The Blackest Hole of All
Complete, thorough, encompassing. A few measly and mangy stars dot the night sky. Beyond the dirt road cast yellow in the beam of my headlights, nothing is visible. Google maps has stopped working. I don’t need it. Follow the signs, I was told. So I do. Left, right, left, left, right, or something like that. The path is well-marked. There is a jackrabbit. A mule deer. And finally, just before the ranger station, a coyote sleeping in the middle of the road. He lies there as I approach – does not move until the car stops. Finally he stands up lazily – blinking in my headlights – and walks away. Shoots a stare my way that says nothing more or less than “ahem”. Then I’m there. I’ve made it to the Black.
In the morning we are up before the light. Philippe knocks and I wake from sleep with a start. Some reflexes I cannot account for move muscles, move jaws, cook eggs through morning lethargy. Then we are walking from the ranger station. It is not far. Soon we are descending. The sun is rising. Before we duck down into the deep slot cut through the canyon wall, I notice the quiet and muted beauty of rolling hills, color-changing trees and shrubs, a lavender horizon. Nothing to write home about, but pleasant. Cattle country. Could be part of Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma.
The trail – if you can call it that – plummets and plunges deeply, steeply, sheerly. The things you want to grab to arrest your momentum – those trees – are poison ivy. I’m informed a bit late, but after all, I grew up on the east coast. I know what poison ivy looks like – I should know. They don’t grow as trees where I’m from though. The word bowels comes to mind. We go deeper and darker. The canyon engorges us. Sheer was not a word before now. At the bottom, there is a booming green river. We tell stories and tales – catch one another up on things – but the whitewater swallows all. The canyon is tight, most of its bottom taken up by the river, and the walls on either side rise sheer, imposing, and tall.
At the base of the route, my racking up ends in an imminent movement of bowels. The heights and silence (except for the river) make me quake, make me quiver. There is only one way out: up. I like it that way, but it still scares the shit out of me. It just got real, and we aren’t even on the wall. I look up and up and up, trying to surmount the highest visible features. When I finally look down, the wall is still going.
Okay, fair enough. It’s just rock climbing, I think, as I plunder upwards. Here’s a 5.11 OW crux, first of the route. I climb it like a sport climber, or a boulderer, with heel hooks and laybacks. It goes. I’m glad it was not harder. I can send this thing. The sun is heading upwards, but that doesn’t matter. It is not the up, but across. That does matter. It careens across the base of the canyon, the light horizon getting nearer and nearer. Fine for now, but it will get hot.
Philippe takes us up to some 5.9 arete thing. Runout? I don’t know. It’s fine, pleasant, climbing. Everything is there. A brain massage for things to come. We haven’t seen a bolt yet – don’t need one. I’m still feeling good when we arrive at a pitch of face climbing. But it’s gotten sunny. Hot. Slippery. Philippe reminds me that Jimmy Dunn first climbed this thing in July. Ok. I wasn’t complaining anyway. Or was I?
It’s a pitch of 5.10 face. No problem. Easy. My forte. My pleasure. Give me the rack. Don’t clip the bolt. Got it. But when I get to the crux, I freeze. Do I really pull those moves above nothing? I don’t clip the bolt? What if I fall? Where are the feet? What will I reach for around the blunt arete? Fifteen feet above the pro at my ankles on this ledge, I ponder an improbable and unprotected looking sequence. Philippe tells me it will come together, but I have trouble taking faith. I fiddle in a marginal C3. I can’t see the line. Can’t read it. Can’t believe it. I’ve never been stopped before by an absence of visible chalk. 5.10 face is 5.10 face and it doesn’t make me balk. But I’m shaking in my shoes. I can’t perceive the moves.
I try to imagine Jimmy Dunn in ’75. Then back again in ’86. I can’t. The bolt is the only thing that renders the landscape climbable to me. I have to gun for it. Even though it’s a piece of shit. I guess back in ’75 it would catch a whip – now, not so sure. But those are excuses. Just get up there and clip it. The stance is tenuous beyond belief. I don’t trust the C3 beneath me. My left hand goes down to my harness for a sling. I unclip a … C3. Shit! I put it back, try to find a sling, can’t. Can’t move head, neck, body, anything. My hand comes up, I touch the hanger. It’s over. I can’t believe it. Grabbing bolts on 5.10 face.
I clip the bolt, and with my nerves calmed return to the actual moves, which go out right. They are not so bad. 5.10 is appropriate – just hard to read, or requiring a certain suspension of disbelief. I am bewildered, befuddled, and happy. This is the way it should be. A proud onsight, to she or he who does. My hat goes off to you.
In a way, blowing the send is the best thing I can do. It’s not the place for caring – barely the place for daring. A hell of a place for a rescue. I’m free to enjoy it all, and Philippe let’s me lead every pitch of 5.11 on the route. I thrutch my way up a wonderful offwidth, dog my way up the most enduro of enduro corners, claw my way up a short boulder problem. Somehow someway we end up on the ledge of all ledges. “You, a harem of women, and a whole bunch of mushrooms could have a hell of a party up here” Philippe tells me. It’s good to be climbing with him again. I don’t care about blowing the send. I don’t care about anything. Ravens squawk by across the gulf, lit up in the sunlight. This feels right. This feels like what climbing is supposed to be. A scant few bolts, and those barely even trustworthy. Beyond that, just the commitment of the day, the light and shadows that play across the canyon walls, the bands of pegmatite exciting the mind to visions of dragons, and smokefilled scrawls. Nobody cares, and I don’t care about that at all.
One more pitch: a horizontal off-width. It sounds terrible when you describe it that way, but it’s as good as a pitch of rockclimbing can be. I tried to get Philippe to explain it ahead of time, but he wouldn’t – just said ‘you’ll see’. It’s not a sandbag to say don’t sweat it. Just do it, you won’t forget (or regret) it.
Then we’re at the top. Twelve hours of life wasted in the greatest of fashions. My body and mind are worked. My soul feels full. I can not stave off the cold that’s been barking at the door any longer. Sneezing, wheezing, and blowing my nose, we head back home.
Elk burgers. Peach pie. A local climber comes by. He’s going to climb an absurd amount of rock tomorrow and he’s hoping to get a pizza delivery at the end of the day. Fair enough. He’s put in his time. Philippe shows me a draft of an essay he’s written for the new guidebook. It’s perfect. It may be the best climbing article I’ve read in the past 10 years or so. I could say who he was, and talk about how he wouldn’t want me to mention his name because he’s such a humble guy. But I don’t think it’s really about humility – he just hates bull shit (or so I gather, I don’t really know him). Everyone and his or her mom is humble in the climbing industry. You won’t catch them saying it, but you know it’s true because their best friend will #tellyou. So I just #decidednotto.
We drank some beers. Watched the Eiger Sanction. Went to sleep. And I left. That’s it. Nothing more glorious or glamorous than that. I didn’t send, didn’t whip, didn’t update my status, tell my sponsors, tell the world, talk about sandbags, talk about downgrades, talk about Yosemite, or monkeys, or anything. If darkness is a black hole that sucks up instatweetsterbookers and multimediamasterblasters, the Black Canyon is the blackest hole of all. There’s no story there to tell – it swallows them all up. Just good climbing, good people, good sunsets, and mediocre rock. It’s no Yosemite, but if you’re passing through, it just might do.