The Dragon's Tooth 5.8+

Page Type Page Type: Route
Additional Information Route Type: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Additional Information Time Required: Half a day
Additional Information Rock Difficulty: 5.8 (YDS)
Additional Information Number of Pitches: 4
Additional Information Grade: II
Sign the Climber's Log


SOB gully
Black Canyon as seen from the top of SOB gully, North Rim.
The Black Canyon is dark, mysterious, and sometimes very forbidding. The two-thousand-foot void is an anomaly so impressive that the Black has recently become America's national park. Joining the ranks of Yosemite and Zion, the Black Canyon can truly hold its own among the natural marvels of the world.
From Black Canyon Rock Climbs by Robbie Williams

With its remote circumstances, tick and poison ivy infested approaches, loose and unpredictable rock, challenging route finding, difficult and unprotected pegmatite bands, and long committed routes of up to Grade VI, climbing in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not for novices or for climbers who are not fully competent in free climbing on big, remote walls. This means sport 5.10 climbers can find this place extremely challenging.
In fact, climbing in the Black Canyon - Colorado's version of Yosemite - is as much a form of mountaineering as it is pure rock climbing. The limited view of incoming weather or unforeseen problems on an otherwise "moderate" route can turn a pleasant day's outing into a nightmarish epic. Remember that every climber needs to be thinking "self rescue" in Black Canyon. No helicopter will pluck you to safety. I heard stories about a long process taking sometimes up to 2 days to rescue stranded climbers. Still, for experienced, competent and committed climbers, the fearsome "Black" offers some of the North America's greatest rock climbing challenges in a wild and rugged setting. 
For me, it gives me humility. Not sure whether I can call myself a climber, always end up beat up and exhausted at the end of the day after climbing in Black, but I keep coming back. It is a magical place to climb and to visit.


The Dragon's Tooth 5.8+
The Dragon's Tooth as seen on the approach - SOB gully.
The top of 1st pitch
The top of first pitch - The Dragon Tooth, Black Canyon.

The Dragon's Tooth is one of the easier climbs in the canyon, and I had my eyes on it for a while. I remember looking at a beautiful 2nd pitch crack from the Casually Off the Route and thinking how inviting it looks. The route is not climbed very often, and the start can be a little confusing. It is a short climb for the Black's standard, only 4 pitches, and can be easily done in a half way. The views into the canyon below are amazing. We had a late afternoon start and there were no climbers on the Casually Off the route - I was hoping to take some action photos. This climb provides an excellent views of that climb. We heard climbers on other climbs below us echoing their communication. 

The climb is accessed via SOB Gully. This gully provides non-technical descent into the canyon and has dramatic views into the inner canyon. The upper section is poison ivy free, lower down pay attention - there is abundant poison ivy at the base of The Dragon Tooth. I would like to mention that the trail is improved and there is no more ladder climbing at the start of SOB Gully. 

SOB Gully accesses many other climbs: The Casual Route and Casually Off - Route, Escape Artist, Comic Relief - all down from The Dragon's Tooth on the left side, and Lauren’s Arete  on the right. The Dragon Tooth gives you a nice overview of Lauren's Arete. Further down the river is Russian Arete, another popular, long, moderate climb in the canyon. 

The rock on the left side of the SOB comprises some of the highest quality rock in the canyon. Ed Webster’s and Chester Dreimen’s two classic climbs, Comic Relief and Escape Artist, are the finest routes hereabouts. Casual Route and Casually  Off - Route offer some of the best introductory climbing in the canyon. I think that both Casual routes are slightly easier when compared to The Dragon's Tooth, have easier route finding, and a cleaner rock. I also believe that you should not underestimate this climb and be prepared that you may have to perform a lot more harder moves than 5.8 sport climbs. The route had no run outs - at least we did not feel that way.

Watch for the weather - it can change rapidly and you don't see the incoming clouds. Remember getting to the top is only 1/2 way, you still have to get down. The descent was easy to figure out, although there was no established path. 

Getting There

Black Canyon TOPO detail
Black Canyon TOPO
Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy in SOB gully.
To reach the North Rim:
 Take Hwy 92 past the town of Crawford and turn right (west) onto the North Rim Road, follow the signs for the national park for 11 miles to the North Rim Ranger Station and the North Rim Drive. The first half of the road is paved; the second half is graveled, but suitable for all vehicles. The road and the North Rim Ranger station are closed in the winter. 

Note there is no road that links the rims within the National Park - you have to drive around. It is more than 70 miles.

To reach the base of The Dragon's Tooth you have to hike down the SOB gully. The SOB gully is a dramatic but non-technical descent into the canyon and has long been popular with hikers, fishermen, and climbers. This gully accesses classic routes such as Escape Artist and Comic Relief, and one can head downstream to the base of the Painted Wall, passing the start of various Arete climbs. The length of the descent is 1.8 miles all the way to the river, but to the base of the climb you descent about halfway (~1 mile). It is class 3 trail down, no rappel necessary (Cruise Gully accessing Maiden Voyage and Leisure climb requires 2 rappels).

Vehicles can be parked in the pull through near the North Rim Campground registration station, or at the North Rim Registration Station. The route begins at the access ladder (access ladder removed this year, there is a sign for SOB gully), along the fence line on the North Rim Drive about 100 feet east of the junction of the campground circle road, or a short distance west of the ranger station. There is a sign at its start. 
As I mentioned above, you need to descent about 1 mile, or 1/2 down the gully. Count about 35 min on the hike. 
The formation of the Dragon's Tooth is easy to spot. Be aware of poison ivy at its base.  

Route Description

Climber on Dragon Tooth
The Dragon's Tooth as seen from Cassually Off Route
2nd pitch of The Dragon Tooth
2nd pitch of the Dragon Tooth - nice crack climb.
: Ed Webster and Chester Dreiman, October 21 1982

So far the only official rock climbing guide to Black Canyon by Robbie Williams does not provide a very detailed description of this climb. Park rangers are working on a new guide book, which hopefully will be released in a near future. Climbing park rangers at the North Rim Visitor Center also have on-line topos for some of the climbs, unfortunately they did not have a topo for the Dragon's Tooth. The topos are available for free, you can print it there, and ask about updates on routes. The park rangers are very helpful and friendly. 

The route is not very often climbed and there is some lichen on it. Definitively would benefit from more traffic. The pitch 2 and 4 are the best!

The route begins on the left side of the prominent tower that resides on the left side of the SOB gully. 

Pitch 1: Climb up an awkward corner on the left, then traverse right and jam a nice 5.8 finger/hand crack up the center of the slab to a belay. This is a description from Black Canyon Rock Climbs by Robbie William.  I believe that we got off the route. We started way down on the right side of the tower, and did some very awkward off width climbing for about 20 feet before finding the nice crack described on Pitch 2. We also free soloed some slabs below us, which some people may prefer to rope up for (a fall there would be exposed). I believe some other parties made the same mistake since there was a lot of chalk at the start of our climb. Anyway we found the start of the 2nd pitch without difficulties. My rating of our route would be more than 5.8. This is the Black after all, fun with route finding, some loose rock, and tons of poison ivy at the base of this climb. 

Pitch 2: Climb a nice crack 5.7, which becomes incipient about 1/2 way up and there is one interesting balancing move with a good foot placement to get you onto the continuation of the crack above. Right before this crack finishes, move onto a small ledge on your left. I think that one move is more difficult that 5.7, but most of this climb felt much easier. 

Pitch 3: Traverse left around corner, climb some ledges until you start to see the summit. Watch for some loose rock and slippery lichen on rocks. 

Pitch 4: Climb up the left edge of the buttress (5.8) to the top of the tower. There are anchors on the summit (cord around a boulder with 2 locking carabiners, good condition May 2013). The rappel station is easy to spot. 

Descent: Rappel on the opposite side of the tower, slightly overhanging, one 70 meter rope sufficient (we had about 6 meters long, possibly 60 meter rope may get you down with some elongation ???)

The best is to descent back into SOB gully and return back to the rim.

Another option would be to continue scramble and climb up to the top of Casually Off Route and end up on the top of the rim in the campground. I believe this second option would take much more time and involves bush wacking, and a long low 5th class climbing with loose rocks. 

Essential Gear

70 meter rope (or two 60 meter ropes), helmet, rock shoes, harness, nuts - whole set, cams up to #3.5, long slings. Rappel slings in a good condition as 5/2013.

External Links

Topping on Dragon Tooth
Topping on the summit of Dragon's Tooth 
Rappel from The Dragon Tooth

The Dragon's Tooth on Mountain Project