Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Black Canyon Binge

Jonathan Schaffer jokes that, this fall, he has either been at work or climbing in the Black Canyon. There must be some truth to that statement, as the 22 year-old Gunnison climber is quickly rising up the ranks to be one of the canyon’s top climbers.

In less than three years, Schaffer has completed nearly 60 routes in the Black Canyon, which is known in climbing circles to contain some of the most difficult big wall routes in the United States. The canyon has the tallest vertical wall in Colorado, the 2,300 foot Painted Wall and several other walls that soar to up to 2,000 feet.

“It’s my favorite place to climb,” Schaffer said. “I like the rural nature of the area, and the challenges that the climbs represent.”

Schaffer began climbing in the Black Canyon in 2008 after moving to Gunnison to attend Western State College, where he studied Recreation. Currently he is employed in the deli at the Gunnison Vitamin and Health Food Store.

His early exploits in the canyon were full of adventure, as he sampled some of the elements that give the Black Canyon its feared reputation: loose rock, difficult route finding and physically and psychologically demanding climbing. His stories of include falling rock, getting lost while bushwhacking in gullies and running out of food and water on the wall.

“One of my bad early experiences in the Black was when I was going down the Chillumstone Gully on the South Rim,” he said. “I was down climbing on some large boulders when they came loose, I fell about 20 feet down the talus with the boulders. Somehow the rocks barely missed me as I landed on my back. I thought for sure I wasn’t going to be able to walk out that day.”

Other tales include climbing rope-less above a deadly whirlpool above the Gunnison River, pulling off television sized blocks on climbing routes, and nearly hitting a mountain lion while driving back from the North Rim of the canyon on Highway 92.

Andrew McKean of Gunnison is one of Schaffer’s many Black Canyon climbing partners. He says that Schaffer’s style of climbing is what has made him successful in the Black.

“He’s a really bold climber and he’s also really fast, efficient climber,” McKean said. “He’s a great partner to rope up with down there.”

This fall has proved especially successful for Schaffer. After graduating from Western in May he has dedicated almost all of his free time to climbing in the Black. His original goal for fall was to complete 20 routes in the canyon. He passed that number earlier this month, and has kept up with a pace of two to three difficult climbs per week.

Among his accomplishments this fall was climbing a route on the 2,300 foot Painted Wall in less than seven hours. On more than one occasion he’s climbed around 2,000 feet and returned the following day for another 2,000 feet. He has also established several first ascents in the canyon.

Ryan Rees, a climbing ranger for the Black Canyon National Park, has been impressed with Schaffer on many levels.

“I haven’t seen anyone climbing at the rate and level that Jonathan does,” Rees said. “He’s climbing on difficult, serious and committing terrain and he does it in a really good style. When he’s done he’s really humble about it as well. All of this combined with how young he is, make his efforts very impressive.”

Schaffer admits that he has an obsession for climbing in the Black Canyon, and has a hard time finding the adrenaline rush he finds there at other areas that are less difficult and not as dangerous.

“Everything else pales in comparison to the Black,” Schaffer said. “After a brutal day down there I get my fix….I love waking up sore and not even being able to think about climbing.”

While the fall climbing season is just now winding down for the Black Canyon, Schaffer is already thinking about going bigger in the spring, perhaps attempting a link-up of the canyon’s three major walls: the Painted Wall, the North Chasm and the South Chasm. It would be almost 6,000 feet of climbing in a 24 hour time period, a feat that has only been done once before.

“There’s just something about the Black,” he said. “Every climber has their own definition of what climbing is all about for them, and to me the Black Canyon represents what I look for. For adventure there isn’t a better place.”


Al Smith said...

Solid article about a stellar dood. great work friend.

Tim said...

Great blog Luke. Good picture of Lil John too. Man, I am constanly in awe of how strong John is not only physically but mentally. Good on him.

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