It’s drugs, sex and EDM. It’s the world’s biggest inside joke. It’s a playground for rich techies. It’s a place where if you think you can be absurd you have to prove it. It’s extreme camping. It’s a place of radical acceptance, creativity and self expression. It’s the easiest festival to get busted for drugs. It’s transformational. It’s Burning Man.
Montana has a rich history of resource extraction. The hill in Butte, MT was originally one of the most prosperous sources of copper as the electrification of the US started and WWII demanded this new technology. In 1920, this town (which in 2023 had about 40,000 people) held up to 100,000 people all working around the resource extraction biz until things became harder and harder to extract. Soon, “The Richest Hill” turned into an open pit mine, then a superfund site which kills any bird that lands in the pit’s heavy metal water and now a tourist attraction.
I spent July 2023 in Montana for work, for a wedding and for fun. One of the opportunities I had was to attend a talk from Jon Sommer head of Colorado mycological society and then go on a short foraging hike with them. This launched me into an experience I’d always wanted to try: eating mushrooms I had foraged from nature!
Death Valley approaches can feel more dangerous than the canyons themselves, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising given that is how climbing can work too. This trip down to Death Valley after an overnight wind/rain storm, we headed out a little after 8am to hike to the top of Feral Ass Canyon (3A III, 9r, 230ft). We would instead decide to drop into Sentinel Canyon (3A III, 13r, 130ft) which runs along the approach early but still hit 7 rappels, mostly small.
Out on a recent trip to Red Rock Canyon I was unable to climb due to an injury and was looking for non-4×4 required canyons in the park. I found Hidden Falls Canyon (3A III, 4-11r, 120ft) on ropewiki and thought it looked beautiful and was worth the effort with its rocky watercourses, bouldery washes and endless down climbing.
I don’t need to tell you that Death Valley is a desolate place, the name says it all. However, its worth emphasizing that while the main roads might be full of people, the canyoneering retains the Wild West attitude of its origins. As I share more about Death Valley canyoneering, there is a worry about more people coming into it with a different mindset than the place allows. This post is as much as an introduction as a warning to what canyoneering in the lowest place on Earth is like. My background is over a dozen Utah canyons and over a dozen Death Valley canyons with ~80 rappels off cairn anchors. For some this is nothing, for others this is everything. In summary, there are three things I think people should know about Death Valley canyoneering: self-sufficiency, cairns and Swaney.
As with most Death Valley canyon’s, we have limited, but essential, beta: number of raps, longest rap, some GPX lines and a photo album from the first descentionist: Scott Swanny. Given we were warming up for the season (and most park roads were still closed) I picked a canyon from a ‘canyon-cluster’ on the SW of Death Valley that had not-too-long rappels, not-too-many rappels and a short approach to optimize for success and mitigate risk as it was likely any canyon since the Fall 2022 rain event was scoured and we’d have to rebuild every anchor. Funky Lizard Canyon (3A III, 10r 110ft) turned out to be a fun, straightforward canyon that our team breezed through.
Rainbow Canyon (3A I) first introduced me to cairn anchors back in 2019. This was back when I was still descending canyons in climber style: a two-person team with ATCs and dynamic ropes. I was so nervous I backed up the cairn anchor with a boulder 50 ft back for when I went down first. However, it was worth it for the beautiful rainbow coloration of the walls and wide views of this deep canyon.