Anything but a Cruise

By Bill Wright (
Written June 1998; Climb date 5/30/98

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The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the steepest canyon in the world. Over 2000 feet deep and only 1600 feet across at one point. It is also home to Colorado's longest climbs. With a reputation for serious, scary, runout, loose climbs, it doesn't attract hordes of climbers.

The ubiquitous Layton Kor was an early pioneer of routes here in the 1960's and put up perhaps his best Black Canyon route in 1964 on the sheer face of North Chasm View Wall. Kor compared the route with the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel Rock, an undisputed Yosemite classic. In 1976 Earl Wiggins and Jimmy Dunn did the first free ascent and renamed the route "The Cruise." The route went clean at 5.10+, but involved 300 feet of fist and offwidth climbing. Ed Webster and Joe Kaelin found the variation around this thuggish section in 1979 and called it "The Scenic Cruise." This would become the most highly sought route in the Black Canyon. Years later the irrepressible Derek Hersey would solo this route and two others in under 7 hours.

The Scenic Cruise had been on my hit list for a long time. It had everything: length, cracks, face, adventure, tremendous position, and, best of all for me, it was a Kor route. On my first trip to the Black Canyon I went with Lord Slime and, having already climbed the Scenic Cruise, had his sights set on Journey Home. Journey Home is rated 5.10c and only 7 pitches long, but it took us quite awhile and was all I could handle. This experience gave me second thoughts about handling the 15 pitch, 5.10d Scenic Cruise, but at least I knew where it was and how to reach it if I ever got good enough and brave enough.

My next trip to the Black Canyon was with the indomitable Loobster. We had our sights set on smaller fish: the Leisure Route. I wasn't ready to tackle the Scenic Cruise and I knew it. As it happened snow fell that night and we didn't even venture down into the forbidding ditch. We headed for home feeling actually more relieved than disappointed.

Then last Fall Wayne "Turkey Tet" Trzyna asked me to go climb the Scenic Cruise with him. I really wanted this route and almost foolishly agreed. I was way out of shape and the fall days were just too short. Instead we did the Directissima on Chasm View Wall (no physical relation or close geographical relation to North Chasm View Wall in the Black Canyon) on Longs Peak. This mere 5 pitch, 10c beat me up badly and Wayne had to literally drag me up it. I couldn't believe I had even contemplated doing the Scenic Cruise. Thankfully I wasn't too stupid. But my troubles on this route proved to be the motivation I needed. I vowed to be ready for the Scenic Cruise the following spring.

My regular climbing partner, the Trashman, and I joined the Boulder Rock gym and trained two mornings a week throughout the winter. In the early spring we took trips to Utah and Red Rocks to hone our skills on cracks. We felt we were ready and made plans to attempt the Scenic Cruise on Saturday, May 30th.

I met the Trashman after work on Friday at the Morrison Park-n-Ride and he drove us to the Canyon. This drive is one of the most scenic in Colorado. We went west on I-70 to Glenwood Springs and then south to Carbondale and over McClure Pass to Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford. After a dinner stop we arrived at the rim around 11 p.m. Register for a campsite, rack and pack for the morning, throw down the bags and get some sleep. I set the alarm for 4:48 a.m. and we were up and hiking by 5:10 a.m. The descent went smoothly and, as of this writing two days later, I still show no signs of contact with poison ivy. The Cruise gully is very steep and even requires a couple of rappels. We were delighted to find a fixed rope at the first rappel and quickly zipped down the line. Shortly afterwards we had to uncoil our own ropes for the second rappel.

We got to the base of the Cruise at 6:15 a.m. to find another party on the first pitch. Rob, a friend of Trashman, was leading and Monica was belaying. We figured that anyone doing this route in a day would be better than us since we considered our skills to be the minimum possible to do this route in a day. This turned out to be incredibly prophetic.

We noticed a fix rope hanging off the wall and two bivy sacks and a bunch of gear on the flat, bivy rock near the base. We asked Rob and Monica if that was their gear. "No," they responded. "We don't know where those guys are." Soon after that the bivy bag started moving! There were two guys inside. These guys had descended the Cruise Gully the previous day. They had planned on climbing up the bivy ledge at the top of pitch 8 or 9. Apparently they had so much trouble that they backed off to try again the next day. But they let two parties jump in front of them. Curious. Watching these guys take two hours to jug their fixed line, we knew they were in way over their heads. I wonder if they were part of the new breed of sport climber that has no problem with 5.11 in the gym, but doesn't understand how a very long, traditional route differs. Well, they were learning. I just hope they didn't get into too much trouble. I kept expecting to see them start the slog back up the gully, but never did.

We were in hurry to get going. We thought we'd have the gumbies trying to jug their lines to get ahead of us and we didn't want to fall too far behind Rob and Monica since Monica had done the Cruise before and would know the right way to go on the upper pitches. Because of this I only had time to eat a single Pop-tart and drink some water before starting up. Not exactly a high energy breakfast.

The Trashman did a great job finding the easy way up the first pitch. He started just left of the large dihedral with a single 5.9 move before the climbing eased off to 5.7. Monica and Rob did the very difficult direct start in the dihedral because they didn't know any better.

Trashy ran out all the rope to a crappy semi-hanging belay in a flared dihedral. I did a poor job of securing the mini-haulbag and halfway up the pitch one of the water bottles falls out of the bag. It crashes to the ground and breaks open. Damn! We are down to less than 3 liters of water with 14 pitches to go. I'm following with my freshly re-soled Aces and find them to be a bit hard and slippery. It had me doubting my footwork.

I led the second pitch up to a good stance. This pitch is mostly easy with a bit of 5.8 right off the belay. Trash leads the third pitch which has the first bit of 5.10 and diverts us from the Cruise onto the Scenic Cruise. The 4th pitch is solid 5.10 (probably 10a/b) and has me huffing and puffing up to a small stance with a fixed belay only half a rope length above. Rob and Monica are at a hanging belay another half rope length up and I see no reason to climb up into that mess.

The fifth pitch is significantly harder with continuous 5.9+/5.10 climbing up the finger/hand crack. Trashman wants to belay where Rob and Monica did, but I cajole him to continue further up. I want to make sure we are high enough to do the tricky traverse back to the Cruise. He balks, but then continues with a little bit of aid. I ask what the trouble is and he responds, "Oh, I'm just tired." Following this pitch I can see why. It is very hard and I reach the belay tired.

The next pitch is the infamous traverse pitch which is rated either 5.10- or 5.10+ depending upon which guidebook you look at. I continued up the crack system until I could reach around, blindly, to the left and clip a sling hanging from (?) something. I felt around a little more and could get my left hand in a crack around the corner, but it was a very tight hand jam and I had nothing for either foot or my right hand. I should have attempted this move, but I was a little afraid. I had no idea what the sling was attached to, but I grabbed it and swung around the corner. From here I climbed down and further left on a steep slab/ramp.

Now I had to climb up and left on a rounded, leaning edge. Liebacking seemed to be the only option, but protection was psychological at best and the edge was extremely rounded and the wall vertical. I could see a good hold a few moves up, but wasn't sure I could make it. I fooled around for a long time trying to place gear in the seam and trying to psyche myself up to do it. I had cut my cuticle and it was bleeding quite a bit. This only concerned me because it made my hands more slippery. Since I don't climb with chalk I had trouble getting my fingers dry with the constantly bleeding coming from my finger. Eventually I had three camming units in - all with only two cams touching. I wouldn't have stood on any of these to aid, yet I placed them to protect a lead fall. Afraid, I finally cranked the moves quickly, and slapped up the arete in a series of desperate moves to safety and a belay. The Trashman followed quickly and easily, making my desperate clutching seem foolish and fearful.

The crux pitch was next and, while it looked hard, it also looked doable. The Trashman surveyed it briefly before saying, "You did so well on that last pitch, Bill, that I'm going to let you have this one also." I have enough ego in me to want to be the "go to guy", but on a climb this hard I can't always be that guy. Of course, up to this point I had barely been doing my share of the work. This was my one chance and I quickly accepted.

As we re-racked I could already feel the fatigue settling into my body. I realized that I hadn't eaten anything but a Pop-tart all day. I was starting to feel weak. We agreed that after this pitch we'd stop at the next ledge to rest and eat. I traversed ten feet left to the corner that held the discontinuous crack and face holds that marked the crux. I had to climb up another ten feet of 5.9 before I could place my first piece. I noticed that this wall tilted just past vertical with no good rests. A couple of pieces higher, I took my first of many hangs on the rope. The climbing was very difficult and sustained and I didn't have the endurance to lead it clean. I hung about five or six times before reaching the belay.

Half way up the crux pitch there is a short traverse right that is awkward and gains a small stance. Above rises a hand crack in an obtuse corner. This looked relatively easy from the belay, but proved to be quite challenging. I hope this section is 5.10 also, because I had to hang again, but fear it is only 5.9. I finally pulled onto the small belay stance completely drained. I was at the base of a 5.8 offwidth crack and thought I could see a better ledge twenty feet up. After regaining some composure I attempted to climb further up to belay, but without a single piece that would fit the crack (I had already placed our largest piece - a #3.5 Camalot), I backed off. In my state I had to have that piece of protection. I set up a belay and the Trashman came up.

Once again the Trashman looked considerably stronger and more composed than I did. He grabbed the gear and made short work of the 5.8 offwidth. Following this would be a considerable struggle for me. I was frequently out of breath and felt weak. The Trashman ran out about half the rope to a very good, flat ledge. When I joined him my throat was extremely dry and I was quite weak.

I slumped onto the ledge and removed my painful shoes. It was a little before 2 p.m. and we took a 45 minute rest on this ledge. My spirits and strength continually rose with the onslaught of food, Gatorade, and rest. I downed a PowerBar and a couple of packets of Goo. We talked about how Earl Wiggins did the second free ascent of the Cruise as an unroped solo in an hour and a half. At this point in the climb that was a mind blowing thought. We agreed that Wiggins wasn't just ten times better than us, but 3,000 times better than us because, we reasoned, we've have to be 3,000 times better to free solo this route.

We had already done eight pitches - five of them 5.10. This was a considerable climb in its own right, but we were just over halfway to the rim. Thankfully, we didn't expect any more 5.10. We were wrong.

After some deliberation I started up the right most crack off the ledge. The climbing here was hard and continuous and we agreed it was more 5.9 than 5.8. Halfway up I had to pass a bothersome bush which completely fills the crack. Above the bush the climbing got easier and I tended to the left and finally, inobviously around a corner to a good ledge just as I ran out the last bit of rope.

The Trashman, having followed quickly, led above the ledge on what appeared to be an easy pitch. But nothing is easy on this route. Even this pitch had its trouble spots. The first was a very awkward traverse to the left which almost involved falling sideways. Next was a tight chimney section behind a monstrous flake. And finally a difficult lieback/jam move off the top of the flake.

We were now at the first of three consecutive 5.9 pitches (or so we thought) which marked the end of the hard climbing. The first involved a scary 5.7 traverse with massive exposure. I inched across this section in a uncomfortable squat as I tried to place gear under an overlap. The climbing wasn't hard, but the squatting was. Once across this section I had to angle up and right past three ancient quarter inch bolts. The first had a solid hanger on it and a delicate 5.9 move to get past it. The next bolt protruded a half inch from the rock and the hanger spun. The third bolt didn't have a hanger at all. No nut either. Just a smooth shaft of steel protruding from the face. The crux moves is protected by this dubious piece and is quite technical, albeit short lived. Above this the climbing is relatively easy but runout.

The next pitch is tough. Right off the belay is an overhanging flare that you need to climb into. The footwork is blind and the footholds are poor. The hand and finger jams are buried deep in the flare and it is just a thuggish move. I consider it the hardest single move on the climb. Trashman does a nice job on this and then works his way up to a ledge where our topo says is a possible belay, but that you should continue on up the poorly protected 5.9 face. The Trashman pauses here and doesn't like the looks of things. He thinks it is 30 feet before he can get gear. Soon I hear him call down off belay. "Why are you stopping?" I ask. He wants me to come take a look at it. Translation: "You come lead this one, Bill." I wasn't sure I was tough enough. I needed the Trashman to take this one. I prodded him once again and he responded. He cruised up the face and worked hard to get decent protection while doing difficult moves. It was maybe his best lead on the climb.

Pitch 13 was next. Unlucky 13. The topo says to go straight up, which is what I did and saw clear signs of previous passage (read: chalk), but the climbing got harder and harder until I had to slump on a piece for rest. The next move proved too much for me in my weakened state. I placed two pieces for aid and moved onto a shelf. I thought I could see a good ledge 20 feet up and moved towards it. Halfway there my rope became jammed in the crack below. I didn't want to descend because there was no way to do it safe. I had only a single RP near me. Would I want to untie from the lead rope and lower off that single RP? No way! I could remain tied into the lead rope and just unclip it from gear as I got lowered, but that would be risking a fall also. Plus I didn't want to re-climb the section I had just led. It was too hard. The climbing to the ledge didn't look that hard. I tugged hard on the lead rope and was able to pull up another ten feet - enough to get me to the ledge and a good belay stance. I found a piton here - more evidence that this direct finish had been done before. But this pitch wasn't 5.9.

I hauled the bag up and then dropped the haul line back down so that I could belay the Trashman up on it. He followed quickly and did the aid section so fast that I asked if he had freed it. "Are you crazy?" He said. "I didn't even try. It looked ridiculously hard." At this point speed was our highest priority and the Trashman was doing whatever he felt was fastest. We were racing the sun to the rim. The winner got to spend a night on flat ground. We had little more than an hour left until darkness.

The good news was that the rim looked very close. The Trashman soared up the vertical corner above me and out of sight. He was on easy ground. Following I thought this pitch was solid 5.8 - at least in turning the lip at the top of the dihedral. This involved a powerful move on good holds. Above this I was chagrined to find that we still weren't on top. One last band barred the way. Thankfully this was only 5.6 and we were soon slapping tired, thirsty high fives. It was just before 8 p.m. The route had taken us almost 15 hours rim to rim.

On the way home we were listening to some horrible Prince song that I recorded in my unenlightened past when Trashy corrected me:

"This isn't a Prince song. It is a 'The Artist Formerly Known As Prince' song."

"He just calls himself 'The Artist' now", I said.

"Hmmm," mused the Trashman. "Then we can refer to him as 'The Artist', formerly known as 'The Artist Formerly Known as Prince', formerly known as an unpronounceable symbol known to nobody, formerly known as 'Prince'."

To which I replied, "And we can refer to you as the 'Formerly Thought to be Sane Trashman.' "

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