Among the mad ones
My girlfriend had never seen the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, much less climbed in that foreboding trench, but that’s where I took her and that’s what we did Memorial Day Weekend.
We arrived at the North Rim on Friday evening as the sun set. Driving past Crawford through rolling, sage-covered land, the Black Canyon seems to come out of nowhere. I like to imagine what horseback explorers felt like when they reached the edge of the 2,000-foot cliffs, hot and thirsty, with the Gunnison River roaring over waterfalls below, untouchable.
Of course there are ways to scramble down to the river, but only a few. Some of the descent gullies are steeper and more technical, and all are filled with poison ivy.
That is what makes climbing any route in the Black a serious endeavor — you have to get back to the rim somehow; there is no giving up. The feeling of topping out is not the normal feeling of success. Instead of, “Sweet, we climbed that!” It is, “Yay, we made it out of the hole.”
I briefed Mandi about this. I showed her pictures and told her dark stories. She had hardly climbed anything since last fall, and the route we wanted to climb was at the limit of her abilities, but she was game, and I believed she would be fine as long as her mental fortitude hung tight.
By the time we pitched the tent, the full moon was up, and we sauntered over to the guardrail at the edge of the rim. The gorge was sliced with silver light and shadows. White rapids on the river looked motionless but filled the gorge with violent noise. Updrafts blew through our hair as we leaned over the rail, gazing down.
In the moonlight, the shadowy trench had a sort of gravitational pull on the mind. The last and only time I had climbed there was years ago and it had been a one-day speed ascent. There is something to be said for staying in a place long enough for its essence to touch you, and it finally touched me on that trip.
While Mandi went to bed, I stayed up, listening to the air under the huge, round moon. I felt the weight of Mandi’s trust in me, and I put a prayer on the wind, asking for the wisdom and judgment to lead us safely.
We awoke at 6 a.m. and racked up, clipping gear to our harnesses like Christmas ornaments.
“Crap. I forgot my helmet,” Mandi said.
The Black is no place to climb without a helmet. The canyon is famous for loose rock as much as its poison ivy.
Mandi walked over to some other climbers getting ready.
“Do you have an extra helmet?” she asked, not expecting a positive answer.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” said the guy.
It was a miracle. The only way an extra helmet ends up on a trip is by accident, and we hadn’t lost any time finding it.
The rest of the day went without a hitch, though there were plenty of challenging moments. For instance, we ran out of water and hadn’t tasted a drop for hours by the time we hobbled into camp at 6 p.m.
It was good, though. For some reason, it is important — even fun — to embrace fear and to suffer every so often.
Mandi had cried tears of discouragement on the climb’s most difficult section. Far below, out of my sight, she had to solve a problem for herself. The steep crack shredded her hands, sapping energy and morale as she fell several times, but she got through it. And she swears she had fun overall.
My legs hurt to walk for days after, but I also felt something more deeply than the pain that made it easily worth it. We’re already talking about going back.
Clearly, we’re not the only ones. The campground was packed full of adventure nuts like us.
We returned the borrowed helmet and I noticed one of the climbers was missing a right arm from the elbow down. He was born that way, he said, and that day he’d climbed the most famous route in the canyon, which was longer and harder than the one Mandi and I did. I noticed the nub of flesh on his missing arm was completely thrashed and I imagined him groping 2,000 feet of rock to salvation. He was happy and smiling.
Maybe struggling and suffering is healthy because it opens our minds to our true capabilities.
The feeling I had standing on the moonlit rim with Mandi was an awesome sense of wonder for all I haven’t seen and what I might be able to do.
Maybe our thirst for pointless excursions into the unknown makes us crazy, but, as Kerouac wrote, “The only ones for me are the mad ones …”
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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