The New Black Canyon Guidebook — The XMAS Present That Keeps On Giving




Vic Zeilman recently published a brand new guidebook to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in Colorado, with K. Daniels Publishing, and the verdict is in: the book is incredible.

The book is everything the Black is. It’s rough edged, it’s got old beatup photos, its font makes it look like a hand-typed and xeroxed communist propaganda pamphlet from the 50s, the topos are hand-drawn, non-computer generated, relics of some bygone era. The essays are often about how much the Black sucks. The descriptions can be as vague as: “From the base, it looks like a horrendous pile of shit (and it kind of is), but the climbing is quite good throughout, though it probably won’t clean up” (Jon Schaffer describing one of his many FAs, Not My First Rodeo III, 5.12-.)


Zeilman researching that Black Canyon so je ne sais quoi.

I don’t know how he did it, but Zeilman managed to capture in book form exactly the feeling of the Black Canyon itself. When you stand at the precipice, and look deep down into the bowels of the canyon, it doesn’t feel inviting. It’s rather foreboding, maybe even kind of ugly. It might make you shudder. It certainly doesn’t look like any other climbing area you’ve ever been to.

In a similar way, this new guidebook doesn’t look like any other climbing guidebook you’ve ever seen. There’s no sexy color graphic with waterfalls and rainbows to lure you in. Instead, the cover itself is as dark as it’s name would imply. You have to squint to see the beauty hiding within a collage of understated grayscale images. Whether it’s the book, or the canyon we’re talking about, there’s very little in the way of conventional marketing to entice you to dive right in. Only the curious and the bold will enter.


But once you do, the experience is deeply satisfying. Why? I think it’s precisely because it is entirely and utterly devoid of glamour and glitz and commercialism. The poison ivy doesn’t care if you’re a pro climber. The peg choss bands don’t care that your sponsors want you to stay injury-free. And Vic Zeilman doesn’t care that there’s no pic of a chick in a sports bra on the cover to make the books fly off the shelves. The goal is not to sell something. The goal is to experience something. To get in there and get all scraped and fucked up on some runout offwidth squeeze followed by a crimpy unprotected exit, or whatever. Choose your own adventure. Just don’t expect it to be pretty.

It’s easy in retrospect to see that Zeilman did the right thing with his book. But I can’t imagine the mental fortitude it required to look forward into the future, envision it from scratch, and then stay true to his vision. There are so many OTHER ways this book could have been done. There’s so much it is which it might not have been, and so much it might have been that it thankfully is not. The balance Zeilman found between what it is, and what it isn’t, is absolutely zen. I can’t fathom a better, more appropriate, guide to the area. Vic’s guidebook is, literally, perfect. Climb in the Black once – just once – and then pick up a copy of the book. You’ll know exactly what I mean.


There are more fuzzy images of old badasses in here than high res glossies of young crushers… I wonder why.

If you are of the type that sees the Black Canyon as the salvation of rock climbing in America, then I think you’ll also agree that the new guidebook to The Black is the salvation of guidebooks in America. And if you are precisely the type of rare individual who thinks these things, you may think Jon Schaffer is your messiah, and take up trying to follow him up one chossy first ascent after another until the end of your days (when he cuts your rope for seconding too slow).

I’d like to say something conclusive to sum the whole thing up, but I’d just be bastardizing the fine words of folks like Jon Schaffer, Topher Donahue, Ed Webster, Josh Wharton, Kent Wheeler, and many others, and, of course, Vic’s own insightful, accurate, and honest descriptions of 500 pages of routes.

Instead, I’ll leave you with the words of the prophet, himself, Mr. Schaffer.

Ah, Jon, I’ve got you now!

After I first read this essay more than a year ago, I begged Jon to write a guest post for FF. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘if Bernie wins the election.’ Well, giving your writing to someone else to copyright’s a bitch, Jonny-cat. Now everybody will get to see what a poet you are. Better watch out, I bet the sponsors will be flooding your email (or at least your Dolphin) inbox post-haste.


Oh, what’s that? You want to read the rest of Jonny Dolphin’s twisted 26-year-old musings and rantings? It can all be yours for the small price of…

Look, just buy the freaking book. You don’t even have to use it to climb there to get your money’s worth. I’m serious. Of course, if you do climb there, it’s also an indispensable tool for finding the base of the routes, and the often tricksy and convoluted paths these heathens have taken up the walls.

Buy it for yourself, or for that special someone who you just KNOW loves to grovel. It’s the best christmas present you can give to that climber dirtbag harebrained lunatic in your life, outside of a winter ascent of Not My First Rodeo, of course.

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