Pioneering the Black Canyon

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The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has long been a badge of multi-day courage for top-level Class V kayakers. For good reason…the 12-mile, Class V-VI stretch within the national monument drops up to 230 feet per mile beginning just three miles in at The Narrows, includes one mile-long portage and countless others, and has taken the lives of such world-class boaters as Chuck Kern. A few kayakers, however, are slowly chipping away at its puzzle by running rapids never run before. PL checks in Tom Janney for the Black Canyon lowdown…

What rapids have you guys been the first to run in there?
Janney: In the fall of 2009 my friend Christian Cook and I ran the drop at the bottom of the SOB gully just downstream of cave camp. It’s commonly called Next Generation (from old-time boaters that thought maybe the next generation would run it). I think that name has stuck pretty well. A few weeks later we did another trip in which Rolf Kelly ran a drop that had always been called the Great Falls portage. Christian had ran the last 20-footer of the massive drop in the earlier trip, but Rolf was the first to run the whole thing. I think Milo Winn came up with that name and it seemed to stick.
 
How did the runs feel and what’s their lay-out?
Janney: As far as Next Generation, we had done a one-day run and scouted the drop on a Friday before we did a two-day trip over the weekend. So we had some time to think about it. The drop is a two-stage rapid. The first drop is a boof that you must drive hard from left to right in order to make it through a slot on the right. Next, there is a short pool before a tight, 15-foot boof (into a landing zone of about two boat widths) that you must boof from right to left to avoid a bad pin spot on the right. From here it is a Class V- few hundred yard runout. It’s an amazing feeling to run a rapid that drops 60 feet total in boulder-garden style.
I’ve never run the entire Great Falls drop, but it’s been run by Rolf Kelly twice and Ben Luck and Nate Klema this fall. The drop is a few hundred yards of boulder gardens that is full of sieves. There are two crux moves that, if blown, lead into sieves. The first move is to get from river right to river left as the river right leads into a bunch of channels that end in sieves. The second crux move is to stay left as a series of channels drops off to river right. Some have wood in them and others have undercuts and sieves. The last drop is a tight five-footer that you get one stroke in before going off a 20-footer that lands on a rock on the left.
Rolf told me this is the top five hardest/scariest drops he has ever run. Ben said this might be the hardest/biggest drop he has run. And both have done some of the hardest runs all over the world, so that says something.
For me I just like running the bottom series that is way less dangerous, but still loads of fun (and a bit scary at 1,100 cfs).
 
Seems like there’s a good reason no one’s run them before? How hairy are they?
Janney: I think one of the main reasons that they hadn’t been run is that many people do the Black with people who have done it before and they just walk it automatically instead of really taking some time to look at them. Because at first look they look pretty marginal. I think we ran them because we were looking for more out of the run, instead of a Class IV-V run these drops turn it into a more V+ feel. I think that the drops are on the harder end of what is being run with any regularity nowadays. I only run them if I am feeling good (I run Next Generation about half the time and the bottom of Great Falls a little less frequently due a need for more water). I’d put both drops at the top of the list for the hardest drops in Colorado and in the top 10 hardest stuff that I have run, right on par with stuff out in Cali.
 
Any naming rights come with them?
Janney: Christian and I made a funny name for Next Generation that really isn’t appropriate for publishing, but ask me in person and I’ll let ya’ know. I think the names of the drops are pretty fitting and both of them were told to us by Milo and are named as such on his “cheat sheet” guide to the canyon so I figure they should stay.

Does the Black Canyon being so remote make it all harder?
Janney: I think it makes the trip way more enjoyable; that’s what I love doing is expedition boating and the Black offers some of the best training in the region. I’m not sure if it makes it harder, but you have to take it into consideration when firing up some of the drops. My brother swam on Next Generation and ended up tearing his MCL; but he is tough and was able to make it out. There has been one heli rescue when someone broke his ankle on the waterfall deep in the heart of the canyon.
 
Do you think about high-end boaters like Chuck Kern when you’re in there?
Janney: It’s strange to walk by the spot that Chuck died; it’s scary to see how such an innocent looking spot could take the life of one of the best paddlers to ever live.
 
Does having loaded boats make it harder?
Janney: I’ve boated a ton with a loaded boat. Once you get used to it you’re good to go. But it does make the portages harder, especially with beer and ribs in the boat.

How would you rate the caliber of the rapids you’ve been pioneering?
Janney: I’d say they are some of the only Class V+ rapids in Colorado; they are certainly on another level from some of the big drops in the state like Double Trouble on Big South.

What’s the next piece of the Black Canyon puzzle to put together? Will anyone ever run it all, or is the sieve just too out there?
Janney: I would enjoy trying to pick apart the big portage. I’ve scouted it pretty well and there are a few good drops in there but lots rapids that just sieve out. I’m not sure if anyone will ever run it all. But that is what I love about the run — you can make it a pretty mellow Class V trip or a full on scary Class V run.

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