Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Mind and body games in Shenanigans

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 14, 2010

Main fork of Butler Canyon, aka Shenanigans Canyon, 3BIIIR
4.25 miles
North Wash


The main fork of Butler Canyon, more commonly referred to as Shenanigans was a canyon that Eric and I had been discussing for quite some time. From what we had read we knew that the canyon would be extremely challenging with super tight narrows (at times only 10 inches wide), tricky down climbs, an exposed crawling traverse (known as the “grim crawl of death”), high stemming and a precarious rappel sequence. It was the following line in Michael Kelsey’s, Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau that simultaneously scared and excited the jeepers out of us, “Then comes the really tight part that we had to back out of. Nat Smale and this writer are both slender, but someone even more skinny might make it through – but not many are skinnier than we!” These are very accomplished canyoneers who did not complete the canyon and turned around. We were hoping to make it all the way through. It is important to understand that at the time Kelsey and Smale attempted their descent very few had successfully completed the canyon and even fewer if any had written about it. Since then the canyon has been fully descended numerous times and documented. Canyoneering, particularly of the ultra skinny slot is a battle of the mind, perhaps even more than that of the body. Knowing that others have completed a route before you makes it infinitely easier than that of a first descent or perceived first descent.

We had a last minute addition to our team in a gentleman named Scott, from Idaho, who we had only met the day before at the Sandthrax Camp. Scott was on a solo canyoneering trip in North Wash and seemed more than competent. When we told him that we were going to attempt Shenanigans his eyes lit up. With that we invited him to join us and he gladly accepted. Scott later told us that he was short on canyoneering partners and thus often flew solo. This and because of Shenanigans’ difficulty, he thought it was one of those canyons he would read about but never descend himself. We were really glad to have him with us.

The first section of Shenanigans featured a number of difficult down climbs and one shallow pool. Following the climbs the canyon narrowed into an extremely skinny hallway. If sideways shuffling in a foot wide crack in the earth was not difficult enough, the hallway went from perpendicular to a slanted corridor, forcing you to lean back against one of the walls as you undulated your way through. This was followed by the “grim crawl of the death”, a 40- foot belly traverse on a narrow ledge above a 30- foot vertical drop off to the canyon bottom.

Continuing down canyon we crawled though an arch, past sculpted walls and through shafts of light illuminating the particles of sand falling down from the world above. The canyon then narrowed into the skinniest slot I have ever been in. In several places I could not turn my head and had to inhale to reduce the width of my chest cavity. Eric lead the way and outweighing him by 40 pounds and having 9 inches of height on him, he said to me to at one point, “This part is really skinny you are going to have a really hard time with this.” Funny enough this spot was not the tightest squeeze for me. Because our height differential means our chest cavities are at varying heights what was harder for Eric was not necessarily a tighter squeeze for me. Not wanting to stop and get stuck like a vehicle on a muddy road we kept moving until the canyon briefly opened after over a hundred yards.

The canyon then narrowed again and this time we chose to stem 30 feet above the canyon floor, not out of necessity but for practice for future descents where high stemming is mandatory. I have to admit that I did struggle both mentally and physically with the high stemming, but willed my way through with advice and encouragement from my partners.

A final rappel sequence off of chockstones wedged in the slot above our heads that almost appeared to be floating, brought us to a pool below that we ever so carefully traversed around to stay dry. The canyon then opened up for good and we made our way back to the car and the Sandthrax Camp.

Later that afternoon we strolled into the bottom of the cavernous opening of nearby Sandthrax Canyon, a descent so difficult that I would not attempt it without much more experience and practice in this discipline of canyoneering. We did not get very far into the bottom as it narrowed to such a skinny crack that passage did not seem possible. Sandthrax is one of those canyons where high stemming is mandatory for a descent.

Shenanigans would prove to be my last descent of this Spring break adventure. The following morning we were going to attempt a quick romp down Fry Canyon in Cedar Mesa on the way home, but rain stopped us before dropping into the slot. Not wanting to push our luck we decided to stay safe and save it for next time.



3 Responses

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  1. […] Read “Mind and body games in Shenanigans Canyon” […]

  2. Steve Schwartz said, on April 14, 2010 at 11:47 am

    WOW! Definitely not a place to be if you’re claustrophobic. Looks like great fun guys.

  3. Tanner said, on April 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    You guys are nuts….

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