Canyon Tales
Sandthrax:
Chasm of Doom
by Shane Burrows

Thanks to everyone who provided help and information concerning our epic (One of my partners commented, “It’s not and epic unless someone dies”). Many of you were a great help to my wife as she tried to gather information and a reasonable search party. A rescue party would have required technical canyoneers. The local sheriff’s department is very good at finding lost hunters and hikers, but the slot we were caught in was something new to them.

I would like to give a special thanks to Dave Black who realized the danger we were in and rushed to the canyon. It would have taken someone with Dave’s skill to even locate us. Thanks to the other canyoneers who volunteered to go help. I am really impressed this group was starting to mobilize so quickly.

I will give you guys complete details in the near future but I will tell you this now. We entered a slot which we expected to take 3 to 4 hours car to car and spent over 30 hours in the canyon. We were blocked in the canyon when the watercourse entered a 6” slot which was 200 to 300 feet high, of course we were 70 feet above a Mae West slot when we reached this obstacle. There is such and animal as a 4A X canyon and we have pictures to prove it.

Thanks again to everyone.


Shane
October 30, 2001

•  October 28-29, 2001  •

Sandthrax Canyon is located in the extremely isolated country between Hanksville, Utah and Lake Powell. We left the trailhead at 8:00 a.m. on October 28, 2001, and hiked east up the north side of the short slot canyon. The hike was fairly easy with moderate route finding over slickrock. The hike up offered some good views into this very deep and narrow slot, of which the bottom was not visible. However, we were not worried since we had been doing slot canyons in the area for several weeks and had never encountered a major problem. We were over–confident and underestimated the difficulties we would face.

We reached our drop–in point at the head of the canyon at 8:45 a.m. The first rappel was 40 feet to the canyon bottom. We wrapped the rope around a bush to provide an anchor and rappelled into the slot. At the bottom of the rappel we found a Mylar ‘I Love You’ balloon which had drifted into the canyon. I had my picture taken with the balloon and Hank shoved it into his pack to remove the trash.

The first section of narrows was very beautiful with big swirling sculptured sandstone formations. We thought we had found a real gem of a canyon. The comment was made that this canyon had a different personality from the other canyons in the area. This comment would soon come back to haunt us.

The second rappel was from a chokestone we placed in a narrow constriction. We spent approximately one hour constructing this natural anchor. Our biggest problem was finding a large solid rock to place in the constriction because we planned to do the canyon with natural anchors to increase the challenge and fun. We had a bolt kit with three bolts that we joking referred to as our bag of courage. This was one of the few times I have carried a bolt kit, but the canyon was unexplored to the best of our knowledge, and it seemed like a good idea.

Shortly after the second rappel the canyon began to slot up into what is known as a ‘Mae West Slot,’ which is a V–shaped slot so narrow at the base that it is impossible to pass through. The standard technique for negotiating a Mae West is to chimney or stem over the constriction.

We began chimneying and soon found ourselves 50 feet above the canyon floor and the canyon was only 3 feet wide where we were. Hmmm ... this was starting to get very scary but the canyon was short so we had to be getting close to the end. The chimneying seemed to go on forever and I was beginning to get nervous. I had blown the side out of my sticky canyoneering shoes the day before, and I was now climbing in Adidas cross–trainers. I was certainly starting to miss my beloved canyoneering shoes with their super grip.

We soon reached a section where the canyon opened up. Chris and Hank provided human anchors while chimneying the Mae West slot and lowered me 40 feet on a rope to check out the route. I found a ‘Subway’ section back under the Mae West, which they could safely downclimb to the canyon floor. A ‘Subway’ is a large opening under a narrow slot that you can easily pass through.

We walked out the Subway to where the canyon opened up for a short distance and encountered our next major obstacle. The canyon returned to a Mae West and we were required to climb almost straight up for 40 feet to reach a point wide enough to begin chimneying again.

This is where Chris began to shine as he soloed the 40 foot 5.9 – 5.10 crack and set a top rope around a chokestone for Hank and I to jug up. Chris would save our butts more than once with outstanding rock climbing skills and a no surrender attitude.

After reaching the top of the climb we found a safe place to rest, 50 feet above the canyon bottom where three chokestones had become wedged into the Mae West slot. The chokestones were about 3 feet round and there was a place for everyone to sit and rest.

I looked at my watch and noticed it was getting late. The time was 3:00 p.m. and I had given my wife Shauna instructions to call Search and Rescue (SAR) if she had not heard from me by 5:00 p.m. This was to have been a three–hour tour and the canyon was getting rough, we starting joking that Gilligan’s Island had the same story line.

We continued chimneying down the Mae West slot for 100 feet and the canyon opened up to 20 feet wide and a 50 foot drop to the canyon bottom. We were quickly running out of daylight and things were getting dangerous so we abandoned our bolt free ethics and placed the first of our three bolts in the canyon wall. Hank was lowered to the canyon floor to explore a way out. As the sky was growing dark Hank reported back that further advance would require serious, unprotectable, off–width crack climbing.

According to Hank the final slot that stopped us was about 6” wide. To finish descending the canyon it would be necessary to climb this narrow slot. The depth of the canyon at this point was 400 to 500 feet and we had no idea what was beyond. Chris and I were around a bend and high above at our belay anchor and could not see the slot that halted our progress.

It was now completely dark and the decision was made to retreat to the relative safety of the three chokestones we had rested on earlier. Hank climbed up to our belay station and I headed back to the chokestones to set up a tyrolean traverse to shuttle our packs back up the canyon. I also placed webbing around the chokestones so we could tie in.

Chris decided that this moment would be a great opportunity to have a bowel movement. You must understand that it is totally dark, Chris is 100 feet down canyon from me, he is wearing a harness and he is chimneying between the canyon walls 70 feet off the deck. We have ropes hanging everywhere trying to shuttle our gear back up the canyon. In this framework Chris is somehow able to drop his pants and complete his business. Than he begins to cheer and tell us that only a highly skilled climber could accomplish such a masterful exploit 70 feet off the deck. As I reel in the rope to bring the next pack up canyon my hand touches a gooey spot on the rope. I look down to see what it is and the smell bombards my nose. Chris has crapped all over the rope! I spent the next few minutes cursing Chris as he cheered his spectacular exploit of climbing skill.

After everyone was perched on top of his respective chokestone we held a war council. We took inventory of everything we had at our disposal, food, water, equipment and skill. We also discussed our options and considered three. We could bivouac until morning and again try exiting the bottom of the canyon. We could bivouac until morning and than try reversing our entry route, or we could climb straight up and out.

Chris mentioned that he had studied a route to climb out while Hank and I were jugging ropes earlier in the day. Chris seemed to believe that if we could aid climb 50 feet above our present position the route had a 60% chance it would succeed. The added benefits were that we could work on this problem all night long which would keep us from getting extremely cold. Even if it failed we would be higher in the canyon and therefore easier for search and rescue to locate and extract us. Going higher also took us further away from flash flood potential.

I was the least prepared in my clothing and was wearing shorts, T–shirt, wind shirt and baseball cap. Chris loaned me a light pullover top and a spare pair of shorts that I put on. I placed a large plastic bag over my head, cut out a breathing hole, and put my baseball cap back on to conserve heat loss through my head. Not much clothing for the low 40–degree temperature we were expecting.

Chris and Hank had on long sleeve shirts and long pants. Chris had a light jacket and a wool hat. Hank removed the Mylar balloon we found earlier and fashioned a hat from it and placed his sun hat on top of that. Hank and I must have looked like real dorks but we didn’t care, our heads were semi–warm.

I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see it was 11:00 p.m. Chris was chomping at the bit to attack the wall above our chokestones.

Chris stemmed up the slot as far as possible and placed the second of our three bolts by hand drilling. Earlier we had used webbing and a 60–foot rope to construct etriers (a crude rope ladder). Chris clipped the first etrier in and we were on our way. It was not nearly as simple as it sounds and it was extremely time consuming. Chris did most of the difficult and dangerous climbing and kept prodding Hank and I on.

Chris was greatly worried that someone would loose the energy to climb. Chris had already been through a forced bivouac high on El Captain during a snowstorm. Chris told me that when morning came his partners did not have the energy to help with the extraction, and he didn’t want to fall victim to the same circumstance.

The first problem with our aid climbing solution was that we only had two bolts remaining with us after already using one to lower Hank earlier. After the second bolt was placed we had to pull the first bolt and repair it to be used again.

Bolt repair became my specialty, I would carefully disassemble all the tiny parts that make up an expansion anchor and bend or hammer them back to their original condition. I would place all the parts inside my hat to work on them. I was terrified that I would drop a part and destroy our escape. The basic thought running through my mind was “don’t f— up.”

The sandstone we were drilling was like sugar. Often after we completed drilling a hole it would be too large in diameter for the bolt to seat properly. We solved this problem by cutting 3–inch sections of rubber hose from my Camelback and placing them around the bolt. Then we would hammer the bolt with hose into the oversized hole and tighten the nut down with a wrench. Modifying the bolts with the rubber hose also became my responsibility. Everyone was finding a position where they could most help the team escape and smoothly working together. There were no arguments, second–guessing or bickering. Everyone knew what had to be done and how he could best help.

At first light we had climbed 60 feet to a small ledge which offered room for two climbers and was approximately 120 feet above the canyon floor. We decided to move our bivouac up to the ledge and work from there.

Before we could move our bivouac we needed to retrieve the first bolt we placed down the canyon, we desperately needed all three of our original bolts. Hank volunteered for this unenviable job and was soon climbing for the bolt.

When Hank returned from his mission accomplished, I began jugging the ropes to our new station. When I was halfway up the ropes the first search plane flew over and really raised our spirits, this was about 8:30 a.m. We knew the pilot couldn’t see us in the deep, dark chasm but we knew that people were looking for us and they were looking in the correct area. We also knew we needed to get high enough to signal and be seen.

Ross Schoenfeld, a family friend, piloted the plane. My father and brother, Joe and Todd Burrows, had located our cars at the trailhead at 2:00 a.m. and began a foot search at first light. The Garfield County Sheriff had been alerted and was on site in the morning. The Garfield County Sheriff summoned a Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) helicopter to help with the search, which arrived mid–morning. I had missed my check in time with Shauna and she had done an excellent job of mobilizing a search and rescue.

After the first search plane flew over we really worked hard to get a member of our party high on the canyon wall and into the sunlight where we could signal. Since I was already jugging the rope it became my job. I climbed to our new station and began to set up shop. I had Hanks Mylar balloon with me which I turned inside out to use the shinny aluminum surface as a signal mirror. We hung backpacks along the cliff face, and I constructed a signal mirror from a discarded sardine can by polishing the surface and poking a small hole in the center.

Hank and Chris disassembled our bivouac site and began moving it to our new location. Just as everyone was at the new site the UHP helicopter flew over and located our position.

We held a quick meeting and decided to keep climbing and try to extricate ourselves. Our decision was based on several items. First we didn’t know how long it would take to assemble a rope team with the ability to reach us and we were tired of being in the canyon. We had been without water for 12 hours and we were becoming exhausted. We really wanted to rescue ourselves after all the effort we had put into the project and agreed that as long as we could climb safely we were going to keep trying.

Chris led off climbing again and dispatched the next 100 feet of cliff by free climbing. The route was going better than expected and Chris was really moving fast. The entire team climbed the remaining 200 feet from the ledge to a weakness in the canyon rim in less than one hour.

From our exit point it took less than 20 minutes to reach our cars and a happy search party at 1:30 p.m.

We owe a lot of people for assembling a very well done search and rescue. I am still unclear on many of the details and the chain of events happening on the outside but to everyone who provided assistance you have my sincere thanks.


Shane

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© 2001 Shane Burrows
orginally published on Climb–Utah.com