Monday, July 9, 2012

Descent Into The Black Canyon

Saturday, my friend Nori and I drove out of the rain in Ouray and Ridgway heading for sunnier climes: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison river, just east of Montrose, Colorado, appeared to be warm and sunny.  It was a fine goal.  I flashed my Golden Age Passport at the park entrance station (I always hated the name Golden Age; who thinks up these things???)  Nori asked Maureen at the information desk to suggest a hike.  The normal trails seemed to ramble through the scrub oak.  We wanted to descend into the canyon.  This involved getting a "Wilderness Permit" just to scramble to the bottom.  Hmmmm!  Maureen described the descent in excruciating detail and made us sign the permit that we would be our own rescue team, wouldn't steal from the park, etc.  Then we headed down the route...not a trail, according to the Park.

 Nori peeks over the edge and starts down

It coursed for a few hundred yards through the scrub oak, then dropped precipitously through the Douglas fir trees into an 1,800-foot scree and boulder pile straight to the Gunnison River.  As we scrambled, signs warned us to go no further without the required permit.  Hmmm!  We had the permit.
 The Black Canyon opens in full splendor

My daughter Daphne had given me a Sony Bloggie camera for father's day.  I became a nuisance to Nori stopping often to capture a scene.  To a rock and mountain climber, this is heaven. Huge rock walls composed of pre-Cambrian gneiss and schist.  Threading through the rock were enormous seams of lighter pegmatite containing giant crystals of quartz, feldspar, and mica snaking through the darker bedrock.  As we hiked, we spotted large chunks of white quarts lying among the dark schist.  
 We spy the river below

Nori was having a blast, being careful and admiring the National Park's scenic wonders.  She made the obligatory complaints that this was hard and scary, but continued down undaunted.  About a third of the way down the "trail" drops precipitously for about a hundred feet, and the park service has graciously affixed a logging chain to a tree for a handhold.  I wished they had spent their effort making a short switchback here to prevent the erosion and increase the safety.  Down we slithered.
 The dreaded chain down the nearly vertical dirt and rocks

Looking across at the cliffs on the other side we gauged our progress in thirds.  It was a furnace with little cloud cover, so we stopped at each third and drank from our water bottles.   The Black Canyon is a popular venue for rock climbers, but the routes are extremely difficult, so only the very skilled climbers venture down to the bottom.  It is the opposite of mountain climbing where a climber ascends the mountain, then descends on a rope.  Here the climbers descend gullies and rappel on the ropes, then climb out to the canyon rim.
 Half way down, we look across at the sheer rock walls

The dirt and bushes turned to scree hanging on the angle of repose.  We carefully placed out feet on the larger rocks to avoid dislodging them and sending a rockslide down the gully onto others.  These rocks are old, metamorphic rock, created in a molten state about 1.7 billion years ago making them some of the oldest rock in the country.   About 70 to 40 million years ago, the entire area was part of the Laramide uplift.  Somewhere around 26 million years ago huge volcanoes drenched the landscape in deep lava.  
 The route angle lessens near the bottom

Then, as recently as 2 to 3 million years ago, the region uplifted again, and the west-flowing Gunnison river quickly cut a channel down to the old bedrock.  Currently it is eroding down at a rate of  one inch per hundred years.  Extremely quickly in geologic time.  It is the 5th steepest river in North America, with an average drop of 34 feet per mile.  We could see the rapids everywhere.
 Nori descending

Once at the river, the scenery changed: willows, alders, a few pines, grass, and poison ivy abound.  
Maureen in the Visitor Center had warned us not to drink the water or swim in in: too cold!  Hmmmmmm!  It looked fine to me.  The only reason I didn't jump is was because two fishermen were trying to catch the wily trout.  Being from Alaska this looked and felt like the tropics.
 The Gunnison River

We took a tour downstream and talked to a young couple who were working in North Park (north of the famous South Park!) at a National Wildlife Refuge.  Everyone we met was happy...almost.  I think a girlfriend talked her boyfriend into it, and he was no so gleeful.
 The happy camper at the bottom

We found shade under a tamarisk and ate some nuts and raisins, gulped more water, and prepared for the climb out.  We were surrounded by high canyon walls, and the only exit was the way we had descended.  We bet it was faster and easier to climb up frontwards than to climb down facing out.  Hmmmm!
 Looking up about 2,000 feet to the north 

It was quite a feast for the eyes.  A few vultures flew ominously overhead.  I scouted out climbing routes and thought about bringing a fishing rod next time.  Although I didn't see anyone actually catch a fish, I know there are big brown trout in the river.
 Elegant towers loom over us

The climb out was easier, but tiring.  We looked up and saw huge storm clouds, the ones that were raining on me in Ouray in the morning when we left.  Up past the scree, up through the steep ravines, past the chain, and finally onto the final stretch to the visitor center to turn in our permit, proving that we had not been swallowed by the chasm.  
The lunch spot on a log at the river

One more hike off the bucket list!  It had been a fine day, and we had 'cheated death once more'.