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"Chasm of Doom"
October 28-29, 2001
Written By: Shane Burrows
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.
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.
information provided herein is for historical reading and entertainment and is not
intended to be a guide. Sandthrax Canyon is not suitable for the general canyoneering
public and is rated 4B X IV using the Canyon Rating System which, among other items states
that errors in technique or judgment will likely result in serious injury or death.
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
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
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
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
I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see it was 11:00 p.m. Chris was
chomping at the bit to attack the wall above our chokestones.
Chris stemmed up the slot as far as
possible and placed the second of our three bolts by hand drilling. Earlier we had used
webbing and a 60-foot rope to construct etriers (a crude rope ladder). Chris clipped the
first etrier in and we were on our way. It was not nearly as simple as it sounds and it
was extremely time consuming. Chris did most of the difficult and dangerous climbing and
kept prodding Hank and I on.
Chris was greatly worried that
someone would loose the energy to climb. Chris had already been through a forced bivouac
high on El Captain during a snowstorm. Chris told me that when morning came his partners
did not have the energy to help with the extraction, and he didn't want to fall victim to
the same circumstance.
The first problem with our aid
climbing solution was that we only had two bolts remaining with us after already using one
to lower Hank earlier. After the second bolt was placed we had to pull the first bolt and
repair it to be used again.
Bolt repair became my specialty, I
would carefully disassemble all the tiny parts that make up an expansion anchor and bend
or hammer them back to their original condition. I would place all the parts inside my hat
to work on them. I was terrified that I would drop a part and destroy our escape. The
basic thought running through my mind was "don't fuck up".
The sandstone we were drilling was
like sugar. Often after we completed drilling a hole it would be too large in diameter for
the bolt to seat properly. We solved this problem by cutting 3-inch sections of rubber
hose from my Camelback and placing them around the bolt. Then we would hammer the bolt
with hose into the oversized hole and tighten the nut down with a wrench. Modifying the
bolts with the rubber hose also became my responsibility. Everyone was finding a position
where they could most help the team escape and smoothly working together. There were no
arguments, second-guessing or bickering. Everyone knew what had to be done and how he
could best help.
At first light we had climbed 60
feet to a small ledge which offered room for two climbers and was approximately 120 feet
above the canyon floor. We decided to move our bivouac up to the ledge and work from
Before we could move our bivouac we
needed to retrieve the first bolt we placed down the canyon, we desperately needed all
three of our original bolts. Hank volunteered for this unenviable job and was soon
climbing for the bolt.
When Hank returned from his mission
accomplished, I began jugging the ropes to our new station. When I was halfway up the
ropes the first search plane flew over and really raised our spirits, this was about 8:30
a.m. We knew the pilot couldn't see us in the deep, dark chasm but we knew that people
were looking for us and they were looking in the correct area. We also knew we needed to
get high enough to signal and be seen.
Ross Schoenfeld, a family friend,
piloted the plane. My father and brother, Joe and Todd Burrows, had located our cars at
the trailhead at 2:00 a.m. and began a foot search at first light. The Garfield County
Sheriff had been alerted and was on site in the morning. The Garfield County Sheriff
summoned a Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) helicopter to help with the search, which arrived
mid-morning. I had missed my check in time with Shauna and she had done an excellent job
of mobilizing a search and rescue.
After the first search plane flew
over we really worked hard to get a member of our party high on the canyon wall and into
the sunlight where we could signal. Since I was already jugging the rope it became my job.
I climbed to our new station and began to set up shop. I had Hanks Mylar balloon with me
which I turned inside out to use the shinny aluminum surface as a signal mirror. We hung
backpacks along the cliff face, and I constructed a signal mirror from a discarded sardine
can by polishing the surface and poking a small hole in the center.
and Chris disassembled our bivouac site and began moving it to our new location. Just as
everyone was at the new site the UHP helicopter flew over and located our position.
We held a quick meeting and decided
to keep climbing and try to extricate ourselves. Our decision was based on several items.
First we didn't know how long it would take to assemble a rope team with the ability to
reach us and we were tired of being in the canyon. We had been without water for 12 hours
and we were becoming exhausted. We really wanted to rescue ourselves after all the effort
we had put into the project and agreed that as long as we could climb safely we were going
to keep trying.
Chris led off climbing again and
dispatched the next 100 feet of cliff by free climbing. The route was going better than
expected and Chris was really moving fast. The entire team climbed the remaining 200 feet
from the ledge to a weakness in the canyon rim in less than one hour.
From our exit point it took less
than 20 minutes to reach our cars and a happy search party at 1:30 p.m.
We owe a lot of people for
assembling a very well done search and rescue. I am still unclear on many of the details
and the chain of events happening on the outside but to everyone who provided assistance
you have my sincere thanks.
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. Do not attempt this canyon without first
reading the Sandthrax Route Description. The
original descent team has removed all bolts they placed in the epic extraction of
their first attempt.
Sandthrax Canyon - Route Description and
Sandthrax Canyon -
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