You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide [or canyon?], overthinking it. You have to go down the chute. - Tina Fey
Friday, 6 October 2023, Hotchkiss CO
In an earlier post, I mentioned how Grand Canyon shouts, Everglades whispers, Alaska parks use megaphones, and Voyageurs speaks in conspiratorial tones. Well, Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP mimics a bombastic politician, glibly telling you what he thinks you want to hear, shading the truth.
Take, for instance, the writeup in the 'Hiking the Inner-Canyon' brochure:
This route is located west of the North Rim Campground... The route begins at the access ladder along the fence just east of the campground. Follow the path to the top of the drainage gully and descend on the far right of the route.
Did you notice it never once used the word 'trail'?
Today gave us another chance to see a new (to us) part of a familiar park,
as we had driven along the south rim on previous visits. The North Rim lies close to my friend Scott's house, spicing up our parks loop with friendly company. We drove the dirt road into the park, stopping at the Ranger Station to fill out the required wilderness form. (Everyone must fill out this free form before descending into the canyon, so the rangers can react if people don't return on schedule.)
The ranger showed us a poster-sized picture of each of the three draws you can descend, highlighting boulder or scree (loose rocks and dirt) fields. As he recommended S.O.B. Draw to us - "It's the easiest because it starts with a fairly level trail." - a group of hikers that had plied a flatter rim trail walked up. "There's a bear wandering up here!" they reported. "We made noise to get him to back away, but we could see him following and stalking us for a distance."
One more thing to look out for!
The ranger told us where to find the draw. "The NPS officially changed the name to Pinyon Draw - more politically correct, you know - but we still call it S.O.B.." We found the trailhead - just a narrow gap in the bristly vegetation beside the road -
as he described it, a quarter-mile path gently dropping through the arid terrain.
We knew it wouldn't last. Statistics said it dropped 1800' to the river in a mile!
(That puts it in the 20-30% slope range - in other words, STEEP.) As expected quickly tilted downhill, an area studded with large rocks.
We picked our way downhill, rock to rock, looking for where others had broken a path.
The ranger had warned us that the draw had no actual defined trail. It was merely a less-than-vertical cleft in the cliff, down (and up) which we would look for a reasonable route.
"If you come up against a boulder too big to climb over," the ranger cautioned, "back up a bit and try finding a path on the other side of the draw."
Luckily, the temps stayed moderate as we wove our way downhill, over and around boulders, across dirt, avoiding scree. The pamphlet suggested you'd take two hours to reach the river, and another three to climb out. For a one-mile 'trail'.
Stops came regularly as we scanned the draw for the best path forward. On occasion Bill and I would take different paths, meeting up past any given obstacle. We never needed actual rock-climbing skills, but they would have helped.
The relentless nature of the draw wore on us.
We couldn't go more than a half-dozen paces before stopping to reconnoiter. Sure that Bill had the same thought as me, I broke the ice. "I propose a pact. If either of us decides that's enough, then we both quit. No trying to cajole the other to do 'just a bit more'." He quickly accepted.
Down, down, down. We began to get views of the dark river, squeezed by the vertical canyon cliffs.
Though far from the deepest canyon in the land, it did claim to be the narrowest.
With its sheer walls, the river spent most of each day in shadows - a possible reason it was known as Black Canyon.
Much of the early climb was in shadow, the canyon walls blocking the sun. Eventually we reached direct sunlight, and the temperature went up slightly. We continued dropping, our attention so riveted on our next steps that we paid no mind to our net progress.
During one break, Bill pointed at a cliff to our left. "What's that I see on the wall?
Is that a climber?"
I had to pull out my telephoto lens to verify. "Yes, it is. Oh, wait, there's another climber that just appeared!"
This canyon, with its sheer faces, attracted climbers from throughout the country. When planning this trip, I'd considering taking a rock-climbing class in this park - but quickly discovered that the park featured NO beginner routes to learn on.
We moved on. Finally, after 95 minutes of inching our way down the draw, we called a halt. We could see the river below us, likely another half-hour away. "We've got to save enough energy to climb back up," Bill pointed out.
We rested as we ate our lunch, then set our sights upward.
In spots we took the same route up as we had down; at other times new or better avenues appeared. The footing as we climbed seemed more stable, mostly, but rising took extra energy.
"Everyone's heard of four-wheel drive roads," I mentioned, "but how many have taken a four-limb climb hike?" Even that didn't do justice to the reality, though. At times I had to use five points of contact - both feet, both hands, and my keister.
We traded off leading and picking routes.
As we drew close to the top, Bill made an artful move across one rock, but I had no confidence in following him. Demurring, I moved down and found another route to bypass it.
Bill kept rising, taking him out of sight as I slowed down. I continued my inexorable rise, looking for good purchases on the rocks. I leveraged my foot against a large rock, pushed myself up - and the rock slipped. Thankfully it stopped after a few inches, but it sapped the rest of my dwindling confidence.
I finally reached a spot ten feet or so below where Bill awaited. However, the slope was loose dirt, with no other good option visible. To get there I'd sit with both buttocks on the ground and the feet as secure as possible. With my hands I'd push myself up a foot, then realign and repeat.
When I finally got to Bill - where the slope now moderated at the top of the draw - he had a surprise for me. "While I was looking down, watching your progress, I heard something behind me. I turned around and saw the bear looking at me from only six feet away. I thought he was going to come over and lick me! I waved my hands and yelled at him, and he shuffled off."
Once we'd reclaimed the rim, over two hours since we'd started up, we stopped at the ranger station to check out from our hike. Don't need them to send a search party for us! To top off our trip, we passed on the short and flat Chasm View Loop trail - our legs had had it! - and instead drove the North Rim Rd to its end, stopping at the various scenic viewpoints
to see other aspects of the canyon. Far below, we could see the Gunnison River, which cut this defile in the plateau.
Nothing about this day matched what I'd expected of this park. That was quite a scramble for two active seniors, certainly, and I doubt either of us would ever consider it again. But we do have a trip to the dunes looming next week, which will also be a workout.
Three parks to go!