24 Hours Into the Black

Photo: Chris Noble


Update October 25, 2018: "Our 24-hr Black Canyon climb is back on!!! Planned for October 28/9, we hope this climb will raise awareness about The Climbing Grief Fund, a new program at the American Alpine Club.  

We've changed our original itinerary due to the continued closure of the South Chasm View Wall, a film permit delay and now a darker, colder time of year.  Our new plan is to climb the following routes: Scenic Cruise (5.10+, 13 pitches, North Chasm View Wall), Russian Arete (5.9+, 6 pitches, Aretes) and finally the Southern Arete (5.10+, 16+ pitches, Painted Wall).   

With the intention to make space for grief and our longing while in the Black Canyon wilderness, we will break from climbing during most of the night and descend to the 2000' to bottom of the canyon. With the pause from climbing, we will hold a fire council with those in our community who are able to join us down the chasm. We hope to honor those who have passed on and share what is in each of our hearts.  In the early morning, we will climb out of the canyon via the Southern Arete of the Painted Wall.   

In gratitude, Madaleine Sorkin and Mary Harlan"


by Madaleine Sorkin

This climb is motivated by the trauma of loss and change. People we knew, people we know, people we didn’t know and wish we had. Grief is part of the climbing experience, and while climbing is often fixated on stoke and sending, the expression of grief is also essential. We experience loss, we experience unwanted change, and inevitably we all find ourselves staring into the abyss, the void, the BLACK.

I want our climbing community to create a more intentional resource for grief—a place that bears witness to death, our pain and a way to return to the vitality of ourselves. I wish for the shadow side of my life and all lives to be brought courageously forward so we may support each other to be in relationship with our whole selves.


A community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering...
— Parker Palmer

This climb is a fundraiser to create a Grief Fund, which will be housed in the American Alpine Club. The fund’s starting goals are small—a grief resource webpage, individual counseling grants post-trauma, or loss and group counseling sessions at AAC Craggin' Classic events. This fund is overdue and I hope we will see it build tremendously over the years (through individual, company and organizational donations).

Read more about AAC's Climbing Grief Fund


Madaleine Sorkin in The Black Canyon National Park. Photo: Chris Noble

Madaleine Sorkin in The Black Canyon National Park. Photo: Chris Noble

The Black Canyon National Park of Gunnison, Colorado is a 2000’ deep chasm in our earth that draws climbers perennially for the spectrum of experiences promised in the mysterious, ancient, steep and committing walls. Towards the end of May, Mary Harlan and I will attempt to link-up 3 major formations in the Black Canyon. Our goal is to connect 3 challenging routes up the North and South Chasm View Walls and the Painted Wall for a total of 5,700 feet of climbing at a difficulty up to 5.12 within 24-hours.

We are both experienced Black Canyon climbers seeking out the difficult free climbs as well as the many “character-building climbs” in which the loose rock, marginal protection, pricker-bushes and poison ivy are as much a feature of the day as any phenomenal single pitch of climbing. Mary has returned to climb over 40 routes there! It’s been 15 years since my first climb there, yet I can still taste the fear bubbling up through my chest, the canyon walls echoing the river below as I hung hundreds of feet from the rim and night crept up over me.

Learning to participate with our fear and doubts is one of the opportunities that climbing can offer. The completion of 24 Hours into the Black won’t rank as a world-class climbing achievement but we hope its intention will hold significance for our community. The climbing will most certainly be an exhausting physical challenge, and as our bodies soften so will our minds and hearts. As we are exposed to our vulnerability, we hope our climb will become an embodied expression of joy, gratitude and sorrow. We hope this long day will include movement with grief, not escape from it.

Many of us long to deeply participate in our lives. Climbing offers a way into that desire. Lengthy, challenging climbing days often bring me to a place of deeper participation, where I experience myself as a human again and again, intimately interacting as an essential small speck of the natural world. It is a place where my vulnerability speaks openly from my heart. As I get broken open by a challenging climb, I may find myself crying, alone at a ledge as I belay my partner 100 feet away. The tears can come from deep gratitude for being alive as well as pain over a loss. Whatever it is, the point seems to me to be the expression of it.

Perhaps climbing is limited in the ways we can express grief. There are times when not climbing and finding other ways to turn towards one’s wholeness is the most nourishing decision. As a climber for over 20 years and now in my mid-30s, my motivation to achieve and relationship to risk and death are evolving. Parts of me struggle to accept that I no longer am willing to risk my body as I may have in the past. However a wiser-me accepts this evolution as natural and important as I navigate my life’s arc honestly and continue to be in relationship with others and the world.

Existential questioning and a fear of my own depression have affected my life for many years. This past year was perhaps no different except that the painful circumstances of a friend’s suicide and several friends’ climbing accidents and trauma reminded me that I was ready to be broken open. For a while I needed to stop climbing—to pause on any remaining false idols I was using climbing to chase—to experience grief and sit in my body. I learned to express my longing and connect to my wild nature without climbing. I am still learning to do this. And I also want to return to climbing. I feel deep gratitude to be able to climb, as healthy as I am. It is important to me to maintain my commitment to climb in respectful relationship with myself and to use climbing as tool for renewal and vitality.

Many climbers return to climbing after a traumatic event (in or outside of climbing) and ideally this return is linked to deep nourishment for themselves. Mary and I return to the Black drawn into dialogue with an ancient mystery that reveals itself in beautiful, intense, and paradoxical ways. We trust the healing power of climbing. The support of our climbing community and therapists has helped us both through dark times. This climb is for the nourishment we can find in the void, in the Black, and for the fierce and gentle persistence to trust life enough to risk returning time and time again.

Donate today by clicking the link below and selecting 'Climbing Grief Fund' from the pull-down menu.

Thank you. 

-Madaleine Sorkin