Black Canyon of the GunnisonCO West Slope, USA
Climbs 180 – Rocktype Granite – Altitude ? – Faces all
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A team on the classic Jimmy Dunn 5.11 big wall of Stoned Oven
Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor, Feb 2010
© Jack Geldard
In short 'The Black' is awesome!
The walls of the canyon are up to 700m high and are made mainly of gneiss. However the gneiss is so heavily enriched with feldspar it is virtually identical to granite in physical attributes and very close in composition too. Pegmatite veins slice through the gneiss walls and range from a few centimetres in width to huge scary snakes several metres wide. To my inexperienced eye the pegmatite seemed to be just like quartz. So it's black and gold granite-type-rock shot through with loose 'quartzy' veins.
The canyon is extremely deep and narrow, a geological wonder, and was formed by the raging Gunnison river. Usually, when faced with such hard rock, a river would cut a much wider canyon than The Black, which at it's narrowest point (rim to rim) is a mere 335m. However on top of the hard gneiss sat a layer of softer rock, through which the river carved its initial passage. This left it no choice but to continue cutting when it reached the gneiss, as it was 'stuck' in the trough it had already carved, thus creating the climbing paradise we have today.
Black Canyon Climbing Skills
The shortest routes in The Black are around 6 pitches and the longest are around 26 pitches. All involve descents down steep gullies. The primary skill that any visiting climber should have is experience on routes of at least 6 pitches in length.
If you are new to the canyon then choose a short route to start on and factor in extra time to navigate gullies, avoid poison ivy, get lost, fall over and generally punter around. After a couple of days you will find yourself flying down the gullies in record time and can then tackle the bigger routes with confidence.
Although The Black is a rock climbing destination, the feel is more of an Alpine nature, with loose rock, big routes and cold shady temperatures mirrored by scorching hot temperatures when in the full sun. Your Malham redpoint grade won't cut much mustard here.
An Alpine apprenticeship will do you well in terms of moving fast over moderate ground, dealing with loose rock, route finding and generally surviving in a hostile environment. A good background in crack climbing will also help, and might make those 5.9 pitches feel a little less like E5!
Dangers: Ticks, Poison Ivy and Loose Rock
Ticks: On our trip in September and October we encountered no ticks whatsoever, however we have been told that they are more prevalent in the Spring. The canyon wasn't quite the raging tick-fest we had been told to expect. See this UKC Article for advice on ticks, but don't get too worried, the ticks in The Black don't carry Lyme disease.
Poison Ivy: After hearing many horror stories we gingerly inched our way down the canyon gullies, ready to be engulfed in ticks and poison ivy. Neither really happened. Poison ivy doesn't grow on the rims of the canyon, only inside the gullies. It is usually in big clumps and is fairly easily avoided during day light. See the following photos for help with identification.
Photo Gallery - Poison Ivy Identification:
Loose Rock: The rock of the canyon is very Alpine in character, perhaps as a result of being water-cut instead of glacier-ground. The surface of the rock is generally very sound, with nice granite-esque crimps and cracks. However there are booming flakes and large detached blocks, much like climbing on big mountains. The Black is loose on a 'macro scale' not a 'micro scale'. The pegmatite bands are a little different, usually being quite shattered and flaky and perhaps more akin to what British climbers would call 'loose', similar to North Stack Wall at Gogarth. Overall though the rock is of a very solid nature and the climbing is very enjoyable, especially on the more well-travelled routes.
Recommended Routes List:
Shorter Routes, good for an intro:
Thanks are due to Ian Wilson and Jeff Hollenbaugh for their help and input in to this article.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor: