November 29, 2014

Ain’t Life Grand: The Everyman’s Epic


By Dax Myers and Peter Horgan

It began with westward movement (but doesn’t it always?) We had returned from Zion full of stoke and our eyes peeled for our next objective. After some 3.2 PBR induced deliberations in our choice camping spot, perched right at the mouth of Zion’s grandeur, we set our sights on the Black Canyon. It was perfect. Hailing from the Gunnison Valley, what better way to finish off a two-week trip than at our local hometown big walls?

We set out loaded down with oodles of delicious food, every bit of gear we had, and in keeping with the tradition of Ed Webster and the hardmen before us, two 18ers of Tecate. As we stopped to grab firewood, the blaring chorus of Widespread Panic’s “Ain’t Life Grand” came rushing from the cab’s speakers and it started to sink in that soon our perspective would shift to a vertical one as we would attempt to make our way up arguably the world’s most striking and daring canyon walls.

Stoke is high outside Zion NP

Stoke is high outside Zion NP

A couple of hours went by and we arrived at the North Rim ranger station. As with every time one gazes into that deep abyss, time slowed to a halt and you could almost feel gravity’s whispers challenging us. That first glimpse is mind numbing and enigmatic, “an impossible beauty, like a boy’s first sight of an undressed girl, the image of those mountains struck a fundamental chord in my imagination that has sounded ever since.”[1] Perhaps that is why the Black is so special: everything is aimed at going down and when you set your motive against the stone, the only hope is to go up; a race against the sun and day’s end. The initial goal was to try out Casually Off-Route but beers with neighboring climbers in the campground immediately shifted this focus to the Ed Webster classic Escape Artist.

That night, sleep posed as a distant neighbor and our respective slumbering was reduced to tossing and turning in anxious anticipation for what lay ahead. As the first rays shone through the junipers, we scrambled out of our tents and began the breakfast ritual that had become all too familiar in our days on the road together.

As we gathered necessities we paused and deliberated whether or not we should bring a knife along. After jokingly deeming it a “knickknack” we decided to slot the blade in the front pocket of our water supply and soon we were gliding through the rim’s gnarled and scraggly brush with another party that had their sights set on the route immediately to our right.

Looking back, the day was dreamlike. We drifted and pawed at the stone, carefully making our way up in the same trance-like pattern. Soon we were at the Lightning Bolt Ledge, a large down-sloping shelf named for the beautiful and striking crack that jutted up its east facing side. We had two options here, a mungy corner and the aforementioned crack. Feeling quite fatigued at this point, we decided to climb straight into the corner and up to the summit slabs above.

Pete belaying from the start of the Vector Traverse.

Pete belaying from the start of the Vector Traverse.

Pete racked up and started to make the initial moves of the final pitch. The route was well within our grasp and soon triumph, in the form of a cold Tecate would be ours. Without notice, “OH SHIT!” echoed off the canyon walls and just like that, smiles and victory dissipated. One thing was clear: Pete was in pain. He had weighted what looked like a bomber jug, and ended up peeling a large microwave- sized chunk out of the wall. As this block pulled, so did the gear in the crack and gravity did the rest. Pete swung down nearly to the belay and took the brunt of that falling block on his left kneecap. Not being trained in any medical capacity, my only question was, “Do you think it’s broken?” With no options, I proceeded to lower him in the midst of a storm of colorful obscenities that he seemed to be making up on the spot. We contemplated the seriousness of our situation and we were confronted with two choices: we could stay where we were, or we could begin a perilous and risky trip down the wall to the floor of the canyon and proceed to hike out the way we came in; going up was simply no longer an option. The time was nearing 5 and we had to make a decision. Down. We attached several slings so as to extend the anchor as far as it would go and then, with a final look at our highpoint, retreated into the abyss.

Upon reaching the first ledge we debated whether to continue or wait for rescue. The ledge was large enough to fit both of us comfortably but realistically the decision had already been made. At this point, we were off route, so we had to keep going. The formula was simple: find a point and lower ourselves to it. Along with that we simply had to hope that along the way there were enough cracks to support our gear. The hypothetical simplicity sounded perfect, but on multiple rappels we were disproved. Two raps in we found ourselves nestled in a shallow alcove, seemingly hovering hundreds of feet up when disaster decided to strike, again. As we were pulling our rope it got stuck in the crack system above us. Several minutes of yanking and pulling yielded no result. As our spirits were sinking, Pete reached into the bag and retrieved his knife. With a careful swipe, our rope came tumbling down to our ledge and we were able to continue our journey downward, both enthusiastically praising the wisdom of our former selves for packing such a crucially instrumental item with no motive of ever really “needing” it. The rhetorical hypotheticals rang through our minds. “What if we wouldn’t have brought this?” “Odds are we would still be up there, spooning to keep warm…”

Again, the formulaic simplicity of our plan was challenged. Pete got to the end of the rope and not a single crack or feature was in sight to build a proper anchor. It seemed our luck had ended when Pete spotted cracks roughly 15 feet to his right and made his best effort to swing himself over. All I could do was cringe helplessly at this spectacle of raw human determination; amidst what I’m sure was harrowing pain, he managed to arrive at these cracks and safely position himself on another protrusion that allowed for a stance. It seemed to be yet another gift of luck from that ancient place.

After roughly five hours and several rappels later we were standing with our feet on the ground at the bottom of the canyon. Ignoring the fact that we needed to still go up 1500 vertical feet in three-quarters of a mile, we allowed some celebration. Regardless of what happened now, we at least got ourselves out of the dire situation of being stranded on the wall. I’ll admit it wasn’t pretty as we had a slew of gear still in the wall but the feeling of having our feet on solid ground was indescribable. I led and gathered reconnaissance on the proper way out while Pete edged his way up, maintaining rigidity in his left leg as we gained elevation. The pain must have been unimaginable and Pete’s resilience is still a product of inspiration for me. We cautiously meandered up, thrashing through briar bushes, poison ivy, and dead trees of varying designations. This was made much more challenging due to a dying headlamp and that overwhelming blackness of the inner canyon when the sun departs. Headlamp or not we were set on making it.

Finally, I was able to see headlamps and hear voices on the upper echelons of the canyon rim. As Pete struggled to make his way through a particularly nasty patch of thicket, I yelled and flashed my light. Miraculously, Ryan the Ranger appeared with the two climbers that we started our day with. They heard the rock fall and after night fell, deduced that we were in disarray. A half hour raced by and after Ryan had meticulously examined Pete’s knee, he determined that though the impact was localized and intense, it would be Pete’s choice on whether he would want to walk or be helped out. To Pete, there was only one option and as a group, we proceed to slog up the gully. Soon enough, the pitch lessened and we were moving amongst the rim junipers that we had so easily glided through before this mess. Though traumatized, I have seldom felt more victorious. The flashing berry colored lights at the ranger station represented a finish line, though our journey wasn’t over yet.

After a visit to the hospital and a 3am check-in to a hotel in Delta, hugs, laughs, and many Tecates were enjoyed. Despite the late hours, my mind raced and rushed in a silent recognition of the day before, a memory that seemed to occur a lifetime ago. We gathered wood as that cadence blared from those speakers and as that memory pervaded my senses I came to quite the realization: despite the lost gear, the broken bones and the terrifying retreat, it became clear that all of that was a privilege to those who put themselves out there. Sure we ultimately failed on our objective but that did not change the fact that life is pretty fucking grand, indeed.

[1] Edward Abbey, The Journey Home (New York: Penguin, 1977).


About the Author

1. Ed Dujardin
After moving out west for college, Ed took summer school so he could spend winters in Crested Butte. These days, he coaches the Western State Colorado University Freeride Team, and spends as much time as he can fishing the incredible rivers of the area.