Ben's Adventures

TR: Project Sandthrax: Vaccination

This is a trip report of my solo first-ascent (as far as I know) of Sandthrax Canyon in Utah’s North Wash on Saturday, November 21st; it begins with a brief recount of my introduction to canyoneering about three weeks previously.

About three weeks before I tried to go up Sandthrax my prospective climbing partner for Utah bailed and I called up my buddy Eric. He did me proud and with only 6 hours notice was ready to go climb Argon tower in Arches National Park. The “catch” was that we would have to go do slot canyons after that because Eric was already planning to.

After a somewhat eventful Friday on towers (Argon, which I backed off of after ripping some tracks with micro-nuts in a conglomerate of rice-cake and spit, and another nameless one, in the dark, which we summited) I found myself in the “Sandthrax Campsite” on Saturday morning. Eric and I had found roller-blading kneepads at the Wabisabi thrift-store, which I dubiously donned as per his advice.

I also met Nathan and Jason, a couple of “experienced” canyoneers. These guys and Eric took the lead and showed me how it was done. We made an uneventful descent of Sandthrax, my first canyon, over about 4.5 hours. I’m sure I slowed the others down a bit, being less experienced or possibly just slow, but I found all the stemming secure and, with the exception of the off-width crux, pretty enjoyable. It was fun and pretty neat to look at the funky canyon walls, with no fear as I knew Jason and Eric had been down it before. Jason, Nathan, and I took a lot of great pics. Eric doesn’t believe in documenting with such detail, an ethic I admire but haven’t adopted. See Nathan’s great TR and awesome photos on Mountain Project, titled “Freak Fest”. 


Happy party escapes the bowels of the earth three weeks earlier


pants a little worse for wear 

That evening I went to Hanksville. In Hanksville, there is a number you can call on the thrift store door. Then someone will, if they can, come and open it.  You name your own price there, so I paid $5 for a new pair of pants.

The next day (Sunday) we went down No Kidding, using sandbag anchors. This was fun, leaving no trace and so on. I like the idea of leaving canyons garbage-free, and we completely “ghosted” it.

That was my introduction to canyons, but as a climber it didn’t seem fulfilling. My proclivity tends unerringly toward things which bring me “up” and “across”, not “down”.

The progression was obvious. Back in Boulder, I texted Eric, “let’s go climb up Sandthrax.” Seconds later he texted back.

“We’ll die for sure.”

“Of Sandthrax, I know” I replied.

“It would take two days!” He sent back. This gave me pause. Just what would going up that beast entail? Nobody really knew.

 Eric and I were planning a tower-climbing trip over thanksgiving.

He called me and told me he couldn’t make it out to the desert until Monday morning. I was super amped up on the trip so I decided I’d go out Friday and do some stuff on my own. The top of my list was Sandthrax: Vaccination.

 On Friday night I pulled into the Sandthrax campsite after an eight hour drive. On Saturday morning I hiked up to Sandthrax, intending to throw a rope on the first rappel. I wasn’t even sure I could reverse the drop going into the canyon at the very start: 

, so I rigged up a fifteen-second anchor and dropped my short line as insurance. 

Then I draped a fat cord over the first rappel 

The final climb which went at 5.10, protected with a prussic. Taken from the rim on my way down.

and, after collecting my ‘insurance’ anchor, trotted down to the start of Sandthrax to get vaccinated.

It was exciting that nobody I’d spoken to knew exactly what the ascent would involve. I had no real recollection from coming down; I hadn’t been thinking of ascending it at the time. I brought two 5’s and two 6’s, some runners, a liter of water, a light down layer, a 50 meter thin cord and fruit nuggets in my mini haul-bag. If I was stuck in it overnight I’d probably have frozen to death.

The daunting start, the first obstacle I knew I would face, was a merry 5.7 chimney:


I soloed up to stemming width and hauled up my pack:  

 Any higher up and the pack might catch when hauled.

looking down

Then I did some work- upward stemming. This proved to be a good sampler of what going up Sandthrax was all about, but dialed down several notches for the kiddies:


Above: This is a rather daunting and (to me) awesome view of what one typically sees when going up the canyon. The right road is always the high road. Someone asked me how you protect this it made me giggle.

After a bit of work I got to the flat sandy walk which runs for fifty yards or so near the bottom end of Sandthrax:

It was here, having some water and fruit nuggets, that I dropped my (brand new) camera and it died of Sandthrax.  I made better time thereafter.


The end of the sandy walk, ascending the canyon, is a steep silo we’d rappelled a few weeks back. This was an obstacle I’d been dreading.  I didn’t know if it was even possible to surmount; it proved to be an overhanging off-width crack, possibly too big or maybe just right for a 6. I was able to overcome this obstacle easily, by stemming up further back and doing a couple of near-trivial, albeit x- rated, wide-stemming moves over the silo. I almost cut off the tat some other party had left for the rappel- it’s much easier to stem over that silo than some higher up the canyon. I hauled up my pack and proceeded to work.

The ‘steep and deep’ section (I think they call it an elevator shaft?) that is somewhat taxing and dangerous on the way down canyon was possibly a little easier on the way up. I was fortuitous throughout in being able to pick feasible lines, but lots of gradual upward stemming was inevitable.

I was now worrying about the crux 5.10 offwidth, and soon I was looking down at it; I’d approached it from much higher than I’d come above it before. I lowered my pack and got out my cams, slung over my shoulder.  After sliding down to the tight, off-width section I slotted in a right-arm chicken wing and placed a number six cam at about knee height on a four foot runner. Then I cautiously slid the chicken wing down a few feet, reached up and placed the six below me again, slid some more, and I was safely on the good foot hold. I replaced the cams in my pack, never having weighted them and having placed only one number six, and never took them back out for the duration.

Having down-climbed the crux, I found  myself faced with a narrow chimney. Those who’ve done Sandthrax may recall sliding down it before doing the crux. I was forced to solo this strenuous 25-foot 5.9 chimney. An uncontrolled fall here could have been bad; the canyon is pretty deep behind you. The only real danger should be running out of gas though... it's basically protected, if you've slid down it before in a different position.... right?

This is actually a pic from 3 weeks earlier when we were going down the canyon, from Jason Kaplan's collection.

After this chimney I came to the main silos (of course I didn’t use the very silly piton; in my opinion it shouldn’t even be there for the decent as those moves are more dangerous with it than without it. As I recall my best friend’s uncle, Jay Wilson, died rapping off a single pin in sandstone).

Another obstacle was giving me misgivings and significant feelings of foreboding: on the descent of Sandthrax, about mid-canyon, there’s a long down-climb before a nice rest ledge (the bomb bay). I was going to have to climb up it somehow.

 I soon came to the rest ledge. I wolfed down some fruit nuggets and water on the ledge. Then I dropped my bag and started the thirty-five foot up-solo. It was not too difficult until near the very top, at which point came a time I looked above myself eight feet and said “I really, really wish I was right there”. I had to fidget around and scrap about somewhat insecurely in the top section of the chimney above a pod where my legs could find no easy purchase. I would call this one 5.9+, one of the hardest going up the canyon. I did find a pretty secure way up after feeling the chimney up a bit. I think I chicken winged, and was finally secure when I could step up-canyon into a heel-toe stance and pull my bag up. Physical.

I think it was after this I hit the silo I didn’t remember from the way down. The moss on the walls down low had no streaks or smears in it so I figured we must have come over it high. A moment later I found myself full-body stemmed, hands on vertical wall, bag dangling from my waist, and wanting to go back. The thought crossed my mind I could only hold this position for a few seconds before I’d start getting sloppy, so I pushed ahead quickly and motored on to a secure stance. Whew! Then some more jolly stemming:


These pics taken on the descent again, from Jason's collection, taken by him. 

I came then to another silo which had been a 5.7 up-climb on the way down-canyon. It couldn’t be stemmed over, so I slid down into it and found myself staring at another 25 foot crack to more secure climbing. Well here was an obstacle I had no recollection of whatsoever as it had been a breeze to slide down (as had been the off-width crux: don’t underestimate how hard it is to go up what you can slide down with ease!).

 again, this one from Jason's collection

 It went at what I’d call 5.8 or 9 chimneying, succumbing to more chicken wings. I was pretty tired; if I had “fallen”, even if I’d just given up and slid back down, I felt I would be in trouble. I would have spent lots of energy and have no other option but to repeat what I’d just tried in a more exhausted state, so I was anxious to succeed, not knowing if there were more like this to come.

Higher up and further on I came to a wet pot-hole; I was unable to reverse the moves we’d done to keep dry some weeks before and my shoes got soaked here on the ascent:

Here's Jason in action on the descent, Eric Harvey in the foreground. Pick by Nathan.

After this I knew I was almost out, as that wet pot-hole was in the first pictures Nathan took on the way down. There was one unavoidable 5.10 boulder problem (possibly harder if you’re shorter than I) which would have been trivial with a buddy for assistance. It involved stemming and pulling on holds, not chimneying. I managed it fine.

A big smile hit my face when I came to the final rappel. As mentioned, I had a rope fixed there for protection, and because I didn’t know if free-climbing it was even possible.

 It didn’t go easily because holds had to be emptied of sand, but I on-sighted it free protected by a sliding prussic. It involved wide (for me) stemming on crumbly rock followed by two solid 5.10 face climbing moves. I would not place the rope beforehand now that I know I can do this up-climb; the landing on this one is relatively wide and sandy in the event of a fall.

As I mentioned, there are places to escape after this but I wanted the full-value ascent so I did the next two boulder problems to get out of the canyon: they are a technical stemming problem, 5.9 or so, and a final  flared-crack climb which I used double-hand stacks to surmount at about 5.8.

Overall I thought it was an excellent adventure, with pretty consistent difficulty. I enjoyed the up-climb a lot more and would rather go up than down any day. If the down climb is 2 stars, up is 3 in my book. Highly recommended for those who can do it safely. My time from base to top was about 5.5 hours, but this could be shaved a lot by bringing a shorter rope and fewer cams, etc.

I did lose my car and apt. keys (found by another party, later). Fortunately I broke into my civic with 3 carabiners, a rubber band, and a stick and got my spares.

Nonsensical grade break down: 25ft 5.7 chimney at start, dangerous 20ft 5.10 off-width down-climb (8ft of business) protectable with BD no 6 Camalot, 20 ft 5.9 chimney,35ft 5.9+ chimney, 20ft 5.9 chimney, 5.10- boulder problem, 25 feet of climbing with 5.10b-ish crux move, then 2 more boulder problems gain the end. Disclaimer: this is only the order that I remember it, and difficulty is subjective. I may have left something out, and I’m not great at grading stuff.

General retrospective advice:

-Always pick the high road, without exception. A flesh-hungry Siren by the name of Lucile lurks in the off-width depths. She will eat you alive if you venture too low.

-If you think a chicken wing is a red, saucy deal eaten with ranch dressing, do not attempt Sandthrax Vaccine.

-Don’t bring a 50 meter rope. 50 feet should be fine. Bring only 1 or, if aiding, 2 no. 6 cams for the off-width crux down-climb. It’s a toss-up in my book as to whether it’s worth bringing any at all…

-The up climb is about twice as demanding, physically, as the down climb. Stamina could be an issue even if you’ve got the moves, so be prepared. Nothing was as hard for me as the off-width crux going down the canyon in terms of individual moves, though I'm not the best with wide stuff.

Thanks to Penny (who incidentally knew I was there, which was a comfort, and was kind enough to show me around some other mini-slots the next day), and also to Mike, and Sue, who were the finest of company for the next day! Big thanks to Eric and Jason too for being nuts enough to go down this without anyone who’d done it before, then showing it to me!

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