Black Canyon... in December

"So, Ben, are you sure? I don't think they're predicting the temperatures to be much above freezing."

"Yeah, well, it's supposed to be snowing, so it won't be that bad."

"Oh, right, good point."

With that exchange, I decided to commit to one of the most intense endeavors ever attempted by humankind: a one day descent of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison... in December. I had been calling all the paddlers I knew in Colorado, trying to find someone to paddle with. Every time someone backed out because it was too cold, I would admit that I wasn't really that serious. Then, late friday afternoon, Ben Luck of Durango finally returned my call, and described how he was about to do a solo descent of the Black Canyon. I couldn't let Ben hog all the glory for himself, so I invited myself along.
I started packing immediately after hanging up, and arrived in Montrose at about 1:30 AM. Ben was highly in favor of an early start, so he woke me up again at 4:00 AM and we started setting shuttle. By the time it got light enough to take photos, we were about 2 miles in to the 7 mile hike leading down the closed road to putin. We both had a good chuckle when we got to the roadsign reading "7 miles to East Portal," since during our phone call Ben had explicitly noted the 5 mile hike in that would be required.
From December Black Canyon
Like a kayaking version of Fargo. December Black Canyon
Fortunately for us, the snow was thick enough that we could drag our boats, but not thick enough to slow down our hiking. I was very happy when we reached the long downgrade and I discovered that through some kind of weight/length ratio, I was able to sled down the road in my boat, although Ben had to jog. We made good time, and reached the water just a little after the sun peeked over the canyon walls. Of course, this is actually an estimate, because those weather dudes were spot on with that snow forecast, and the cloud cover was too thick to tell exactly where the sun was, all day long.
Blue sky? Nope, false alarm. Blue clouds. December Black Canyon
The reason that Ben had been so excited about this run was that the flows had just been turned up to 1600 cfs, which is tickling the high side of medium. Actually no, let's be honest, that's a pretty mackin flow. I've only been to the Black Canyon twice before, but Ben has done it many times (I think I heard him say 5 times just this season), and it was still the highest flow that either of us had seen in there. We moved fast through the first few rapids. At Daywrecker I got a huge backendo but figured it was just that I wasn't quite on my A game yet. By the third or fourth rapid, I started to realize that my game was right up at its normal level (meaning... AWESOME), but we were just running a frothing stout run. There was one particularly intense moment where Ben flipped over in a hole, and I tried to boof into him in order to push him out, but only ended up getting both of us surfed at once.
From December Black Canyon
We had been worried that the snow would make the portages treacherous, but we found that we had good traction through the thin layer of powder. We made it to Ballcrusher in very good time. In my previous two runs, at 1000 and 600, I had wondered why Ballcrusher had a name at all, much less a name as intimidating as Ballcrusher. Well, at 1600, that name was well deserved. The rapid started with a mission critical boof, but then continued into a series of easier moves with relatively heavy consequences. Ben decided that he was not feeling it, but I wanted to give her a go. The main danger that I was seeing was missing that first move. It was a simple move, but a big one, and if you missed that boof and ended up getting thrashed and swimming, who knows where you would end up by the bottom of the rapid. However, since it was flatwater leading up to it, and I had brought my Big Bang, I felt confident that I could execute the power punch, and deal with the runout as it came.
How many times can I work the phrase "Ballcrusher" into this post? December Black Canyon
The punch went even better than I had any right to expect, and I managed to not embarrass myself too much in the smaller lead out holes, although I got a little closer than planned to a sieve over on the right bank. From there we only had a few rapids before the waterfall and the beginning of the infamous portage. Ben was nice enough to shoot photos of me at the falls.
It looks small from that angle, but it's 18 feet, baby. Honest. December Black Canyon
The beginning of the portage was the first time that I really looked around and started to appreciate how awesome the Black Canyon is in the late fall. (It's not winter until the paddling season ends!) I was a nervous about the long hike that was coming, just like a 98 pound weakling is nervous before a fight with the football captain. We all knew what the outcome was going to be.
Looks like we're about to climb the Eiger.. or maybe escape Mordor.
The portage seems to get easier every time I do it. This time, I probably only fell face first into the dirt about 3 million times, dropped my boat 50 times (none of which were onto my toe), and only spent about 63% of the time sobbing. Overall, that's about half as bad as last time. Furthermore, the poison ivy was all dead because of the snow. At least, we certainly hope that it was all dead, because I definitely used poison ivy stalks at handholds a few times, and at least once when I collapsed from exhaustion I am pretty sure that I collapsed right into a little thicket of the stuff. We'll know for sure in another day or two.
What you can't tell from this photo is that Ben is jogging, not walking.
Ben, of course, is about ten times more hard core than me. He kept getting farther and farther ahead before stopping and waiting for me, and when I caught up to him at the first river crossing involved in the portage, I found that he'd had time to light a fire and change out of half of his gear while he waited for me.
The portage wouldn't be that bad if you didn't have to battle all those Frost Trolls.
The portage took a lot out of me, and we were also pretty far behind Ben's schedule since I was so slow at hiking, so we didn't take any photos once we got back into the water. The two "big drops" after the portage - Next Generation and Great Falls - were both possible, but very intense with the high flows. Both of those rapids involve running a waterfall and landing very close to rocks. Usually the rocks are nearby but the water going off the waterfall doesn't actually hit them. At 1600, the rocks in the landings were both receiving a healthy spray of the green water going off the falls. The line was obviously just as wide as it ever is, but we walked both rapids.

I hadn't had a chance to place any bets about the success or failure of our mission, but if I had bet, I would have predicted that we would get out of the water with at least a little daylight left, but we would finish the hike out of Chukar trail well after dark. It was good that I hadn't bet, because with Ben motivating that hike, we managed to finish up and get the boats loaded with almost 15 minutes of light left. Ben finished the hike within 30 seconds of 4:00, meaning that we took almost exactly 12 hours to get back to the exact same parking lot that we had camped at. Well, I took another hour or so on that final hike, so I guess WE didn't finish in 12 hours, Ben finished in 12 hours, but it's still cool. Exhausted from a long long day on only 2 hours of sleep and very little food, it was a grueling drive to my mom's house. Fortunately, Natalie called me so that I had someone to keep me sharp for the last part of the drive. When I got there, I went straight to bed and slept for 12 hours, then ran Barrel Springs to break up the rest of the drive home.
The face of a madman: Ben Luck kills again.
Here is a slideshow from the trip, with a couple extra photos.


  1. Way to charge! Sounds like my kind of mission.

  2. Awesome adventure and incredible photograhy


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