Descending the River Styx (North Fork)

Descending one of the last rappels

For a friend’s big 3-0 birthday party in Death Valley we decided to do two big canyons, the first being Styx Canyon (North Fork) (3A IV 22r). Styx was another canyon starting from the high point in the park (Dante’s View  5400 ft) to the park low point (Badwater -200 ft). This is one of the more traffic’d canyons in Death Valley with no need to replace any webbing or fix any anchors. Therefore, it felt a lot more chill than Typhon Canyon, but still an adventure with many 100 ft rappels.

Down the River Styx

At 7am our crew of seven stepped out of the van to gear up for my second canyon from Dante’s View. We climbed a hill from the parking lot following a foot path. This foot path would not always be easy to follow among intermittent rocks and hard ground, but it progressed throughout the approach and whole canyon. The evidence of other canyoneers (via the foot path) was strange in Death Valley where most of the canyons seem to get little traffic.

We followed a ridge before descending prematurely into a wash and having to gain a ridge again to the drop in point. Now officially starting the canyon, we found ourselves weaving through a wash with short craggy walls for a while which added a cool aesthetic.

The craggy short canyon walls along the wash

It was about an two hours from the parking lot until we reached our first rappel with an option of a cairn anchor or a little harder to see pinch below it. This rappel was a broken runnel with a eroded section mid rappel providing a little overhang.

Rappel #1

We walked a little from the first rappel and then hit the first technical section with several back to back rappels. The third rappel was the first bush/tree rappel I’ve done in Death Valley where shrubbery typically isn’t present in the canyon. Rappelling 220 lbs off a bush/tree the size of my wrist in a canyon of rock (where are those roots going?) was interesting, but hanging on the webbing around the organic anchor’s base showed almost no movement.

After we reached the confluence of North and South fork of Styx there was a walking period with several (optional?) rappels which didn’t look like down climbs. These probably added to the six rappels we ended up doing over the 16 originally recorded in the route description. A highlight of the longer walk through the canyon, was one cool section where we walked through a short boulder tunnel.

Downclimbing section where we used me as a ladder to avoid the seven foot drop after the runnel (center-right)

The second technical section had some slightly spaced out rappels, ending in three back-back longer rappels. One of them an excitingly vertical, very slick, double runnel rappel. Maybe I was tired from the day, or maybe these last few rappels were especially vertical at the lip, but I felt more of my nerves on them as we ended the day. I’m not sure why, but this was different from how I normally felt at the end of a long canyon: warmed up and familiar with longer rappels.

The very last rappel was under a school bus sized boulder magically having landed to create a window into Badwater.

As always, these long descents left my legs tired, surprisingly so since canyoneering is just ‘fancy hiking’ and the distance we went was not long. However, after the Grand Canyon and our last Dante’s canyon I know how much descending can tire your legs. I felt more nerves on this trip than I would have liked, but mostly calmed them by accepting that nerves in adventure sports is normal and okay instead of fighting these feelings as ‘bad’ or ‘unwanted’.

With a party of seven that was more social we moved less like the multi-pitch, always moving, eating or drinking feel that I really enjoyed in Typhon Canyon. I realized that I really enjoyed that style and the frequent down time at rappels (even with four ropes) took the steam out of progression a bit. Regardless I had a good time, outside, in a canyon, doing a technical sport.