Why do they call it Death Valley anyway?

Tarantula warning us of the dangers ahead

Death Valley. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s red. It’s brown. It’s fantastic. 

Some Research: The colloquial name was created from those who had not lived there for generations. So what about those who have intimate knowledge of the landscape? There are two names associated with that of Death Valley that I’ve read about, from original inhibitors of the landscape, the Timbisha Shoshone. One is ”tümpisa,” (“Red Rock Face Paint,” referring to the red ochre paint that can be made from a type of clay found in the valley) and ”Tüpippüh,” which encompasses the valley floor, playas, dunes, springs, meadows and mountains - every landform and ecology within the borders of today’s national park and the surrounding region. The current tribe resides in Furnace Creek and outside the National Park. 

The reds, browns, sun, and heat are all great reasons to go canyoneering in the winter. But December? Too winter perhaps?? 

[Canyoneering is inherently dangerous, nothing written here is by any means to be used as technical advice or a visual representation for technical advice. Adventure safely, folks.]

50F.. 40F.. 38F.. 36F.. I watched the temperature’s inverse relationship with the altitude as we crossed onto dirt roads. The half-moon shut out most of the star gazing out the car window as I tried to drown-out the clunks coming from the back of cassy’s car. Midnight rolls around, and we’re rolling through chunky limestone and spotty snow in a suburu with street tires. Who would deliberately venture off to a place named Death Valley..

But wouldn’t cha know! 10 people thought the same thing! 4 cars made it all the way to the dead end that would mark our camp spot for the night. Brief greetings, shivering hugs, and a few sibs of spirits and we were off to bed.. only to wake up in 5 hours. What do you call 2000ft of elevation gain on 2 hours of sleep? Canyoneering. Every.. Flippin.. Time..

Looking out in the Tin Mountain area of Death Valley

Jeeping along those dusty Death Valley roads

Fossils in the Tin Mountain Limestone (?) rock

The canyon we were aiming for had been done a single time, and was reported to be rather special: 4.5/5 stars in scott swaney’s rating system, within which only 3 and 4 star canyons exist. That lucky half star. “VERY WORTHY ONE.” Scott wrote in on the beta site. Welp. Bring it on.. 

What’s different about the canyons in this region versus the Colorado Plateau seems to be the rather too visible and abrasive elevation change early on.. On the Colorado Plateau, typically you park, walk down a mesa/drainage/trail/cliff and deal with the uphill later. Here though, watching the literal mountain of scrambling and all-fours hiking get closer very quickly on the approach has one double-check their hours of training at the door *ahem.* 

Continual ridge walking, scree descents, and snow crunching had us to the canyon head by mid morning, and the ropes come out! Boom! Nuisance rap followed by the big’un off a tiny knot chock that we replaced with.. a slightly larger knot chock.. Death Valley canyoneering folks. Bounce-test with caution.

The limestone in these canyons blew the blue hues outta the water in my camera! Gorgeous silvers and turquoise rock with quartzite and feldspar intrusions oh my! 

Stemming down the limestone canyons

The beautiful slot canyon end to our day

Typical cairn anchor of Death Valley

To Photograph This: I own a Sony mirrorless camera and brought only my 28mm f/2 glass. Only one lens?!?! Last year me would be freaking out. Yes. One. Lens. Why? I find it helps me get better at one aspect at a time. Adventure images don’t need to be created from what you wish the image to be, but rather, how you capture the action in front of you! So confining my view to a single perspective helps me gain respect and practice (and there always remains a slightly high likelihood of not having your desired glass with you when you want it so.. perfect practice makes perfect?). Automatic White Balance (AWB), no shallower than f/2.2 (so I can at least get both eyes in focus..), and find layers!! What makes canyons so aesthetically pleasing are the layers, the depths, the colors within both!!! I shove myself into walls, crouch behind rocks, hide behind others, in order to achieve this. Get creative!

*But I digress.* Canyon time. Smaller rappels, fluted downclimbs, more deadman anchors, knot chocks, we were flowing quite nicely through. Then.. the light at the end of the tunnel appeared as an orange-glowing hallway with a huge boulder stuck above. One of those Death Valley standard anchors brought us down to earths guillotine, and a hearty lunch break. Out into the sun, where I remembered how to sweat, and the wonderful (semi) downhill to the vehicles! 

Until next time Tümpisa. You wonderful, remote, geologic wonder you. 


- Rachel

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