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GOTHIC PILLAR

Posted on: September 1, 2006


In 2004 Jonny Copp and I drove into the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison under a starry sky like bullet holes through a chalkboard. Jonny nonchalantly attempted to talk me into Stratosfear, a twenty-nine-pitch X-rated climb on the Painted Wall. It would be only my second route in the canyon and our first time climbing together.

"Sounds cool," I lied.

"Of course," Jonny continued, "We could always do a first ascent instead."

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"If I am going to climb something big and scary," I replied, "it might as well be a new line."

It was agreed. We approached down the winding SOB gully, our objective the west face of Gothic Pillar, by a line he'd spied a couple of seasons ago. My excitement heightened as Jonny talked of its "big roofs" and three, large pegmatite daggers. After 300 feet of fifth-class scrambling and traversing, we finally cliffed out and had to tie off small blocks and meager saplings to rappel into the notch below the face. On the second rap, a titanic block cut loose and steamrolled down the gully, hitting the lip and catching air for a brief moment, then barrelling into the river. The sleeping fishermen we'd tiptoed past that morning must have appreciated this exploding alarm clock. Once at the base we looked up and realized that another, direct gully was shorter and probably as casual as the drive in. The quickest path between two points usually IS a straight line.

We started up a low-angle buttress that quickly kicked into a thin, precarious slab and dropped us at the base of the first of many splitter dihedrals. I hid under a bulge while Jonny slid past a teetering tower of blocks as tall as he was.

The next lead was mine—the first and most prominent roof. As I entered the hollowed chamber beneath it, the sky and ground disappeared. I no longer could tell which way was up, only "out." I was inside a granite box. Above, the gully remained narrow—barely a few hundred feet to the west wall. I reached for the first jam and it was solid, deep hands. Perfect. Twelve feet later, when I pulled the lip, I trembled and fumbled with every piece of gear I wedged into the scaly, bone-white rock. But my confidence grew as I continued on the flaring thin-hands corner above, particles of granola-like rock crunching and releasing beneath my rubber soles. At a good anchor stance, I glanced over my shoulder to the inner canyon. The sky had turned as black as the horses I'd seen on the way in; the wind reared, and an ominous rumble sounded on the horizon. Jonny arrived and we quickly escaped our line, sprinting to the car amid thunder and laughter.

Jonny took off for Alaska, and I headed home to Missouri, but we promised to return at our next opportunity. This chance didn't happen until two years later, although the Gothic was often on my mind. The scrappy riverside limestone in my home state offered the perfect training for it.

This time the weather was reported to be splitter. The approach (via the direct gully) and the roof went much more smoothly, and my confidence in the pegmatite cracks was confirmed.

At the next belay, a white dust collected in my lap, like small shooting stars, from the roofs above. I pretended not to notice the incoming snow; maybe we could sneak by without the weather knowing we were there. Jonny struggled with a "cruxy roof magic trick" above, down climbing to an alcove as he figured out the moves.

After watching a few attempts, I said, "Um, Jonny? Is the gear good?" I tried to sound relaxed.

"Yeah" he replied, but I wasn't sure I believed him. "Good" is a fairly relative term. "Go for it then. We gotta move, bro." Jonny nodded, smiled his Cheshire-Cat smile, said "thanks," then busted through the wild pegmatite roof with a small grunt.

I followed the pitch admiring various sections of offwidth, perfect hands, a clean slab, and eventually the broken roof. The stone looked as though it had been burning in a fire for the past hundred years, scalloped and fire red.

We sped up the remaining 700 feet of perfect, highly featured rock, connecting clean faces, deep cracks and sharp dihedrals. The white stuff came and went, and we summited in a heavenly orange and violet sunset.

On our initial attempt, I'd just returned from Rome, where I'd seen Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting for the first time. Inspired by the ceilings on the route, we titled our own masterpiece "Sistine Reality" (IV 5.11+, no bolts, no pins, no lassoes, no big whoop).

If the Black is an untamed, wild horse, Jonny is surely one if its finest veteran wranglers.

—Jeremy Collins, Lee's Summit, Missouri

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