Canyon Tales
by Nat Smale
“Highlights in Utah last year (1996) included a technical slots trip with the Young Turks into a series of particularly difficult canyons in the Escalante, including one we named PINTAC (Pain in the Ass Crack). It was a classic ‘Mae West’ canyon, a slot that is narrow at the bottom, widens at the hips, then narrows again at the waist. You traverse the slot at a level where you can squeeze your body through, and climb up or down between levels as variations in the width of the slot dictate. Sometimes you are near the bottom of the slot, other times you are a hundred or more feet off the ground.”
— Steve Allen

—  September 2005  —

Jeff and I started Sunday morning at 7:45 AM at the Chimney Rock trailhead, hiked down to Coyote, then downstream until just after the mouth of Sleepy Hollow where we climbed up onto the slickrock to the north. We hiked northeast between Long Branch and Don’t Do It (DDI) until near King Mesa, where we crossed the shallow head of DDI. From there we hiked over an obvious saddle between the southeast part of King Mesa and a ridge. PINTAC (Pain in the Ass Crack) starts immediately on the other side.

The slot part of the drainage ends about halfway down to Dry Fork, where the canyon jogs from southwest to southeast. Also, about 400 meters above this point is a place you can walk in or out, that I will call ‘the Exit.’ We dropped into the canyon 50 feet down from the head. It slots up right away with high–stemming. There were a bunch of sharp ‘moqui marbles’ embedded in the walls.

Jeff grinned and said, “Pain in the ass crack!”

We felt pretty good at first, and it took us about 45 minutes to get to the first point where the canyon jogs a bit more to the south. At this point, there are fault–line side canyons on either side that one can exit. We continued and the canyon got harder with more difficult upclimb–chimneys. After a couple hundred more meters the canyon jogs again (there are also fault–line canyons coming in at this point and it looked like there were exits here) and heads due south.

Although none of the canyon is easy and there is high–stemming throughout (for almost a mile), the next 600 meters or so is probably the crux and took us several hours. It is very deep, often dark, usually we were stemming high, sometimes coming down to the bottom briefly before climbing again; it seemed to go on forever. Many of the climbs were quite strenuous, and eventually we got very tired. At some point our arm muscles (forearms and tricepts) would cramp up. We should have stopped sooner for a more substantial break and lunch, but we were too involved with the job at hand and I was hoping to get to the Exit for lunch.

In this section there are 2 short raps off of boulders or chockstones, with ancient sling material. We should’ve replaced the slings, but we were in a hurry so I belayed the anchor while Jeff rapped first and gave it a good test. We ran out of water (we had brought 3 quarts each) and felt really beat. Eventually, about 100 meters before the Exit, the canyon eased a bit, and we found a pothole and a good place to stop for lunch (3:30pm). Afterwards, we felt much better. I had been considering bailing at the Exit because we were so tired and out of water, but we felt good enough to go on.

After passing the Exit we had 400 meters more of slot, the same old stuff, high–stemming, etc. It was very beautiful, convoluted with lots of scoops. Finally, we saw the canyon jog to the left up ahead and, a bit later, we chimneyed 50 feet down to the floor and walked out of the slot.


Several whoops and hollers of relief and happiness ensued. It was after 5 PM; the rest of the canyon took about an hour. It was a walk through with 2 raps about 75’ and 50’, very beautiful, with nice springs. We then walked back up Coyote and to our car, arriving 12 hours after we left. It was an exceptional slot and great adventure, though not always easy to enjoy.

•  Comments  •

Both Jeff and I found this to be an exceedingly hard canyon, and much, much harder than Big Tony, DDI, Egypt 4, or anything else we have done. Steve Allen’s ratings of the two aren’t that different. He has Big Tony at Grade IV 5.7/5.8 80’ R/X, and PINTAC at grade IV 5.8 100’ X. What makes it so hard is the relentless nature of it. Hard climbing and high stemming (up to 60–80ft up) for almost a mile or 7¼ hours for us. We were probably climbing and stemming 90% of the time. In Big Tony the high–stemming part is only about 300 meters or an hour and a half. The problem with the length is that your body just gets very tired and any slip or mistake in there would be a disaster. I would have felt better in there if I had been doing some full body workouts (weight lifting maybe?) in preparation. I think that it is important to be in really good shape for this slot. I would give Big Tony a grade III and PINTAC a grade V.

Water is an issue—we brought 3 quarts each which wouldn’t have been nearly enough if the potholes were dry. Probably there usually are potholes, but who knows? All of the hard work requires a lot of water, at least for me.

Time is another issue—it took us 12 hours car to car, and there were only 2 of us, and I think that we were moving at a reasonable pace. Although it would be less satisfying, it might be reasonable to stash some bivy gear and water at the Exit and camp there. It depends on how fast your group is moving. I would certainly recommend getting an earlier start than we did.

All an all, a fantastic slot, and I highly recommend it, but it deserves careful consideration.

•  Comments — 2009  •

In retrospect, we are pretty sure that our muscle cramps and soreness during the hike were due to dehydration, not to the hard climbing. After all, our forearms were cramping, and we certainly didn’t use our fingers that much. The temps were quite warm, probably around 90° (cooler undoubtedly in the bottom of the slot). We were VERY thirsty by the time we reached the Exit, essentially out of water. We tanked up from shallow potholes at that point.

Some more comparisons with other high–stemming slots: The only other slot that I have done that is comparable in difficulty is Long Branch, which is similar; possibly more sketchy, but slightly less strenuous. What sets these apart from all the other hard high–stemming slots I’ve done (E4, DDI, Big Tony, Sandthrax, Psyco D, Glaucoma) is the length and continuity of high stemming. DDI and E4 are long and strenuous, but I was still fine on doing a canyon the next day. After these two, I was tired and sore enough, that I really didn’t want to do anything. Glaucoma has some pretty strenuous upclimbs, and has continuous high–stemming—it would be comparable to a stretch (one third?) of PINTAC.


Tales of Long Branch & PINTAC:
  PINTAC • Nat Smale
  Long Branch • Nat Smale
  A Hardest Day & a Favorite Canyon • Jason Kaplan
  PINTAC in 1996 Letter • Steve Allen
  PINTAC in 1997 Letter • Steve Allen

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2005 & 2009 Nat Smale