Sandthrax Slot Canyon

Sandthrax Canyon
Epic Debacle

May 2010
Written By: Adam Wilkins

The first decent party bridged and stemmed their way with back and feet pressing against opposing canyon walls, knowing all the while that one wrong move would send them plummeting into the constricting chasm 50 feet below. The twisted personality of the canyon had the ability to wedge them indefinitely in place or mangle them beyond belief.

They thought the hardest sections were behind them, they had arrived at the chokestones above the first strenuous up-climb known in the world of rock climbing as a off-width. A vertical crack too wide to jam securely with hands, fingers, or fists, where instead one resorts to outrageously insecure methods of jamming, knees, elbows, and sometimes the entire body into the crack, moving upward inches at a time…

The Story:
Chou and I decided earlier in the week that we needed to get out for the weekend. Monday marked the beginning of a new semester for him and he was motivated to make the most of it, I proposed we return to Castleton Tower in Moab to redeem ourselves from our utter failure to even make it halfway up the approach last fall because of the severity of our self-induced sickness intrinsic to our known call sign of the Alcoholic Alpinists. "Hell", I said, " lets one up ourselves this time and do Sandthrax in the same weekend", "why not?" "The vast canyoneering public are all middle-aged and overweight anyway right?" "No big deal, how hard could it be?" In hindsight, this very attitude, we both agree, is largely what contributed to our failure.

Friday night rolled around and we were more than ready to get out of the city. Braiden picked me up around 5pm and after realizing that my printer wasn't working, made a quick stop at my dads house to print off the Sandthrax route description, taking one and leaving one with him. We rolled into Moab around 10:30, filled up our water jugs at the river road spring where we realized we had forgotten a tent, quick trip to the Moab market for some ten-dollar tarps that we were soon comfortably wrapped up for a semi-rainy night in Castle Valley.

After climbing Castleton Tower, and a brilliantly bright star filled night, we got going and started gearing up at the Sandthrax trailhead, it didn't take very long as we didn't really bring any gear other than 60 feet of webbing, our climbing shoes, harnesses, belay devices, water bottle, a 1/4 bag of trail mix and a smashed sandwich. The route description we had said the canyon would take no more than 6 hours, so, packed up light, we kicked off the approach and started hiking.

Sandthrax Slot Canyon Sandthrax Slot Canyon

We descended into the canyon using our webbing, and navigated several water filled potholes without getting wet. Only a few hundred feet into the canyon the stemming begins, fairly benign at first, 15 to 20 feet above the bottom of the V shaped canyon for a short time, then the canyon quickly gets deeper until you are stemming 50 feet above the canyon floor. Falling here would be terrible, especially if you went head first, pin-balling off the sides of the canyon until you wedged in at the bottom.

The canyon seemed to go on forever, and two or three hours in, still working our way down-canyon, I started to become aware of how slow we were moving, Braiden was getting a little spooked at the higher wider sections, and taking breaks frequently. As we got deeper the canyon started to change rapidly, we were now stemming over, descending into, and stemming out of 60, 70, and 80 foot silos. Silos are formed when the canyon turns a sharp corner, or hits a softer pocket of rock, the water, reacting to the sudden change in direction, swirls around, boring enormous holes that extend to the bottom of the canyon. The feeling you get compares nicely to standing inside a giant grain silo, hence the name.

Just after descending a silo was the first hard up climb, an off-width and chimney section that was around 45 feet high to some chock stones lodged between the walls. The sun was going down quickly, and we both were starting to get worried, we had run out of water an hour ago and were starting to realize how quickly we would become dehydrated. On top of the chokestones Braiden told me he was so exhausted and scared that he couldn't keep going. At this point I was really fighting to stay calm because I had the undeniable feeling that shit was really going to hit the fan quickly, I had to move and move fast. The plan was that I would finish the canyon alone and return to the car where I could get our ropes and gear to get him out. Reluctantly, I started stemming off the chokestone ledge down canyon, at this point it was about 80 feet to the canyon floor, and with the light fading quickly I was starting to get a little spooked. A few hundred feet down from the chokestones I hit the edge of a massive silo. I could see one drilled piton with a quick-link, and chimneyed down another 20 feet to reach it, once there I took the webbing out and attached it to the quick-link and proceeded to belay myself across, at the other side the canyon constricted for 20 feet or so, still 80+ feet off the ground, then opened up into an even bigger silo that was impossible to stem. I rappelled down into the chimney at the edge of the silo as far as I could using the webbing, untied, and chimneyed down the remaining 40 feet or so. The bottom of the canyon turned sharply to the right, where it dropped off an additional 40 feet into a hole with nasty sandstone fins. Cautiously I skirted the hole to take a look at the crack that obviously was the only way out. Oh Shit. Were screwed. The crack is hard, I mean really hard, a nasty off-width about 6" wide, sandy, and impressively flared, my adrenaline surged just looking at it, said to be around 5.11c for 30 feet and still another 20 feet of hard 5.10 climbing. I have the feeling I can do it. I'll give it a shot. Shit. No way. With no gear and faced with a catastrophic fall even in the first few moves backwards and into the depths of that nasty man-eating fin filled hole it was just too heady, there would be no warm up run, blow a move, you die.

I called up to Braiden to let him know I couldn't do it, the risk was too high, and that we would have to figure another way out. For a second I panicked, my adrenaline surged, it was damn near dark, and I had never been so thirsty in my life.

I climbed up about 30 feet into the chimney heading in Braiden's direction, dropped into the bottom of the silo where the webbing was hanging, and climbed out hand over hand 60 feet. When I finally made it back to where Braiden was perched on the chokestones, we started going over our options, our probability of rescue, and how long we had to live if the rescue didn't come. At this point we knew we needed to keep our cool, it was turning into a really bad situation quickly, it had been 9 hours since we entered the canyon and I was starting to get muscle cramps and spasms resulting from dehydration. Braiden was pretty worked at that point as well, fatigued mentally and physically, exhausted and scared. While sitting on the chokestones an idea occurred to me, there was a good-sized rock that was available right there in between the chock stones (loose rocks of the right size in any other part of the canyon were almost impossible to find), we had webbing, and we had the harness bag Braiden had been using to carry the webbing, smashed sandwich, and the trail mix. When I told Braiden what I was thinking his demeanor noticeably changed with that small bit of hope as we moved to attempt the escape. We emptied out the harness bag of all unessential items, and replaced them with the rock.

I left the chokestones first, trailing the webbing. When I made it to the piton in the silo, I reattached the webbing and belayed myself across just as I had before, I then went as far as I could into the next section of mae west slot, and wedged my body into a fairly comfortable belay position. Braiden clipped into the webbing while I held it tight, using it as a Tyrolean traverse to get across the silo. We traded positions, and while Braiden rappelled into the crux off-width silo, I moved back up the canyon to the edge of the last silo. Since I couldn't get to where the webbing was tied to the piton and make it back to where I currently was at the other side of the silo, and I needed all the webbing I could get, it would have to be cut. I know that it is pretty stupid that we didn't have a knife with us, but that's how it was, all we had was a lighter. I started burning through the webbing, but it was taking a little more time than I thought, and as a result the lighter overheated and the spark wheel popped out extinguishing the flame. "Jesus we might f***cking die" I was promptly and viciously reprimanded by Braiden for saying that. It was definitely not the best thing to say out-loud given the situation and I felt pretty bad. Back to operation webbing sever plan B….there was no plan B. That was our last and only chance of getting out of the canyon by ourselves, and I just singlehandedly f***ed it up big time. I remembered that I had my Reverso, a belay device unlike most others in that it is made with two die cut and dissecting pieces of aluminum plate, allowing me to use it essentially as a very dull chopping blade. After about a half hour of adrenaline fed desperate hacking and chopping, and knuckles cut damn near to the bone I finally made it through.

Sandthrax Slot Canyon Sandthrax Slot Canyon

I quickly chimneyed the 80 or so feet down to Braiden, and after tying all the necessary knots, the webbing was tightly secured to the rock which was still inside the harness bag. I stemmed my feet up and over the 30 foot hole to the bottom of the silo, while Braiden held me so I wouldn't fall, I swung the rock at the end of the webbing, and tossed it up into the crack… Perfect! A little lower than what I had hoped, but enough that I could tie in and have some protection past the hardest section, the bottom 15 feet. After getting high enough that the webbing was getting tight, I unclipped, all points off, free soloing for the remaining 20 feet.

It was completely dark at this point and after catching my breath in the slot above I continued down the canyon at a pretty fast pace, excited to get the hell out of the canyon and drink some water, the thought of drinking an entire gallon of water was tantalizing. A hundred or so yards from where I climbed out of the silo I hit (what else) another silo, and in the darkness I could not see how deep or how far apart the walls were, I tossed in some stones I had collected on the approach hike to try to gauge the depth.. bottomless. Obscenities of the highest order were heard echoing off the canyon walls as I informed Braiden that we would be spending the night.

After the sun went down it started to get chilly, we were both in our cutoff shirts, I was wearing my climbing pants, and Braiden, still down in the crux silo, had cutoff shorts. Sometime around midnight we pissed in our water bottles and huddled up with them in our shirts to keep warm. I was contorted into the bottom of the slot 10 feet away from the silo with my feet jammed in the crack so as not to slide towards the edge, changing to a squatting/head stem position and back every half hour or so. Braiden was sleeping in his harness, hanging off the rock and webbing on the crux pitch. Badly cramping, shivering, and dehydrated, it was a dreadful nights sleep. Throughout the night we would yell to each other to make sure the other was still ok, probably around 1 am I hear Braiden say something, "Hey Dude… (pause)…… Dude………" "What's up?" I replied,…… "Don't try that dude, its terrible"…. "What?", "The piss man, don't drink the piss", "It's really bad". About an hour later I smelled my water bottle and dry heaved a few times.

I woke up from a short doze around 5 am, it was still pretty dim down in the canyon and I felt like I had just done a few sheets of acid and spent the night in the rabbits hole from Alice in Wonderland, then run through a dry cycle inside a dryer a few times, dreams in delirium, an epic in Sandthrax. Everything was loopy and strange, my eyes didn't want to focus, I didn't want to be here anymore.

I stood up with my back on one wall, trying to gather my thoughts, trying to pull myself together enough to get a clear and concise plan going as to the most efficient way out. I looked again at the silo, it looked pretty hopeless, way too high consequence for me to attempt myself. The only other way would be to go up, straight up the canyon wall. I have free soloed 400 feet before, but never in my running shoes on sandy crumbling sandstone. I saw a small edge and flake system that traversed a bit to the left from where I was, directly over the lip of the silo, then trended back to the right, 50 feet up it looked like it might be low angled enough to climb easily. I started up the face slowly, I blew the first move twice and had to step back down to where I could stem again, on the third shot I committed and moved through the hardest section cautiously, meticulously, calmly, trying to keep it together, one wrong move and I was a pile of hamburger at the bottom of the silo. I would say it was around 5.10c face/slab climbing for 50 or 60 feet before that thing rolled over and mellowed out, pretty intense.

I yelled to Braiden that I had gotten out, and that I was headed back to the car to get the ropes and gear to get him out. From my high vantage point, the sight I saw was humbling, we were only a half mile from the road, I was 120 yards at most from the end of the canyon, our calls for help had been drowned out by a f***ing generator on a motor home.

After making it back to the car, downing a can of soup and a half-gallon of water, I packed up 4 ropes and what gear I though I'd need, a full gallon of water, and Braiden's poncho since he was still shivering in the silo. It took me about an hour to rig up the anchor and ropes, and another 3 to get him out. We had spent over 24 hours in the canyon.

Lots of Lessons Learned.