PSR Stay

Terror in a Slot Canyon

Article Index

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.

I went further down the canyon for a good 10 minutes and my heart sank as I came to yet a fourth waterfall, again with a chute on the left side like all the others. I had no idea if I saw this one before, but this one was over 20' high and seemed to require a 6' jump at the bottom, enough to get hurt. It was impossible to tell if it was climbable, because it was overhung, and getting down far enough to see where it went meant no turning back. With no idea whether this was the last, It would have been folly to continue, possibly leaving my brother stranded between waterfalls #2 and #3 while I was stranded between waterfalls #4 and maybe #5.

So I walked back up to waterfall #3 where my brother was waiting, silently climbed up to him, and gave him the bad news, which he was expecting by the fact that I bothered to climb back up. We had to return back up the way we came down -- somehow. Waiting for help was not an option: my wife back home knew we were planning to camp somewhere near the Cottonwood/Marble Canyon junction, but she had no idea which side canyons we were hiking, and anyway she wasn't expecting me to contact her for about a week. It was extraordinarily unlikely that we would see another person come our way for days, weeks or even months. Who would be stupid enough to end up here? We were not happy campers, and in fact I was near panic, but tried not to show it.

We glumly walked back to killer waterfall #2 with the 2-foot jump at the bottom. How to get up there? We considered piling up rocks to get several feet off the ground to the first hand holds, but the nearest big rocks were quite a distance back down the canyon on the other side of waterfall #3. We probably could have done it, but it would have taken all night even if we could finish it before complete exhaustion. Rocks big enough to make a difference would also have been very heavy, and I was guessing we needed at least a 4-foot boost. While we had no food, we did have over a gallon of water between us, and the canyon was in eternal shade, so we could have lasted quite a while.

I decided the only real hope was to climb on my brother's shoulders to reach the first holds. Then if I made it, I'd have to leave him there and continue on, hoping to make it up the next waterfall alone, back up over the bypass to the car to get my rope. I wouldn't have gotten back to my brother till well after dark. Luckily, I'm lighter than he is and he's pretty tall, so I gained a lot of height stretched out standing on his shoulders.

But while being lifted I had an idea, and asked to be put back down. As a last resort I decided to try making a "rope" from what we were carrying: two fanny packs and a couple of miscellaneous straps. Stretched out, this resulted in a contraption about 10' long held together by questionable stitching and 3/4" Fastex buckles. Not exactly vertical quality, but worth a shot. I suppose we could have made it a little longer by sacrificing our T-shirts, but I decided this might be good enough.

Those of you who've rock climbed have probably experienced or run into people with sewing-machine leg, involuntary muscle vibrations due to panic that makes you an incompetent climber exactly when you need all the skill you have. It has happened to me once in the past (on an un-belayed climb up a muddy slope in a cave 50' off the floor), and I could almost feel it coming on here, but this time it was for fear of never getting out of here, rather than fear of the climb itself.

But the shoulder boost worked like a charm, and despite my temporary incompetence I got to the point where I could chimney the rest of the way up. You could not imagine my relief: with at least one of us able to get out of here, nobody was going to die. It might take many hours or even a couple of days, but eventually both of us would get out. The only issue now was whether we could leave together and continue our vacation (which had just started), or waste it all on a rescue.

I wedged my body into the top of the chute so that I was in a position to belay my brother with the makeshift rope, and I lowered it down to him. In preparation he cleared the ground of nasty rocks in case he fell, At first it looked dismal: we tried making a foot loop for him to step into, just at the limit of the rope's length, but there was just nothing on the walls to grab, and climbing the rope alone wasn't possible. Then my brother grabbed the rope as high as he could with both hands and walked his feet up the chute, eventually jamming his feet into a crack, his body hanging out horizontally over space. This was an impressive position from my vantage point, but he was panicked because falling from here would mean a 4' drop flat on his back, maybe breaking his back or head. With him holding onto the rope for dear life, I pulled, and I could hear the stitching of the pack straps starting to pop (I didn't tell him this). We had to act fast before everything came apart. I'm not particularly strong and my brother is considerably heavier, but I was so well anchored in the chute that I was able to pull on the rope and cantilever his body into a more vertical position, his feet still in the crack. I also think that I may have received that fabled shot of adrenaline that gives you superhuman strength for a brief instant. Once my brother was vertical, he still needed another foot of lifting before he was finally able to reach some hand holds and work his way up.

While we had already celebrated twice for false reasons, this accomplishment was our greatest celebration. The only celebratory elixir we had left was warm water, but that was good enough. The next and last waterfall was easy by comparison. We were feeling so good, we didn't even try to use the rope. Finally, that hour-long "treacherous" scramble around the bypass we tried so hard to avoid felt like a walk in the park. We were back to our car with plenty of daylight left to drive back to our campsite for a nice dinner and celebration with fine cigars and top-shelf tequila.

Reflecting on this, I was most disappointed in myself. With all my years of outdoor wilderness experience, how could I let us get into such a near-death situation? I've been on many climbs where going up is easier than going down, and I always think about whether I might have to unexpectedly descend. For this reason I always make doubly sure that I have a way back unless I know for a fact that I won't have to turn around. Less frequently, but more often in canyons like this and also in caves, going down is easy while going up can be impossible, so I'm usually conscious of this problem, too. One story that has always stuck in my mind, I think by Edward Abbey, involved a descent down a dry falls somewhere in the Grand Canyon, where he expected to reach the bottom of the canyon, but landed on an unclimbable ledge to the next drop. He got stuck so badly he thought he was doomed to rot there, and got out only through heroic climbing. So, I knew all these things well, yet it still happened to me.

Well, the reason it happened wasn't that I ignored all this experience. It happened because I truly "knew" that we would not have to retrace our steps. My memory was so distorted that I convinced myself I was in a place I was not. I should have realized that all waterfalls can look similar, especially within the same slot canyon -- I've seen enough of them to know that. I should also have realized that I never paid that much attention to how the bottom waterfall really looked, so I had no right to assume any waterfall that I saw from the opposite direction was the same one. Then why did I continue on with this belief after having been proven wrong the first time, repeating the mistake yet again? It was because I was too stubborn to believe that I could possibly make the same mistake twice. I was so bad off, that I almost talked myself into repeating the mistake a third time. Three strikes and you're safe? Bad memory and ego can be deadly.

But I learned a lot from this (besides trying harder to remember my rope), and I'm sure this won't happen to me again, so I guess I'm a safer hiker because of it. I have gotten into many near-disaster situations over the years, some due to bad decisions, and from each one I learned what not to do next time. I will never again believe that just because I've reached a ripe old age still unscathed, that I've already made all possible mistakes. There are many more mistakes out there to be made.