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Footprints Needed: Colorado’s Undiscovered Black Canyon

Descend into Colorado's Black Canyon and explore a park that has everything–life-list scenery, challenging terrain, a revitalized river–except hikers.

The thing about roaring rivers is that they often make for lousy fishing. Fritz and I spent the next morning proving as much. We tempted the Black’s legendary trout with every hand-tied fly concoction in our boxes–nymphs, waterbugs, mosquitoes, wooly buggers. We got nothing. Over lunch, we decided to do a little exploring. Downstream, the river cliffed out after 20 yards, and getting by it would require harnesses and rope. Upstream, though, the map showed promise.

"It looks like there’s a nice streamside bar there, if we can get past this quarter-mile stretch," Fritz said. Quarter of a mile. Just 400 yards. Shouldn’t be too tough.

A deer path near the river’s edge led around a short bend, then disappeared into the water where the river ripped past a sheer 20-foot cliff. "I bet we can hump around that outcrop," I told Fritz. We scrambled over the cliff’s backside–and encountered another, higher cliff. And another beyond that. What looked straightforward from afar revealed itself to be a puzzle made of rotten rock. The farther we pushed upriver, the higher the canyon forced us to climb.

We were scrambling in the footsteps of history. According to legend, the Utes believed that no man could enter the canyon and return alive. In 1874, Ferdinand Hayden’s government expedition stumbled upon the rim of the Black. This was the age of heroic exploration in the American West. Hayden had just mapped Yellowstone, and John Wesley Powell had floated the Grand Canyon. At the Black, though, Hayden balked. He lowered one of his men by rope into the dark gorge. Upon his return, the shaken volunteer pronounced the Utes’ belief wholly valid. Hayden, peering over the rim, declared the canyon impenetrable, and moved on.

The first successful explorers weren’t driven by curiosity. They came to steal the water. In 1900, a party floated the river in search of a likely spot to drill an irrigation tunnel. The river sank their boat and the men barely escaped with their lives. The next year, two hardy engineers, Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence, succeeded on foot, surviving a harrowing trek by crossing and recrossing the river dozens of times. They found a good spot for a tunnel and set the stage for a half-century water war.

Fritz and I kept climbing. Flakes of schist, weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle, peeled off in our hands. We followed what we thought was a deer path. Then I took a closer look at the poop and prints.

"Um, Fritz, I think this is bighorn sheep territory," I said. I glanced at my altimeter. We were 400 feet above the river. Fritz disappeared around a ledge. "I think we can make it down the next gully," he said.

I gave it a look. Peering over the edge, I gained new insight into the relationship between Fritz and myself: He was, I realized while assessing the sketchy downclimb, a much, much better climber than me. "You go ahead," I told him. "This is where my trail ends."

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