Canyoneering brings in the New Year

I try to live my life such that this event isn’t necessarily the dumbest thing I do each year. 

I succeeded, but it didn’t detract from my anxiety over the 4 days of spending sub-freezing weather in the weather itself.. and maybe even in freezing water. Are your fingers tingling yet? 

My preparation for FreezeFest this year included carbing up at the ‘rents for the holiyays, trying to remember the canyons I imagined doing, and packing every possible warm layer in my closet. Cass and I show up to a glowing fire, dimming sun, and many warm faces ready to greet some more idiots. There was talk of doing all the Hogs (including miss piggy, which I’ll call Hog 4) in a day. Welp, that would leave me beta-less but ready to put in a long day.. or.. as much time as the sun allows these winter months.. 

.. and BOOM! Off hiking at the bright and early time of 9AM with a team of 5 exceptional canyoneers. We slid down Hog 4, ran up and around to 3, escaping before the rappel, punting over to 2, running up to 1, then alllll the way down the wash. 

I was worried that doing 4 canyons in a row would limit and smoosh my memory, so many photos were had.. Impressions are: Hog 4 has 2 longer raps, (there is another at the beginning that we downclimbed..) and many open walkways. It warmed us up nicely for the razorrrrback! Aptly named. Gear was trashed. Sweat was left. What a ‘shocker’ of a canyon-one minute you’re strolling and the next you’re 20ft off the deck.. and then you’re squished.. rinse and repeat. 

Hog 2 was the real gem though: swirly elevators and beautiful corridors, and just enough stemming to make you feel like you deserved the previous two. Similar to Hog 1 based on photos, though I hardly remember it (surprise..)

Day 2: “Do you see what I see?” Cassy shuffled in her sleeping bag. “Yes.” I had been wondering why the night seemed a bit warmer.. til I saw the layer of white frosting on my truck’s windows. “You think we’re still doing a canyon today?” “Uhhhh, I dunno.” We popped open the truck and saw not a soul in sight.. 

turns out they were all hanging out in Jenny’s car. “I think I want to check the exit.” Ram said, “And maybe the entrance.. we’ve never had to do that before.” FreezeFest number 17 still had surprises in store. We all drove to the exit for the Black Hole, to find it also had a fine coating. Hike, slide, hike again, downclimb, slide, stand, set rope, hike, army crawl.. so the morning was spent. 

Phew. Cass and I then made a plan for running thru middle Leprechaun. I scoffed when Tom told us we’d work up a sweat. I couldn’t expose any of my skin in this weather without getting freezer burn. The wind picked up so it felt like it was in fact snowing again, and the canyon was beautiful with the white goodness on the orange goodness. Also, turns out Tom knew what he was talking about.. because I sweat.. a lot. I felt like I had been through one of those hand-make-pasta machines.. RIP harness leg loops, you will be missed.  

Day 3: I went to bed nervous. I woke up nervous. I got dressed nervous. This was the main event, and I didn’t want to miss it, but a little part (or perhaps LARGE part) of my brain was telling me this might actually be the dumbest thing you’ll do all year.. and you’re starting the year like this.. I squeeze into my drysuit, could barely feel my toes as I squished them into neoprene, and had a difficult time actually buckling my backpack. Ugh. I’m doing this for fun. I’m doing this for fun. Turns out, 18 other idiots also thought this was a good idea..  what’s with people nowadays?! Ram calls FreezeFest ‘the bad idea that caught on,’ I call it ‘the crazy contagious.’ We smiled for the photo (for evidence of course), and sashayed down over the Earth’s white covers and found our way to the drainage at the early-bird start of 10:30am. Huh. Pretty dry. Huh. Lotsa sand. Huh. The suite-up spot was a bit father down-canyon than last year’s FreezeFest.. might be a good thing? The sand seemed fairly high as well. So low water plus high sand equals easy right?? Well, don’t think too hard, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in the first place. Just focus on the.. ICE! Ice to crack! Ice to crawl on! Ice to throw! Just keep moving! Running between pools, smashing ice on the side, egg-beating my legs through the murky depths, it was turning out quite pleasant. I didn’t take my camera for many reasons, the main one being survival. Also, the Black Hole is the one canyon that (most) everyone does, and with all the splitting-up and separate adventures that occur throughout the weekend, it can be difficult to meet or catch-up. Also, this is the last day of vacation. So you better enjoy it. Relish it, even. 

Thank goodness we set ropes. Thank goodness I made it out of there with all limbs attached. Thank goodness everyone else did as well. Wow what a trip. Thank you again, Native American soil, North Wash, Hanksville, and all you canyons. Til next year! 

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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