Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Sandthrax Canyon
by Ram

“Special thanks to all the partners, over the decades, who cajoled, nursed and often ‘carried’ me through special places I would not otherwise have had the pleasure to have experienced.”

Krakauer explains that his partner wanted to climb the Eiger and he, on the other hand, wanted to HAVE climbed the Eiger. So it was with me and Sandthrax Canyon. I wanted to HAVE descended it. It is what I told those assembled around the fire the eve before the descent. The canyon sits next to one of the campsites I have used most often over the years. Many who visit this campsite—also named Sandthrax—visit the canyon’s mouth and, the more curious, its rim and entry.

The story of the epic attempted descent had become legend in certain circles of the canyoneering community. The long bivy on individual chockstones, the upclimb 5.10-11 off–width crux waiting to trap the unsuspecting or underskilled, the reassembled bolts used to ladder out, the fear–inspiring final difficulties, seen by so many visitors to the bottom since. I had chosen never to view the canyon, except for fleeting and distant views, driving by, on the pavement. I figured never to enter this canyon, its crux moves being beyond the scope of my abilities.

I was wrong again.

With modest abilities but talented friends, I had again and again climbed that mountain and descended that canyon I thought above my abilities and was certain never to see and record in my mind’s eye. And so it was with Sandthrax too. And as usual, when I finally did go, I managed to have my moment that called into question my presence in such a place.

Talk of a descent had started a month or so before, Hank and Wyoming Dave chattering excitedly about a New Year’s time frame. At the same time Ryan Cornia offered to take me, having descended the canyon already. I diplomatically said “Let’s look at it when the time draws nearer.” Maybe it would snow. Maybe the walls, cold with winter, would be slippery and out of condition. Maybe the idea would simply slip away, as bravado is known to do, when the date draws near. Sometimes the stars all align. Steve ‘Spiderman’ Jackson, who had soloed the canyon, in remarkable time, was coming for the winter festival we call FreezeFest. Hank and Dave were still focused on the task. My 16–year old son Aaron, having walked the step–ladder of skill and accomplishment, was likely qualified and excited. I would not let my fear deny him his opportunity, but could I go elsewhere, knowing he would be in the belly of the beast? Ryan, shy as always of crowds, wished us luck and slipped off to solo explorations.

It was dinner time the night before ... dinner from the Dutch oven crowd, John and associates, having styled everyone at FreezeFest. I wasn’t committed to going. But the guys wanted me there and used the persuasion tactics, which I have used on others, with great success for decades. I smiled ruefully at the role reversal. I am a sucker for logic and the argument “When will it be a better crew and time? If not now, when?” was winning me over. I kept that close to my breast though, leaving myself room to wiggle out, with a “We shall see” comment. But unnoticed, the scotch flask never came out that evening and I did subtle stretching of my leg muscles around the fire. When I go for a big bad ascent or descent, this is my pattern. To bed at 12:15 AM. Also part of my pattern is to have nightmares the night before a committing day. On this night, dreams of falling and others of being wedged found form in my mind. Fortunately, I don’t need much sleep, so by 4:40 AM I was done with that torture for the evening.

A late wake up was planned, waiting for warmth and higher sun angles, so I alternated dozing and wide awake worry. When I share my worry too directly it steals confidence from my partners, but it is my process to work out all the ugly potential realities, as if to do so purges them from possibility and brings my focus to better sharpness. So sparing everyone, I looked over at my sleeping son and imagined bringing the worst possible news to his mother ... and the imagined pain of a 12–year old daughter, being told that dad wasn’t coming home. I would push it away and new forms of horror would work its way back in. A middle–aged man, wrestling with fear and consequences, and for what? To be more alive? To find the Zen of focus? To walk with the fears, but not have them lead the way?

I will go to the canyon. And so will the sleeping lad next to me. He has earned it, and I will not let him be a prisoner of my fear any more than allowing myself to be. He knows the rules. No mistakes. The boy can play. He has earned it.

In the morning, we make preparations. Bucky will join us. When I recruited him for the trip, I asked what canyons he would like to do. Having been ‘on the couch’ for 8 months, he said, “I am up for anything ... except probably Sandthrax.”

So naturally, he is going to Sandthrax too, on his first day out, making us a large but solid group of 6. Group gear is laid out. I circle the area, hoping my betters will gather it all up, and I spy Steve take most of it, without being noticed by the others. His considerable abilities would show no effect from the additional weight, and, when the gear gets used, it will be spread out amongst the group, late in the canyon. But for now he is the pack horse.

I finally see the approach for the first time. We determine the rim team headquarters. Big Rob Heineman in charge, fresh from belaying us out of Shenanigans, radio in hand, book in the pack, and dog buddy Gemmie for company. He joins the stroll to the canyon head. I go around a corner and there is the wash, easy to enter, and I feel a lump in my stomach. So soon? Ah well. I armor up. I don’t know what others are doing. Some are a ledge lower and conversing. I ask Aaron for some cookies and he gives me some. Being the owner of one of the world’s most fear–based, responsive digestive tracts, I expect to be running off to smear on the hill side, but this fear is a little more than the usual. Aaron has seen it before, as have many of my mountain buddies. I start to gag. The dog comes close, hoping for a partially digested meal. I wretch 5 or 6 times but hold my calories down. I look up, some tears in my eyes, to the look of wonder and concern from my canyon partners, who have never seen this dance before. Aaron shrugs.

I take a deep breath.

All have been loitering at the head. For me, it is now or never. I take the lead. I concentrate on good angles and form, for it bears the fruit of increased confidence, when all is right, and thus it is today. I feel great. A short entry rap comes in a few minutes, and I think too much again. Once down the drop, Dave says to Aaron, “We are in it now!”

The stemming is fairly straight–forward. One must find one’s level. We use the parallel–bar–hop to make fast progress and the feet–and–back–sideways motion for rest and more controlled progress. The best height to travel is unusually level. Usually more gradual ups and downs are called for. We reach a corner. A stem move is taken up a nose, or a physical ascending squeeze is taken by some. It goes at about 5.7 for either. Then the elevators and up again and suddenly we are 60 feet above the canyon floor, the walls flaring steeply up another 100 feet to the rim. I am relieved to see that, mostly, it is narrow enough, 15–20 feet below, to impede a fall to the canyon floor. A nice theory, better left untested.

Aaron is on point and he comes to a spot where he is not sure whether to go up or down. The wrong choice can result in the massive use of energy reserves or danger. Spiderman, moves from last to first, having descended the canyon only months ago. In rapid order, going very high over our heads, he is there and gone in what seems like an instant. The route is discussed and down this time. Up at the next meeting of route finders. I am feeling great. Feeling strong and moving confidently. It is an ‘on’ day. Bucky has all the moves, but needs to rest often. Hank too. Dave humors us and keeps the rear company. He could be gone in a flash, if he wanted to. Soon the canyon bows ahead in a silo too wide to stem, forcing us down to a ledge, just 30 feet from the canyon floor. The climb back up is an awkward move into a full body off–width. I go knee and back and take the physical moves slowly, arriving up top, without emptying my tank too much. Hank, who is last, bonks and must calorie up.

We await him up top, and I suddenly realize that I am on the chockstones that Hank, Shane and Chris had bivied on, some 5+ years ago. The walls above are steep. I marvel at their being able to exit from such a spot. I shiver thinking of a late October night, one man to a boulder, careful not to nod off and fall to their deaths. It is a haunted spot—and a pretty one, although the beauty probably escaped those fellows, 5 years back.

To this point we have moved crisply, if you can call the standard quarter mile–per–hour stemming speed crisp. The temperature is perfect for moving. Not so for standing around ... errrr, I mean stopping in stem position. Some get cold and proceed ... with the rope. Bucky reaches a silo of frightening dimensions. A wide stem with seemingly easy ledges, but wide extension, the canyon bottom staring at us 45 feet below. How about a belay? But the rope is below, just 50 yards ahead at the canyon crux. Bucky calls for the rope. I am not displeased. I think that, had the momentum of movement not been interrupted and had a modeling of the stem over been seen, we likely would have glided over this spot, with a quick gulp and a careful 7–step move, over the abyss. The bad news is that to get the rope back up to us is epic. A 50–foot elevator must be reversed. Spiderman and Aaron eye each other. Neither wants any part of this. Aaron sighs and volunteers. After an epic climb up, he provides us with an ‘in–canyon’ safety line. But how to get the second end over for a fixed line? Aaron says tie the biner to the rope and clip to the second rope and slide it. Doh!! All these experienced guys shown the way by the youngster.

Arriving at the crux, we find Dave already up. I think he did a combo of climbing and sliding the cams up for aid/climb combo. Great job. Wish I had seen it. Bucky jugs and being a little smaller than me, slides into the the last 5 feet of the 20–foot high off–width. My turn. My mind does not process mechanical systems well, and I am helped into the ascending rig. I am doing fine, forgoing the etrier foot loops for the few features on the wall. Soon, the jugs are into the narrow spot and I am too big to follow them in. The foot holds end and I am in trouble. If the angle of the rope had been more vertical. But alas, I am near hanging, just an inch from a foot hold, and, considering what I am hanging on and weighting, I am glad I have had my children already. I am just pitiful.

In an instant, the Spiderman stems up to the level of the top, gets tossed a sling, and is over the crux. I am way out of my league. I am now at the bottom again and, after a few minutes to compose myself, it is my turn again. Set up by Hank, I decide to use the foot loops this time. Steve has taken over being the anchor and in a much more advantageous spot—for me, not him. He is in a stemming position, knees a little bent, and taking the full weight of the big man. Now if I was just as fast, and I try to be, but I lose the foot loops twice and prove that walking and chewing gum ain’t easy for everyone. I see his light–skinned complexion turning a shade of bright red, his face in a painful grimace, and his right leg shaking from weight and effort. I am up and am I ever relieved ... and embarrassed. Bet he was relieved too.

I look around for something to do to help! Please let me help! Anything will do! Finally, I stem up and support Steve’s legs, taking some of the strain off of him. Aaron was going to try to do a free ascent, on belay; but folks were cold and it will have to wait for another day. Soon we are off again. A 100–foot long section of canyon, 70 feet up, straight as an arrow, intimidates but perhaps only because we could see so much of it at once? The climbing swoops down, then angles up. This is a wonderful section. Afterwards we are at a double arch rap station. Can be downclimbed, can be hand lined or rapped and it leads down, 2 tiers, to the canyon floor, in a completely dark corridor and into a minor subway section.

Feet on the ground!! First time in hours. A voice from the heavens. Rob says hi. The radios hadn’t worked. We relieve him from rim duty and he heads for the canyon mouth. Aaron and Hank had upclimbed this final section the day before. Aaron and I are together strolling. He warns me about letting my guard down too early. There is more business ahead. Spiderman and Dave finally get to stretch their legs and blitz the lower canyon. Aaron and I follow and the bottom drops out of our stroll. A 30–foot high blimp–shaped bombay hole underneath us. An easy angled stem at an exposed constriction does not reduce the seriousness. It is a funny spot. The wall taking our feet is bathed in sunshine. The first since we entered the canyon. The reflection of the sun prevents one from seeing the dark drop just below. You could be 3 feet off the ground for all you can tell. You know better. Nothing to do but focus on the moves. Exactly what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy with blinders on. Another silo 60 feet up and around the corner, the gradual descent to the ground. Aaron and I stop a few feet up and look down at our smiling pals at difficulties’ end.

Then we come down, after prolonging the feeling. We plan our trip toward Trail Canyon, if the other group is not back, and wait for Hank and Buck to finish and stroll into camp, meeting the Trail Canyon crew in one of life’s perfect timing moments. Both groups are just electrified, as we all seem to be walking on air. Stories fly. It is too bad Steve and his crew must leave. The skits and campfire that night were extra special.

I thank: Hank and Dave, for prodding me into going; Steve, for making it that much safer; Aaron, for climbing up with that rope and making sure I have no stories, but good ones, to share with his mother; Bucky, for his cool and calm; and Rob, for being there, in case anything had gone poorly.

I’ll go anywhere with you guys.


To myself, I asked the question why I was so pleased with the descent—always an exhilarating feeling—this time is was even stronger. Certainly the history of the place was a part of it. But there was more to it. I was forced to face the fact that it was partly because it is a known and feared canyon. If it had been a unknown canyon, in the corner of Escalante, would I have been as high? High, yes, but perhaps not as much. The day revealed a lot of flaws; these types of days and places always seem to ... Another, and very good, reason to visit them. My fear, my incompetency and now my vanity, as I wear the feather in my cap. It embarrasses and well it should. Confession is good for the soul.

Sandthrax is a dangerous place to allow self–deception. The place demands honesty.

Dave and Hank seemed to know I needed to go before I did. I told them that I was thrilled with the experience, but in no rush to go back, perhaps ever. They both laughed a derisive laugh at me and said, “You’re going back!” Here it is a week later, as I write this, and I know they are right. I think about Stevee and Tom and Corbin and Roy and Wade and Jud and Murray and several others, who haven’t been, and I wish to share this place with them. All the people I have bonded with before, stemming out between two high rock walls. I also have two 15–foot sections, one vertical, one horizontal that I wish to do in better style, but mostly I will go back to ‘dance’ in there again. The joyful dance of mind and body moving as one.


Ram

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