“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.” – Ed Abbey
I don’t subscribe to either heaven or hell, but if I had to choose whether to spend eternity hiking uphill or downhill, I’d definitely pick up. Uphill is hard, but downhill is dangerous. Most mountaineering accidents – as many as 80 percent – occur going downhill. Slip going uphill and you risk skinned knees or a busted face, slip going downhill and you risk everything.
This may be one of the big differences between novice hikers and experienced mountaineers: those who know mountains know that going up is the easy part.
Recently I took a hike that highlighted the trials of both up and down: the aptly named SOB Draw from the North Rim of the Black Canyon down to the Gunnison River in western Colorado. This sumbitch of a trail begins on the rim and drops more than 1800 vertical feet straight down into the canyon. The trail isn’t long, less than 4 miles total, but every inch is an all out battle against gravity. Really, it’s a mountain in reverse: down then up.
I didn’t go to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park intending to tackle the SOB Draw. I just wanted to look over the edge. But when I sat at the Exclamation Point overlook and gaped into one of the deepest, darkest, narrowest, canyons in the country, all I could think was: I want to go down there. So I did.
I am a practiced solo mountaineer, but the remote and risky SOB is not a trail I would tackle on my own. Lucky for me, one of my most reliable adventure friends is along for the ride this week: my fellow alligator wrangler, Drew. When I told him I wanted to descend down into that deep, dark canyon he said, “Today?” I said, tomorrow. And he was in. I like people who say yes.
We stopped by the ranger outpost to ask about routes down into the canyon and the rock climber turned park ranger on duty did his best to talk us out of the hike, using words like beastly, gnarly, wicked and chossy, warning us that the trail wasn’t marked or maintained and hard to follow, with paths straying over ledges and cliffs.
“Things get really serious, really fast down there,” he said. A few weeks ago, a man hefting an 80-pound pack stepped wrong off a boulder and snapped his tibia in three places. When he didn’t return as planned, the ranger went looking and found him in shock about 1,300 vertical feet down the canyon, 500 feet above the river. The ranger radioed for a paramedic, who hiked in after dark to administer a morphine drip and the three waited overnight until reinforcements arrived the next morning to carry the injured and, by that time, unconscious hiker out of the canyon. The worst of trips, for all involved.
A big part of a park ranger’s job is to talk people out of doing stupid shit and then to save their asses when they don’t listen. I’m not an amateur adventurer and I wasn’t put off by the ranger’s ominous warnings about the SOB. The only thing that did give us pause was the jungle of poison ivy growing along the lower portion of the draw. Good thing I keep Tecnu in my car camping kit!
We spent the night in the campground on the rim ($12 a night, one of the few times I’ve paid for camping so far this summer). Dogs aren’t allowed on trails at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and I wouldn’t lead mine down there anyway, so after an early morning stroll around the campground, we shut the dogs in the Teardrop for the day with plenty of water. This is one of the best perks about traveling with the trailer: it doesn’t get hot the way the car does. When I want to do something the dogs can’t, the Teardrop doubles as the world’s most luxurious memory-foam-equipped rolling dog-house.
We walked down to the ranger station again to get a free backcountry permit, which helps the rangers keep track of who is in the canyon and when they plan to emerge. We filled out a permit, signed the white board and then hit the trail by 7am. After a short level stretch winding through wildflowers and sagebrush, the trail dropped over the rim, into the abyss.
The Ranger wasn’t exaggerating, the trail was beastly and gnarly and wicked and chossy. There wasn’t really even a trail, just a downslope skid through a slightly shifting jungle gym of car-sized boulders. Descending was a full body workout, and my palms were soon cut to hell from bracing against the abrasive rocks. When the trail wasn’t crossing bare rocks it skittered along on loose gravel with the purchase of ball bearings. The descent was so gnarly that I stowed my camera in my backpack so I could have both my hands free and focus on saving myself, rather than my lens.
A mile and three-quarters may not sound like a lot, but when you’re down-climbing a shifting ladder of boulders, it’s a marathon. And while I was glad to be getting the more dangerous downhill out of the way first, I couldn’t help but measure each step down in terms of the effort it was going to take to climb back up. In this case, as with all canyons, down is optional, up is mandatory.
Eventually, the rim started getting farther away and the river closer. I had been anticipating going for a swim in the Gunnison, but as we dropped down to the boulder-choked banks I realized that what had looked like a pleasantly rolling river from the rim was in fact frenzied white water. The boulders along the edge were smooth and slippery and I couldn’t even find a spot to safely put my feet in the water, without risk of slipping in and being swept away.
While Drew sat and contemplated the canyon, I picked my way downstream, hoping to make my way to a gravel beach at the base of the Painted Wall formation, the highest escarpment in all of Colorado, walking across an unconsolidated jumble of giant rocks, some of which shifted under my relatively meager weight. I hadn’t gone far when I peered down into the space between two boulders and was horrified to see a great yawning cavity big enough to swallow a house, let alone me, directly below where I was standing. I sat down, acquiescing to good sense. This place was dangerous.
But what rocks! The Black Canyon of the Gunnison cuts down through the very basement of the Earth, exposing 1.7 billion year old metamorphic rocks. The boulders underfoot were hazardous, but also beautiful: glittering with sheets of inky black mica and huge pink, red and white crystals. Black Canyon gets its name from its dark vertiginous walls, carved out of towering gneiss and schist, swirled with pegmatite. The rock is so hard the river has only managed to carve itself a narrow channel; in some places the canyon is only 40 feet wide.
Not many people make it down to the Gunnison River and most who do have epic plans for the climb back out: these canyon walls are a mecca for rock climbers. The routes are expert level: minimum three pitches no easier than 5.9. The walls are not bolted so climbers must place their own protection on the way up in the traditional “trad” style. The other big draw for descents down to the Gunnison is the fly fishing. Monster trout thrive in these fast, cold waters.
I could have sat on those boulders all day, watching the rising sun streaming into the canyon, the rays reaching deeper into the dark depths, throwing the ancient rocks into startling bright light.
But we had to climb back out of the canyon sometime. After a snack we headed up, climbing hand over foot. My hands quickly remembered their rock climbing muscle memories, seeking out fingertip grips and strong, satisfying jugs. I didn’t trust the canyon, but I sought to trust the holds under my fingertips. Above me, Drew kept asking if we were on trail and eventually I told him, there’s only one right way out of this canyon: Up.
We kept climbing up the slope, skirting around cliffs and boulders too steep to free climb and dodging the poison ivy, which was plentiful, but mostly avoidable. Moving up was more akin to practicing vertical yoga than anything resembling walking and my arms and shoulders were soon as tired as my legs. The full body burn lit me up and as we got closer to the rim, I went downright giddy, calling the trail by its full name, gleefully cursing the canyon with fierce love. At some point, I declared the SOB one of my all-time favorite hikes.
Five hours after we dropped over the rim, we resurfaced, with tibias intact. We strolled back to the ranger station and triumphantly erased our names from the white board. Next time I’m going rim to rim!