“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!