PSR Camp

Terror in a Slot Canyon

Editor's Note:  Death Valley is a wonderful and beautiful place to enjoy and get to know.  It also has the word "death" in its name.  Successful exploration of the Death Valley back country requires awareness and preparation.  Morrie, one of our Death Valley Talk forum members, recounts his day of survival in Death Valley.

This is a story of a situation that my brother and I experienced on our last trip to DV. It was one of the most harrowing outdoor experiences I've had.

The two of us were on a day hike up an un-named side canyon off Cottonwood Canyon. It was a beautiful slot canyon but soon became blocked by a dry waterfall and chockstone that would have required some serious rock climbing beyond our abilities. At this time I realized I accidentally left in the car a 30' 9mm climbing rope that I usually bring on these hikes for a hand line or belay. If one of us could have climbed these falls, the rope would have helped the next person, but no matter -- it was not climbable anyway. 

To bypass this obstruction, we did the usual maneuver: walking back down the canyon until we found a bypass climb around. It was an arduous 1/2-mile scramble, rising to hundreds of feet above the canyon. While not challenging, it was tedious, made treacherous by the steep grade and poor footing. Your typical Death Valley waterfall bypass. When we got back down to the canyon somewhere upstream of the waterfall about an hour later, I was careful to take a GPS reading of the bypass so we would not miss it on the way back. The canyon was wide enough for my GPS to work here. Then we continued up the slot canyon for a couple of hours, finally turning around when the canyon opened up and we ran out of time.

On the return, when we got back to the bypass, we decided first to keep going straight down the canyon just to look at that waterfall from the top. We reached it in a few minutes, and from above, it really didn't look as bad as it seemed from below. Descending would be tricky, but it was only about 12' down and gravity would be our friend here. Not thrilled redoing that hot, treacherous bypass, we decided to give this a shot. Either we made it down or we went back over the bypass -- no harm trying.

Being the more experienced climber, I slid down the chute first without much trouble and spotted my brother. We were elated that we bypassed the bypass so easily and celebrated with a small cigar.

Looking back up the waterfall, we realized it might have been climbable after all, but weren't sure. I could probably have done it, but without the rope, it would have been hard for my brother. Anyway we were glad we didn't have to try.

Walking further down canyon, we got a little worried -- this was not looking familiar. My GPS was useless in the narrow canyon so I didn't know how close we were relative to our starting point. When we got to a little 3' drop, it was clear this was not the way we came in. Yet, there were no side canyons so this had to be the same canyon. Suddenly we came to a second waterfall -- much worse than the one we had just done! Ah, *this* had to be the waterfall that stopped us on the way up. We were trapped between waterfalls! While both of us remembered roughly what that bottom waterfall looked like from below, neither of us thought to pay close enough attention to the details. These two waterfalls looked so much alike, each with a chute down the left side bypassing a chockstone.

We really didn't want to attempt a climb back up waterfall #1, especially with no rope, and given the late hour of the day we were not looking forward to the bypass hike, either. So we decided again to use gravity assist and squirm our way down the 15' chute of this second waterfall, knowing full well this was a total commitment. It worked, but required a final jump of a couple of feet at the bottom where there was nothing to hold on to. Looking back up, we agreed climbing did not look possible. There were no hand or foot holds at all within reach from the bottom, and it was too wide to chimney up. Yep, this was so familiar, it had to be that original waterfall. Relieved, we celebrated our success yet again, this time with the last of our jerky, as we were cigarless. Then we kept going down the canyon.

In just a few moments, disaster: another waterfall!! While this third one was only of modest difficulty, the situation was grim: if neither of the last two waterfalls were the one that originally blocked our ascent, and this third one certainly was not it, then how many more are there? Should we keep going down again, possibly digging ourselves further into a grave? We no longer had any confidence that we could recognize the "last" waterfall even if we got there. Believing there was little chance of making it back up the first two waterfalls, I decided we had no choice but to keep moving. But first I told my brother to wait while I went down alone, just so I could scout ahead, as I was fairly confident I could climb up this third one myself. Maybe our memory was so bad, that this third waterfall was really the last and our car was right around the corner.