Death Valley Canyoneering

Photos by Marty Hornick

A Journey Down the Styx Canyon of Death Valley

Words by Leonie Sherman • Photos by Marty Hornick

The willingness to jump off a cliff backwards in the dark is not an evolutionarily desirable trait. But if Bob, Greg and I ever wanted to see our car or eat a hot meal again, we’d have to do just that. Five times. At least the darkness obscured our sketchy anchor.

Moonlight illuminated our perch and gleamed on the distant valley floor, about 1,500 feet below us and a mile away. But the cliff we needed to rappel over was dark as a cave. Bob doubled the rope through a carabiner attached to a sling and chucked it into the inky blackness. None of us were sure we heard it hit the ground. We crept to the edge and peered over. Our LED headlamps revealed polished dolomite and a rope fading into night.

“Well, guys,” Bob backed away from the edge and held up the rope, “who’s first?”

Gazing down towards the Badwater Basin. Photo: Marty Hornick

Nine hours earlier we had set off from Dante’s View, pausing to admire the distant Panamint Range, rising more than 11,000 feet from the floor of Badwater Basin. We had sixteen rappels and 5,500 feet of down climbing standing between us and safety. Our goal was to make it out by dark.

The description for the approach contained a dire warning: “Be very careful not to drop into the wrong drainage….the larger drainage to the north will look and feel like a more major canyon than the one running away to the south … that large drainage is Cerberus and has a drop well over 200 feet. If you accidentally descend into Cerberus you may have insufficient rope to safely descend the canyon.”

With a 60 meter rope our group definitely had insufficient equipment to descend Cerberus safely. If we chose the wrong canyon we would be trapped.

Once we pulled the rope through the first rappel ring we were completely committed. You can always back down off a climbing project, but even Alex Honnold can’t make it back up a 100 feet polished dry waterfall. There’s no cell service deep in the Amargosa Range. If something goes wrong you just sit tight and hope your emergency contact gets in touch with the Park Service promptly.

To complicate matters, we were having difficulty matching our surroundings with the route description. We followed footsteps in the sand to the head of what we hoped was Styx Canyon. Our hearts leaped at the sight of a carefully constructed anchor but careful examination revealed no resemblance to our written description.

After reading and re-reading, searching and sniffing the air, we turned and trudged back up the canyon to a saddle where we sat to ponder our options and snack. Bare slopes, eroded washes and burnished rocks stretched all around us.

Finally Bob, the most experienced of our party, reached an epiphany.

“What if, here, where it says the large drainage on the left, it actually means the large drainage on the right?” He paused to let the idea sink in. All I could think was, We’re trusting our lives to a route description that confuses right and left?

On the approach to the North Fork of Styx Canyon. Photo: Marty Hornick

“That would make the canyon we just came out of Cerberus, and this one over here,” he gestured to our left, “The North Fork of Styx.”

Out of ideas, our group adopted this hypothesis eagerly and set out, delighted at the correlation between the ground we were traveling and our description. Right and left wouldn’t matter once we started rappelling anyway.

We enjoyed easy wash walking with occasional short down climbs for the first mile and a half. The walls began to rise and steepen, creating a narrow slot. After a slippery down climb of about 12 feet we came to the first anchor.

The written description perfectly matched what we were looking at: an improbable jug hole with a sling through it and a pinch point between a boulder and the canyon wall. Unfortunately it was 1 p.m. before we started our first rappel, leaving us less than five hours of daylight to finish this epic.

We deployed into hustle mode, Greg and I rappelling first and rushing ahead to down climb slick slides and chutes while Bob managed the rope. The third rappel was anchored to a lonely parched shrub and was about 105 ft long, utilizing the full stretch of our rope. Sixty feet down canyon of that rappel Bob found Greg and I gawking in silence at the pile of rocks to which we would trust our lives.

Death Valley Canyoneering

Once you enter a canyon in Death Valley, you never look at the largest National Park south of the Canadian border the same way again. Instead of gawking at range after range of sere brown slopes and the vast expanses of flat basin floors, you pick out the shadowed cracks and massive alluvial fans. Each one indicates a canyon waiting to be explored.

There are fifteen mountain ranges in Death Valley. Each range contains hundreds of canyons, most of which have never felt human footsteps. The best resource for beta is BluuGnome.com, or ranger Jay Snow, canyoneering wizard of the area. Michael Digonnet’s tome Hiking in Death Valley provides all the background info you need.

Canyoneering is inherently unsafe. Always travel with a minimum of three people so one can go for help and one can stay with the injured party if something untoward does occur. Be explicit with an outside contact about where you are going and when they should alert authorities if they have not heard from you.

Bolting is illegal in Death Valley National Park. You will need to create anchors out of natural features and available materials. Rappelling is the cause of over 50% of climbing injuries and fatalities, and that’s the primary method of descending these canyons. Be sure you have enough rope, double check devices and harnesses, tie a knot in the end of your rope and rappel with a prussik or an auto-block. Most of all, seek competent instruction. Don’t treat anything you read in Adventure Sports Journal as instructional.

Forget about a back up, equalization and three points of contact. A cairn anchor is just what it sounds like: a pile of rocks, the sort of thing that might mark an off-trail route, with a sling poking out. On the sling is a rappel ring. You put your rope through the rap ring and hope that pile of rocks doesn’t move when you weight it.

Some people call a cairn anchor a “deadman”, which historically refers to the practice of burying something in the ground and anchoring off it. There was nothing buried on the cairn anchors I saw in Death Valley, leaving me to ponder other meanings of the word “deadman.” When I took an anchor class at my local climbing gym, they did not discuss the possibility of using a pile of rocks. But what were our options?

Bob yanked on the sling, jumped up and down on it a few times and declared it safe. Greg, the heaviest member of our party, went first. No problem. We resumed our hustle, no longer fazed by the most tenuous anchors, until we reached an overhanging rappel.

I’m still not clear on the textbook method for rappelling off an overhang on a cairn anchor, but I think you’re meant to do it exactly how porcupines make love: very carefully. I did not get my rappel device stuck on the rock, but I did come up with some very creative cursing.

Half an hour later, I braved the next overhanging rappel in a similarly graceless and vocal manner. Safely down, I settled against the canyon wall.

“Watch closely,” Greg said, poised at the top. “Let me show you how it’s done.” He turned around, fell over backwards, lost his ball cap and a significant chunk of skin off his right index finger before catching himself, dangling inverted, ten feet off the canyon floor.

My laughter echoed off the canyon walls.

“Hey guys,” Bob said, head popping over the top. “The anchor jumped on that one. I’m standing on the sling. Not cool.”

Three hours after our first rappel we paused for a hurried lunch. It would be dark in an hour and a half and we had nine rappels to go. “How many rappels do you think we’re going to have to do in the dark?” Bob asked.

There was no good answer, except to pack up our snacks and get a move on.
Two hours later, when we could no longer peer through the thickening twilight, we paused to pull out headlamps and extra layers. Thanks to Death Valley’s balmy weather, the descent of darkness didn’t cast us into shivering desperation.

We had been hurrying all day to avoid just this moment, and now it had arrived. With nothing left but to enjoy ourselves, we relaxed into the experience. The extra care required to rappel and down climb in the dark slowed our progress, but it was just another part of the adventure. We stopped chatting and joking and started to sink into the present moment.

The glowing half moon was already high in the sky, but long corridors and sheer walls kept us in inky blackness. Stars twinkled overhead. Only our crunching footfalls and ragged breathing broke the silence.

After three rappels, I stopped using my headlamp at all and slid down the rope in complete darkness. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, but if I slid it down the rope a spark jumped when I touched my belay device.

We barely spoke at our final rappel, perched on a boulder spanning the canyon floor, immersed in a moment that was more profound than language could express.

We descended an alluvial fan, stepped onto the pavement and looked back up to try to locate the canyon. It was an inconspicuous declivity among hundreds of others you’d never notice if you were driving by. A hundred yards down the road and we could barely pick it out.

“Well, that was fun,” Bob declared, breaking the silence. “What are we doing tomorrow?”

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