There comes a time in each person’s life of being tested beyond what they can bear. Call it a crucible. I had mine yesterday in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
I often forget what it’s like being challenged on every level: physical, emotional and spiritual. Sure, working a hard route is physically difficulty, but it doesn’t rattle me to the core and force me to confront the darkness in my heart. I’m used to pushing myself but staying within a certain masochistic comfort zone.
I was challenged on this trip. The plan was to ride my bike from Delta to the North Rim of the Black on dirt and snow (forty miles), rappel the fixed lines in Cruise Gully, carry the bike downstream to Warner Draw, hike 2000′ feet up to the South Rim, then bike eight miles on snow back to the South Rim Visitor Center, then ride singletrack down to Montrose and finish with twenty-five miles of dirt road to get back to Delta.
Since bicycles are not allowed in Wilderness areas such as the inner Black Canyon, I planned to disassemble my bike per AZT 750 rules and carry her on my back while bushwhacking and rockhopping through the canyon. (EDIT: As later discovered, this is bad intel. Don’t do it).
At the ranger station I filed a permit and packed up Ophelia for what would be the stoutest hike-a-bike I’d ever done. Carrying a loaded bike on normal trails is difficult enough, and the inner Black is a steep, overgrown jungle of scrub oak, poison ivy and boulders. Nevertheless, I clipped the wheels to my pack and slung my frame over my shoulder — onward and downward.
Rapping Cruise was the easiest part of the trip. The rangers leave the fixed lines up all winter. A lot of people hate the descents in the Black but I’ve come to enjoy them, although I joke that they take add a year’s worth of wear to my knees each time.
When I got past the start of Scenic Cruise, I headed straight down to the river instead of contouring along the Nose toward Moveable Stoned Voyage. This allowed me to refill water, but the ensuing riverside rockhopping gave a new meaning to the word “arduous.”
I lost probably two hours picking my way through house-sized boulders, and poor Ophelia lost a bit of paint. I girth hitched a spare tube to the rear triangle and used it to lower the bike down some boulder problems, then climbed down after her. I eventually abandoned the river and hiked straight up to the base of the cliffs, which made for easier travel.
The “trail” eventually dropped me off at the base of the SOB Gully descent. One of my emergency bailout plans was to hike back up SOB and retrace my route to Delta (the other being to jumar back up Cruise), but that wasn’t necessary. The week before, Meg and I scoped out water levels to make sure I could get across the river safely. It ended up being a bit wetter than I expected …
I ended up wading a slow-water section at waist-deep and them climbing a 5.8 chimney boulder out, chocking the handlebars and pedals in the chimney and then aid-climbing off the bike.
Safely across but shivering, I built a quick fire to dry my clothes, then assessed the situation. (Editor’s Note: Fires are prohibited in Wilderness areas, so but so is dying of exposure). Between the late start and the boulder-hopping, I was running behind schedule, and the last thing I wanted was to get SAR called out and have them rap down Cruise after me. It was getting late, and sticking to Plan A (hiking the river to Warner) would have put me even further behind, although it would’ve been an easier gully to exit.
Looking at the topo and my GPS, I determined that Big Draw (right across from SOB) would get me out. The contour lines looked comparable to SOB in steepness. I scattered the coals, micturated on the fire and started up the gully. I often had to take two trips for every section because it was too steep to carry the bike and the wheels. I used my pedals as an ice axe on several occasions.
Halfway up Big Draw, darkness fell and my personal stoke meter dropped drastically. I though about pushing through the night, but dealing with unknown terrain while fatigued didn’t sound appealing, so I set up a bivy inside a cave and lit a fire. Before settling in for the night, I climbed a tree and hung my reflective vest in case the rangers were looking. Then I stockpiled some wood and curled up in the fetal position around the fire. (Note: fires are not allowed in Wilderness areas. But neither is dying of exposure. Pick your poison).
Except that I didn’t have a fire, because despite being able to light one immediately after fording the Gunnison, none of my three lighters would spark. I settled in for a long, cold night.
At about 02:30 I woke up and tried the lighters again, and got the faintest spark out of one. I whooped like a crazy person and cranked my Jetboil to flamethrower mode, caught the spark, and ignited a fire. Without that, I would’ve been in bad shape.
I spent the night shivering but safe, dozing off for thirty minutes at a time and then awaking when the fire went out. The moonlight reflecting off North Chasm was stellar. To keep morale up, I sang hymns, recited poetry (rage, rage against the dying of the light) and ate one gummy worm per hour.
I also had just enough battery to listen to one album, so I chose my favorite: “How to Start a Fire” by Further Seems Forever. Jason Gleason’s searing vocals have gotten me through some pretty tough times in life. This was undoubtedly the coldest of them.
At first light, I extinguished the fire, slurped a bowl of jalapeño kettle chip soup and started slogging up the rest of Big Draw. When I was about on par with the start of Comic Relief across the river, the terrain steepened significantly and bike-wrangling became unbearable.
My choices at that point were to hike back down to the river and either continue to Warner or retrace my route after swimming the river again. Or, ditch Ophelia and scramble to the rim. For the sake of time and sanity, I chose the latter. I stashed Ophelia under a boulder and vowed to come back for her in the spring.
From that point, things got serious. The scrambling was easy enough, but I wasn’t sure if I’d get cliffed out. I kicked steps and scrambled for about 1500 vertical feet of 3rd/4th class, all the while praying like mad that I wouldn’t have to downclimb and spend another shiver bivy on insufficient calories with SAR endangering themselves to look for me. Mountaineering is truly the most selfish activity in the world. And yet we quest onward and upward.
The very last bit of my exit involved a couple hundred feet of tight chimneying, but I had no way of hauling my pack. So I stuffed my bivy sack, knife and lighter in my pockets and ditched the pack.
When I finally topped out at Painted Wall Overlook, I kissed terra firma and ate some snow. My phone was dead, as was my backup battery, but here’s someone else’s picture of what my view was like:
Four miles of flat hiking to the visitor center, where hot chocolate awaited. Along the way I ran into a couple skate skiers headed back and told them to let the rangers know that I was out.
At long last, I made it to shelter and quaffed four cups of hot chocolate. The NPS volunteer let me know that the rangers had gotten called, but that they were called off before they dropped down Cruise, for which I was very grateful. I hope they enjoyed the cross-country ski in the North Rim. And I hope they enjoyed the six-packs of beer that I’ve been bringing them every time I climb in the Black (65 days and counting … that’s a lot of beer). I owe Ryan another, that’s for sure.
I caught a ride with a friend back to Montrose, then walked into the library in full kit (harness, Nepal Cubes, gaiters, dirt) and took a nap in a chair until another friend got off work, fed me a steak dinner and gave me a ride to Delta.
As if the experience wasn’t enough of a challenge, my car battery was dead.
Back home in GJ, I took the world’s longest and hottest shower and slept the sleep of the righteous. Meanwhile, poor Ophelia languished under a boulder halfway up an unmarked gully in the Black Canyon. I’m kind of hard on my gear.
In retrospect, I’m really pleased with how the trip went. It was probably the most arduous time of my life, thanks to Ophelia. Were it not for here, I would have finished in the same day easily. I also made some serious judgment calls that I hope to never repeat.
But you know what Layton Kor’s friends always said about the Black … “No rope, no rack, just a bike on your back.”
Or something like that.
Epilogue: Due to an ordinance regarding abandoned property in Wilderness Areas, Fritz was cited and fined for leaving Ophelia, which he gladly paid, plus a six-pack of Fat Tire for the climbing rangers as a thank-you for being on standby (no rescue was launched). A bike retrieval mission is underway.