The day after our canyoneering clinc a few of us got off to a late start to do Apollo Canyon (3A IV). Like many Death Valley canyons, the only beta was a Facebook photo album from First Descentionist Scott Swanny. As I am getting the feel for these ground up, 2/3000 ft approach canyons, getting off the chossy ridgeline was maybe the highest risk thing we did that day. It was a fun, rarely visited canyon that with a 200 ft rappel off a cairn anchor.
We started at the same parking location as Vinegaroon Canyon but immediately went left up the wash from 20-Mule Team Road. There was a brief section where we went up loose dirt to bypass a rock blockage and then rejoined the wash.
This wash eventually became partially filled with silt as we gained elevation until we took a hard right to a ridge leading to a small plateau backed by a ridgeline.
We gained this ridge directly and then walked up along it until we reached its high point “Borax Mountain” said the summit register. From here we followed the ridgeline up and down two times until our next down was on a ridgeline that connected us to a brown lump. From this brown lump you can see the giant wash (right) that brings us into Apollo Canyon, however, getting down there was unclear.
We went down the ridgeline from the brown lump with dark chossy rock, past a small double-arch until it cliffed out a little bit. Our trip leader created a meat anchor to help a scout go down the chossy black rock and when they said it wasn’t great we spotted them over to a ledge. I hand-lined down a 8 ft undercut drop to a ledge and then was able to down climb carefully to the dirt. Our last person down had to do a short 8 ft section of 4th class down climb off suspect rock where I hand-lined.
The ridge decent was 50 ft in total and was sketchy, a hold broke off while one person was down climbing and afterwards we thought we should have rapped it. (later when we counted rappels we believe one of the rappels was off the ridgeline, however, there was no evidence of a past anchor on said ridgeline).
Getting down into the wash was like descending gumballs on hard-pack. It was slippery but not dangerous. Finally in our wash it was easy walking and the canyon eventually narrowed. There was an easy ten foot down climb and then it opened up again until we reached our first rappel.
There was webbing poking out of the dirt from a past cairn anchor that was washed in from the past rains. We dug it all out, replaced the webbing and rebuilt the anchor. The rappel had two nice footholds to get situated on before going completely over the edge. The first hundred feet you could put your feet on the wall and the second hundred feet was overhung. Many rocks came down when our feet touched the wall so a fireman’s belay would not be workable for other parties.
About 200ft down canyon from this rappel is the second one, a 120ft rappel down a multi-level runnel. There was no webbing but there was a pile of compacted dirt with rocks which looked like the past cairn anchor. We dug out the dirt and built a massive cairn anchor. (There was always plentiful building materials in the canyon.)
Another short walk brought us to a big boulder and a very minimal anchor slung with a sling. There was a way to down climb under the boulder 15 ft through a hole to a ledge, but looking over the other side of the boulder revealed the full 70 ft drop. We built up the anchor on top (did not replace webbing) and went over the boulder, avoiding a pinch constriction. (To be clear: we did not down climb into the first drop, we rapped from the top of the boulder)
This was our last rappel of the day and the canyon walls got tall and steep around us for magnificent viewing. We had only done 3 of the 5 raps indicated on Ropewiki so we figured there was one rappel we missed off the ridgeline to avoid our sketch down climb.
It was a great adventure with definitely some nerves on the first 200ft rappel and the ridge. I appreciated the great experience rebuilding each cairn anchor from scratch. It only took about six hours so technically it probably was a Grade III canyon, but we agreed it wasn’t on the same scale as other Grade III canyons in Death Valley so the Grade (length of time) should probably remain the same.