The black-and-white photograph is small and square, half a century old, showing my grandmother posing in front of the dark, mysterious walls of the Black Canyon. As I study the image, I quickly realize that she is witnessing a time period in 1961 when there is not a single documented rock climb of any significance in a fifteen-mile stretch of vertical wilderness. She is looking at the largest cliffs in Colorado, and they are still completely untouched.
The author’s grandmother, Dotty Zeilman at the South Rim of the Black Canyon in 1961. Photo: Zeilman family collection.
The vintage photo takes me by surprise. It is indeed my grandma, frozen in time, preserved in faded ink. She is twentysomething, very pregnant, standing with (what has to be) my toddler of an uncle and unborn father at one of the overlooks at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Western Colorado. This is my home turf. I would recognize it anywhere.
I’m sitting cross-legged on the carpet with a half-empty, lukewarm beer, thumbing through boxes of old photo albums. The June heat in rural Ohio is oppressive, and for miles around me in every direction, vast fields of corn and other crops extend to the horizon line, as far as the eye can see. We have traveled from across the country to say good-bye to my grandmother, the matriarch of our family. She is sick, and this time it doesn’t look like she will be getting better. Sadness hangs in the air as thick as the Midwestern humidity.
I examine the photograph again. Printed on the right edge is the date AUG – 61. I knew that my grandparents had lived in the Gunnison Valley in 1961, when my grandfather worked for a brief stint as an art professor at Western State College. I remember hearing about his stories of Gunnison back in the day, when they might change the price of gasoline for those with out-of-state plates on their cars. The town epitomized an East Coast perception of the Wild West. There were ranchers, rodeos, and saloon-style buildings on the downtown main street, the same piece of earth that infamous cowboys, outlaws, and lawmen had once passed over.
An aerial shot of The Black Canyon. Photo: Vic Zeilman
An ambitious railroad and prosperous mining industry had long ago seen boom and bust, and an eclectic mountain culture of adventurers, dreamers, and artists was taking root. The pristine waters of the Gunnison River had not yet been dammed, creating what is now Blue Mesa Reservoir. There was no ski area in Crested Butte. No one was mountain biking. This was a cold, isolated cow town in the Colorado boonies, and Black Canyon National Monument was on few people’s radar.
I think about the past three years, how I have been working diligently on a new climbing guidebook for the Black Canyon, and now this photo seems to strike a chord somewhere deep. It is hard evidence of a family connection to this inspirational place, decades before I would ever lay eyes on it myself, or stand at the bottom of those massive cliffs that would ultimately change the course of my life forever.
I lean backward on the carpet, stretching my legs, and sip the dregs of the bottle. I wonder whether I would have discovered the Black Canyon in the same way if my grandparents had never been in Gunnison. Would I have eventually stumbled across this place, which means so much to me now, if some shallow roots had never been planted there decades before I was even born? I have always believed that so many events in life seem to have a strange way of coming full circle. Like portions of our history are written for us before we ever take our first breaths.
The author of Diagonal Will. Photo: Jonathan Schaffer
Most climbers only know the Black Canyon by its frightful and unwelcoming reputation—an intimidating big wall climbing venue, alpine in nature, with stiff ratings, traditional ethics, and terrain challenges that are as unique as the landscape itself. Chossy rock as old as time, marred by thick bands of loose pegmatite, steep approach drainages filled with poison ivy thickets, vampire-like ticks, chupacabras, and god knows what else. Death-defying runouts, bushy cracks, hellish heat, and a phenomenon that only happens in the vicinity of the Gunnison River—regardless of the time you start climbing, you will finish in the dark, guaranteed. The lucky few that escape the canyon’s clutches each year will spread the word and warn the others. At least that was my impression of the place when I first heard about it years ago as an impressionable and novice climber.
Like any good big-fish story, the epic tales of the Black only seem to get better with time. Yarns are slowly spun into the finest and most colorful of recollections, best delivered around a campfire or postclimb cocktail hour. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that climbing in the canyon is easy, or always safe for that matter. It’s not. However, the Black is much more than the sum of its stereotypes. There is something for everyone, regardless of his or her ability. Oftentimes, it feels as if the canyon is a living entity, pulsing with an energy that is fluid and ever changing. It can be beautiful and awe inspiring, yet fickle and wickedly moody. But I have learned, like many others, that if you approach your climb with humility and respect, the canyon is inclined to grant you safe passage. As human beings, we are often intimidated by things we don’t understand and have yet to experience, especially if those things have reputations that are larger than life. Such is the case with the Black Canyon.
I still remember the first time I drove down that dirt road to the North Rim, weaving between deep potholes and gawking mule deer, staring dully with sleepy eyes. I had just turned twenty-one, and my friend Abe and I had been enthralled with the idea of climbing in the Black ever since we both transferred to Western State College a few months earlier. The objective was Escape Artist (III 5.9+), a standard introductory climb that was serious enough to make my palms sweat throughout the long, winding drive from Gunnison. The night before had been restless, followed by an unnecessary predawn departure from campus.
As a young, inexperienced climber, I let the nervous butterfly sensation in the pit of my stomach trump the obvious need for a breakfast meal. I filled this empty hole with cup after cup of black coffee from a large, dented thermos, occasionally interrupting my rhythmic consumption of caffeine to roll another cigarette. Blowing wispy smoke through the cracked passenger window, we negotiated the hairpin turns on Highway 92. Arriving on the North Rim at last, we racked up in the empty gravel parking lot at the ranger station. It was a chilly, midweek morning in the early fall, and the sun was just cresting the canyon rim.
The walls of the Black Canyon had loomed so large in my imagination that when I actually stood at the base of the Comic Relief Buttress for the first time, I had the naïveté to think, That’s it? It’s so short.
Partway through the second pitch of Escape Artist—a long, left-leaning traverse with mind-bending exposure—I had changed my tune…and I was trying hard not to have to change my skivvies. The uncomfortable mixture of fear, bitter coffee, and vertigo had churned my empty gut in knots. Clawing my way back to the rim many hours later, I knew I was hooked. My eyes had been opened to the possibilities of this wild place. It reminded me of the East Coast climbing areas where I had cut my teeth leading trad—Linville Gorge, Looking Glass, Rumbling Bald—but on a much grander scale, raw and untamed. From that day forward, the Black Canyon would exhibit a gravitational pull on my being. It was the beginning of a complex love-hate relationship that will surely last until the day I leave this world.
Once again examining the details of my grandmother’s photo, I imagine what the National Park, then a National Monument, must have looked like fifty-something years ago. What would it have been like to know that every stretch of wall you examined was literally unclimbed? I wondered if my grandparents even thought about the possibility of rock climbing on those sheer cliff faces—some of the tallest in the country, in fact—when they were first introduced to them in 1961. There were certainly others just beginning to recognize its vast, untapped potential.
Layton Kor arrived on the scene in the early 1960s and took the Black Canyon by storm. Along with a small group of climbing partners, he managed to scale nearly every major formation by the end of the decade, hungry to establish Colorado’s first Grade VI rock climb. Generally speaking, these were extensive aid endeavors that focused on prominent crack systems on virgin walls. The 1970s saw a shift in tactics, moving away from aid climbing to refocus efforts on free climbing old and new lines alike. The 1980s built on this momentum, producing some of the hardest climbs anywhere in the United States at that time. By the 1990s, the bar had been set high in the Black with many serious Grade V routes that embraced the staunch, old-school ethic of ground-up ascents with minimal bolting. Everyone knew that climbing in the canyon was the real deal. It wasn’t for everyone. In those days, route information was limited, unconsolidated, and often spread by word of mouth. It was well understood that you were on your own once you stumbled into that ditch.
The new millennium brought with it a new guidebook and the inception of climbing websites dedicated to route beta. People got better at rock climbing. Cams got bigger, smaller, and lighter—able to protect a vast array of crack sizes. Rubber got stickier, and ropes got longer. In short, a new generation of climbers was becoming more confident in their skills. Climbing in the Black Canyon was now obtainable for a greater demographic. By the time I discovered it for myself, I was disappointed to hear from some of the old guard that the Black had simply lost some of its magic. It would never be the same, and forty years of route development had surely left the walls more or less explored. The Golden Age of splitter lines on virgin buttresses was a thing of the past. At least, that was my impression of the situation when I finally made it back to Western Colorado and took a job working at the Black—forty-eight years after my grandparents first visited the South Rim.
Sometimes the things we accept as truth are not really true at all. It’s just a matter of perspective, and once that vantage point has shifted, bringing with it all the clarity you previously lacked, you can never view the world through the same lens again. Even if you wanted to.
I had been at the Black Canyon for nearly two years when I first laid eyes on the cluster of buttresses sitting across from the Painted Wall to the south. I was almost certain there were no more formations of that size left in the park that had not been climbed, but low and behold, here they were. The collection of walls that would later be known as the Dark Star Buttress and Shadowlands Towers shimmered in the late-summer heat like an unclaimed treasure. My vantage point had shifted, and the Black had tipped its hand, displaying the magic that I had always known to be present.
Of course, the canyon proves magical in different ways to different people. I am sure that my grandparents must have experienced this sensation in some way because August of 1961 is not the only time they visited the National Monument. I think about the circumstances that brought me back to Western Colorado, to be so fortunate to stake a claim and make a living in a place that affected me so deeply as a college student. I felt the magic back then and was incapable of dismissing it.
Finding a new passage up an untouched, unnamed, and unknown formation was the one intimate experience with the Black Canyon that I had been longing for since I returned to Western Colorado in the summer of 2009. I knew that with enough time and effort I could put up a new route in the Black, but to stumble across an entire area like Cedar Point Gully surpassed my greatest expectations. After months of recon, slogging up and down gullies, jugging lines, and determining an approach, my good friend Ryan Rees and I racked up in the empty parking lot at Cedar Point. It was a cold midweek morning in the late fall of 2011, and the sun was beginning to crest the canyon rim—just as it had on my first trip to the Black.
Although I was now a more seasoned climber, the sense of excitement and nervousness that I felt was as fresh as the first time I ever set foot in the canyon. The feeling of commitment built with each wobbly step down that god-forsaken drainage of loose rock and ivy. Unlike my initial trip to the Black, when I held a crinkled photocopy of the Escape Artist topo in my hand, Rees and I now stood at the base of a colossal blank canvas holding nothing more than an arsenal of gear, pins, bolts, and a hammer…and a hope and a prayer that we were tough enough to make it to the top.
Over the years, I have found that first ascents bring out the best in my climbing. Maybe it’s the fact that you don’t know whether something should be “too hard” or “too scary” for you to lead, or maybe it’s the comfort of knowing that you can always pound a piton or drill a bolt if things get hairy. It requires an ability to read the rock and listen to your instincts, often swallowing your fear and tackling the steeper, cleaner, and more intimidating features rather than an easier, subpar path. Whatever the case may be, climbing new routes in the Black forces me to rise to the occasion, like it or not. That October day would prove to be no different.
Reminiscent of my first climb in the canyon, once again it was the second pitch of this brand-new line that had my gut in knots. Perched in a terrifying limbo, fifteen feet out from my last bomber piece in a string of marginal pro, I shifted my weight precariously on sloping footholds, endlessly hand-drilling a one-and-a-half-inch bolt hole in ancient stone. Tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap
. Rest. Forehead pressed against the wall, sweat stinging my eyes, calves screaming in pain, with nothing but a Zen-like focus and a girth-hitched runner around a three-eighths-inch drill bit (seated a mere half inch into the rock) protecting me from a lengthy plunge, one that I most definitely did not want to take. Some of the longest minutes of my entire life eventually gave way to upward progress.
Now five hundred feet up our new climb, with twice as much terrain between us and the rim, we began to feel the flow, moving up the wall in a steady and confident fashion. As one beautiful feature led to another, the wall appeared to relent, showing signs of weakness. We scanned the horizon for safe passage like worried sailors navigating a cove of treacherous reefs. As the sun began to set downriver of the Painted Wall, Rees blasted through the final pitches, leading up the headwall to the railing overlook at Dragon Point. In the thick, inky blackness, we sat by the well-worn tourist trail at the brink of the abyss—ecstatic, exhausted, and relieved beyond measure. Content to simply stare at the blanket of stars in the night sky above, I soaked in every last bit of magic left in such an unforgettable day.
In astronomical terms, at least theoretically speaking, a “dark star” is a virtually invisible star, composed of dark matter particles with a gravitational pull that is strong enough to trap light—to remain hidden, enigmatic, mysterious, powerful. For me, the first ascent of Dark Star was like the discovery of such an elusive celestial form—somehow hidden in plain view for so many decades. Who in this day and age still gets to explore anything on this vast planet that has not already been seen, touched, or meticulously documented?
Sprawled out on the carpet, mind in a surreal daze, I think about my own life, my family, my home, now seven seasons into working at the Black, with my own son on the way. I realize that one of the things that strikes me so deeply about this picture is that my wife, Heather, had just recently posed with our unborn child at one of the overlooks on the South Rim, over half a century after my grandmother stood in that nearly identical spot. I imagine the vivid experiences I’ve had in the Black Canyon bookended between these two memorable family photos.
The Black is and always will be a special place for me. I’ve climbed more pitches in that gorge than anywhere else in the country, probably combined—surely an anomaly of sorts within the climbing world. I’ve trekked through dizzying heat, thunderstorms, and snow literally hundreds of times to reach the bottom. I’ve slept next to the river, fished, and floated portions of its waters. I’ve seen bear, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, elk, mountain lion, bobcat, and river otter. It’s where I asked my wife to marry me. Cedar Point at sunset. A picnic with wine, the four-word question delivered through quivering vocal chords, and the much-anticipated “yes.” An engagement ring of silver and turquoise, and a commitment for a lifetime.
The Black is where I’ve developed some of my greatest friendships, my fondest memories, and have experienced the camaraderie of the rope a thousand times over. I’ve climbed in the canyon in every month of the year, conquered some of my proudest objectives, my hardest leads, my most intense moments. I’ve been scared out of my wits, euphoric, electrified…but always astounded, time and time again. These were things that my grandmother never could have known when she posed at that overlook so many decades ago.
That morning in Ohio, I had shown my grandma the rough draft of the Black Canyon guidebook, which I had just recently completed. In her weak state, she did her best to study the content and ask questions, but I knew how difficult it was for her to process the information. The sadness that I felt was overwhelming. I had many fans along the way, but she was one of the biggest. To be able to show her the end result of what I had been striving for, for so many years now, was a special moment. I knew that when I stepped foot on that plane back to Colorado, I would never see her again. At least not in this lifetime.
I put the empty bottle on the stone hearth of the fireplace and slip the small, square photo into my shirt pocket. Tomorrow I’m heading home, back to Colorado, back to my own family, and back to the Black Canyon.
As I board the jetliner bound for a layover in some middle-of-America city, I place the black-and-white image between the pages of my completed draft of the guidebook. It is the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one, like a bookmark between the written and unwritten pages of my life. I am once again reminded that so many events in life seem to have a strange way of coming full circle. I doubt my grandparents truly understood what their trip to the Black Canyon in 1961 would mean someday. But I do, and so will my son.
Vic Zeilman is a Climbing Ranger at the Black Canyon. He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and one-year-old son, Finn. He can usually be found on the North Rim, trying to tick off obscure desert towers in the Colorado Plateau, nerding out on climbing history, or planning a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra. His new guidebook—The Black. A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—is available in select gear shops nationwide.
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