Black Canyon Trip

Shortly after the initial week last October, the Alpine Mentors participants went along with Steve House and Bryan Gilmore to the Black Canyon for their first official outing. For the next 10 days the climbers camped, got to know each other better, and worked on climbing full day objectives quickly and efficiently. Colin, Steven, and Buster had all climbed in the Black before, while Marianne was discovering the area for the first time.


Climbing in teams of 2 and 3, the crew started out on well-traveled classics before moving on to more serious objectives later in the week. By the end of the trip some teams we’re doing linkups.


Several routes we’re climbed from October 10th - 19th including...


  • Escape Artist
  • Comic Relief
  • Russian Arete
  • Porcine Arete
  • Debutante’s Ball
  • Southern Arete
  • Cloak and Dagger
  • Movable Stoned Voyage
  • Journey Home
  • The Cruise
  • Astro Dog

After each day the climbers gathered around the campfire to discuss the day. What went well, what could have been better, what they learned, and what they re-learned. After making dinner together the teams we’re mixed up and the next day’s objectives decided. Below are stories from some of the days out by the AM participants.

- Buster


Photo Gallery

Sharing ideas, skills and experience

By Steven

The Black Canyon view from the North Rim
The Black Canyon view from the North Rim

I left work at the Pub around 5 pm and blasted as fast as I could to the North rim campground of the Black Canyon. I arrived well after dark as it was October and the sun was, thankfully, setting earlier. When I pulled into the campsite we planned on occupying for the next ten days, I was met with Steve Houses` classic zealous and eager smile, a testament to his psych and commitment to the lifestyle and our mission. Buster Jesik, and Marianne Van Der Steen, were already there discussing plans for the next day. We only needed Colin Simon to arrive from Boulder and the first official gathering of Alpine Mentors first generation could begin. We decided our first day to do a Grade III, 5.10 just to get acclimated to the Black, and each other’s style. We would then begin doing routes that fostered rhythm and efficiency, the theme of this particular trip. One of 6 in a series of trips to prepare us for our ultimate goal of a 6000+ meter peak in the pure alpine style.



The next morning I could feel the temperature inversion as I began to sweat 600 meters down the appropriately named, ”SOB” gully. I stopped to stow my fleece and wait for my crew while I oriented myself to the magnificence of the Canyon. I was quite excited to get on the rock with Steve and Marianne. Marianne and I had not climbed much multi pitch yet together and it is always a learning experience with Steve. At the edge of the Gunnison River, an obvious line of splitters and chimneys dividing the Hooker Buttress comes into view. The Russian Arête is not a very hard route; and though it is one of my favorites in the Black, we were not necessarily here to climb difficult routes. Our mission this trip was to begin sharing ideas, skills, and experiences. We have a couple years of training, traveling, and of course climbing ahead of us. And with an ultimate goal of a 6000+ meter Asian peak in Alpine style we needed to all be on the same page. 


Throughout our 10 day trip we climbed some great routes, practicing whatever was possible to save time. And though sometimes the vegetation and the abundance of wide cracks (Womb Fight) do not foster speed, we paid close attention to whatever reduced down time. Feeding and hydrating the leader (or belayer) while they do their jobs, trading belays when necessary, or even racking for the leader makes a big difference. And we were here to refine those skills as a team

When Andreas Hinterstoisser made his traverse to the First Icefield on their fateful attempt of the Norwand, I can’t help think Tony Kurtz wasn’t impressed by his partners “to the chains!” attitude. And while the Russian arête in the Black Canyon is not quite the Norwand, and I am not Tony Kurtz, I certainly took a lot from watching a truly experienced Alpinist lead the 6 pitch block that makes up the Russian arête. From the time Steve House, our Mentor, and a climber who has been to the edge of what the Alpine has to offer. Marianne Van Der Steen, one of my protégé companions and mixed climbing master and I started our approach from the North Rim Campground we employed simple techniques to increase our efficiency. While I watched Steve flow through the 1st pitch, Marianne and I traded the belay to put our shoes on and be ready to climb. It wasn’t very long and Steve finished the 1st pitch and we began climbing smoothly and efficiently. Two weeks prior to our Black Canyon rendezvous I climbed the route with a friend in a casual 5 hours. This time in a team of 3, we were able sit on the summit and drink water after only 3 hours.



At the end of the trip , I felt content knowing that we all work together as a cohesive group, and most importantly have a great time together. We are all very motivated to test ourselves and make sure we are prepared for our objective(s). The Canadian Rockies Is now only 8 weeks away, and I have begun to truly train for the first time in my life. After reading the early draft (twice now) of Steve`s new training book that will be published sometime in Spring 2014, I am impressed at how little I know about my body and its potential, and am fascinated to see what I can do with it. My training has so far consumed most of my time, and thoughts. I begin every day by checking my heart rate, and end every day early making sure to be well rested for the next training session.




Focus on Efficiency

By Colin

Most climbing trips are devoted to climbing harder grades – Steve recognized that all of the mentees spend plenty of time pushing technical difficulty. The Black trip was made a little different; we did relatively little climbing near our technical limits, but instead focused on making the whole route go smoothly. Between two mentors and four mentees, we tried as many combinations of two-and-three man rope teams as we could. We emphasized mechanics of multi-pitch and alpine climbing, like transitions, simul-climbing, eating and hydrating, and rockfall management. Instead of trying to send stacks of 5.11 pitches, we focused on teamwork.


Out of the comfort zone

By Marianne

The Black Canyon is a mythical place. If it would be in Iceland I'm sure there would be big Goblins and Trolls living under the big river boulders.But here we only found poison ivy and loose rock.The gneiss and schist is old, oxidated and worn by the strong water and it's filled with white pegmatite dikes.First the walls look small, until you reach the lowst, darkest point at the river and suddenly realise that the little stream you saw from the viewpoint is a violent white river... And thats where you start your climbs.


Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve and I were going to be the team.We were going to be each others teachers, mentors, climbing buddies and friends.Goal was not to climb the hardest of the Black, but become efficient, get to know new techniques and systems, be fast through using the right systems and route finding skills.


This week I was dragged out of what I call 'my comfort zone'. I was feeling better, the cold almost disappeared, and my mind found that my body should train harder.



The idea was to do a link-up with another route to get to the top of the Canyon again.

I felt slow, insecure on the strange granite, I was cold and was far from fast. I felt disappointed in my own achievements before I even started on leading. Ashamed for my bad climbing results my mind started to give up on me. Just as usual.


My head is my weakest climbing parter, weaker then my pumped forearms, weaker then my hungry stomach, weaker then my dehydrated body. Weaker then the worst cam I ever placed.

When my mind tries to get involved, thats when I get out of my comfort zone.

And the request for getting out of that comfort zone worked, I got totally out of it... (Thanks Mind for helping out...Thanks for nothing...)


And then we realised it was getting dark. The sun coloured orange on the other side of the Canyon making the shades to become big monsters and finally it all turned into silence.

We had to go down. Now. Rapidly we build an anchor, left a cam, abseiled down, pulled the rope, abseiled another pitch and another. And... Stuck.

The rope got stuck.



The sky turned black, the moon that accompanied me in the start of the trip had disappeared. It was just us now and our tiny emergency light. Steve climbed up in the darkness, miraculously fixed the rope and got down again.

We pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and...Stuck, again?! We pulled the wrong end... There we went again, down another pitch, and another...Stuck. Again. Buster prussiked his way up and down. We prepared our abseil gear all together with the light, in the darkness we were dragged onto the cold rock until one of us found the next belay.

Meanwhile we were in contact with base-camp through our little radio's. The rope got stuck twice more before we were finally down. Down in the poison ivy. There we searched for our bags, lights and food.


Now the Tyrolean, the river and the Cruise Gulley...

That Gulley is meant to walk/abseil down, not to 'cruise' up. We climbed up the two fixed ropes, avoided all poison ivy and loose rock. Around midnight we arrived at the campsite. Steven and Colin prepared pasta. I never drink beer, but this one, with the pasta was the best I'd had for a very long time :)


The next day was a restday.




Buster and Steven enjoying the restday
Buster and Steven enjoying the restday



But it was not over yet.

Colin had still one route to do, and me too. The longest rock route in Colorado.

The Southern Arete on the Painted Wall.

A challenge again. Not too hard. I thought. Until Colin said "you make it look like it's an 5.13".

Apparently I was still not used to this typical gneiss chimney climbing and got myself pumped in an 5.9

Great. I'll climb the scary traverse, you can do the chimney here :)


I was lucky, I climbed the beautiful finger crack at the end of the route!

Strangely my mind started to bug me again. The loose block at the end made me feel insecure. I was afraid to drop one on Colin whist leading and asked him to take over for me. Asking it made me feel weak, can't I even lead an easy 5.6 anymore (hello mind?!)

In the darkness we walked back to the campsite. We found big deer bones on our way through the bush and found it hard to get back to the hiking path.



Colin on the 5.11 pitch, Lightning Bolt crack
Colin on the 5.11 pitch, Lightning Bolt crack

Every evening we had a campfire. Hot chocolate or tea and good discussions about how to improve all we did.

Steve referred to his own mentors and his time in Slovenia.

He told us "climbing is 80% mental." Maybe even 90% if you just take the Black Canyon climbing or Alpine climbing. I'm sure my climbing success is depending on my mind. Hard. And maybe thats also why climbing is such a beautiful thing.


Climbing for me is a combination of many different elements. If those elements all all in the right direction then climbing is perfect. It feels perfect, looks perfect, sounds perfect... Although my mind wasn't perfect, my body, the surroundings, the new friends I now have, the climb, the rock, the food, the air, the... just everything felt super good. Especially us five as a team felt super good. All, Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve are original and special individuals all with different strengths. That combined was, as to say in American English; awesome.


And that climbing feeling made this one of the most intense trips I've ever made.


All I learned, felt, experienced this month are things I'll keep with me for my whole life. And I feel that is going to happen again, for the next two years. Two years for a lifetime. That is just worth anything.

It almost feels like love, maybe it does feel like love. Uhhhh, yes...butterflies in my heart, is that the same annoying itchy butterfly that I sometimes feel in my tummy?

Hey there you butterfly, shall we fly together for these two years?


...and what about after those two years?

Then I hope to create those butterflies for others, so we can pass on our new experiences and keep the Alpine Mentor Programme for many next generations to come.

- Marianne.