Canyon Tales
Sandthrax Upclimb
by Benjamin Hebb

Project Sandthrax: Vaccination

This is a trip report of my solo first ascent (as far as I know) of Sandthrax Canyon in Utah’s North Wash on Saturday, November 21st (2009?); it begins with a brief recount of my introduction to canyoneering about three weeks previously.

About three weeks before I tried to go up Sandthrax my prospective climbing partner for Utah bailed and I called up my buddy Eric. He did me proud and with only 6 hours notice was ready to go climb Argon tower in Arches National Park. The ‘catch’ was that we would have to go do slot canyons after that because Eric was already planning to.

After a somewhat eventful Friday on towers (Argon, which I backed off of after ripping some tracks with micro–nuts in a conglomerate of rice–cake and spit and another nameless one, in the dark, which we summited) I found myself in the ‘Sandthrax Campsite’ on Saturday morning. Eric and I had found roller–blading kneepads at the Wabisabi thrift-store which I dubiously donned as per his advice.

I also met Nathan and Jason, a couple of ‘experienced’ canyoneers. These guys and Eric took the lead and showed me how it was done. We made an uneventful descent of Sandthrax—my first canyon—over about 4.5 hours. I’m sure I slowed the others down a bit, being less experienced or possibly just slow, but I found all the stemming secure and, with the exception of the off–width crux, pretty enjoyable. It was fun and pretty neat to look at the funky canyon walls, with no fear as I knew Jason and Eric had been down it before. Jason, Nathan, and I took a lot of great pics. Eric doesn’t believe in documenting with such detail, an ethic I admire but haven’t adopted.

That evening I went to Hanksville. In Hanksville, there is a number you can call on the thrift store door. Then someone will, if they can, come and open it. You name your own price there, so I paid $5 for a new pair of pants.

The next day (Sunday) we went down No Kidding using sandbag anchors. This was fun, leaving no trace and so on. I like the idea of leaving canyons garbage–free, and we completely ‘ghosted’ it.

That was my introduction to canyons, but, as a climber, it didn’t seem fulfilling. My proclivity tends unerringly toward things which bring me ‘up’ and ‘across’, not ‘down’.

The progression was obvious. Back in Boulder, I texted Eric, “Let’s go climb up Sandthrax.”

Seconds later he texted back, “We’ll die for sure.”

“Of Sandthrax, I know,” I replied.

“It would take two days!” He sent back. This gave me pause. Just what would going up that beast entail? Nobody really knew.

Eric and I were planning a tower climbing trip over Thanksgiving. He called me and told me he couldn’t make it out to the desert until Monday morning. I was super amped up on the trip so I decided I’d go out Friday and do some stuff on my own. The top of my list was Sandthrax: Vaccination.

On Friday night I pulled into the Sandthrax campsite after an eight hour drive. On Saturday morning I hiked up to Sandthrax, intending to throw a rope on the first rappel. I wasn’t even sure I could reverse the drop going into the canyon at the very start, so I rigged up a fifteen–second anchor and dropped my short line as insurance. Then I draped a fat cord over the first rappel. The final climb, which went at 5.10, was protected with a prussic. After collecting my ‘insurance’ anchor, I trotted down to the start of Sandthrax to get vaccinated.

It was exciting that nobody I’d spoken to knew exactly what the ascent would involve. I had no real recollection from coming down; I hadn’t been thinking of ascending it at the time. I brought two 5′s and two 6′s, some runners, a liter of water, a light down layer, a 50–meter thin cord, and fruit nuggets in my mini haul bag. If I was stuck in it overnight I’d probably have frozen to death.

The daunting start, the first obstacle I knew I would face was a merry 5.7 chimney.

I soloed up to stemming width and hauled up my pack. Any higher up and the pack might catch when hauled.

Then I did some work—upward stemming. This proved to be a good sampler of what going up Sandthrax was all about but dialed down several notches for the kiddies.

It is a rather daunting what one typically sees when going up the canyon. The right road is always the high road. Someone asked me how you protect this—it made me giggle.

After a bit of work, I got to the flat sandy walk which runs for fifty yards or so near the bottom end of Sandthrax.

It was here, having some water and fruit nuggets, that I dropped my (brand new) camera and it died of Sandthrax. I made better time thereafter.

The end of the sandy walk, ascending the canyon, is a steep silo we’d rappelled a few weeks back. This was an obstacle I’d been dreading. I didn’t know if it was even possible to surmount; it proved to be an overhanging off–width crack, possibly too big or maybe just right for a 6. I was able to overcome this obstacle easily, by stemming up further back and doing a couple of nearly trivial, albeit X–rated, wide–stemming moves over the silo. I almost cut off the tat some other party had left for the rappel—it’s much easier to stem over that silo than some higher up the canyon. I hauled up my pack and proceeded to work.

The ‘steep and deep’ section (I think they call it an elevator shaft?) that is somewhat taxing and dangerous on the way downcanyon was possibly a little easier on the way up. It was fortuitous throughout that I was able to pick feasible lines, but lots of gradual upward stemming was inevitable.

I was now worrying about the crux 5.10 off–width, and soon I was looking down at it. I’d approached it from much higher than I’d come above it before. I lowered my pack and got out my cams, slung over my shoulder. After sliding down to the tight, off–width section I slotted in a right–arm chicken wing and placed a number six cam at about knee height on a four foot runner. Then I cautiously slid the chicken wing down a few feet, reached up, placed the six below me again, slid some more, and I was safely on the good foot hold. I replaced the cams in my pack, never having weighted them, having placed only one number six, and never taking them back out for the duration.

Having downclimbed the crux, I found myself faced with a narrow chimney. Those who’ve done Sandthrax may recall sliding down it before doing the crux. I was forced to solo this strenuous 25–foot 5.9 chimney. An uncontrolled fall here could have been bad; the canyon is pretty deep behind you. The only real danger should be running out of gas though ... it’s basically protected if you’ve slid down it before in a different position ... right?

After this chimney I came to the main silos (of course I didn’t use the very silly piton; in my opinion it shouldn’t even be there for the decent as those moves are more dangerous with it than without it. As I recall my best friend’s uncle, Jay Wilson, died rapping off a single pin in sandstone).

Another obstacle was giving me misgivings and significant feelings of foreboding: on the descent of Sandthrax, about mid-canyon, there is a long downclimb before a nice rest ledge (the bombay). I was going to have to climb up it somehow.

I soon came to the rest ledge. I wolfed down some fruit nuggets and water on the ledge. Then I dropped my bag and started the 35–foot up–solo. It was not too difficult until near the very top, at which point came a time I looked above myself eight feet and said “I really, really wish I was right there”. I had to fidget around and scrap about somewhat insecurely in the top section of the chimney above a pod where my legs could find no easy purchase. I would call this one 5.9+, one of the hardest going up the canyon. I did find a pretty secure way up after feeling the chimney up a bit. I think I chicken–winged and was finally secure when I could step upcanyon into a heel–toe stance and pull my bag up—physical.

I think it was after this that I hit the silo I didn’t remember from the way down. The moss on the walls down low had no streaks or smears in it, so I figured we must have come over it high. A moment later I found myself full–body stemmed, hands on vertical wall, bag dangling from my waist, and wanting to go back. The thought crossed my mind that I could only hold this position for a few seconds before I’d start getting sloppy, so I pushed ahead quickly and motored on to a secure stance. Whew! Then some more jolly stemming.

I came then to another silo which had been a 5.7 upclimb on the way downcanyon. It couldn’t be stemmed over, so I slid down into it and found myself staring at another 25–foot crack to more secure climbing. Well, here was an obstacle I had no recollection of whatsoever as it had been a breeze to slide down (as had been the off–width crux: Don’t underestimate how hard it is to go up what you can slide down with ease!).

It went at what I’d call 5.8 or 5.9 chimneying, succumbing to more chicken wings. I was pretty tired. If I had “fallen”, even if I’d just given up and slid back down, I felt I would be in trouble. I would have spent lots of energy and have no other option but to repeat what I’d just tried in a more exhausted state, so I was anxious to succeed, not knowing if there were more like this to come.

Higher up and further on, I came to a wet pothole. I was unable to reverse the moves we’d done to keep dry some weeks before and my shoes got soaked here on the ascent

After this I knew I was almost out as that wet pothole was in the first pictures Nathan took on the way down. There was one unavoidable 5.10 boulder problem (possibly harder if you’re shorter than I) which would have been trivial with a buddy for assistance. It involved stemming and pulling on holds, not chimneying. I managed it fine.

A big smile hit my face when I came to the ‘final rappel.’ As mentioned, I had a rope fixed there for protection, and because I didn’t know if free–climbing it was even possible.

It didn’t go easily because holds had to be emptied of sand, but I on–sighted it free–protected by a sliding prussic. It involved wide (for me) stemming on crumbly rock followed by two solid 5.10 face climbing moves. I would not place the rope beforehand now that I know I can do this upclimb; the landing on this one is relatively wide and sandy in the event of a fall.

As I mentioned, there are places to escape after this but I wanted the full value ascent so I did the next two boulder problems to get out of the canyon: they are a technical stemming problem, 5.9 or so, and a final flared–crack climb which I used double–hand stacks to surmount at about 5.8.

Overall I thought it was an excellent adventure, with pretty consistent difficulty. I enjoyed the upclimb a lot more and would rather go up than down any day. If the downclimb is 2 stars, up is 3 in my book. Highly recommended for those who can do it safely. My time from base to top was about 5.5 hours, but this could be shaved a lot by bringing a shorter rope and fewer cams, etc.

I did lose my car and apt. keys (found by another party, later). Fortunately I broke into my civic with 3 carabiners, a rubber band, and a stick and got my spares.

Nonsensical grade breakdown
25–foot 5.7 chimney at start,
dangerous 20–foot 5.10 off–width downclimb (8 feet of business) protectable with BD #6 Camalot,
20–foot 5.9 chimney,
35–foot 5.9+ chimney,
20–foot 5.9 chimney,
5.10 boulder problem,
25 feet of climbing with 5.10b–ish crux move,
then two more boulder problems gain the end.

Disclaimer: this is only the order that I remember it and difficulty is subjective. I may have left something out, and I’m not great at grading stuff.

•  General retrospective advice  •

— Always pick the high road, without exception. A flesh–hungry Siren by the name of Lucille lurks in the off–width depths. She will eat you alive if you venture too low.

— If you think a chicken wing is a red, saucy deal eaten with ranch dressing, do not attempt Sandthrax Vaccine.

— Don’t bring a 50–meter rope. 50 feet should be fine. Bring only one or, if aiding, two No. 6 cams for the off–width crux downclimb. It’s a toss–up in my book as to whether it’s worth bringing any at all.

— The upclimb is about twice as demanding, physically, as the downclimb. Stamina could be an issue even if you’ve got the moves, so be prepared. Nothing was as hard for me as the off–width crux going down the canyon in terms of individual moves, though I’m not the best with wide stuff.

Thanks to Penny who incidentally knew I was there, which was a comfort, and was kind enough to show me around some other minislots the next day. And also to Mike and Sue, who were the finest of company for the next day! Big thanks to Eric and Jason too for being nuts enough to go down this without anyone who’d done it before then showing it to me!


Link to Ben’s Adventures

Sandthrax Domination
by Jason Kaplan

The first nonfixed ascent of the entire canyon

It was about 3:30 on Friday afternoon, and as was often the case I was very anxious. I was hanging out getting medicated in the parking lot of my work place, I couldn’t stop thinking about what grand excitement I was to experience this time as I waited for my ride to arrive.

Moments later Ben arrived. We loaded his car up and hit the road. We had a fair drive ahead of us as we were headed out to the North Wash again to repeat a canyon that many people consider a test piece of sorts.

The goal was a little different this time however. We wanted to do it in a way that it had never been done before. You see, Ben is the only person to ever fully ascend Sandthrax. He did it solo and rigged a line or two up on the top as a safeguard in case he couldn’t climb the final moves out. He used a prussic as a solo belay as he free–climbed out the crux but stated that he wasn’t sure that he would bother with it the second time around.

So that was the goal: to ascend all of Sandthrax with out the aid of any fixed protection. We would not fix the crux climb out as the landing was flat and sandy (albeit around 20′ below the crux). We also would bring no rope or cams, just two potshots, a slim harness, and over 40′ of webbing as a limited safeguard. The idea being, if we couldn’t climb the crux, we could lob the shots up behind the boulders that make up the first rap going downcanyon.

So we arrived late as usual to the ‘Thrax campsite, I think we noticed two other groups as we came in but I don’t recall if anyone was awake. It sure wasn’t the social circle around the fire that I witnessed at Freeze Fest. I don’t remember if we stayed up long or if we had a fire. I think we had a short fire then passed out.

The fact that I was all medicated and drinking may have played part in the lack of memories during that time period. However I think a big part of it may have been the fact that “I was like a schoolgirl in a biker bar,” as Mr. Burrows once explained how he felt when he was around the beast.

It was almost the exact same feeling I had when Eric, Steve and I had first decided to pony up and go down this thing. Anxiety flooded my system as I pondered what I was getting myself into.

Soon enough the morning rolled around and the bright yellow tent was lit up like the sun. To my surprise however, when I opened it up and looked outside, it was not nearly as bright. Either way, I got up and started moving about, with Ben not long behind me. We had some tea and hydrated pretty good. Then we suited up and headed out.

I had a pack but no food as the gas station was closed when we rolled through Hanksville. I decided to bring some water along with the webbing, potshots, harness, shot of tequila, my meds, and camera.

Oh yea and I had some new approach shoes to try out! We were at the slot in no time flat and I was quite happy with how well my new shoes were gripping. I had to stop and dump some sand before I started heading up the first 5.7 chimney for maybe 25–35′. I got a picture of Ben as he went up in front of me and then started climbing. I used a different method to get up than I had used back at FreezeFest. This time instead of back and feet chimneying, I galloped because I had my pack on my back and didn’t feel like rigging up my harness and dangle strap.

This method worked surprisingly well for the majority of this climb, besides some slight insecurity in a few spots. I ended up using the ‘lame’ feet–and–back technique near the top. Next thing I knew we were motoring along at a pretty good pace (after I stopped on a chockstone and put on my harness and daisy), trying our best to stay as high as possible.

We also tried to gallop as much as possible and did whatever possible to avoid the extremely slow ‘lame’ feet–and–back technique, or the even worse feet–and–knees–and–back technique.

In no time flat we were at the subway, and we had to walk through some narrows filled with quicksand! I kind of thought we should have gone up before the narrow section to keep our feet dry. Turns out, we ended up wiggling our way up through a narrow constriction to a wider opening (with shoes covered in quick sand).

I was working pretty hard because of the width of the constriction and the fact my pack was hanging from my harness which was getting snagged on the wall in front of me. I got up to Ben eventually and realize we were not getting up above this opening. So we headed back just a little bit at the height we were at, and then I started chimneying straight up (Ben let me go first while snapping some pics with his camera). I found I was working really hard and, once I was about halfway up, I was nearly vomiting.

So I stoped and breathed for awhile trying to slow my rapid heart rate. I also tried to cool off a little as I was getting hot in my shortee with pants and a long sleeve over top. Eventually I calmed down a bit and continued up to the top of the climb (the climb is maybe 40–70′?). I stoped, waited for Ben, and medicated for a minute before we continued on to cross the first trivial—albeit X–rated—silo. This was the threaded hueco rap when you go downcanyon. I tried to get a pic of Ben crossing this one but my camera had already died of sandthrax. I followed behind and found it was really easy.

We continued along in good form, sprinting through good galloping stretches, switching to feet–and–back when it got tiring. We were cruising over long stretches of exposure and feeling great, sometimes crossing exceptionally wide holes and occasionally doing a little climbing up.

Next thing we knew were at the downclimb which is normally the crux you have to climb up on your way downcanyon. I decided to leave my pack and had Ben get the webbing ready just in case I need it. I went first since I had not done it before but Ben had. That way if I was in over my head, I could grab the webbing. Soon I was on the ground and, to my amazement, I was never really scared. Also, I found it pretty easy. I continued on upcanyon once Ben threw me my pack and I was sure he’d be alright.

I chimneyed up about 30–50′ before I could start progressing upcanyon again. It wasn’t extremely physical (probably less so than the one I almost vomited on) but surely had a lot of exposure. We continue on and shortly run into the next silo. Once again I am really surprised at how easy it was. This was the silo with the drilled angle. We both felt it was trivial, albeit X–rated. Had the silos been 12′ off the ground instead of 50′ then you wouldn’t even think twice about it (not that I did anyway).

On we went still in really good style. We were making good time it would seem and feeling really on point as we sprinted through stretches of 100+ feet at a time between breathers. There didn’t seem to really be too many silos in the mid–section. However there were some wide deep trenches that were a little exciting, mainly because I decided going down was a last resort, considering how much work it can be to climb back out. I remember one trench in particular that Ben mentioned remembering from his trip up. He said he didn’t remember it (during his solo ascent) but decided to stay high, got about halfway across, and nearly changed his mind. At that point he realized he had to move or he would run out of gas in the full bridge position and fall. I acknowledged this and started across up high bridging. I was moving fast. The first maybe 50–100′ went easily and I wondered what the big deal was. Then, when I got to about the halfway point, I realized it got a little harder and more physical. So I raced for the end trying not to run out of gas. I made it across and briefly commented to Ben about how I thought it was easy until the midpoint but then realized I didn’t have time to waste and needed to move fast.

I continued on in the lead like I had been since the crux silo, and I was really trying to make the best time possible while maintaining efficient movement. I was trying to get a good enough lead that I was alone for short periods of time and it was working as I went over a lot of stuff that’s really wide. I tried my hardest to never go down and, really, for the most part it was working. Next thing I knew, the bombay was coming into view for me and I excitedly called back to Ben. He said he wanted to stop for some water and some fruit snacks on the ledge in the Bombay. I got closer and realized I could go up in a wide spot before I even got to the bombay and ledge. Ben was a little unsure and wanted to push on to the ledge, but I insisted.

“It’s going to be so much easier to get up here where there is room to move instead of back in there where it’s going to be really tight and awkward”.

I pushed on upward, and I found it was pretty manageable as long as you were comfortable with big exposure (maybe 50′?). Ben was still a little worried that it was going to end up being a silo above and we might not have been able to cross it. He decided to hang back as I scouted what was ahead. Turns out, it was no biggie and I crossed over the top of the bombay with no issue. I did however remember a semi–trivial spot where there was some rotten rock but it was short lived. On we went in the same fashion (I think we climbed over a fair bit that we traveled lower on trips downcanyon to avoid as much extra climbing as possible) until we ended up at another little silo that couldn’t be crossed. We downclimbed into it and back out the other side. I found this one to be fairly physical as there was no option to stay out of the constriction. I wormed my way up a little ways so I could work some stacked feet and double–arm bars (face in arms crossed like stacking, palms against the walls levering off the elbows). Next thing I know I’ve climbed out the maybe 20–foot crack and I could move upcanyon again.

I was getting really excited because I knew we were near the end. However I had noticed a bit of fatigue setting in (mostly working the last climb). I know the crux of climbing up the canyon still lay ahead. For about the first time all day I started to feel the pressure set in. I was nervous about how hard it would be and if I had it in me.

Soon we arrived at the section with the small pothole near the top which was filled with water last time. This time only half of the hole had water, however Ben and I still felt very compelled to try to reverse the moves we had pulled on the trip downcanyon to try to keep our shoes dry. I tried valiantly and ended up ripping the holds off as I went flying into the wet sandy landing. Luckily I didn’t land directly in the water, but now the moves seemed super bleak. I tired a couple more tries to no avail then decided to give up. I went to climb the off–width out of the water but found I couldn’t get in it without getting in the water first.

No thank you! I thought I’d try my best ninja impression instead. So I tried to make a couple lunging steps toward the crack on the sidewalk above the hole. I stepped high as the sidewalk rolls into the wall that makes up the left side of the crack, pushed hard and jumped onto the right side wall, and pushed back off into the left wall. I stuck the landing in a gallop position, then quickly turned to knees–and–back, and wiggled my way up. Then I was greeted to some sandy walking for a minute as I approached the crux. Thankfully Ben let me go for the on–sight free solo of the crux. I walked up and realized it was going to be pretty tricky.

The sand on the floor was slightly damp which doesn’t help. I had to start off working up this very shallow, flared, finger crack. Down low you could kinda work crappy hands but it really thined out the higher you got.

“Let the fun begin ...”

I got up to about where it petered out, maybe halfway, realized how desperate it was and started fighting my hardest so I didn’t blow the on–sight. I was on the verge of giving up and falling and, in a last ditch move of desperation, I set my feet in the groove and fell over to my side to the opposing wall. Wow! It worked I was now leaning almost horizontally into the other wall and somehow figured out how to get into a stem. But I was facing downcanyon! Crap, how was I going to get turned around now in this full–blown stem? I was not. So I stemed up a ways until I started to get really strung out. I was probably about 20′ up. I felt like I was maxed out on my stem and I needed to go up another 5 feet, at least, until it let up. I was crying the blues, wanting my mom to help me, etc.

“Sh**! F*** me! What do I do here?”

“You look good man, but I don’t know.”

“You want a spot or you want documentation???”

“I think I’ll be fine???”

There was a crack on the wall opposing the one I started on and it was providing a good edge for my stem. But once I got to where I’m at now, I blew out a good chunk off the edge of it.

Somehow I desperately stemed up a little higher, fully stretched out, (really hoping there are no more blow–outs) to where I could reach a key side pull, laid back, turned around and stood on a crescent ledge a mere five or so feet from the top!

Next thing I knew I was lounging on the blocks on the top in the sun really happy to be there. I hauled up my pack and Ben followed up in short order, much less desperately then I did it seemed.

We high–fived knowing that it was all but over except for a couple fun short bouldering problems. We continued on up maybe two or three more little drops and it was over.

We made it!!!


Original Sources:
Sandthrax Upclimb, Ben’s Adventures • Ben Hebb
Sandthrax Domination Photos • Jason Kaplan

Tales of Sandthrax:
  Dog–Gone–It Name Entry • Steve Allen
  Sandthrax • Hank Moon
  Chasm of Doom • Shane Burrows
  Sandthrax Solo • Scott Card & Steven Jackson
  Sandthrax Canyon • Ram
  Sandthrax Upclimb • Ben Hebb & Jason Kaplan

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2009 Benjamin Hebb & Jason Kaplan