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Type 3 Fun in Sandthrax

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by pagerocks, Jun 20, 2020.

  1. pagerocks

    pagerocks

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    This is my closest canyon near-miss. This was in Sandthrax in fall 2018.

    I stayed in Boulder most of summer 2018 and didn’t get out on too many long trips. No alpine climbing, no Shelf Road, no Diamond. I spent my outdoor time doing mountain rescue, bagging flatirons and running. October and November are prime desert season, so it was important to me to plan a couple trips to take full advantage and get out of town for a bit.

    I decided to put together a hard trip of two X-rated canyons, Psycho Damage near Ticaboo Mesa and Sandthrax in North Wash. When Mike and I descended Sandthrax in 2016 It was tough and scary but rewarding and I felt mentally prepared given how the last time went.

    Sandthrax is a notoriously difficult canyon with endless sections of climbing moves that aren’t very hard but have deadly consequences. Without exaggeration, once you leave the ground and start stemming, you don’t touch down again on the canyon floor for nearly ½ mile.

    [​IMG]

    Brian is a climber and rescuer friend of mine who works in rope access and generally has the mental toughness needed for a trip like this. We have done some big days together in the mountains, we get along and he trusts my judgment both in rescue and in fun. When I invited him to come do Sandthrax, I stressed the difficulty and made him read a bunch of beta and watch some videos of the hardest parts so he knew what he was getting himself into. He had been out of Boulder and working all summer, so he just wanted to send the gnar, and was down for a hard desert trip.

    On Thursday night (Oct 11th) we left Boulder and drove to Ticaboo Mesa. The stars were out and it was easy to find a flat spot at the trailhead to set our heads down for a few hours. We woke up, had some coffee and bacon, and headed into the desert.

    Psycho Damage, Aka Psycho D, Aka Smith Fork Slot is an immediate tributary to Lake Powell in the Utah desert. If Lake Powell is ever full again, the fingers of lake water will reach the mouth of the canyon. It had rained the day before so Psycho D was VERY wet, with 2 long pools of icy water to swim through and many more knee to waist deep. On the plus side all the pools had been flushed clean and the water we did swim through was not stagnant and disgusting as is usually the case with canyon water.

    [​IMG]
    Brian suffering through a cold pothole

    There was plenty of high exposure to be found as well as a new challenge, MOSS! Several of the hard and exposed moves of Psycho D were coated in a thin film of green moss and black slime which was unbelievably slippery. The only way to deal with the risk was to push harder with your legs, which was a bit tiring and more than a little scary. In any X-canyon a false move could easily drop you 30+ feet down a vertical shaft onto sharp rock fins and eventually jam you into the ever-tightening crack at the bottom.

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    Typical high stemming move in Psycho D

    Brian and I romped through the canyon and even took a 30 minute break to goof around like 5-year-olds and dig a tiny channel to make a waterfall in some mud. Spirits were high even through the two full-immersion swims at the canyon exit. We finished the canyon, laid out in the sun and dried off for a bit.

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    “If we dig that channel a little deeper it will be totally sweet”

    Psycho D had been a test for the health of my ankle as well as Brian’s headspace for high exposure in slot canyons. High stemming and high risk moves with no way to protect them are not for everyone so I needed to see how he reacted before committing to Sandthrax. He did great and the lingering injury I was worried about did not cause me any issues. We decided to meet up with our friends at the Sandthrax campground and descend the harder canyon in the morning.

    [​IMG]
    Gorgeous view into the canyon system from Ticaboo Mesa

    We slept in a bit and by the time we had eaten breakfast and finished packing we were ready to leave camp around 10. Our friends from Boulder Andrew, Becca, Gary, Emily, Alexander and Gretchen were doing two easier canyons that day. We told them that if we were fast and finished early we might join them for the second half of their day and that they should stop by the campground for lunch to see if we were done. I also told them very specifically that if we weren’t back by dark that they needed to come looking for us. Brian and I left camp, hiked up the approach trail and were ready to drop into the canyon at 11 AM.

    [​IMG]
    Gettin’ sendy

    We geared up and started down the canyon moving at a decent pace. We reached the only rappel, dropped 50 feet, pulled our rope and committed ourselves to finishing the canyon. I was faster than Brian but he wasn’t showing any issues with his fitness or headspace, apart from some grumbling about “why do we even do this stuff?”. We got in a decent groove for the first half of the trip and were moving efficiently through some sections where you are at least 60 feet above the canyon floor, but you can’t even see it below you.

    [​IMG]
    Bottomless Canyon

    Several times, we passed silo-like features where the walls went from a pleasant and easy v-shape to nearly vertical and a wider chasm opens below you, but nothing wider than back-to-feet stemming and for only short sections. A fall in any of these silos would easily be fatal; if you slipped, you would likely fall 30 feet vertically, bounce back and forth on the walls and eventually come to rest firmly jammed in the crack. If the fall didn’t kill you, you would probably asphyxiate from your chest being crushed. The climbing was somewhat easy but the consequences were unbelievably high for nearly 5 hours of this type of canyoning.

    [​IMG]
    High consequence high stemming

    Mid afternoon we reached a point where the canyon’s difficulties increased in frequency and consequence. We crossed several larger silo features where the same moss we had seen in Psycho D had begun to grow on the walls here. I didn’t recall any moss from my previous trip with Mike, but we were committed at that point so all we could do was move slowly. For all the danger in Sandthrax, there was only one hazard we reached that had drilled bolts in place to protect a climber crossing it. This spot was a particularly nasty silo where the person crossing would have to stretch out so their feet were flat against one wall and their shoulder blades were pushing against the other. The shaft below this treacherous move was too dark to see the bottom, though it doesn’t really matter if you fall 30 feet or 80 in a place like that.

    [​IMG]

    Stolen pic from MountainProject user of one of the wide silo crossings.

    At the widest, it is probably 4 feet or so. The bottom is at least 80 feet down.

    After this silo we descended nearly straight down for 80 feet through a feature called an elevator where you use your kneepads, hands and back to slow your descent and carefully slide down. At this point, we were nearly ¾ of the way through the canyon, but at the bottom of the elevator was the true crux of Sandthrax.

    The technical crux is a brutally flaring offwidth-sized crack about two fists wide at the bottom and slowly expanding to 4 fists by the time you are 20 feet above the start. There is no way to do this climb safely without bringing large width (>6”) climbing gear and aid climbing skill. Several people who have tried this climb on toprope grade it as an awkward and insecure 5.10-11 desert offwidth. This wouldn’t be the worst thing for many desert rats, but the shaft below the start of the climb is heinous. Looking down into the pit below is like staring into a blender; the walls are sharp, vertical, curving fins that drop nearly 30 feet down. A fall here would be nasty, so slow and methodical aid climbing is the best approach to solving this problem.

    Brian and I arrived, racked up and I started aiding. The sandstone was still damp from the rain two days earlier and the metal climbing gear was digging into in and making the climb feel even more insecure than it already did. I reached my high point about 20 feet up the crack, to just where it started to widen and I realized it was not safe for me to move any farther above my gear. Before the trip I had met up with Mike and borrowed the gear I thought we had used before including his #5, #6 Cams and a #2 and #3 big bro. It turns out, the last move we needed to make required one more piece of gear, a #4 big bro, to do it safely. That, or a climbing boldness that neither Brian or I possessed.

    For two hours we took turns climbing and thrashing on the rock trying to find some way of gaining just 12 more inches of vertical ground. If we could reach the top of this nasty crack, we would have been able to thrash and wiggle our way up to safety and continue down-canyon. I remember staring up at Brian on his attempt and seeing bats fly overhead as the sun began to set. I gave it one last shot, told Brian it was not safe to try any more and came back down to discuss our options.

    [​IMG]

    Blurry, but you can see our aid gear hanging in the crack as high as we could make it

    We had arrived at the crux problem around 5:00 PM and it was now 7:00 PM. We had been moving and working hard for nearly 8 straight hours with no more than 5 minutes of rest where we could stand up straight on flat ground. We were both down to a mouthful of water and some snacks but we were both starting to cramp in our arms and legs.

    Our options were to...
    ...try to do the committing move above our last pieces of gear and risk a serious and potentially deadly fall. This was the least likely option since fatigue had only made this harder.
    ...climb the entire canyon back the way we had come, including immediately upclimbing the 80 foot vertical section we had come down. Sandthrax has been up-climbed all the way before, but that would mean a nearly doubling of effort. This felt impossible to even consider.
    ...wait for rescue and hope our friends heeded our warning about coming to look for us after nightfall.

    At about 7:30 PM we had a snack and decided that we would wait for rescue. We could wait until dawn if necessary but we were going to keep ourselves safe, warm and stable for long enough for them to find us. There was a small alcove at the up-canyon side of the pit we were near that gave us just enough space to rest more safely. We could place our feet on a ledge on one side and lean our backs against the other without worrying about falling into the pit below. Neither Brian’s cellphone nor my Spot beacon worked in this deep tight canyon. We took an inventory of our food and water and found we had about ¼ liter between the two of us and several energy bars. We didn’t have spare jackets but I was warm so we huddled together to maintain what heat we had.

    Taking stock, the walls above us were vertical, featureless sandstone for nearly 150 feet, at which point the walls sloped away and out of sight for who knows how many more hundreds of feet. The top of slot canyons are generally rock domes that slope away gently from the canyon so it is not possible to walk to the edge and look in. Once you get within 100’ or so of the edge, the slope becomes too steep to stand on. We knew that climbing out was not an option and the only way we would be found would be by yelling for help.

    [​IMG]

    View of Sandthrax from the hike in. The walls slope away, become vertical and drop 200+ feet to the canyon floor

    We decided to start yelling at regular intervals. We would yell help 5 times in a row quickly with our headlamps on strobe mode and then wait 5 minutes to listen. We were very lucky that the night was warm and windless. While no one answered our calls immediately, we convinced ourselves that our cries would reach anyone who was looking for us when they got close.

    Yelling “HELP” in earnest is not a thing I ever want to repeat.

    Between bursts of yelling we debated how long it would be before our friends were worried enough to mount a rescue. In our minds they needed to…
    ...decide that it was long enough after dark to get worried
    ...decide to come looking for us
    ...find us by voice contact
    ...formulate a plan and get the necessary gear from the cars or other people in camp
    ...get down to us on a rope
    ...get us out.

    I fully expected not to hear anything until at least midnight and was steeling myself for just how far away midnight was. Brian was a bit more optimistic and guessed we would hear from them at 9:30 PM. Even being generous, this meant we would have been suspended off the floor of the canyon for almost 11 hours without a significant break.

    My mind drifted through some dark places while stuck in that pit. What if rescue never came? Would we have still done this if our friends had not been staying in camp with us? What if we had to climb up nearly a half-mile of impossibly dangerous canyon in the morning? Would we just stay where we were until our legs gave out and we fell to our deaths? I did my best not to say any of these thoughts out loud and to just stay positive. Early in our ordeal, I spent a few minutes beating myself up and apologizing to Brian for getting us in this situation, talking about how stupid and shortsighted it all was. After a little bit of self-pity, I decided that was a useless approach and wouldn’t help either of us. Brian and I agreed we had to stay as calm and collected as possible; any mental slip could mean a lapse in judgment then a fall or worse. We passed the time by making jokes about Pulp Fiction (Bitch, be cool!).

    At nearly 9:30, I heard a change in the silent desert so faint I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. It sounded like footsteps! Immediately Brian and I gave our loud series of yells and after a few times, we heard a faint response. We had no idea who it was, but someone was coming! We yelled again and again and eventually we heard Andrew and Becca’s voices yelling clearly as they searched for us. Becca yelled a “WeeHawk!” and Brian and I cracked up laughing. Our friends are semi-professional rescuers who are trained in rope rescue in caves, canyons, mountains and other harsh places. Hearing their voices and knowing who was on the other end of our rescue lifted the biggest weight off my chest. The thoughts of doom and hopelessness fell away since our rescue was a matter of when, not if.

    After 10 more minutes Andrew had reached a spot where he couldn’t see our headlamp but could clearly talk to us. We told him we were uninjured but stuck in place. Given the obstacles around us, it was not possible to move up or down canyon more than 20 feet; they would have to put a rope directly on to us. The team set to work, built a vertical rappel line and anchor and Andrew descended in to look for us. Once he penetrated the deepest part of the canyon, he was able to shine his light to where we could see its beam and he could see the beam of our light, but he was too far to get to us. He was what seemed like 100 yards too far down canyon for us to reach. He told us to hang tight and ascended back up the rope. I told Andrew he needed to move 100 yards up canyon to get the rope to us.

    Andrew didn’t have any good reference points since the walls are just smooth sandstone, so he counted off 100 or so paces and set the second anchor there. His second try came some time later and this attempt put him nearly the same distance from us but upcanyon! They told us that the anchor options to get to us directly were terrible but they were going to make it work and we needed to hang on a bit longer.

    When they set the third anchor, we got excited and scared as small rocks began to fall on us from the rim above. We knew they would be to us soon, but we hid under our packs and hoped that nothing too big fell on us. Finally we saw Andrew’s light overhead; he reached us carrying several packs worth of ascending gear, snacks, water and warm clothes. He told us we were nearly impossible to see hiding under our packs. Putting on ascending gear and finally clipping in to a rope for the first time all day felt good. Andrew climbed the rope out and yelled that we could start coming up.

    Brian ascended first since he was getting colder than me He ascended up and out of sight and yelled that I could start. Even though I had been using my legs at 100% all day, the fatigue was nothing compared to my joy of leaving the canyon. The ascent was smooth and uneventful. At the rim we were greeted by happy friends and rescuers as well as massive amounts of food and water.

    Once we were safely out of the canyon, we began to realize the full scope of the situation. Emily had triggered her InReach and was texting with a backcountry rescue service. They told her that the nearest rescue team (Garfield/Wayne County SAR?) would be available in the morning. When she described our location, they offered a helicopter that could arrive in the morning. In fairness, they didn’t know our exact situation so I can excuse the suggestion of a helicopter even though it would have been completely inappropriate for rescuing us.


    During our rescue, Emily had used the high-powered radio in my car to communicate with Andrew who was using my chest radio to keep everyone working and informed. When Emily triggered her beacon, it not only put her in touch with an emergency dispatch center, but also alerted her emergency contacts, who were living in New Zealand at the time. Being familiar with the rescue team, her contacts called the RMRG group leader and let them know the situation, even though they couldn’t do much about it.

    In all, we survived, but just the thought of how many other things could have gone wrong makes my stomach turn. We walked too close to the edge of our risk tolerance and were unbelievably lucky to walk away with just a story.

    Some lessons learned and things to take to the next trip?
    • Have a callout time and plan established with A) someone back home, B) someone nearby. If the nearest person who can call for help is several hours away, you will be waiting that much longer

    • Don’t get complacent with reading and reassessing route descriptions. Re-reading descriptions would have gotten us the piece of gear we needed to finish the canyon

    • Don’t do canyons that require climbing rock protection when it has rained recently

    • Seriously consider a bolt kit or other nuclear option for the most committing places

    • Stripping weight can be valuable, but having a basic emergency kit is necessary including spare headlamp batteries, spare light (keychain LED), athletic tape, emergency blanket or mylar bivy bag
    Kuenn, madman_lee, RobbyB and 2 others like this.
  2. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Awesome story, very well told. Thanks.

    Tom
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  3. brokedownjeep

    brokedownjeep Incureable Adventurer

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    Thanks for telling your story. It takes guts and a lot of humility (especially as a group leader) to admit that youve overstepped your bounds. I also work in the rescue world, as a Firefighter/Paramedic. In that environment, you’re continuously saving people who have gone beyond their limits. Its easy for me to sometimes feel like I’m smarter than that and will never be in those situations myself. But, since I push myself, I’ve been caught over my head too.(Many times) These stories help keep me grounded and remind me that it could happen to anyone. They also help me learn and prepare myself and the groups I take for future outings. Thanks again for being vulnerable and sharing your story. We all gain something from it.
    Dan H and pagerocks like this.
  4. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    It is good to hear a Sandthrax epic story without the part that starts "then we really screwed up..."

    T
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  5. RobbyB

    RobbyB

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    Great story, glad everyone is ok and great planning! When I descended Sandthrax a few years ago, we brought a BD #5, 2x #6, and the smaller Valley Giant for the Offwidth. I tried to climb it in "good style" (but TBH I am more of 'there is no cheating, only lying' sort of climber) which quickly and to my great relief devolved into yarding on all the cams.

    Were you able to get the Big Bro's to work in the flare?
  6. pagerocks

    pagerocks

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    The first time I went through, yes. This time, they worked but the rock was wet enough that I was watching them dig into the rock any time I shifted on them. Also, we didn't bring the largest size, which we definitely needed to finish the crux
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  7. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Wow. That wasn't what I was expecting. Glad you were smart enough to stay unhurt until you were rescued.

    One additional worthwhile lesson is to bring more people/talent. That offwidth gets a lot easier once one person is on top of it. If you're in there with 4-10, there's a lot better chance one of those 4-10 can climb it than if there are only two of you in there! I used to think a big group is unwieldy. Now I kind of prefer it.
  8. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    What nobody ever tells you is that having the gear (traditionally a couple of # 6 camalots) really only lowers the grade to about 5.9 for the last 10 feet. Many canyoneers can't climb 5.9 offwidth and very few can climb 5.11 offwidth, which is probably what it is if you don't aid the bottom. And even fewer have any experience aid climbing.
    pagerocks likes this.
  9. pagerocks

    pagerocks

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    I think having more people would have helped a lot. We could carry more gear and could possibly give each other partner assists to solve the crux

    Sent from my moto g(7) using Tapatalk
  10. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    I've only done it once, and the crux was my contribution to the effort. Tried to free climb (1 hour), then admitted aiding was the way to go, which took another hour. AWKWARD!

    MY recommended rack: 1 x #5 Camalot (holds the rope in place at the bottom). 2 x #6 Camalot plus 1 x BD Alpine Aider. With actual aiders you can get up high enough to get into the squeeze, 5.9 for me (185 lbs, 5'10"). Nice thing about the squeezey final section is that it does not particularly try to spit you out, so it is not so scary. Getting the rest of your crew up in non-trivial! (We used a "rope from heaven").

    I don't think having more people would help all that much, except providing more talent and people who can attempt it. That little ledge gets you up about shoulder height, and the stance at the base of the crack is crap.

    I'm also not that fond of French Free (ie, aid climbing without using aiders). With aiders, you pull DOWN on your cams, which is better than pulling out. The one real fall I remember hearing about was because they were pulling on cams. It slipped. (As you did not mention using aiders, Pagerocks, I assumed not. Getting 6" higher could definitely make the difference between getting up into the squeeze or not so much. Of course, body size makes a big difference too.)

    Tom
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2020
  11. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Oh yea, I can't imagine doing it without aiders or the daisy chains I used to attach myself to the pieces. We went in there planning to aid climb. Actually, I think we used Tom's #6s. But I was the second attempter, the first guy couldn't do it, but he had less aid climbing experience than I did. (Not that I'm some expert, I've probably only aided 10 pitches in my life.) Interestingly enough, one of the crew free climbed it afterward, albeit it on toprope. But given how easy he made it look, I'll bet he could have soloed it too.
  12. pagerocks

    pagerocks

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    I had Metolious pocket aiders and fully aided the crack. When we got to the top, I was fully weighting the upper big bro but I never felt it was secure enough to move above. I was also worried that it would rip in a hard fall. I was at the very top where it starts to flare but I couldn't do the move to get above the big bro and actually squeeze myself into the crack itself.

    The plan, once I was up, was to fix a rope to the bolt, and Brian would prussik up the line to me.

    Narrator: The plan didn't work
    ratagonia likes this.
  13. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Darn retrobolts...
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  14. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    A captivating story!

    It being lengthy, plus considering the subject matter (epic Sandthrax) I had saved it for undivided attention time...it was worth the wait...great read. Every bailout/failure should always end like this one - walking away. Kudos for letting wisdom outlast bravado and having some great friends that were probably tired too (at the end of the day) yet came for you all the same!

    Not being very knowledgeable with offwidth climbing techniques, what's going on here?
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  15. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Off width climbing involves a lot of thrashing with both the arms and the legs, and the body for that matter. It is challenging to manage the rope in this situation, as it can get wrapped around your legs or interfere with your feet, etc. By putting the #5 in at the bottom of the crack, the rope runs through that and it lets the rope run inside the crack up to the larger cams (which are 2 feet inside the crack) thus keeping the rope away from your feet and disturbing your climbing. Your futile, awkward and annoyingly ineffective climbing.

    T
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2020
    Kuenn and Kevin like this.
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