Welcome to Death Valley Canyoneering

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.

Self Sufficiency

Canyoneering is not a popular sport in general. Once you leave Utah it is even less so. I’ve never seen anyone in or around a technical Death Valley canyon, nor heard anyone outside my friend group even talk about Death Valley canyoneering. There may be a canyon-fest every year in Death Valley, but I’ve yet to go and understand what community exists around the sport in this area. When you drop into a canyon, there isn’t anyone who is going to come by, happenstance to help. Search and Rescue (SAR) might have unexpected challenges as they may be unfamiliar with the advanced techniques used in Death Valley for canyoneering. If you’ve ever tried to use GPS in a canyon it’s hit or miss and so will the ability to call SAR via satellite emergency device.

When you enter a canyon you have your team, your skills, your equipment. This is true for other action sports like alpine climbing, but there is so much more activity and awareness around alpine climbing in the Californian Sierra to facilitate rescues. Typically it’s much harder to get a helicopter into a canyon than a cliffside.

So when you go into a canyon in Death Valley are you sure that:

  • You could rebuild or improvise a new anchor for any rappel?
  • You have enough rope that if one gets stuck you won’t be SOL?
    • Bringing at least 1.5-2x longest rappel is a good rule
    • i.e. for a 100 ft rappel you have 200ft * 1.5-2 = 300-400 ft of rope
  • You have enough webbing, quicklinks or other tools to rebuild or replace all anchors?
    • It is another advanced technique but knowing and practicing how to safely use a fiddlestick can provide options that don’t require anything besides your ropes.
  • If your most experienced person gets injured or separated, can someone else fix/rig a rappel?
  • Are you ready for there to be five more rappels than in the beta?

This is a good mindset for any canyon, but even more true for this area.

Cairns: Your New Favorite Tool

Many people’s first canyons are in Utah where there are permits, bolted rappels, dozens of trip reports and often recently updated conditions either from ropewiki or from talking with rangers or guiding companies. None of these exist in Death Valley. For a technical grade-three canyon, I’d call these Death Valley canyons pretty advanced since the primary tool you will be using as anchors to rappel are ‘piles of rocks’ called cairn anchors.

I say this because for a technical-grade-three canyon whose anchors are two bolts, it is very rare you would have to assess the strength of the bolts, be prepared to re-drill those bolts or think about how your rappelling technique will impact the strength of the bolts. All these are true with cairn anchors.

I think its a good rule to never enter a canyon that uses cairn anchors without two people who know how to inspect, rebuild, test and backup a cairn anchor from scratch. A more likely situation than a washed out cairn anchor is one that requires new webbing. The sun is very intense in ‘the hottest place on earth’ and its UV damages webbing. Sometimes to replace webbing the whole anchor needs to be taken apart and rebuilt.

How do you inspect, build, test and backup a cairn anchor? Learn from someone who has done them before. I do not recommend online instruction… and there really isn’t any anyways. There is this video about tying off a cairn anchor, these three sentences about how to build one and there are some forum threads with pictures of anchors. Most people say use them as a last resort, but in Death Valley… they often are the only resort.

Cairns in Practice

For reference, I’ll go into how I inspect, build and rappel a cairn anchor. This is for reference, learn from someone else in person before rappelling a cairn anchor!

How to inspect a cairn anchor

  1. Approach pile of rocks and start looking for webbing
  2. Expose the webbing to get eyes and hands on every piece of it (this may require digging out the rock or deconstructing the cairn)
  3. Fold each part of the webbing horizontally and vertically to test for crunchiness which indicates damage
  4. Visually and physically inspect each part the webbing for cuts, abrasion or sun bleaching
  5. If any damage exists replace the webbing, reusing the quicklink is often okay

How to build a cairn anchor

  1. Pick a spot with good direction of pull and 6-12 ft from the edge
  2. Evaluate the floor for its friction (i.e. smooth bedrock isn’t going to have much friction)
  3. Dig a fist-width trench in the direction of pull in the dirt.
  4. Find the biggest, most rectangular, least sharp edged rock you can lift and put it across the trench
  5. Tie an overhand on a bite with a hands length of tail on one side of the webbing and dress it tightly
  6. Sling this rock by bringing the webbing through trench and then through the bite
  7. Tighten it up so the rock is properly hitched
  8. Pick the point of rope pull and cut the webbing 12-18 inches from this point
  9. Tie another overhand on a bite on this end with a hands length of tail and dress it tightly
  10. Install a quick link on the bite you just created at the point of pull
  11. Place large to medium sized rocks mostly in front of the base rock (some on top is okay)
    • Avoid putting rocks on top of the webbing so it can be easily inspected by the next party
  12. Be aware of your surroundings, maybe be placed on a belay while you pull on the anchor to see if there is movement or shifting

The finished result should ideally look like a U with the end being the inspectable base rock that requires no deconstruction to inspect the webbing. The number of rocks should be something between seven rocks the strongest person in your group can barely carry and 20 medium-large sized rocks. The real number depends on rock density and should be evaluated on site with sufficient backups.

How to rappel a cairn anchor

  1. Setup the rope for rappel
  2. Install a backup line at the biner-block with a few inches of slack to a person who backs up the anchor with body weight
    • Person should ideally have something to brace their feet and be oriented with the direction of force should the anchor fail
  3. Assign a person to watch the anchor for shifting or movement who will communicate with rappeller or backup person. They must know exactly what to do if shifting, movement or worse failure appears.
  4. Set the heaviest person in the group up for rappel
  5. Rappeller gets as low as possible when they start to weight the anchor so direction of force is as downward as possible
  6. Rappeller eases into the rappel to avoid shock loading the anchor
  7. Rappeller avoids bouncing the anchor on rappel by keeping a loose enough third hand that it doesn’t need to be jerked but tight enough (and tested) that it will grab in emergency.
    • A fireman’s belay can help with this for following rappellers, but special care must be taken to put the belayer out of rock fall terrain
  8. Rappeller reaches the ground, gets off belay and communicates to rest of team above

These are what cairn anchors can look like in practice (more photos of anchors from Scott Swaney). I’ve personally rappelled off each one with 210+ lbs.

Note: I have encountered other types of anchors such as pinches, slung chockstones, boulders an occasional small bush as well some more advanced ones like knot chocks and rock chocks. I’ve used cairns about 75% of the time though in canyon.

The land of Scott Swaney

Scott Swaney was highlighted in a recent documentary called “First Descent: The Legend of Scott Swaney”. He has done hundreds of first descents of canyons in Death Valley and is often the only source of information on those canyons through ropewiki and his Facebook photo albums. He includes the minimal amount of information a self-sufficient canyoneering team needs to be successful:

  • Longest rappel
  • Number of rappels
  • Approach length and elevation gain
  • GPX track of approach, ascent, descent and exit
  • Sometimes GPS waypoint of each rappel with distance noted
  • A photo album that may be just of that canyon or of multiple canyons

Often these canyons look like a blank page on rope wiki with the essential stats on the right, GPX information when you click on the map, first descent team information / date and a link to a photo album. Most people who do these canyons don’t provide condition reports on ropewiki so it’s often unclear if there was another descent since the first unless you talk to people in the community. Given the lack of recent conditions information, this is why self-sufficiency is a must.

So Why Death Valley?

What is intimidating about Death Valley is also its charm, it is the Wild West. The park is deserted off the main few roads everyone drives and the relatively few hikes. It is a place where you get to use technical skills to experience things that very few people will experience in a setting very few people access. It has technical challenges like cairn anchors, massive rappels, many-many-rappel canyons and true gems of nature like rainbow’d rock, 100+ ft long runnels, small arches and millions of fossilized snails. It can bring you to places like old mines or hidden waterfalls. It is an adventure and every canyoneer I’ve ever met is all about adventure and exploration.