In 2004 Jonny Copp and I drove into the north rim of the Black Canyon of
the Gunnison under a starry sky like bullet holes through a chalkboard.
Jonny nonchalantly attempted to talk me into Stratosfear, a
twenty-nine-pitch X-rated climb on the Painted Wall. It would be only my
second route in the canyon and our first time climbing together.
“Sounds cool,” I lied.
“Of course,” Jonny continued, “We could always do a first ascent
“If I am going to climb something big and scary,” I replied, “it might
as well be a new line.”
It was agreed. We approached down the winding SOB gully, our objective
the west face of Gothic Pillar, by a line he’d spied a couple of seasons
ago. My excitement heightened as Jonny talked of its “big roofs” and
three, large pegmatite daggers. After 300 feet of fifth-class scrambling
and traversing, we finally cliffed out and had to tie off small blocks
and meager saplings to rappel into the notch below the face. On the
second rap, a titanic block cut loose and steamrolled down the gully,
hitting the lip and catching air for a brief moment, then barrelling
into the river. The sleeping fishermen we’d tiptoed past that morning
must have appreciated this exploding alarm clock. Once at the base we
looked up and realized that another, direct gully was shorter and
probably as casual as the drive in. The quickest path between two points
usually IS a straight line.
We started up a low-angle buttress that quickly kicked into a thin,
precarious slab and dropped us at the base of the first of many splitter
dihedrals. I hid under a bulge while Jonny slid past a teetering tower
of blocks as tall as he was.
The next lead was mine–the first and most prominent roof. As I entered
the hollowed chamber beneath it, the sky and ground disappeared. I no
longer could tell which way was up, only “out.” I was inside a granite
box. Above, the gully remained narrow–barely a few hundred feet to the
west wall. I reached for the first jam and it was solid, deep hands.
Perfect. Twelve feet later, when I pulled the lip, I trembled and
fumbled with every piece of gear I wedged into the scaly, bone-white
rock. But my confidence grew as I continued on the flaring thin-hands
corner above, particles of granola-like rock crunching and releasing
beneath my rubber soles. At a good anchor stance, I glanced over my
shoulder to the inner canyon. The sky had turned as black as the horses
I’d seen on the way in; the wind reared, and an ominous rumble sounded
on the horizon. Jonny arrived and we quickly escaped our line, sprinting
to the car amid thunder and laughter.
Jonny took off for Alaska, and I headed home to Missouri, but we
promised to return at our next opportunity. This chance didn’t happen
until two years later, although the Gothic was often on my mind. The
scrappy riverside limestone in my home state offered the perfect
training for it.
This time the weather was reported to be splitter. The approach (via the
direct gully) and the roof went much more smoothly, and my confidence in
the pegmatite cracks was confirmed.
At the next belay, a white dust collected in my lap, like small shooting
stars, from the roofs above. I pretended not to notice the incoming
snow; maybe we could sneak by without the weather knowing we were there.
Jonny struggled with a “cruxy roof magic trick” above, down climbing to
an alcove as he figured out the moves.
After watching a few attempts, I said, “Um, Jonny? Is the gear good?” I
tried to sound relaxed.
“Yeah” he replied, but I wasn’t sure I believed him. “Good” is a fairly
relative term. “Go for it then. We gotta move, bro.” Jonny nodded,
smiled his Cheshire-Cat smile, said “thanks,” then busted through the
wild pegmatite roof with a small grunt.
I followed the pitch admiring various sections of offwidth, perfect
hands, a clean slab, and eventually the broken roof. The stone looked as
though it had been burning in a fire for the past hundred years,
scalloped and fire red.
We sped up the remaining 700 feet of perfect, highly featured rock,
connecting clean faces, deep cracks and sharp dihedrals. The white stuff
came and went, and we summited in a heavenly orange and violet sunset.
On our initial attempt, I’d just returned from Rome, where I’d seen
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting for the first time. Inspired by
the ceilings on the route, we titled our own masterpiece “Sistine
Reality” (IV 5.11+, no bolts, no pins, no lassoes, no big whoop).
If the Black is an untamed, wild horse, Jonny is surely one if its
finest veteran wranglers.
–Jeremy Collins, Lee’s Summit, Missouri