Thursday, March 29, 2007

So you think Technical Canyoneering is just hiking with a few rappels thrown in…? Think again!

Adventure Reporter Eric Godfrey tells the tale of a dark and forbidding canyon that has gained a reputation as being a potential death trap and shows that there is more to canyoneering than just sliding down ropes and walking between rock walls!

One dark slotIn a remote corner of Southern Utah lies a canyon that many canyoneers hear about and shudder at the thought of descending. I’ve heard of more difficult canyons in Utah, but there is one canyon that is talked about around campfires, rumored about, and feared by more people in the American canyoneering community than any other canyon I know of. It’s said to be so narrow you have to climb high above the bottom to find a spot wide enough to fit. When it is wide enough to walk along the bottom (which is rare) it will soon close off to a small crack, forcing you to do difficult, unprotected climbs to get back to where you can fit, and most canyoneers agree it has the most difficult obstacle found in any known canyon which has not yet seen a free ascent. It’s called Sandthrax… Chasm of Doom!

The documented history of the canyon starts in 2001 when a group of experienced canyoneers were exploring new canyons in an area near Lake Powell. The team consisted of Shane Burrows (owner of www.climb-utah.com), Hank Moon, and Chris R. Their story of the first documented descent can be read here. Basically they had been descending canyons in the area all week and thought this would be similar to the other, fairly straight forward canyons they had done so far. After scouting from the rim, it looked short and they figured they would knock it out in a few hours then head home. After rappelling in from the head they pulled their rope and were committed to finishing the canyon. It started out as a beautiful trip through what looked like would be another great find… then things got serious.
The canyon soon closed off into a slot too narrow to navigate from below so up they went, feet on one wall, back on the other until they were soon nearly fifty feet above the bottom. Unlike rock climbing, in a canyon you are moving horizontally rather than vertically, so protecting yourself from a fall with bolts or cams is not really feasible. One slip and it would bring serious consequences.

As they continued on they would run into what many canyoneers call a silo. Think of a large grain silo on a farm… remove the grain and you have a big, round, hollow tower standing many feet in the air. A silo in a canyon is similar; it is where the canyon is going along straight and narrow, then suddenly opens into a round “silo” then closes off to being narrow again. Many times getting past a silo involves climbing down to ground level then making the arduous climb back up to where the canyon is wide enough to efficiently continue. This generally requires a large expenditure of energy. Another option in a remotely narrow silo would be to stem across the opening while high off the ground, this would however increase the chances of a fatal fall.

After running into problem after problem, the short canyon was taking much longer than expected and it started to get dark. The group had some talented climbers and were able to climb out of the canyon, going all night and re-using only three bolts they had brought for emergency’s, to beat search and rescue from starting an attempt to pull them out.

After this night, stories started flying around the canyoneering community and very few people have dared enter this canyon since. Members of the team original team that did this first attempt at descent went back the next year, this time more prepared and knowing just how serious the canyon was, they brought along a rim team ready to help them out if they ran into trouble and completed the remainder of the canyon successfully, but will remind everyone they see of the serious nature of the canyon.

Within the last year a few other extremely talented (or stupid, whatever you want to call them) canyoneers have tackled this beast and provided the photos included in this post. Creativity and ingenuity have been used to handle many of the canyons obstacles, and those techniques have been passed on in an attempt to more efficiently pass by the jaws of this beast. Their love for canyons runs deep and when they successfully challenge places like this it is an exhilarating feeling, and shows that no matter how far you go in this sport you can always find places that will demand every ounce of skill you can muster. A friend wrote an excellent synopsis of his experience in this dangerous narrow crack in the earth and gives us a glimpse as to why he enters places that many would call him crazy for doing. Here are a few of his words:

“Dave and Hank seemed to know I needed to go (into Sandthrax Canyon) before I did. I told them that I was thrilled with the experience, but in no rush to go back, perhaps ever. They both laughed a derisive laugh at me and said "You're going back!" Here it is a week later, as I write this and I know they are right. I think about Stevee and Tom and Corbin and Roy and Wade and Jud and Murray and several others, who haven't been and I wish to share this place with them. All the people I have bonded with before, stemming out between two high rock walls. I also have two 15 foot sections, one vertical, one horizontal that I wish to do in better style, but mostly I will go back to "dance" in there again. The joyful dance of mind and body moving as one.”

To read the entire story and view additional photos from the above quote, click here.

All photos in this post are compliments of Hank Moon and Shane Burrows.

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