The Black Canyon is a lot of sacking up and throwing down. I already knew this, having been one time before in 2015, with Parker Kempf. We started climbing at sunrise and finished at sundown, topping out the Cruise, a 5.10+ variation of the Scenic Cruise. (5.10d). We couldn’t have chosen a better first route to do in the Black, and there was even an offwidth pitch that Parker let me lead.
But the morning after, we were completely wrecked. After we made our summit, we trudged back to camp, too tired to even make dinner and instead, wolfed down cold Indian food packets and immediately went to sleep. After breakfast, we packed our things, honked a “goodbye!” to our neighbors, ready for some easier climbing in Eldo.
This year, I’d invited Chris Spratta out west. He has been one of my favorite partners over the last several years. We’ve cragged at the New and the Creek, and tackled bigger walls in Zion. Nobody knows how to sack up like Chris, and his try-hard attitude forces me to sack up, as well. By day three, I was pretty much ready to drive back to the Front Range for some of that “easier” Eldo climbing, but we stuck with our four-day plan to finish our trip with The Scenic Cruise.
Chris Kalous’ description of the Black was: “Bite off more than you can chew, wander through stepped, bushy ledges in the middle of the night, get off route and terrified, pull some holds off.”
I was feeling some internal pressure. Having just gotten my sea legs back, big multi-pitch climbing felt even more uncertain. Only a few weeks ago, I was in Linville Gorge with Evan Raines. We had a stellar day of cruising multi-pitch classics in the gorge, our first one being Dopey Duck at Shortoff Mountain. Evan led the first pitch in Chaco’s, having left his climbing shoes at the top, and we quickly swapped leads and I started up the second pitch.
I moved slowly. I kept questioning where the route was leading, and while gear placements were plentiful, I found them to be tricky in the vertical cracks. The horizontal cracks, however, were perfect and left me feeling somewhat reminiscent of the Gunks. Yet, I faltered up the vertical face, hesitating before every move and every piece I placed.
Evan laughed and told me that was the most hesitant he had ever seen me. I guess that Linville was the first time I’d done anything beyond a single pitch since my fall, and I’d simply forgotten two important things: the gear is good and our bodies are made for movement.
Chris and I got to camp around 4:30 in the morning on a Friday. We were pretty dedicated to our 10 a.m. alpine starts, and on the first day, decided to take it easy since we were both running on such little sleep. We descended the Cruise Gully and Chris led up the first pitch of Maiden Voyage (5.9-) and we cranked through several pitches in a matter of hours. The straightforward climbing was a good intro, and with plenty of daylight, we traversed the Checker Board ledge and finished up with King Me (5.10).
I stared up at the first pitch, considered where the fixed pin was, and slowly racked up for it. Chris said he would take it, and I gladly gave it to him because there was a vague feeling of uncertainty. Then, I changed my mind and asked if I could take pitch one. At the end of the day, I told him: “I really didn’t want to take the 5.10 pitch. But the reason I said ‘yes’ was because I didn’t want the reason I said ‘no’ to be because I was afraid.”
Three pitches later, we were back at camp, cracking open the first beer of the trip. After dinner, we started organizing gear and topos for the next day by headlamp.
Cloaked Interpretation (5.10+) was my favorite climb of the trip. A thousand plus feet of pure, exhilarating climbing. We had a little trouble finding the start of the climb in the beginning, having hiked too far down the SOB Gully. We didn’t move quite as fast as Maiden Voyage/King Me, and I had taken note of when we started losing daylight the day before. “It’s fine if we have to do a little route finding in the dark.” I thought to myself.
Then we lost daylight, broke out the headlamps, and stood at the last belay of the climb. That’s when I remembered: I HATE CLIMBING IN THE DARK.
I stayed out of the offwidth crack as the guide had recommended, not really wanting to waste time inching up it in the dark. The leaning crack went much faster, even though I stumbled and fell on a nut trying to get back into it. The blocky section of the climb wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating, and I quickly floated through until I thought I had run out of rope. I stopped to belay Chris up, watching headlamps pop up on what Chris thought to be Astro Dog (5.11+), on the South Chasm View Wall.
I turned off my own headlamp and took in the slack as Chris climbed. Each time I pulled in slack, it became so rhythmic, I almost didn’t even have to think about it. I sat, watching the tiny blips of light bounce around across the street and it made me feel less alone, even though we were in such a remote area. Nobody really knew where we were. Nobody was really thinking about it, or worrying about us. My own mom didn’t even know where I was that weekend, although I assumed that she assumed that I was romping around some rock face somewhere.
It reminded me of being a little kid, during the holidays. After the meal was over, I would crawl underneath the big table and the adults would continue their chatter over coffee as dessert began to be served. That was my cue to come back to the table. I lay underneath it, though, for as long as I could. As I lay on my back and ran my fingers through polyester carpet strands, belly full of mashed potatoes, I delighted in the feeling of being invisible. That’s kind of how I felt, sitting on the belay, shrouded in the darkness.
And while I basked in the stillness of that warm, October night, I was reminded that you can be stable and restless at the same time. It isn’t necessarily one or the other. Too often, I think that once you reach that pinnacle, you’re finished. Such is not life, though.
Life, much like love, is hills and it’s valleys. It’s deep, churning waters before long stretches of stillness. A pause in the pandemonium is rare, but when it comes, I urge you to take a moment to embrace the stillness and swim in its reverie. Because when the waves start calling again (and they will), it’s all you can do to answer them—and we should. Life was never meant to be lived in one place.