The back country of Death Valley in November

a wild time in DV in mid-November 2009:

Last weekend I met up with a large group of people for “DeathValleyFest ’09™” or that’s what at felt like anyway. We were in the heading up to the valley to do some of the canyons in the Black Mountains.

I picked up Susan and Dennis after work and we headed out. Since we had traffic to fight and didn’t get out particularly early we didn’t arrive at the campsite and get bedded down until around 1 in the morning. No sooner had I zipped my head into the mummy bag and turned off the headlight then everyone in the campsite was up and bustling around, getting gear and cars organized. That’s how it felt anyhow. Actually it was 4:30 when I got up so we had managed around 3.5 hours of sleep. Woohoo! A large group of 9 people was headed out to do Erebus Canyon. I was with a smaller subsidiary group of 6 who were setting out for Styx Canyon (or alternatively Chris Brennen’s description). Since we hadn’t arrived until late the night before, or rather a few hours before, we needed to place the retrieval car at the bottom of the canyon, so we grabbed our gear, piled into 2 cars and headed out. We drove from Furnace creek south along the base of the mountains, past Badwater, and finally near the mouth of Styx Canyon we parked our truck. The sky was already getting lighter as we crammed the 6 of us into my xterra and retraced our path to the 190 and hung a right up the pass. We drove up to just below Dante’s View, where we parked and unloaded our gear in the freezing morning light.

At 7:00am we headed southeast into a nameless wash which dropped toward Coffin Canyon. It was a spectacularly beautiful day, if a little chilly at the outset. The weather was perfect for hiking the entire time we were out there, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t spot a single cloud the entire day. Our first difficulty was traversing some hillsides as we avoided a dryfall. The surface looked like loose scree, but it was actually pretty hard, with just a loose surface covering, which was much harder to walk on. After scooting down part of the hill on our butts we made it back into the drainage a short way above our first rappel. After 3 or 4 down climbs of varying difficulty we reached the top of a 95 foot drop. An anchor was already built there, and after examining it we hooked up the rope and dropped in. The colours of rock at the bottom of the rappel were breathtaking, it was like dropping into a very dry, rocky rainbow. Once the nerves of the first rappel of the day were shaken off we headed further down canyon. The next rappel was bypassable to the left, but we set an anchor around a large boulder and dropped in. This was probably about a 65 foot drop or so and there was a treat waiting for us at the bottom. When we were all down we noticed a tarantula wandering around in the sun. It was almost as if it had seen us coming and came out to perform for the camera. We spent a few minutes oohing and aahing and taking copious pictures, then loaded up and headed on down. Soon after the second rappel the wash opened up and connected to Coffin Canyon. This was the start of a long walk down the wash at the bottom of Coffin. It is almost like a wide gravel road and is very easy on the knees, if a little boring. Eventually we reached the wash on the right which leads up to Styx Saddle. We climbed our only uphill of the day and then stopped for lunch at the saddle at 11:00.

After a short rest we finally dropped into Styx Canyon and began what seemed to be an endless succession of down climbs, rappels, caves, endlessly changing multicoloured cliffs, anchor challenges, lizards, skulls and other scenic wonders. 5:00 o’clock was fast approaching, and with it nightfall, and we still had what we thought was 7 rappels and numerous down climbs still to go. It was actually 9 more rappels, but it was just as well that we didn’t know it at the time. We were leapfrogging our 2 ropes down canyon, but we would probably have been better served to have brought another one so we could have 3 pairs of people setting anchors at the same time. Also, we probably should have set meat anchors for most of the down climbs. Either of these would have saved us much time going down canyon, but that’s why we head down these challenges, to learn. Anyhow, the sunset, and the headlamps came out. The temperature was still perfect, and there was not a breath of wind. Dropping off a cliff edge into an inky pool of black, not knowing for sure whether the rope was reaching the bottom was certainly a new experience for almost all of us. We had no problems setting rope lengths, and everyone was very careful, checking themselves and others to make sure no one was making any mistakes with their rappelling through fatigue or haste. We progressed as quickly as we could while making sure we were all safe, isolated pools of light dropping from dark ledges into black abysses. We eventually reached a sketchy 12 foot down climb with a very difficult anchor problem, probably around 7:00pm. We set a chockstone near the edge, but didn’t leave enough tail on the overhand used on the rock. I knew we should have around 6 inches of tail but I suspect we were all in too much of a hurry so no one said anything. When I weighted the anchor the knot immediately untied and I dropped down the 12 feet. Although it happened so quickly I don’t even remember it I managed to land much like a cat on hands and toes, completely unhurt. My camera was not quite as lucky, and the lens was broken off at the base and the LCD cracked. I tossed the webbing and ring back up to the top and it was retied much more carefully then before. Everyone made it down fine after that, although there were a few more nerves in evidence. This definitely brought home a lesson I’ll never forget. Leave plenty of tail on your knots!!

More carefully even then before we finished the last rappels to the desert floor and headed across the remaining 1/2 mile to the road. Ahead we saw headlights coming toward us and we veered to meet them. It was Kirk and a few others from the other party coming to check up on us. We had thought they were doing the long canyon and we would be out before them. Ha! We reached the car at a quarter to 10, after an almost 15 hour day in the canyon. Certainly an adventure we won’t soon forget. After a long drive back to Dante’s View to collect the xterra we reached the camp and dropped off to an exhausted sleep in the windy desert.

Sunday our small group was a little too tired to do another canyon so we did the tourist thing. We got a wonderful breakfast at the restaurant in Furnace Creek and drove over to the Golden Canyon to hike up it. After another few hours of beautiful landscapes and textures we hopped in the car and headed across the park in the direction of LA. We stopped briefly at the charcoal kilns up wild rose road, then dropped down into the Panamint Valley and headed south. We stopped briefly for gas in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Trona (my apologies to any Trona natives out there, but really, that’s what it is). The it was on to the back roads and highways and to our warm beds.

Anyhow here are the pictures from our DV epic:

Death Valley in November

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