OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do things that are hard. Do things you think you can’t do.”

I saw this quote online. It sounds dreamy and inspiring but in reality these things can be highly uncomfortable. This was the case during my recent canyoneering trip to Death Valley.

My best and worst trait is my compulsion to just go for it. I do this whether I’m ready or not, especially when it comes to my adventures. The technical canyons I did in Death Valley a couple years ago were some of my hardest ever and I hadn’t been training for my recent trip like I should have. I should have been climbing big mountains or doing big canyons to prepare my body and mind for punishment. Instead, I’ve been luxuriating on a sailboat in Mexico for the last two months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet there I was, climbing 1100 feet straight up the side of a mountain to reach the first drop in point for Helios Canyon, which would offer us 6 rappels with lengths up to 160 feet. This mountain I was climbing was not a friendly mountain, either. Scree and boulders of every shape and size were perched loosely on a steep slope. The better sections of the climb had some large rocks which could be trusted. However, most parts of the climb had only pebble or grapefruit-sized rocks which would slide and shift with every step. This wasn’t a single mountain we could walk all the way around, but rather a dark brown fold in a long row of 6,000 foot peaks. This row of peaks rose suddenly from a flat, wide, pale yellow valley floor.

10714479_1567713776793326_5516041286546436157_o (Large)As we planned our canyons for the trip I felt intimidated when I read about the ascent to reach the entry to Helios canyon, which described loose rock, scree, and scrambling along a knife edge ridge. We chose to do it anyway because it’s one of the shorter and prettier canyons in the area. Short and pretty does not equal easy in Death Valley, though. There are no easy canyons in Death Valley.

Brian, Louis, Everett and I were a happy canyon team as we carpooled to the start of our adventure. When I first saw the mountain we would climb I knew I was in over my head. Patches of scree and boulders rose steeply to a solid, rippling cliffband about 700 feet from the base of the mountain. I couldn’t see the knife edge ridge yet but I knew it was up there somewhere, waiting for me to crawl humbly across it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy previous canyoneering trip to Death Valley had been one of my hardest trips in 9+ years of canyoneering. I descended a canyon full of loose rock during a canyon exploration along Badwater Road. The canyon was so bad that Tom Jones, who organized the exploration, joked “We did it so you don’t have to” in his trip report. There was so much dangerous rockfall we named the canyon “ROCK!” because we were constantly yelling “rock” to each other to alert our partners of falling rock. However, the landscape was unique and the approach hikes were beautiful. It was clearly a great place for canyoneering, but also one not to be taken lightly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I returned to Death Valley for the second time, more aware of the magnitude of its canyons. Even though I knew the risks, I still couldn’t resist Helios canyon that day. My lust for the canyon overcame logic and I felt that urge to just go for it. I decided to do it. That decision began a challenging day where I relied on help and encouragement from my canyon partners to make it up the mountain safely.

As I moved up the mountain, rocks fell from under my feet. I was in the middle of an easy climbing move on a large rock when the smooth, stable platform under my feet disintegrated in an instant and its remnants tumbled toward Louis and Everett below. Rock! I yelled. I panted, gripped the remaining rock with my hands, and looked for another place for my foot.

Brian would sometimes secure a short rope to himself and toss it to me to help me make it up some of the steeper, looser sections. There were many I love you’s, good job’s, and smiles coming my way as I made it up the mountain. A few times I yearned to turn back but my canyon partners encouraged me to keep going. Then, we saw the knife edge ridge. It was not skinny, exposed, or frightening but by that time the wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to stand up straight.

We saw a place where we thought we may be able to drop into the canyon early and avoid the knife edge ridge. It was a rocky slope that descended toward the floor of Helios canyon, but we couldn’t quite see the bottom of the slope. One by one, we rappelled or used a handline to make our way down the slope and see if we could find a way to the canyon floor. The wind was too loud to communicate and the drop appeared to be longer than our longest rope, so we couldn’t send just one person all the way down to scout it. Brian, Everett and myself descended 100 feet down the drop and then decided it was far too dangerous to try rappelling on the rotten rock at the bottom of the slope. We looked around for other options, but eventually accepted we would need to ascend all the way back up to the ridge and continue on the knife edge in the howling wind. The wind turned out to be only a minor obstacle for us. We stayed on the downwind side of the ridge whenever possible, and Brian threw me a rope as I made my way up the knife edge portion of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all felt relieved when the mountain climbing portion of the adventure was over and we were ready to drop into the canyon. The final drop into the canyon held yet one more surprise for us. To get into the canyon, we needed to downclimb a short distance on secure rock. This would normally be a simple move, but the climb was next to a big, airy drop.

By that point I had enjoyed enough excitement and I rappelled off Brian into the canyon rather than doing the exposed downclimb. Brian, Louis and Everett seemed to really enjoy the exciting climb. Good for them. I sat in the canyon celebrating with a sandwich.

The canyon itself was very rewarding once we were in it. Nearly every drop, large or small, was framed by enormous views of the peaks across from us and the big, yellow plain below us. The rock under our feet changed constantly, from slick gray to jagged, tan conglomerate to rippled brown. I tried to shake off the tension of the approach but I don’t think I completely relaxed until we reached the car at the end of the canyon.

That mountain felt like something I couldn’t climb safely and I wasn’t in the best condition to tackle difficult terrain, but I’m glad I did it anyway. I still believe in the words “Do things that are hard. Do things you think you can’t do,” but with the added phrase “in the company of people who care”.

Lisa Hackett

About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, drive from Idaho to Alaska solo, live and work in a van in the wilderness and dodge encounters with wolves and bears. Seriously. More

3 Responses to Canyoneering in Death Valley

  1. Louis says:

    It was a very exciting climb. You really made a great success out of a really big challenge. I’m glad I would relive it through your very good writing. I completely agree with you about doing things that are hard, even if I don’t want to. I always feel better after the fact because I did it.

  2. Erin says:

    Sounds scary! I’m glad you guys made it through okay. Climbing up those scree slopes is miserable.

    I briefly traveled through Death Valley and was in awe of the colors. Not what I was expecting there. Glad you’re enjoying it!

  3. Kelley says:

    RIP Louis. You are loved and missed.

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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