| Halloween Year Round (The Saber RMNP, Black Canyon of the Gunnison)
Sometimes I wonder why I climb and to be honest I can’t explain why. It’s a growing passion that will always be there. I do it because nothing else fits me better in life. It’s the big piece of the puzzle for me. Sometimes though, stuff can go wrong in climbing. It’s up to you and your partner to do whatever is safest to get out of it alive. That’s what keeps it real. It’s up to you and you hold the key to the rest of your life. These are two stories from two scary experiences I have had in the last few weeks.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison SCARE
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is known for its beauty but also it’s fierce reputation. Climbing there is a very serious game. All the routes are really honest. They have loose rock, the protection is usually run out. The routes are the longest in Colorado. You have to climb down the canyon to get to the bottom, usually with a couple raps. When you top out, you’re just about at your campsite. No rappelling in the dark! On the other side, many people have to spend a night on the wall because of going to slow, so speed is a must! Very committing climbing, as once you make the raps down to the bottom, you have to climb the route to get out. Oh and the poison ivy and ticks! Yikes! It is the training grounds the legends have used for international areas.
Top out of Escape Artist
My first route there was an awesome 6 pitch line called Escape Artist. A quite sustained 5.10a with an insane traverse pitch, some big run outs towards the top and sustained. I topped out loving it. The Black is my favorite place to climb in CO.
The Scenic Cruise follows the arete for 1700 feet. I could not get it all in a picture in this one.
I headed down there the next weekend with my partner, Jay. We were planning perhaps Colorado’s best rock climb, the 1700 foot 5.10d Scenic Cruise. We got up at about 5 and started heading down. I was terrified. This is serious, I kept thinking. We made two rappels and I knew we were committed. The sun rose and we got to the base which has about an acre of poison ivy at the base with one little belay spot the size of a fridge. Carefully uncoiling the rope, we made sure it did not touch it. I put Jay on and he climbed for a full 70 meters. To reduce time, we simul-climbed the first two pitches at 5.8. I got my shoes on and climbed for about 50 feet until he was at the belay and he belayed me up. I was feeling sick. Maybe from fear or was I really sick? Jay took the next pitch so I could get the crux pitch. He combined them into one long 5.10a pitch. It was hard and honest! I joined him at the belay just as the sun was coming on us.
Lesson #1 – Never climb a south facing route in June – August in the Black
Posion Ivy everywhere!
I got the gear and was scared. The gear looked good but run out and small in places. I set off. The crux was really thin affair with some hard face climbing mixed in. I thought of the quote “There is trad climbing in the Black, the rest is mere sport climbing” as I lead. I did not send it what so ever. I was scared and pumped. I put away the crux and went up the fun hand crack until I took a huge fall.
Exposure from below the crux pitch
I ran out of big gear and decided to make the run out to the anchors due to that. The final part was not a crack but a slightly overhanging pumpy funky lie back/jams. I was just about at the last move when I whipped, falling for 40 feet on a virgin 9.1mm single rope. I fell on the trusty .5 Black Diamond C4 in an interesting flake. By this time, I was sweating like crazy. It was already in the 90’s! When I fell, I was shocked. I felt dizzy, and really felt like I was going to faint. I couldn’t though, I was 500 feet up the route and over 35 meters up the pitch. I was shaking but soon started talking to Jay. He was pretty worried. I built an anchor and belayed him up. I told him I was not leading the other two 5.10 pitches if we continued as my mind was not with it. It was reaching 100 degrees anyways so if I fell or not, we had to go down. 5 rappels later we were at the base.
Crux pitch. Jay is rapping a little below where I fell
We went straight to the bottom to soak up in the river and ignored the fact we had to get back up the rim. Getting out included a long traverse with a ton of poison ivy, a 5.7 offwidth pitch, a rappel, and a few hundred feet of fourth class and then 2,000 feet of a loose gully. And oh ya, we were out of water. (usually what happens in the Black) It was miserable and interesting but soon we were back at camp tired.
At the River with North Chasm Wall behind (What Scenic Cruise goes up)
The Saber (Or should I say how to feel more scared (alive)?)
The Saber with Southwest Corner (5.10 PG-13, 8-10 pitches) drawn in along with rap route in dashed lines
The Petit on the left and Saber in the middle. Sarah approaching.
When Danny and I climbed the Petit Grepon last year at 5.8+ I was wasted from the climbing. Even the 5.7 pitches were tiring. I stared at the tower next to it called the Saber and wanted to climb it. But it was 5.10 and pretty spicy. That was so far beyond my mind. 5.10 trad scared me. The route is also one of the longest in RMNP at 8-10 pitches. I said to myself “someday.”
Trip report from Petit last year.
Myself a year ago on the lower pitches of the Petit
Concentrated towards the top of the Petit
Danny doing a handstand on the office desk summit of the Petit
Now a year later, I get to see my improvement. Sarah told me she wanted to do it so our plan was to do it in a day. I have climbed with Sarah on a few occasions, including the Yellow Spur in Eldo. She is strong so I thought we would be a good team for the route.
I woke up at 1:30 after only an hour of sleep thinking why do I even climb? I had not slept much the couple previous nights either. I met up with Sarah in Boulder at 2 a.m. only after forgetting my headlamp. I had to go get it. We were finally off at 2:20. We started the 5 mile approach with heavy packs. It was wet and snowy. We soon got to the base a couple hours later. The start is hard to find. I was feeling quite nauseated and was not “feeling” it. The climb looked hard and at a high altitude would be harder.
Top of Pitch 1
The first two pitches are easy and form the approach to the route. I lead the first 70m stretch while Sarah lead the next. Soon we were on the actual route. The third pitch is the 5.10b crux. It is super sustained. Every move of it is ranging at 5.10a. The first 30 feet offers no gear. There is a run out, spicy traverse at the end. Otherwise, there was descent gear but still was spicy.
Sarah following the crux pitch 3. Pretty exposed.
I told Sarah I was nervous from everything I’ve hear about this pitch. Finally I said,” Oh whatever, what do I have to lose?” Laughing, I set off, knowing it was well within my ability. The first 30 feet was indeed kind of scary but I soon plugged in a small piece. The crux dihedral was 80 feet and every move felt 5.10a. Gear was interesting. I soon did the unprotected 15 or so foot hard traverse and was at the belay ledge. No cracks around. I ended up building a 6 piece anchor.
Surrounded by awesomeness
Sarah agreed of the spice. She was scared as well following that last little traverse. She led the next pitch clocking in at 5.8/9. It was run out too but as expected, it’s alpine! She belayed at another ledge lower before an offwidth. I came up asking why she didn’t go to the top of the pitch. She said she hated offwidth after going to Vedauwoo. I understood and lead to the top of the pitch, belaying her off a .4 and knotted sling wedged in the crack. That was the only anchor potential.
Starting to get quite exposed. Sarah following the second 5.10 pitch.
The next pitch is called the crux by some and it is also really spicy. You start by traversing 20 feet straight left with no gear. I soon got passed that. I knew Sarah would not be happy following but what can you do. Then the crux of the pitch came with a few 5.10 moves protected by small TCU’s a few feet apart. It was run out and I did not want to fall. The Dihedral came and I was welcomed with 5.9 to the belay ledge. Luck would have it, there was not crack around! I slung a couple horns and belayed. Sarah came up glad to have the cruxes below. We still had 5.9 until the top though.
The weird horizontal chimney
The "exposure" pitch
We were committed now. With all this traversing and many pitches off the ground, the only way out was up. I was eying out the weather throughout the day and it was looking good but now there were a few clouds building up. I was kind of in a rush. Sarah lead the next pitch, dubbed the “exposure” pitch. It starts with 20 feet of unprotected face climbing to a dihedral and then a traverse to another dihedral. Sarah took a fall on her new 8.9mm single rope transferring into the dihedral after the traverse as it was quite hard. She set up a belay as the rope drag was so bad. So bad that the rope was stuck in a flake high up. She couldn’t pull the rope and put me on belay. I was super pissed!
Weather moving in. Not good.
Cursing for a while, I was upset at the situation. I knew it was up to me to fix it since I was “closer” I could not hear Sarah either. I attached some prusiks on the rope realizing prusiks on a 8.9mm rope are not as bomber as a 10mm rope. I started climbing, self belaying myself, scared. I tied a knot ever 10 feet just in case the prusiks gave out, I would not fall to my death. I got to the 5.9 dihedral and cleaned to the pro and was on the traverse and freed the rope. Sarah then started belaying me. I got to the hanging belay and mentally I was getting drained after that ordeal. I took the next pitch and got off route.
I took the wrong dihedral, everything was loose, flakes the size of microwaves were moving all over, gear was there at times but the rock was so loose I thought the rock would give out before the cams did. I ran out of big gear soon and belayed.
Big storm clouds had formed as well. They were the kind of clouds that would turn me back on any 14’er trip. There was not turning back though. We were committed. We had not choice but to top out. They were blowing right towards us. I asked someone across on the Petit how much farther we had. They quote “at lead 400 feet” That does not sound right! I realized our situation at that time. 5.9 wet with lightning? Sounds like I would rather hang off a belay until it stopped. I feared of staying the night on a hanging belay for some reason. I told Sarah I needed a break from leading sketchy pitches. I gave her the gear, and told here to get as far as possible even if it was not far and I would take the next pitch. She was done with leading but took off. She traversed straight right and luck would have it, got back on the route where it was more solid!
I kept feeding her rope. The storm was blowing closer. I was kind of getting mad. But soon, she put me on. As I started following, the rain started drizzling. I flew up the 5.9 pitch fast. I thanked her for being my rope gun for that pitch. I then realized we had one last pitch to the top at 5.moderate. I didn’t place one piece as the climbing was nothing hard and time was of the essence. I got to the rappel anchors and belayed Sarah up.
The storm is about to go in full rage and I am scared.
Now the storm was on us. I heard a bit of thunder, and we were on a high point. We set up the rappel fast, and headed down.
My "I'm having fun right now" face at the top out.
Now the story is usually over at this point right? Negative. The descent is always something I take just as serious. Everything went smooth for the first 2 rappels. Then the 3 rappel came. We both rapped and I started threading the rope through the next slung anchor when Sarah started pulling the rope and then quoted,” Is the knot at the end?” We both looked and realized how screwed we were. I was so pissed at the situation again. I couldn’t blame Sarah totally for not looking as I should have untied it first thing. The rope was pulled halfway and it was raining hard. Our only choice was to climb up to it. I volunteered as Sarah was not going to. I did not want to but that was our only choice.
Who wants to get the rope un stuck? I do!
I tied into the extra bit of slack and Sarah started belaying me. The climbing was 5.9ish wet, nothing to trust, everything slippery. I was close, and then Sarah quoted “We don’t have enough rope!” Pissed off as ever I down climbed and Sarah took my end and took it out of the next rap anchor to give me enough rope. I re climbed it and finally reach the other side. We finally pull the rope with lightened moods. But it was not over.
Our next rappel was probably the worst set up rappel I’ve ever seen or been on. I rappelled down and Sarah came down next. We only had one more left. The rope would not move though at all.
So close but yet so far away.
It was stuck. Our only choice was to prusik up it. I asked Sarah to take care of this rope problem since I did on the last one. I gave her the 3 prusiks but she just was not comfortable trusting the prusiks. I under stood.
I ascended the rope with just an ATC as it was faster but WAY more exhausting. I cursed me way up screaming in anger. I finally got up and moved the rope right moving it from any cracks. I rapped down and started pulling the rope. Again, it would not move even though it did near the top. I relied on anger and strength as it moved inch by inch. Soon it was pulled. The last rap went smoothly and we were on the ground kissing it.
Back down with finally having climbed the Saber
We got to the base and realized marmots chewed threw our packs even though we thought we outsmarted them where we placed them, ruining Sarah’s. Sarah joked that basically everything on this trip was ruined as far as gear.
My La Sportiva aggressive rock shoes were uncomfortable to say the least. My feet still hurt a bit from wearing them.
We hiked down getting to the car at dark and it was raining.
Round trip time: 17 hours
Climbing is a serious game. You can’t let your guard off at any time. As I found out on this trip, the risks of weather sometimes will catch you. With bad set up rappels being included in there. You just have to be as prepared as possible. When something goes wrong in climbing, you have to be very careful on your next choice as one small thing can get you in deep trouble. I don’t really believe in epics, I believe most accidents happen after bad choice after bad choice. That’s what happened with Kevin and I on the Maroon Bells. It’s all about making it as safe as possible and being on guard at all times. The climb is never over until your back home.
After 6 years of climbing, and mountaineering, I’m still learning. Even though I’m only 19, that will never change for the rest of my life.
Vertigo (5.11, 4 pitches) Eldo, CO Andre following the 5.11 roof on the last pitch
Myself revisiting the past on the Bell Chord in June. In 2009, Kevin fell 600 feet down this and I took a fall as well though not as big.
Summit of the Petit Grepon last year with a memorial I placed on there to remember Kevin.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):