Three hundred feet off the ground, my left foothold suddenly gave out and a boulder the size of a football went hurtling down the wall. The crash echoed up and down the Black Canyon.
“Welcome to the Black,” I thought to myself.
I’d joined my climbing partner, Mike Hedlund, for our first climb at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The canyon has a reputation in the climbing world of loose rock, dangerous gear placements and risky falls, and it was easy to see why.
But we finished that route, called Maiden Voyage, without any concern aside from the initial rockfall. The next day, we opted to tackle a much more serious route, Escape Artist. It’s rated as a 5.9 or 5.10- (the latter being a more difficult grade). Two words often used to describe Escape Artist are “strenuous” and “sustained,” both of which can be intimidating when you’re placing your own gear instead of clipping bolts on a sport route at a crag such as Shelf Road.
Escape Artist generally is done in seven pitches; the first five vary in difficulty between 5.8 and 5.10- and the last two are easy slabs. But even getting to the start of the route is a slog as we had to descend roughly 1,000 feet from the canyon’s north rim via a steep gully.
I’d been thinking about this route for weeks, reading comments online about the moves and the gear, and I’d talked to a fellow climber at the Colorado Springs outfitter Mountain Chalet who agreed that Escape Artist was “solid 5.10a.”
For anyone who hasn’t tried traditional climbing, there’s a big difference between falling on pre-drilled bolts and gear that you place yourself. There’s never any guarantee that a cam or nut you slot into a crack is going to hold a fall or a swing, so trusting your own placements and making moves above the gear is not the easiest mental feat.
But we were ready with two sets of cams, a full set of nuts, plenty of extra slings and quickdraws, two liters of water, and headlamps in case we finished in the dark. We also were bundled in cold-weather gear since we were going to be climbing in the shade for most of the day.
The rock was extremely cold at the start, which got my nerves more worked up since I barely could feel my fingers after one pitch. We let a faster-moving party pass, and that gave me time to warm my hands.
Once I started the traverse, I felt good for a few moves before coming to a hump that stymied me. I plugged in three solid cams but wasn’t exactly eager to trust the tiny footholds and sloping handholds, so it took me a few minutes to summon the courage to move past the bulge.
“I’m psyching myself out,” I yelled back to Mike, who was probably 50 feet to my right.
But I finally found the courage. And the holds.
The final slabs were a piece of cake, but by that point we were thrashed from the exertion of the earlier pitches and even easy climbing felt hard.
When we reached the top, all we could do – between beers – was talk about with wide eyes and bleeding hands how fantastic Escape Artist had been.
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