Rappelling a Pile of Rocks in Death Valley

A mine explored in Death Valley

Death Valley feels like a place people are told to visit but then don’t know what to do when they get here. It’s an American road trip destination where people drive through to stop for ten minutes at various pull offs. However, if you are a canyoneer and don’t mind a solid hike there are nearly one hundred documented canyons out here with big drops and with no water (rated A). Just make sure you have a GPS device and all the beta recorded before you go, there is zero cell service here. Unfortunately, the style of canyon seems to lend itself towards kairn anchors: piles of rocks stacked on top of a single slung rock. Our first experience with this sketchy cannoneer “anchor type”.

Say Hello to my Little Kairn Anchor

We left for our trip to Death Valley / Joshua Tree early so we could spend a night at a 395 hotsprings outside of mammoth. This also meant we had time for a half day canyon the next day after driving to Death Valley.

Snow covered mountains and a crab cooking hot spring.

We chose Rainbow Canyon (3A I) because it was closest, on the west end, so we would have no worries about getting stuck out there at dusk. It was a fun, short 2.5 hrs canyon that introduced us to our first Kairn Anchor. Essentially, trusting our life rappeling from a stack of rocks.

I’d whip on that.
Kairn anchor from another angle. Over the lip is a 100 ft drop.

These worried me a bit because I saw some guys on canyoneering forums talking about building anchors for < 200 lbs people (which is less than what I weigh, even without a pack). So we backed it up off some super long webbing and I went down first to test it out.

Sadie looking skeptical

Everything worked out fine though and we had a fun few drops down the canyon before hiking back up to the car. Cleaning up 40+ new and old cans stuck in bushes just off the road to cap off the day.

The main Rainbow Canyon drop
Sadie looking down into the 30 ft deep keeper pot as we walk around the edge.
Rainbow Canyon before the last rap.

Playing in a Pile of Cyanide

The next day we went out to the highlight canyon of the trip: Keane Canyon (3A III, 8 raps). A long five mile canyon along two continuous major mine remains with great background stories. Such as one prospector loosing all his 125,000 shares in the mine at a midnight roulette game and another selling his stake, returning to Ireland and then serving 17 years in prison for murdering someone in a bar fight. After 2,500 ft of elevation gain and a 4.5 mile long hike up past some aerial bucket trams we encountered a couple tenative traverses on loose rock near two big cliffs.

Hello? Any gold left?
About half way up the canyon. Old aerial tram just off to the lower left.
Walking on loose scree next to a 60m drop.

Finally we reached Big Bell Mine which did NOT have the gates and fences blocking off access (for safety) as we saw lower down at Keane Wonder Mine. We could walk within and around all of the dozen pieces of mine buildings, horizontal shafts, truck sized pieces of equipments, lodging and of course, the big pile of white powder melting into the ground. The mine was known to use Cyanide for leeching so… that white powder could be anything…

Most of the mine buildings minus the big pieces of equipment
Living up to my full potential on my dream job.
Big pile of white powder disolving into the ground after the shed it was housed in collapsed.
Some up close bucket action. Yes that dump lever still worked.
Walking around some old mines
Taking a break from the mining life on an original spring matteress.

After playing around at Big Bell Mine (the high point) we could turn around and start back down the canyon. The upper part was fun with two big rappels but then it got boring for a bit as we hiked for about an hour with little rappeling in a wash where we found a couple mine caches. Then the last third of the canyon got interesting as it narrowed, the rock became more solid, slick, water carved and we started rappeling again.

The lower canyon was much more interesting with solid, slick rock.
Yep this rappel is backed up with a friction hitch off an old metal mining cable still attached to some building.
Going down the water slide

It took a full 7.5 hrs to complete the canyon with all our exploring. So the next morning, we took the day off with a quick spin by the Devil’s Golfcourse before heading to New Jack City to start the climbing portion of our trip. I liked how many long, dry canyons there were in Death Valley, but even in winter it can be warm and the sun quite intense. I found the canyons varied from crumbly choss to water slicks and most had long, steep approaches. I’d definately come back for more.

Wierd Devil’s Golfcourse. Its cool, but I was like, “okay now what?”

Other Death Valley Canyons without we considered:

Some Death Valley Hot Springs we did not visit: