Having finally finished the story of the Nose in Winter for Alpinist 32 (Praise be to Katie Ives) I was feeling powerfully nostalgic when a young friend and climbing buddy pressed a suggestion.
"Wanna go to the Black?" he asked.
"It's been a while" I said.
"It'll be Grrreat" he assured.
After determining that the People's Republic wasn't going to go up in flames from the devastating Four Mile Canyon wildfire I allowed myself to get talked into an adventure...
My partner Stephan Reiser is a German born whirlwind of exuberant excesses who wasn't even born when I was a good climber and was only 5 when I retired after doing my last Black Canyon route. Some of you may recognize him from one of those "Lives less Ordinary" Scarpa ads in the back of Alpinist 21. Even though he is a young gun he is as competent a trad climber as anyone I can think of. Must have something to do with learning to climb in the Frankenjura.
Once talked into going I really wanted to leave Boulder by mid day Friday so as to provide time for a good sleep and an early start. But that was not to be as Stephan felt compelled to first evacuate from his mountain cabin. He started to waffle.
"Maybe we should go next week" he said.
"I can't next weekend" I replied.
Plus I didn't know if I could get myself jazzed up enough again. No it was now or...
Consequently we didn't get on the road till after 10:00 pm.
Stopping in Dillon around midnight to tank up Philvo
the infamous Silver Surfer. This is the 1988 Volvo wagon that Survival and the Cozmic Banditos used when they did their RMNP tour.
This never say never rig is a ceaseless source of amazement to me. Always starts, always stops, never uses oil and goes where I point it without question or complaint.
Loaded up and rolling on. This would be the first time I had ever approached the Black by driving the I-70 corridor. Living in - near by - Gunnison meant crossing the Black Mesa not the Continental Divide. This would be the first time I would go into the black with short hair. Bearded and pony tailed with de-riguer dew rag was the way I typically looked in the past. This would be the first time I would go in carrying a chalk bag (only second time to ever carry cams, the first time being my last route there). This would be the first time I would go to climb in the Black with someone half my age. But more significantly it would be the first time I would be going back into the Black to climb since nearly dying in a vicious lightning storm during an early ascent of the Hallucinogen 21 years earlier. In fact, in all that time - though I had numerous compelling offers to - I hadn't even been to visit the North Rim since.
This trip involved a lot of firsts for me. Like actually following the rules for a change. Granted it was a different time in the 70s & 80s, a wilder westier time, even still BITD I broke the rules. I wonder if there is a statute of limitations? This would be the first time I ever signed into the Black. The first time I paid for camping. Which was a little annoying as I used to think of the place as my personal back yard, regularly spending weeks at a time without paying a dime... Fortunately my Golden Access Passport for handicapped allows me half price camping which eased my pain.
Even if it occasionally raises questions about why someone with my kind of Passport would be going below rim to climb.
The sign in procedure is quick and easy and if you can't handle it you should stay in he gym. Not only does this non onerous paperwork allow the remarkably non invasive climbing rangers to keep track of inner canyon users, it also provides quantifiable data showing that climbers are the primary user group. Very valuable to us climbers when it comes to management planning.
After the official formalities were dispensed with we pulled into the campground around 4:00am.
Sleepy campers patiently abided my 3 lap tour looking for an open camp site. No such luck. So we just pulled in by another vehicle and biv'd on the ground by the bear box. By 4:20 I was medicating myself to bed. The uninhibited stars blazed brilliantly in the clear night sky. Constellations, old friends from past excursions, marched in the night. I fell asleep remembering that when you are below rim you literally observe the stars come into and go out of view across a very narrow slice of sky.
In the morning I took the rim walk to reminisce at the overlooks. See if I can see me any of them hikers below. Sort of pay my respects if you will.
The view down river towards the Painted Wall or how I spent my college education.
My first climb in the Black and in fact my first route over 5 pitches for that matter was the probable 2nd all free one day ascent of the Southern Arete of the Painted Wall with John "JP" Pearson in 1977. JP was a real crazy cat with the same wild hair character as my youthful companion of today - 33 years later.
The walk between the down river and up river overlooks. It seemed a wee bit intimidating this time since I knew all too well what lurks right over there just 10 feet away. I was so amazed and delighted to see that the powers that be hadn't sanitized the place to my it safe for Fido and little Willy. If a pet or person wants to phuck up and go for the big one they still have all the same opportunities they did decades ago.
This is the top out for the Hallucinogen where 21 years ago I crawled out from the brink of electrical extermination. And retired from climbing to have my knee replaced for my 12th surgery. Rehab and raising babies became the focuses of my existence for several years.
A close up of the top out shows fresh signs of travel. Someone is obviously still getting after it.
The impressive view straight down the Nose of Chasm View. My mind is flooding with a tsunami of memories.
A very cool view through a hole in the rim to the river.
So back in camp I run into the blokes whose site we had invaded. John from Scotland, on the left and Gordon from South Africa on the right were really great sports about it and a blast to meet. They had succeeded on an ascent of the Scenic Cruise the day before and were leisurely packing up. Graciously they let us take possession of their campsite. Turns out they are now both living in Boulder and, of all things, recognized the Philvo
from around town. Well the conversation turned to routes and ancient history. I don't know who was more jazzed, them for having me sign their guide book or me for having been asked. I think me. We had a really pleasant chat over coffee while Stephan still slumming in his sagging hammock slept in late...
OK, so Stephan is ready for an Alpine start by the crack of noon. He hadn't told me that he had been marathon welding at work and had not slept in almost 3 days. That combined with the 8 or 9 beers he nursed on the drive down had him moving a little sluggishly. Good thing I had driven.
Our plan was to do Comic Relief as a warm up on Saturday then do Moveable Stoned Journey on Sunday. If my leg would hold out that is.
By 1:40 pm we somehow and in spite of ourselves actually get to the trail head. It is ridiculously late and my sense is that our plans for the day will have to be fluid and changeable.
Today will really be about this very particular body part. A shakedown test of sorts. It might be hard to tell from the picture but I had decided to walk down in my climbing shoes. You could ask "what were you thinking"? But clearly I wasn't, thinking. In the old days we often walked in climbed and walked off in our EBs to save weight. I guess I was just thinking of reliving past gory. Or possibly paying penance for being allowed to live through the Hallucinogen ascent. Back in the day however I climbed in my EBs at least six days a week. The shoes and I were one. Not so the normally comfortable Tradmasters I had on now.
And this is where the adventure begins in earnest, for me anyway. The first test is just getting down the SOB uninjured. Nervous doesn't begin to express how I felt at the top of the SOB. My leg had become increasingly dodgy. Last year I had experienced a horribly painful hyper-extension injury and had spent the subsequent five months in deep anxiety, concerned that amputation or at best fusion was in my imminent future. As it turned out I had not shattered the Tibia as I had feared but rather had ruptured the Saphenous nerve. That is the large trunk nerve that runs from your toes, up to and through the knee, all around the hip and into the central nervous system. It's function is to tell your body what your leg is doing. My injury had blown a core shot in it right below the knee. Now due to either regeneration or degeneration it was sending utterly bizarre signals. Without any warning it would totally spaz out. Going into a vigorous sewing machine leg while just walking or even sitting. I had to flat foot everything because I couldn't hold the stress of arching through my toes. It was disconcerting when it occurred but I had to know if I could be confident enough to be where I was headed.
About the time the vegetable danger made its presence known I was wondering if my heart was into the adventure anymore.
It started to feel stone cold and heavy.
But we were now better than 2/3rds of the way down. Right by the start to the Casual Route. It is here when you absolutely recognize just how much you would really rather climb out than slog out the WOS (Walk of Shame).
And it was a baller blue bird day. If only we had started at a reasonable hour.
It was pretty doubtful by then that we could get it together enough to fire the Comic Relief and not risk a chilly benighting.
A very compelling landscape. A Siren's song for the adventurous. A candle for a moth.
I am beginning to understand why I kept myself away for so long. This spooky place knows me and speaks to me in mysterious groans and sexy whispers. But it was Already after 3:00 pm and all we really had a chance to go for was the Casual Route. And at my pace even that would probably be pushing it too much. The back of my mind didn't relish the ignoble notoriety of having to have the rangers go get the old fool off of a route called Casual. At least there was still tomorrow.
It was time to go - for now. Four of my toes resembled steak Tartar and the rest were bruised. What was I thinking. The leg had definitely made it's weak and wobbly way down. Would it, could it, and come to think about it should it, make it back up? How embarrassing it would be to end up needing a liter rescue. I bandaged my feet and pushed up.
I know only to well just how long it is back up the SOB. At least going up is less stress for my knee than going down is. I found myself taking pictures of cool looking rocks just to linger in the lovely but infrequent shade a little longer. Up among the sandstone layer at the rim I paused to look back somewhat dissatisfied but content to have been Black in and back out.
Back at Camp 2 it was time for fluid replacement therapy and a trip to Crawford for dinner. A full belly, a good sleep and an early start for a return to the deep steep. Just what the doctor ordered, me not to think about. When he asked about any routes on it I had to remind Stephan that "There taint no walkup the Crawford Needle"!
I so love the country around there, I have always wanted to own land around there. I was amazed at all the memories I was tapping into. During the bleary eyed early morning drive in to the Black I surprised myself by instinctually recalling the time saving back road short cut out of Crawford to the Black. On the way down the SOB I was struck with the realization that I certainly had a hand (or more correctly feet) in the establishing of what is now a clear and obvious descent. It was encouraging that the vast increase in traffic during my two decade absence had not left the SOB Gully a desert. Other than numerous cairns and a more discernible path it was much as it always was, loose, dangerous and grueling. The way down (and up) follows most of the original route. It tickled me to all of a sudden completely recognize a slab of rock or a given hold on the way down. It will be a long time before those paying community service restitution build stairs like they have in Eldo. The Black is no place for Prancers.
I ran across Kent Wheeler an old friend from the Gunnison Daze. He reminded me that his first trip to the Black was many years ago with Jim Nigro and I. Unlike me Kent is still getting after it. On the day of our "hike" Kent was putting up another 5.11 r in the Black. The man has a passal of high quality FAs in the canyon. It was a real treat to run into each other after so many years.
Stephan is still an unmovable lump in a hammock so I walk down to Mr Ranger's neighborhood to make my acquaintances. I had heard so many great things about the stewardship of the Black under climbing ranger Brent's tenure. I introduced myself and slobbered praise upon them for not being tools and not sanitizing the experience. I explained that this was my first time back in two decades. I also confessed that I had been a real renegade bandito back in the day, and that this was the first time I followed any of the rules. They thanked me then looked at the books.
Apparently past transgressions do not have a statute of limitations in the wild west.
Actually it was all in good fun. That is until the LEO couldn't find the keys. Ha ha ha, joke's on me.
The good natured LEO was so young he had no idea why Brent was approving and to some degree encouraging him to cuff me. He asked "So why am I doing this". "For past transgressions" I replied. "Like what" he queried. Laughing I replied "You really don't want to know".
I think it is apropos that this pic (mug shot) has the upper pitches of the Painted Wall as a back drop. In some way I will always be drawn to the Black Canyon and held prisoner by the magic of the Painted Wall.
Well Stephan was telling me that his 4 year old's platypus was getting lonely for his boy and Stephan wanted to go home all of a sudden. I could have channeled my old hard man persona and gone for it but honestly my feet were messed up so I quietly agreed and accepted this as a successful shake down trip. I must be growing up.
Feeling warmer and fuzzier he settled in to the Silver Surfer for the scenic cruise home.
But first we had to wait for the other two turkeys on the road.
I started thinking about yams and stuffing. Mmmmmm road kill anyone.
Feeling a wee bit stiff and achy I opted to stop at Penny Hot Springs in Redstone.
Fluid therapy. A good soak and a good beer.
Sufficiently shriveled it was time to hit the road again.
The Eisenhower tunnel was expecting 30 minutes delays so Stephan suggested we drive over the Continental Divide on the Loveland Pass road. Another Deja Vu for me. I grew up on that road but it had been decades since I had gone that way. It was so stunning to be up there instead of stuck in a tube.
The traffic on the eastern side of the tunnel was easing up and we had merged in easilly for the last leg home.
Pulling back into the Boulder bubble we saw a huge billowing pillar of smoke. Crap I thought they were gaining containment. Turns out it was a second independent wild fire north of the Four Mile Canyon burn.
Out of the frying pan and back into the fire.
This really was a memory lane excursion for me. I certainly would have preferred to pull off a route or two rather than just a hike. But the important thing for me is that I have finally broken through a self imposed blockade. I actually got up off the couch to go back to the Black to climb again. Who d a thunk?
If my leg can be counted on I know I will be back below rim soon. The prosthetic knee is well past it's warranty and entering the diminishing returns phase. So I am again feeling it is now or never.
I had convinced myself once long ago that it would be OK if I never returned to the Black Canyon. I was wrong...