Vandenbusche to tell Black Canyon Adventure Tale in Crested Butte on March 4
Mar. 1, 2010 -- Occasionally history outshines fiction, as in the perilous 1901 expedition into the then-untamed Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
The heroic struggle of explorers Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence recalls Indiana Jones’ wilder escapades.
“It was one of the great adventures of the American West,” said Duane Vandenbusche, noted historian and storyteller of the Gunnison Valley.
Vandenbusche will share photos and tales from the Torrence-Fellows expedition at a free public presentation at Crested Butte’s Old Rock Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 4.
Fellows, a hydrographer, and young, athletic William Torrence of Montrose left in August of 1901 to navigate the Black Canyon, whose sheer walls rose half a mile high on both sides of the ferocious Gunnison River. Their ultimate goal: to determine the feasibility of digging a tunnel to divert water to irrigate the arid Uncompahgre Valley. Their immediate goal: to survive, in a mysterious canyon that no one had successfully traveled before.
According to Vandenbusche’s book, "The Gunnison Country", the two set off carrying a small rubber raft, two 600-foot silk lifelines, rubber bags for food and hunting knives. They walked narrow ledges above the water when possible and swam or used the raft when the rock walls crowded them into the roaring water.
At one point the Gunnison River thundered down through a narrow gorge; the explorers could see only the mist of falling water and the tops of trees on both sides of the gorge in front of them. With no choice, they slammed down the rapids, being battered against rocks as they tumbled down the falls.
Bruised, exhausted and starving, they eventually faced a crisis. Ahead of them, the canyon was blocked by building-sized boulders, polished unclimbably smooth by water. On both sides of the river, vertical rock walls rose hundreds of feet. Behind them, the wall-to-wall pounding river cut off any thought of retreat. Their only avenue appeared to be the churning water that funneled into a sort of cavern formed by the fallen boulders. They had no idea what happened when the water disappeared into the frothing depths; they saw only darkness there.
The two “decided to attempt to go with the boiling waters into the unknown depths of the foam-flecked cavern. Fellows slid off the rock into the whirlpool of water. Torrence saw him turned over as soon as he struck the water and as he shot under the archway all that could be seen was one of his feet whirling around in the mad torrent. Torrence didn’t expect to ever meet him alive, and for a long time sat there before he could decide to court what seemed to be the certain fate of his companion. At last, it being the only alternative that presented a single hope for life, he, too, plunged in.” (Source: The Uncompahgre Valley and the Gunnison Tunnel, by Barton Marsh.)
What happened next will be revealed by the master storyteller at his March 4 presentation. The evening is co-sponsored by the Crested Butte Friends of the Library and the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum, which will provide refreshments unlike anything imagined by Torrence and Fellows in the depths of the Black Canyon.
At the program, people can purchase and/or have Vandenbusche sign their copies of his new book, "The Black Canyon of the Gunnison".
Press Release by Sandy Fails, Crested Butte Friends of the Library
Reprinted with permission from Crested Butte Friends of the Library.