A Rumble in the Black


Jack Cody follows the crux second pitch of “Qualgeist” (5.12c) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The chockstone described in the story can be seen in the chimney below.

Falling asleep, I still see the great orange spark and feel the dull, reverberating thud of the huge boulder striking the ledge below me in the dark.

Hours before I sent that boulder crashing down, I was turning a question over in my mind. “How much risk is a climb worth?” I wondered as I scrambled up 400 feet of bushy, sunbaked slab to the base of a route called “Qualgeist,” which the guidebook rated 5.12b (turns out it’s lost holds and is more like 12+ these days).

A couple weeks earlier, my partner, Jack Cody, and I scrambled up the same approach to do another route called “Trilogy,” which the guidebook rated 5.12a R. We had our headlamps and were prepared to get scared and top out in the dark. Except for a brief rainstorm that soaked Jack as he led the runout first pitch, we onsighted the route with hardly a twitch of fear and with ample daylight to spare. “Qualgeist” seemed like a logical progression.

As before, we tiptoed around loose blocks, scrub oaks and cactus, traversing a long ledge until we could climb up a gully. Jack made the same mistake as last time by climbing straight up too early, which put him on 5.8 terrain without a rope, while I traversed a bit more and got into a low-angled chimney that was more secure. Sweat dripped from my nose and the rope coiled on my back threatened to trip me up with a moment on inattention.

The sun was relentless and I hoped we might find a spot of shade at the base of the climb. There was almost none to be had. We continued scrambling past the start of “Qualgeist” to reach a tiny alcove of reprieve inside the bottom of Ament’s Chimney – a huge gash that splits the entire wall in two. At its bottom where we huddled, the gash was only 4 feet wide. A great boulder was lodged above us. I could see where it had broken off from the left wall not far above. I wondered how long it would stay there, and contemplated how we were basically sitting at the end of a gigantic funnel.

I don’t consider myself a reckless person. There was a time in my early 20s when I was willing to die for a rock climb, but these days I’m very disinclined to risk more than I have to. For example, when I’m sport climbing, I often stick clip the high first bolts on warm-ups I’ve done many times. Why risk a bad fall when I don’t have to? But there is something about big, scary climbs that attracts me. If I were so adverse to risk, I would stick to sport climbing.

At last the crux second pitch – an overhanging pegmatite arête on the right side of Ament’s Chimney – was in shade. Jack and I downclimbed to the start, which was still in the sun. He opted to go shirtless in the heat as he led the first pitch, battling a barrel cactus and pricker bush to gain a bulging crack. By then I’d already consumed half of my only liter of water. A liter had been perfectly adequate on all our other climbs, but this day was a different animal. Standing in the dry, yellow cheat grass belaying Jack, I tried to tamp down the growing nerves by focusing only on each problem at hand.

Why was I even there? Why was I attracted to climb a hard route in the Black in June instead of hanging out in a shady limestone cave? Because the big routes are where I find what I’m really made of; they require an entirely different level of savvy that involves long-term strategy and resourcefulness as well as brute toughness. For me, the big walls are where it all comes together, and when I have the right partner, the right weather and the right fitness, that’s when the risk seems more worth it. It’s a thin line, though.

Due to the serious climbing, Jack took almost an hour to lead the first pitch – an eternity by our standards. Then I launched into the crux pitch and fought hard, trying to onsight a weird boulder problem, only to pop off when I was nearly through it. I took a 25-footer with a backpack on and found myself hanging in space just above the belay. It was my first fall in the Black. Jack lowered me so I could rest and try again. I tried not to think about how much time we’d already lost, and the fact that I might have to lead a 5.11+ finger crack on pitch 6 in the dark.

I failed on my second attempt at the crux. The game changed from trying to send to just getting up the route safely. I was out of water and my body was drained by the time I reached the belay. And we were committed. Even if we managed to rappel off the overhanging wall with a 70-meter rope, we would still have to claw our way out of the canyon.

Jack sets off on pitch 3 of "Qualgeist."

Jack sets off on pitch 3 of “Qualgeist.”

The entire route turned out to have so much wandering, runout face climbing that every pitch took about 45 minutes to lead. All the little efficiencies started to matter, such as racking gear in an organized fashion while cleaning a pitch, keeping the roped flaked well, and not using extra time to take shoes on or off. The 5.11 finger crack above weighed on my mind with everything I did; I had to recover well enough to be strong for the lead and I hoped to make up some time while following pitches so that I might have a little daylight.

The strategy worked, just barely. I onsighted the crux of pitch 6 but it was too dark to see inside the crack by the time I reached the last bit of 5.10. I realized with dismay that it was impossible to evaluate my gear placements inside the incipient crack. It was fortunate that I was at a good stance when I realized this, because I’d forgotten to put on my headlamp before I left the belay. In a bit of circus trickery, I contorted out of my backpack, found my torch and mounted it on the helmet.

The full moon was rising when I reached the belay ledge. It was almost 10 p.m. and I was still sweating, bare-footed in my T-shirt. I switched off the torch and belayed Jack in silent awe, watching moonbeams paint the canyon silver. It was Friday the 13th and I contemplated the horoscope I read that morning: “Retrograde planets will affect our perception of good fortune, wrapping it in strange packages, but for the most part, this Friday the 13th will be as lucky as the fortuitous lunar phase it falls on. Stay focused on the bottom line. Top lines will dance, swerve and distract. Let them move as they will while you stay fixed on what really matters.”

In spite of my thirsty cottonmouth, I was thrilled to be where I was. I suppose that’s another thing that makes the risk of big climbs seem worth it – it’s like experiencing a rare and distant world. You might say I feel closer to God in these places.

When Jack reached my belay we started to celebrate a little early. We only had one “5.8” squeeze chimney to the top. He racked up and started monkeying up a blocky corner on the left side of the belay ledge.

“Things didn’t go exactly to plan, but it’s been great having such a good partner and feeling like we can handle whatever comes up,” I said.


Jack had been smiling and guffawing with me at that moment when he suddenly stepped back off the block he was climbing.

“I almost lost my arms,” he said. “That block started falling out towards me as I was barely pulling on it.”

Sure enough, when it was my turn to climb, I discovered he wasn’t exaggerating. The 7-foot-tall boulder looked stable enough, yet it was highly sensitive and squarely in the way of the climbing. It was a time bomb. I stood above it, thinking. It was 10 o’clock on a weekday in June: no one was down below. I nudged the domino with my right foot and it toppled over like a felled pine, striking the ledge in a yellow spark.

The rock teetered on edge for the slightest moment then slid into the void of Ament’s Chimney. I held my breath, straining to hear the distant impact. There was a CRASH and a long pause. I thought it was over. Then there was a cascade of explosions bellowing from the depths, as if an ancient castle were caving in.

That’s the sound that haunts me, for I can only imagine all the destruction triggered by one simple action. I remember that wedged boulder that was above us in the chimney when we started, and wonder if it’s still there. Then I wonder, how much risk is any climb worth?

Derek Franz writes this blog for SplitterChoss.com on the first Monday of every month.

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