Stuck in Chambers
Written By: Steve Susswein & Sue
Sue and I had a pretty serious epic in Chambers Canyon over the last couple of days. We both got out OK, but it was a close thing. I’m still pretty shaken up emotionally from the experience. Sue and I are each writing\posting separate trip reports so you can see both points of view.
We headed out of Durango for Southern Utah on Monday for a few days of canyons. On Tuesday, we did the Middle Fork of Upper Maidenwater and had a good time with no difficulties. I’d probably rate my skills as intermediate and Sue’s as novice (but not beginner). After Maidenwater we headed for the Roost where we planned to do White Roost and the North Fork of Robber’s Roost. We were both interested in doing Chambers, but I thought it was a bit too difficult to do with just the two of us. On the drive through Hanksville, I got a call from a friend inviting me on a river trip on Friday and, as a result, we changed our plans and decided to do Chambers on Wednesday and then drive home Wednesday afternoon.
We had Tom’s write–up of Chambers with us but not Shane’s. Neither of us is a morning person and, since the canyon was reported to be only 3–4 hours, we didn’t start until a little after 11 AM on Wednesday. We had no problem finding our way into the canyon and had a great time squeezing and downclimbing our way down what Tom calls the first section of narrows. We got to the rockfall area around 12:30 PM, had a quick snack break, and headed on down the elevator shaft to the second (last) section of narrows.
50–100’ into this section, we came to the first really narrow spot. I think this is the section that’s usually called the crux of the canyon. The canyon was quite narrow for about 30’, with water in the bottom and almost vertical walls above. It looked to me like chimneying over would be doable but difficult. But I thought we could squeeze through at the bottom — I’m 5’7”, 145 lbs, Sue is a little smaller.
I took off my pack and headed into the slot. A few feet in, I got stuck.
At first, I didn’t think it was too big of a deal, but, as we tried different techniques to get me unstuck, I found myself wedged in tighter and tighter. At this point I was wedged in on my ribcage at sternum level, looking upcanyon, unable to turn my head, and just able to touch bottom with my toes. It was probably around 1:00 PM when I first got stuck, and we tried for about an hour to get me unstuck. One of the things we tried was having Sue chimney above me and drop an étrier so I could try to pull myself up using my arms; but, even while exhaling, the effort of trying to pull myself up expanded my chest, and I wasn’t able to move upwards at all. I was able to get a piece of webbing around my waist, which I passed back to Sue and had her try to pull me out that way; but, while she could get my hips to move a bit, my chest was still firmly stuck.
At this point, I couldn’t think of anything else to try and decided that the best course was to send Sue out to call for a rescue. I had Sue place my pack next to me in the slot so that I had access to food and water. Then she chimneyed over me and headed downcanyon. It was about 2:00 PM at this point. I knew that we had cell phone service where the van was parked at the trailhead, so I figured that there was a good chance that SAR would be able to reach me by nightfall. I listened as Sue made her way downcanyon, feeling reasonably confident about the situation and how embarrassed I would feel about having to get rescued. I opened my pack and got out my wool hat since I was getting a little chilly (my feet were in the water about ankle deep). I also opened my first aid kit and popped a couple of muscle relaxants since I was starting to get cramps in my back and legs after being stuck in the same uncomfortable position for a couple of hours.
Shortly afterwards, Sue called out to me that she had reached a section she couldn’t climb up and was heading back to me to try to exit upcanyon. At this point my heart really sank. I knew what we had climbed down and didn’t think there was much chance that Sue would be able to upclimb it by herself. The seriousness of the situation really started to sink in—the realization that I might end up dying where I was, stuck in the slot, over the course of a few agonizing days. Sue chimneyed back over me and headed upcanyon. As she headed up, I told her that if I didn’t make it out, I wanted all my possessions donated to SUWA. The first obstacle, the elevator shaft down from the boulders, was only about 50’ upcanyon of where I was stuck, and I could hear when Sue started climbing it and then fell. When she came back and said that the upclimb wasn’t doable, I figured that our only way of getting out of there alive was if someone happened to come through and rescue us.
I’m guessing it was around 4:00 or 5:00 o’clock by this point. When I was going through my pack, getting out the wool hat and first aid kit, I had come across my pocket knife and tried to chip out some of the rock around my chest, but the angle and the fact that I only had one hand available meant that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Once Sue came back to where I was stuck, I had her find a hammer rock and try to chip out the rock around my chest. She could barely reach me. So I held the knife while she pounded on it with one hand. We managed to chip out a little rock, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going to work.
I’m not exactly sure which one of us thought of it first, but I asked Sue to find small rocks that I could drop down under my feet.
I wasn’t really thinking that this would get me out, but I was hoping to get into a slightly less uncomfortable position. Sue starting bringing rocks. I had to stretch out my left arm to grab them, then hand them over my head to my right arm, and drop them blind near my right foot. I’m guessing that only about 1 in 3 or 4 actually landed in a helpful place, but I was soon able to stand with my right foot flat and even push up a little to release some of the tension on my chest. Sue kept digging up rocks, I kept dropping them under my feet, and I slowly worked my way up and out of the constriction. I’m guessing that we probably collected and dropped over 50 rocks over the course of a couple of hours until I was free. I was pretty shaken up and probably a little shocky. I felt totally drained, physically and emotionally, and was shaking uncontrollably and not thinking real clearly.
It was after 8:00 PM and I’d been stuck for over 7 hours.
Sue was also exhausted after all her work, both trying to rescue me and climb out, and made the (very good) decision that we should spend the night and climb out the next day. When I was getting the muscle relaxants out of my first aid kit, I was only able to use one hand and ended up dropping the remainder of the kit. I hadn’t thought much about this at the time but now realized that the kit, along with the emergency space blanket inside it, was just out of reach. Sue tried to snag it with a talon hook on the end of a piece of webbing but was unsuccessful. We bedded down for the night in a small sand filled pothole. We each had a wool hat and windshirt and put our feet into our packs. I was wearing long pants but Sue was in shorts, so she wrapped our drybag around her upper legs. We snuggled up together and tried to sleep. I think I actually got a few hours sleep (maybe from the muscle relaxants?) but Sue couldn’t stop shivering and got almost no sleep.
The next morning we got up at first light, had a little bit to eat and drank a bit of our remaining water, and tried to head out. We were both weak and exhausted, and neither of us could make the crux moves into the chimney above where I’d been stuck. Sue had easily done the moves 3 or 4 times the day before but couldn’t do them now. I was terrified of falling back into the slot and backed off every time a foot slipped a little. After 3 or 4 attempts each, we realized we weren’t getting anywhere and headed back to where we’d slept to rest up. I realized that, even though I was no longer stuck, there was still a chance we might not make it out of the canyon; but I was comforted by the thought that at least I could move around and wouldn’t die wedged in.
As the morning wore on, the sun eventually made its way to where we were resting, and we both napped and warmed up in the small patch of sunlight. After a few hours we both woke up feeling much more rested and stronger. I think we both realized at this point that we had one more good shot left in us and that, if we were going to get out, it was now or never. We each tied a long piece of webbing to our packs, so that we wouldn’t have to bunny strap them through the slot, and headed back for one last try. Sue made it easily up, into, and through the slot and pulled her pack through after her. I also made it up and through the slot, but my pack got wedged when I tried to pull it through.
For about two seconds I thought about going back for it but knew that there was no way in hell that I was going to go back in there. Sue had a spare car key in her pack so, even though there was valuable water in my pack, we decided to leave it behind and go into survival mode. We made it through the rest of the canyon, staying high to avoid the upclimb that Sue wasn’t able to do the previous day. The sight of sunlight at the end of the slot was overwhelming, but I was so drained that I didn’t even have the energy to feel excited.
Sue’s GPS case had leaked and the directions for the exit were back in my pack. But we managed to slowly find our way out, up, and back to the trailhead, stopping every 50’ to rest. I’m guessing it took us over 2 hours to do what should have been an easy 45–minute walk.
We ate, drank, and drove out to Green River for the night. I’m home now, mostly none the worse for wear. I have scrapes on my nose, cheek, and chest, and my ribs are still painful when I breath or cough (probably bruised but not broken). My right arm\shoulder is weak (possibly from a pinched nerve) but seems to be getting better.
Account by Sue Agranoff:
Steve and I managed to turn a 3–4 hour adventure in Chambers into a 29–hour epic. Before we left home Steve said he didn’t think it was wise for us to do such a tight slot with just the two of us. But then, when we got to the White Roost area on Tuesday after doing Maidenwater, he reread the beta and it just sounded too interesting to pass up. I was a little concerned about my abilities on the ‘spicy/5.9ish’ upclimbs; little did I know that I’d end up doing what we think was the canyon crux about 5 times.
We drove to the end of the road Wednesday morning and headed out for Chambers about 11:15 AM. We enjoyed the squeezing and downclimbing in the Chambers section then went thru the subway–like section and took a break to bask in the sun and enjoy a snack. We then enjoyed the nice elevator downclimb; and I noted at that point that, up until there, we could possibly have climbed back upcanyon but this last one looked too tough for me.
Steve was in front and shortly after that he entered a tight section and said, “I’m not sure if I should be going high here.”
Two seconds later I hear, “Fuck! I’m stuck.”
He tried as hard as he could and couldn’t get himself out of there. I was able to get within about an arm’s length of him, but we were very cautious about me going any closer and getting stuck also. I tried pushing on his hips with my leg; I got him some webbing which he was able to wrap around his waist and I tried pulling on it; I tried chimneying up and over him several times to different spots and dropping étriers for him to pull himself up with; nothing was working. It probably was shortly after 1:00 when he had gotten stuck; at this point it was now 2ish; he told me it was time for me to try to get out and get help.
I filled my pack with webbing, a pot shot, several hooks and a few other assorted things, brought Steve his pack so he could get water etc. with his free hand, and, once again, chimneyed up and over him (this time with my pack hanging on a bunny strap) and headed downcanyon. Made it out of that narrow section (maybe 20’ long). Went thru a few more narrow sections where I could stay low, then one where I went up high, and came to a silo and dropped down. There was another climb after that which I just couldn’t get up. I realized that I probably should have remained high through that silo, but I was exhausted and the adrenaline was probably running out and I just didn’t think I could make it. So I headed back upcanyon to Steve.
I was having difficulty with the climb back to him, and he suggested that I attach webbing to my pack and just leave it down in the bottom of the canyon (which was wet) and pull it along occasionally. That worked. I told him about my difficulties getting downcanyon and that I was going to go upcanyon to see how that looked. I got up to what had been the nice elevator coming down and gave one quick attempt at climbing up it directly (useless). Then I thought that, if I got up high down below it, I might be able to climb around staying up high. I got up and where it widened out I found a few good footholds and thought I might have a chance.
Oops, a foot slipped and thud, I was down in the sand 7–8’ below.
Luckily, I didn’t hit anything on the way down and was basically ok. One more attempt at going up even higher a little further downcanyon which I quickly aborted because I realized that what had looked doable from down below was just likely to result in another fall. Back to Steve to report that I wasn’t getting out that way. Meanwhile, he had dropped his pack and first aid kit. I was able to recover the pack but not the first aid kit.
GOTTA TRY MORE WAYS TO GET STEVE OUT!
He had a small knife in his pack which he took out. He held it in his upcanyon hand against the wall and I leaned over with a rock and tried to chip away at the wall just beside his chest. It soon became clear, that was not going to be our savior. He suggested that I bring him rocks to try dropping under his feet. Luckily I found a good pothole about 50’ upcanyon that had a bunch of good rocks. I went back and forth: excavating and gathering rocks; carrying them to my ‘holding area;’ and carrying them to Steve a few at a time (I had to carry them through narrows with both hands outstretched to my sides). Maybe 1 rock out of 3 that he dropped did any good. He couldn’t turn his head to see what he was doing. Slowly he was able to get his feet up enough to be able to pivot his body and crawl up onto the chokestone between us.
He had escaped the chokehold of the canyon. Finally he emerged back out of the narrows. It was sometime after 8 PM; probably stuck for 7+ hours.
A LONG, COLD NIGHT ... BRRR!
Steve, not thinking particularly straight and not quite comprehending the 8 PM part, wanted us to try to get out of there that night. I convinced him that wouldn’t be the smart thing to do with darkness not far away (those canyons would have been very, very dark) and both of us totally exhausted. He said, if we were spending the night we ought to try to recover his first aid kit, which contained a few potentially helpful items: a space blanket and a balaclava. I tried retrieving it with a hook attached to some webbing, but there was nothing for the hook to grab onto and it just wasn’t working.
Well, it was a long, cold night and Steve actually slept a bunch—3 or 4 hours he says. I think I did well if I got an hour total. Most of the night I sat up because I found that I shivered less that way. Dawn came; we discussed our plans around 5 AM. I wanted to wait a little while until it lightened up a little more. About 6ish we both decided that we had to get moving and should give it a try. Downcanyon we went through the 50’ that I now knew so intimately. Who should try the climb first? Steve started up; he began to slip; so fearful of dropping back into the narrows he knew so well, he came back down. I gave it a try, made it a little further, slipping, trying to keep going, just gotta come back. Over the next couple of hours we each gave it another several more tries; just no energy; the adrenaline’s gone; the mind’s not right; just doesn’t happen.
We figured we had one shot left at it; had to wait to get in the right frame of mind and go for it. We noticed the sun was just starting to peek into our ‘bedroom’ and felt that the warmth of the sun was what we needed to energize us. We huddled in the rays as they moved along the wall and napped a little. And sometime, shortly after noon, we both decided that the time was right.
I go first. My pack is down below connected to webbing. Up and across I go, hopping my pack along over a few obstacles, and get to the end of that narrows section. I tell Steve not to worry too much about his pack, it’ll pull along fairly well. Up he goes. He makes it across. But he hasn’t done anything with his pack. We pull on the webbing and the pack gets stuck. Not moving. He says he’s not wasting his energy going back for it. Having done it the previous day, I knew that climb heading back was harder and decided it wasn’t worth expending any of my energy on it either.
So he lost a few things: over half of our much depleted water supply, pot shot, harness, hooks, watch, car key (of which I had another in my pack), baseball cap, etc. The good news (for Steve) was that he didn’t have to carry a pack through the rest of the narrows or on the hike out. We were feeling pretty good at this point, but we knew we weren’t totally out of the woods yet. On we went thru a few more sets of not too difficult narrows.
Then we got to the stretch where I had downclimbed too soon. Steve stayed up high across the silo and had no problems continuing up high. A few more fun sections and we saw the wide open sky!!!
WOW! WE’RE OUT!
We just went over to the shade and plopped down in exhaustion. We knew we still needed to find some energy for the hike out; but we knew now we would both get out. We pulled out the GPS from my pack figuring it will help us to find the canyon exit and Steve’s van. The dry case around it wasn’t dry; it had gotten a hole probably from a hook. The GPS didn’t power on. Oh well, we shouldn’t have any problem.
Once we exited the canyon the hike out seemed interminable. One foot in front of the other; as long as we were making forward progress we were doing good. Stopped to rest a lot; managed to each get a sip of water every 20 minutes or so. Steve picked a fairly good route; don’t think we did too much excessive climbing and dropping.
Then Steve spotted his van—still way in the distance—but it was there. Finally, it’s 100 yards ahead. Can I get there? Yes, it’s finally in front of both of us.
Open the van and gulp down some water. We’ve made it. Both, ‘relatively’ unscathed.
Chambers is a beautiful and fun canyon. I will definitely go back to enjoy its magic (after all, I was not the one stuck for 7 hours). I just hope that Steve can also one day go back and enjoy its splendor.