"Chasm of Doom"
October 28-29, 2001
Written By: Shane Burrows Hank Moon, Chris R. and myself planned to explore Sandthrax, a slot canyon we had just "discovered" near Hanksville, Utah. This little morning hike turned into an epic when the canyon was more difficult than we had anticipated. This canyon is very dangerous and I strongly advise that you do not enter it. This document is the story of what I experienced and was thinking, the other members in my party probably have a different perspective and thoughts. I will leave it to them to describe what they were thinking and feeling.
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 confidant 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.
In March 2002, members of the original descent team using only natural anchors successfully descended Sandthrax Canyon, no bolts were used. Sandthrax is not a canyon suitable for the general canyoneering public. Specialized equipment and skills were required to successfully descend this canyon. The original descent team has removed all bolts they placed in the epic extraction of their first attempt.