Trying to find a small-medium canyon in Death Valley with a mixed experience group is always difficult. However, we decided to give Big Shit Canyon (3A IV 11r 190ft) a go with a very early start so we could be back at camp before sunset to cook, setup and prep for our huge NYE celebration. Every Death Valley canyon truly has its own character. This one had a very solid approach on good rock (2.4 mi, 2900 ft) with a technical ridge scramble, a lot of down climbing and very accessible, solid anchors. The only questionable part was the canyon’s name…and maybe descending from the ridge.
At 9am we started up the Mosaic Canyon ridge choosing the first descent option of Mosaic Canyon- Hidden Fork (3A III 11r 100ft) of the four off the ridge to try to beat the afternoon forecast of rain. It would be my first canyon breaking my 1-1 ratio of experienced Death Valley cannoneers to newcomers with just myself and Jaymie sandwiching our friends on either side throughout the canyon. After building well over 20 cairns from scratch last season, it was the first time I would be making all anchor decisions without a second pair of experienced eyes.
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.
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.
Darwin Falls is a little waterfall people can visit from a hiking trail in Death Valley, but the real gem is the 150ft waterfall unseen from the trail but just above. It is only accessible by canyoneering and in the sole water canyon in Death Valley. Darwin Falls (3B II) was our first canyon of the Death Valley season and was much changed since the prior descent in 2020.
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.