness, and collapsed victorious at our waterfall campsite. Despite the sudden onset of gravity, we managed to refill water and cook dinner (the same mesquite-jazz-odyssey, but this time infinitely tastier) before falling asleep at 7:30pm.
The next day, we headed home with light packs and even lighter hearts. While hiking, we talked about everything from theology to music theory to nonprofit startups — Todd is without a doubt the most well-rounded person I’ve ever tied in with — but true to form, whenever we passed another group of hikers we deftly changes the topic to hellacious runouts and bicep-curdling rope drag and cheek-clenching exposure. However, nobody took the bait or even asked about the industrial-length spool of pink rope that was playing accordion with our vertebrae.
In conclusion, this trip was a series of answered prayers … 1) we got up and down the mountain in a timely fashion, 2) there was no rain and 3) Todd saw his very first bull moose on the hike out, whose surprisingly amicable behavior sealed the deal that this was a Very Good Trip.
Fun Factor Summary:
Type 1 Fun (immediate gratification, enjoyable in the moment): the views on the approach, pitches 1-4, breakfast burritos
Type 2 Fun (not entirely enjoyable but easily whitewashed in retrospect by selective memory to be loads-o-fun): fording Vallecito, climbing the headwall
Type 3 Fun (not fun at all): the escalator scree, blundering about in the snow, the talus walkoff from Lake Silex down, putting on still-wet socks in the morning.
Or, “How I Learned to Hate Adobe Mud in 128 Miles”
3:30 AM. My alarm won’t go off for an hour, but I’m wide awake. Christmas morning syndrome. Soon I will be pedaling the Tabeguache Trail from Grand Junction to Montrose. My bike, Beatrice, leans against the window, heavy-laden with gear but light of heart.
Ahead of us: 142 miles of dirt and 14,800′ elevation gain across the Uncompaghre Plateau.
Jeremy and I hit the road at 05:00 and pedal a few miles on pavement. On my loaded singlespeed (30:20), I was cutting switchbacks in the road, but the climb went smoothly. (He lives on the backside of Lunch Loops so we skipped the proper start).
At sunrise, we hit Bangs Canyon and got first tracks on some primo downhill slickrock.
Eventually we bottomed out and started climbing. Wet conditions from the previous night’s surprise rain quickly turned the trail into adobe mud. We pushed on (literally), confident that the rising sun would dry the trails.
Time slowed and the world adopted a claymation filter. Thick, sticky mud clogged everything: fork, chain, (Jeremy’s) derailleur, our brains. We resorted to spanking the clodden tires with sticks every hundred feet… Try it sometime, it’s really therapeutic.
Finally we reached the top of whatever and things dried out. We enjoyed a blazing doubletrack descent down to Whitewater. I punctured a sidewall but the sealant clogged it up quite nicely.
We joked about carrying our bikes across 141 so they didn’t touch pavement but then decided we would just “let on” that we did (see also, Huckleberry Finn).
Next up was a long dirt road climb. 30:20 was sufficient, but I would’ve downshifted given the opportunity. We took a quick nap in the shade and then pressed on to meet Jeremy’s wife at the Dominguez-Escalante. She brought blessedly pure water, a new tire for me and cold zucchini egg casserole (baller!)
At this point, Jeremy headed home. Had I known what lay ahead, I may have joined him. Instead, I pointed my knobbies westward, cranked the Darkness, and rode off to my doom like a lamb to the slaughter.
The riding was good until Cactus Park, a veritable sand trap. I felt pretty goofy pushing flat terrain, but at least it was pretty.
Eventually I dropped down to Dominguez Campground, ate garlic mashed potatoes and summer sausage, and slept under a picnic table that I stretched my tarp over. A good thing too, because it rained a half inch.
Day one complete. Fifty miles in fourteen hours… As Jeremy said, a ten-year old Kenyan in homemade sandals could’ve outrun us.
The next morning, after a dry night albeit cramped night, I scarfed down some oatmeal and rolled out at 06:00, ready to make up for lost time and pedal myself silly.
Perhaps “roll out” is a bit optimistic of a verb. I pushed up the initial hill, then ran into showstopper clay mud. Unlike the mud outside GJ, this stuff was unwhackable. I eventually removed my front wheel, clipped it to my pack, and dragged my bike uphill for decades.
Some good came out of the experience. I discovered three new hike-a-bike techniques:
– “The Manual.” Remove front wheel, pull bike on a never-ending wheelie.
– “The CBL.” Remove front wheel, flip bike 180, push backwards from the handlebars. Experience backing a trailer is handy.
– “The Drag Queen.” Flip bike onto side, nonfunctional-drivetrain-up, and drag on sidewalls.
Hours later, I encountered a rancher in a truck. The driver assured me that it would dry out soon. It did… an hour of pushing later, it did. Relativity of travel time aside, it was a beautiful sight.
At long last, I hit Divide Road. It took me six and a half hours to travel fifteen miles. During this time, I decided to forgo the fun(?) parts of the Tab and just ride gravel back to Montrose. I also decided “screw ethics” and accepted cold, pure water from an ATV rider. Oh, and a five-mile ride in a Polaris to expedite the Divide segment. Thank God for rednecks.
The rest of the day was a beautiful blur. Lots of pedaling, some pushing, handfuls of peanut M&M’s and dried papaya. Midday nap, repeat.
I eventually hit a sign marking 39 miles to Montrose. I was low on water and getting bored with my snacks, never a good proposition for a hypoglycemic. It was then that I had a spiritual experience.
At Columbine Campground, I encountered two angels (and their mom and grandma). They gave me ice-cold water and a Holsum turkey+Swiss sandwich with sour cream and onion Pringles. If you guys are reading, thank you again for reviving me.
Many miles later, I crested Divide Road and saw Montrose on the horizon. All downhill from here, baby. I blasted down the dirt at 30mph, dropping a couple thousand feet of elevation in the blink of an eye.
One of my climbing club kids (now a blessedly licensed driver) picked me up just outside of town and promptly escorted me to the Horsefly for a Bavarian bacon beer cheeseburger on a pretzel bun.
I fell asleep that night with visions of the Colorado Trail flitting through my mind. No adobe mud there. Maybe it’s time to go big *and* go home…
Afterword: As I ride the bus from Montrose to GJ to pick up my car, I recall that these experiences were almost exclusively Type 1 Fun, even the vicious, viscous mud. I had a great time in God’s own backcountry. Singlespeed was a winner; rigid would be even better. Water sources would be doable provided that you’re not stuck averaging 3mph for 12 out of 26 travel hours. I skipped what is supposedly the hardest section (the Roubideau, 21 miles of steep jeep trail through 15 major drainages) but it’ll still be when I come back for the Grand Loop.
It was my first day at Outdoor Retailer 2017 in Salt Lake, my first time at the show. It’s a big deal: over 20,000 people cram into an expo center that feels larger than Durango city limits. People literally shove products into your hands. And the talking … I haven’t lost my voice like that since being the vocalist of a metalcore band.
One of the products that immediately caught my eye was Rocktape Kinesiology Tape, a stretchy cloth tape intended for therapeutic purposes. Of course, I saw it an thought “tape gloves!” The guys hooked me up with a roll and I immediately made a tape glove for my right hand and wore it the rest of the day. This prompted some great conversations (including their competitors, who were puzzled by what kind of injury would require that tape technique).
Rocktape claims that it “microscopically lifts the skin away from the muscles and fascia, which decompresses the area and promotes blood flow.” Perhaps this would reduce the pump factor while climbing, but what I was most interested in was the durability of the tape due to its elasticity. Since stretchy girlpants always last me longer in offwidths than Carharrts, I figured the stretch factor might create a longer-lasting, slimmer tape glove.
This was definitely going to be an off-label application of the product. Talking to the reps at the Rocktape booth, none of them knew what taping up for crack climbing entailed. I showed them this photo and they immediately got it.
The most promising elements of Rocktape for climbing were these:
“Hydrate or die!” Camelbak admonished years ago. Curiously enough, rates of hyponatremia in endurance athletes skyrocketed in response. In their zeal for staying hydrated, runners and bikers were becoming as waterlogged as Edward Abbey’s description of Utah cowboys trying to get drunk on 3.2% beer.
As competitors waddled across the finish line — or collapsed midway from salt deficiency — wiser heads prevailed and realized that regarding hydration, quality was just as important as quantity. Replenishing the electrolytes that we sweat away is vital for preventing cramps and maintaining peak output for all-day activity.
I hate carrying lots of water on a multipitch route. Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, and I begrudge it every ounce. On a long route like Scenic Cruise in perfect temps, I barely get by with two liters. On top of that, I need to bring snacks laden with sugar and salt to forestall the dreaded forearm cramps. (There’s nothing worse than having your thumb lock in the crimping position and having to pry it open with your other hand).
I’ve tried many different electrolyte powders, with mixed results. Powerade and Gatorade make my stomach hurt after four hours. Cycling-specific products like HEED and Accelerade left a strange taste in my mouth. Coconut water was effective but expensive. For a while I home-brewed, mixing Kool-Aid or lemonade packets with potassium salt and sugar, or just adding salt and sugar to plain water. None of my recipes were tasty enough to drink all day.
Then one day, I stumbled across Tailwind in the local gear shop. They’re a local Durango company, so I bought a Mandarin Orange individual packet and gave it a try on a hot day climbing Comic Relief in the Black. I was immediately impressed with the subtle flavor, and it kept me going pretty well, even through the hot, disheartening exit slab pitches that I’ve done far too many times.
Since then, I’ve become a huge fan of Tailwind and use it exclusively for multipitch, backpacking, desert cragging and trail running. Here’s what I like most about it:
– Tastes good. I like all the non-caffeinated flavors, especially berry.
– Doesn’t mess with my gut, even during high-exertion trailrunning.
– Provides 100 calories per scoop. I usually load up three scoops per liter. Lately I’ve found that the caloric benefit of Tailwind wholly sufficient — I only bring snacks for “mental pro.” For what it’s worth, I’m hypoglycemic too, so nutrition is a safety concern for me.
– Good calorie to ounce ratio, especially considering you can reduce other snacks.
– At $0.70 per serving, it’s not prohibitively expensive.
– Supports the 81301 crew.
Most recently, I used Tailwind on Atlantis, a south-facing 1300′ 5.11- with some legitimate runouts. Due to scheduling constraints, we had to do climb it in early June with a high of 85 — big mistake. I drank two liters of Tailwind, without which I certainly would’ve found myself cramping or puking. I felt strong the entire day and onsighted my crux pitches. I highly recommend this product for any all-day endurance athletes, especially multipitch climbers.
(Disclaimer: I pay full retail for Tailwind and it’s worth every penny).
Of all the desert towers Layton Kor put up, there’s only one that he ever repeated.
Between that fact and the name of the route, Jeremy and I knew we had to try it. Plus, the Colorado National Monument was in our backyard.
Long Dong Wall on Kissing Couple Tower starts with a steep, sandy finger crack with just enough footholds to keep the difficulty manageable. The pitch ends with a slabby traverse under a bolt that may have been .11a back when the edges were crisp, but nowadays is a bit harder. We gladly french-freed our way past the bolt to a belay alcove.
The second pitch features a stellar chimney whose width varies by how deeply you burrow inside. If it had gear, we didn’t notice: it’s too secure to fall out of.
A third-class romp takes you to the base of the next pitch, a wide-hands and offwidth splitter. After some jamming, you encounter the coolest feature on the route: a knee-and-back chimney that is open on both sides. Killer exposure and no gear for thirty feet. This pitch ends in the “belfry,” an incredible viewpoint from within the heart of the tower.
The fourth pitch requires some full-body stemming to reach a fixed pin. The first time I climbed the route, I couldn’t figure it out and had to stand on Jeremy’s shoulders to reach the holds. The second time,
I got it, but it’s a bit hairy and insecure with both feet on the wall behind you, and both hands in front.
The pitch eases off after this, but then presents you with one last challenge: you must squeeze through a submarine-hatch of a hole. I’m 5’10 and 140 pounds, and it was doable, but I had to take off my helmet and drag all my gear on a sling. I have no idea how the giant Layton Kor managed to squeeze through there. Heck, he probably punched out the hole in the first place with his #4-Camalot-sized hands.
The spacious summit affords great views of the rest of the Colorado National Monument, including the ultra-classic history lesson known as Otto’s Route. John Otto aided and fraided his way up the tower in 1912 in hobnail boots, drilling pipe holes and chopping steps — long before “ethics” were invented. The route now features an abundance of tricam placements and sloping feet with an old-school 5.8 roof pull that guards the summit.
The Colorado National Monument is a unique haven of excellent desert towers, all too often bypassed by Front Rangers hauling ass down I-70 to get to Moab.
Actually, it’s all choss. Keep driving.
“We climb it not because it’s there, but because it won’t be there much longer.”
-The Layton Kor
There are three definitions of “desert tower.” The first is dimensional: a tower is taller than it is wide. The second pertains to accessibility: the only way up a tower is to climb it. There is no walking up the backside of Castleton to set up a toprope.
The third and most important, however, is intrinsic. A desert tower looks like a desert tower. You know one when you see it.
Standing Rock is a desert tower.
It’s 350’ tall, 50’ wide and has comparable Rock quality to “rye crisps sandwiched in kittylitter.” In my first attempt, I made it a hundred feet … past the car before the heavens unleashed and it started pouring, saturating the already-weak sandstone and rendering it unsafe to climb for two days.
While we were there, Josh and I figured we’d scope out the approach. Instead of a rattly day’s drive on the White Rim 4×4, we were looking for a “government trail” 4th-class scramble down the improbably steep Grandview Point Overlook.
Two hours later, we retired in disgrace. We were unable to find any non-technical descent, let alone something casual enough for a government employee to venture onto. We did find a gully where we could fix two ropes and rap, however, and resolved to return in better conditions. (Note: Josh later found the government trail. PM for beta.)
Scheduling conflicts prevented Josh from accompanying me on the second attempt, so I enlisted the aid of the inimitable, nonpareil desert dirtbag, Tyler Ofsprocket Marlow of Moab.
We returned armed with static ropes for the way down and jumars for the way up, a double set of cams to #3, and a single #4 and #5 (latter wholly unnecessary). A quick rap and downscramble led to a 150’ chimney rap and an hour of pleasant hiking to attain the start of the traditional 4WD-accessed approach. From there, a short fixed rap and a gorgeous forty-five minute stroll through Monument Basin brought us to our objective for the day: the Regular Route, four pitches of steep, shaded climbing on dubious stone. There were only a handful of places on the entire route I would have been ok with whipping. Bring your ice head.
The first pitch began with excellent 5.9 fingers in a corner, then cut under a roof to a face crux over small gear. I used an equalized #0.1 and #0.2 on this pitch and each one thereafter. Tip: don’t stop til you get to the good anchor.
Tyler ventured onto a photogenic traverse on the second pitch, which supposedly led to a splitter hand crack. If those eighty feet were a handcrack, you can call me Pamela Pack. Granted, it took handsized gear, but most the climbing involved awkward bulges where you cut your feet and pull on jugs of questionable parentage.
Pitch three started at the scariest belay ledge of all time. It was a horror show of antique pins and star drives with no supplemental gear. Please bring two ropes so you don’t have to rap from this anchor like we did.
The crux move used to be rated 5.11c, but then a hold broke, much to the relief of all those looking for excuses to A0 the perfectly-placed modern bolt. Nevertheless, the possibility of a factor-two fall on the Bad Ledge plagued the moves required to gain the bolt. Some mandatory spicy climbing over marginal gear and a delicate mantel around an absurd “elephant ear” flake brought me to a ledge with a wizened old star drive, which I slung long and passed by to a ledge with acceptable bolts.
The last pitch was ho-hum 5.8 with great exposure. We flopped onto the summit and were greeted by 30mph winds. Is it just me, or is the whole tower creaking? We didn’t stick around to get the Last Ascent and go sandstone surfing. Three single 70m raps had us kissing the solid ground and vowing never to return … that shitshow of an intermediate rap anchor core-shot our heads something fierce.
After celebratory libations of cold chicken noodle soup, we hiked an hour, jugged forty feet, hiked another hour, jugged a hundred and fifty feet, scrambled thirty minutes, jugged forty feet, and regained the car. Car-to-car in just over twelve hours.
Overall, it was an incredible summit that did not yield itself readily to our efforts. Like the best desert towers, Standing Rock must be earned.
“Black hole: a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape.”
I can’t look away. Beauty, despair, elation, pain, peace and pure terror — I am overwhelmed like the rocky banks of the Gunnison River two thousand feet below. The sun succumbs to the horizon; darkness falls.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is my favorite place on earth.
The first time I set foot on the inner canyon, everything went wrong. My partner injured her knee downclimbing the Cruise Gulley, then I wasted precious October daylight on an unforgivable routefinding blunder. We were benighted on the easiest route in the canyon, and stumbled out by headlamp.
Since then, I’ve climbed in the Black twenty-six times. Every route brings a new level of appreciation for the place. I cherish my hours spent on the steep, splitter granite that erupts heavenward from the river.
Having recently climbed the classic 1700′ Layton Kor line, the Cruise, I set my sights on the next step: Atlantis (IV, 5.11-, 1600′). Whereas the Cruise is a jolly joyride of obvious, never-ending handcracks, Atlantis was reputed to deliver a more varied (and scaried) experience with face climbing and traverses. My longtime friend and best Black Canyon partner, Tim, was all too happy to oblige.
The day began at 02:30 after a restless night. Is there any other kind when you’re dreaming of mandatory onsight terrain? The morning routine was seamless: shovel yogurt and granola and a half-liter of water down my gullet. Stuff gummy worms and Slim Jims in pockets. Tape up. Pinch off the first, feeble attempt at excretion, knowing full well that your bowels will revolt the moment you tie in for the first pitch. Struggle into a harness chock-full (ha) of heavy metal. Embark, stricken with bravado-masked anxiety and furtive hopes for a type-one day.
We stumbled down Prisoner of Your Hairdo Gully, thankful for the previous trip’s recon on Buzz Cut. A short fixed rap led to a ropestretcher rap off a tree (to avoid an exposed but easy traverse), then then a bushwhack to another short fixed rap. PoyH Gully met up with Grizzly Gully and dumped us at the river, 1:30 elapsed. The base of the route was easy to find after some easy-fifth scrambling.
The first pitch was a good, nondescript warmup, which Tim styled. The second had some suspect flakes, but was mostly good clean fun. I ended up further left than I should have and was uncertain about the topo, and belayed early. Tim finished up the pitch and brought us to the base of the first crux.
The route gets serious at this point. Tim plugged a piece off the belay, then launched into a completely unprotected fifty-foot 5.8 peg traverse. The topo promised a fixed pin, but there was none. The climbing was all there, but the consequences were dire. At the end of the traverse, he plugged in a few thank-the- maker pieces and continued into some excellent, balancy 5.11-, clipping one bolt and adequate gear along the way. Following the pitch wasn’t anywhere near as spicy, but still required care.
Pitch four had some great face climbing on good gear. It was dripping wet, however, and I had my only fall of the day onto a bomber #3.
The next pitch would have been more fun without the rope drag. Tim got a workout pulling slack with one hand and climbing with the other.
Six entailed some routefinding shenanigans, seven elicited copious profanity due to even more rope drag.
On the eighth pitch, I had the pleasure of pulling a stellar 5.11- roof over a bolt. That pleasure soon dissipated as I belated realized I should have extended the sling. The rest of the pitch was
marginally protected .9-10a (running twenty feet over an equalized grey Metolius and #4 Stopper!). It felt far more serious due to drag. The pitch ended in a mercifully-shaded chimney.
A fun, rompy chimney led to an exposed chockstone belay below the next crux. As soon as I cut left under the roof and lost sight of my belayer, the climbing dialed up a notch — sustained, awkward 5.11- fingers and sweaty stemming.
By pitch eleven, we were feeling the effects of the heat. It would’ve been nice to have chalk on the thirty feet of unprotected 5.8 peg before the bolt.
Twelve was marked 5.10R. Despite harder moves, it didn’t seem as runout as the previous pitch. However, you’d come pretty close to decking if you blew it after the bolt — make sure the belayer has a good upward-pull piece.
Pitch thirteen dumped us onto a terrace after one awkward face move. From there, we had the choice of bushwhacking back up Prisoner, or climbing an extra three hundred feet of 5.10-11. We were really hoping to finish in vertical style on the rim, but there was no way we had the gas (or water) to do so. We may have won the pitched battle, but the June sun was wining the war.
After puzzling over our walkoff route (yes, you hike back up Prisoner), we thrashed through interminable scrub oak, jugged our first rap, slogged up the steep dirt of the gully, and finally crawled onto the glorious terra firma of the North Rim.
Cold chicken soup, chocolate milk and Gatorade awaited us. Car to car: sixteen hours, twenty minutes for 1300′ vert. (In contrast, we did Scenic two years prior in thirteen hours flat for 1700′). It wasn’t our most efficient day, but considering the severity and inobviousness of the route and the heat index, we were pretty happy.
Looking back, there were some serious objective hazards to the route. I wouldn’t hesitate to get back on Atlantis, but if I were leading P3, I’d ask the FA if I could replace the blown pin on the peg traverse. All in all, it was an incredible, thought-provoking route on excellent stone.
Next stop: Astrodog!