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.
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:
This is a good mindset for any canyon, but even more true for this area.
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.
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
How to build a cairn anchor
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
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.
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:
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.
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.