Quicklet on David Roberts and Greg Child's Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge

by Nicole Silvester

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • About the Author: David Roberts
    • About the Photographer: Greg Child
    • Overall Summary
    • Chapter-By-Chapter Summaries
    • The Idea of the Outdoor Museum and the Preservation of Archaeological Sites
    • Character List
    • Notable Terms and Definitions
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Sources and Further Reading



In this book, I have chosen sometimes to be deliberately vague about the name and location of certain prehistoric ruins and rock art. Such an ethic is by now in long use among writers, photographers, and guides who celebrate the Southwest. A narrative of personal discovery should not serve as a treasure map.”

Roberts’ and Child’s book Sandstone Spine is an account of the expedition of three men along Comb Ridge, a sandstone ridge resembling a miniature mountain range and running for nearly an hundred miles across Arizona and Utah. This area is full of archaeological ruins, primarily from various phases of the Anasazi people, as well as more recent Navajo sites. While the basic premise of the book is a recounting of Roberts’, Child’s, and their friend Vaughn Hadenfeldt’s experiences during the arduous expedition along the length of the Ridge, the structure and additional content of Sandstone Spine make it much more than simply an account of an hiking trip. Interspersed between sections recounting the events of the hike are retellings of historical events significant to the area, and information on both the current Navajo inhabitants and the prehistoric Anasazi people. Roberts also includes geological and natural history information, arranging all of this content into a fascinating mosaic of a book.

The book narrates how, while searching for a new expedition, author David Roberts and long-time hiking and climbing partner Vaughn Hadenfeldt wondered whether or not anyone had ever hiked Comb Ridge from end-to-end in one trip. As it seemed that no one had ever made a complete traverse of the Ridge, the two friends decided to try it themselves, and they both agreed that photographer and mutual friend Greg Child would be the perfect third party to join them on the expedition.

At ages 47, 53 and 61 respectively at the time of their trip, Child, Hadenfeldt, and Roberts had spent their lives making adventurous forays into some of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Both Roberts and Child made good livings writing about their adventures, while Hadenfeldt ran a business guiding hiking trips into the Utah canyonlands. The level of expedition and adventure-writing experience that Roberts and Child have ensures that their book includes interesting and relevant information for readers. Roberts did considerable research after the trip to complement the daily journals he kept.

Sandstone Spine was published by The Mountaineers Books, which also published some of Roberts’ other titles. The publisher is a part of The Mountaineers Club, a non-profit dedicated to “the exploration, preservation, and enjoyment of outdoor and wilderness areas.” In keeping with its publisher’s philosophy, Sandstone Spine is very much a book about enjoying the outdoors in a respectful and non-destructive way.


Over the years, Greg, Vaughn, and I had found literally hundreds of Anasazi ruins in the backcountry. Yet the thrill of coming upon a new one—especially one so beautiful as this—was undiminished.

Chapter One describes the preparations that Roberts, Child, and Hadenfeldt make for their expedition. As the area they wish to traverse has unreliable water supplies, the men decide on a water-caching system, in which they visit key locations along the ridge by driving and day-hiking, and leave plastic bottles of water where they can easily find them again. They also decide to arrange for another friend to meet them at certain dates at points where highways and road access penetrate the ridge, so they won’t have to pack a whole month’s worth of food. This will also allow them to swap out equipment if necessary. Hiking the whole length of Comb Ridge also requires permits—a large portion of the ridge is on Navajo Reservation land, and the three men need permission to hike, as well official paperwork to show to any Navajo landowners they might meet. While caching their water, they make sure to have a local guide introduce them to the people who live in the immediate area to make themselves known to the locals and hopefully avoid any unpleasant encounters later on.

While preparing for the trip, Roberts begins to introduce the reader to the history of the area. Who first named the Comb Ridge is debatable, and Roberts’ research into the question did not yield up any certainties. It may be a reference to the Comb Wash, a tributary of the San Juan River that flows to the west of the ridge, or it may be in honor of Captain J.H. Macomb, who explored the area in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever name the settlers gave it, to the Navajo who live nearby now it is called Saba’naha or “Tan Ridge.” The Navajo live in small, scattered homesteads throughout their territory, relying primarily on sheep-farming to make their livelihood, so even though the ridge is in the middle of their land, the hikers do not expect to meet many Navajos, or many other people, during their trip.

The trip itself begins in a leisurely manner, since none of the men had much chance to hike in the time leading up to it, and so are not in the best shape. And it is a landscape not made for rushing through, with steep slopes, drop-offs, and a lot of bare rock and blazing sun.

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