Where to go at the end of December that isn’t too cold or snowy? Death Valley! (It was cold, windy and rained half the trip though) Over the New Years Eve holiday block, a group of us from Mammoth and friends arrived in Death Valley for a 5 day canyoneering trip. I classify Death Valley canyoneering as advanced canyoneering because it typically involves Cairn Anchors which could also be classified as ‘piles of rocks’. Thereby needing additional measures to counter the increased risk.
The group had a variety of skill levels so our trip organizers arranged a clinic going from rappelling and team dynamics to cairn anchors and fiddle sticks in Vinegaroon Canyon. I would call myself an intermediate canyoneer with about a dozen canyons under my belt, but cairn anchors were always very intimidating since I outweigh most men by 30-60 lbs (I’m ~210lbs) so this clinic helped a lot move them from mysterious things to trust to inspectable protection.
One group woke up earlier and dropped a car shuttle on the other side of the mountains from The Slabs where we camped and we all met up on 20-Mule Team Road to start the approach. We went over a hump and then started hiking up a wash. We would weave through this wash until it branched left at a small cairn (not the anchor kind).
Then we crossed over a ridge and dropped down into another wash that we went down for 3/4 a mile until a right up another wash. (Lots of washes) Here we met a ridge and went up left along it.
When we left the ridge to a wash (right) things got a little confusing and we had to backtrack a couple times to stay on the GPX route from Ropewiki.
Going down the canyon there were two easy ten foot down climbs followed by a semi-technical down climb alongside a chockstone. Next there was 30 ft of easy down climbing and a short walk until our first rappel.
I often expect the most intimidating rappel of a canyon to be either the first or last. This makes sense because it gets you into a canyon from a walkable approach OR it gets you out of a canyon people would otherwise have walked up. This first rappel was my first cairn anchor of the trip (and second ever), an 85 ft overhung rappel and I was nervous about my rappel off a pile of rocks but I did have two backup “meat” anchors incase anything happened.
It was a fun rappel and a heck of an accomplishment for one of our party which was rappelling for the first time. The rest of the raps were smaller, fun and all off cairn anchors. We rebuilt some of them and did some practicing in the canyon to make it an all day adventure on New Years Eve.
By the end of the day I was pretty comfortable with cairn anchors, building them, inspecting them and backing them up. We had a tug of war competition between two teams that built cairn anchors that was great to see where / when they would fail in a no-risk situation. I had a lot more confidence in Death Valley canyoneering that I would use for the rest of the trip and future ones. Such huge thanks do I have to our trip organizers Jaymie and Lucas!