Lost in Death Valley

The red and white marble splattered wall had stopped us all in our tracks. It was so striking, with it’s crisscrossed veins arching with the curve of the wash. As we walked past, mesmerized by its beauty it occurred to each of us that we had seen something like this 2 days earlier. I turned around to check the view behind me. Yes, yes it was true, we had passed there two days before but heading in the other direction. We stood, mouths agape, looking at one another and the map. “What happened?,” I said as a chill crept over my entire being.

Two days prior Ben and I met our friend Brandi in the parking lot of Stovepipe Wells in death Valley. We were heading out on a three-day backpack trip through Cottonwood Canyon to Marble Canyon; a 26 mile loop that follows a sand wash through rocky hills into a narrow canyon (filled with Cottonwoods, Wormwood, and wild mint) before spitting you out onto an open plain which then takes you into a large valley, over a pass and down into a marble slot canyon. We would be going cross-country for more than half of the way. Packed amongst the basics into crushingly heavy packs were a compass and a map. We were psyched

After wandering around the Stovepipe Wells parking lot in search of the trail head with no luck we approached a government truck. Seated inside were two men who looked as if they had been in the desert far too long. Brandi and I leaned into their window and asked if they knew where we could find the trail-head to Cottonwood Canyon. The driver with his sandy, stringy, long hair and weather grooved skin held a corn-cob pipe in one hand and a match in the other. As the words Cottonwood Canyon spilled from our lips his eyes widened and he replied, “Cottonwood Canyon! Why on Earth would you want to go out there? People die out there!” After some more prodding he finally told us where we could find the start of the trail – about 8 miles out a dirt road past the airstrip. Before they drove away they graced us with one last warning, “Death Valley is a serious place, be careful out there.” And with that we headed out into Death Valley in search of what we would find.

Ben Ditto photo

On the first day we made it most of the way through Cottonwood Canyon before settling into our campsite on a little knoll, tucked into a small canyon. The wind picked up as the night sky appeared, dust flew into our mouths as we ate our dinner. The tent provided much welcomed shelter from the whipping wind. And with bellies full we drifted off to sleep under a star filled sky.

With sunrise early we awoke with the light and made a casual departure of our site heading toward the end of Cottonwood Canyon where we came upon an abundance of life. A spring cuts through the landscape allowing for trees, and other plants to grow in one of the most inhospitable terrains. We filtered a fair bit of water, drank quite a bit of it and filtered some more before we headed up and out the open valley. The sun was high as we trudged, fully exposed, up the slope towards a pass we were yet sure of. The trek was starting to feel endless when we came upon a lone rock just tall enough to offer some shade. Kicking my shoes off I noticed a piece of flint, perfectly formed into an arrow point. My thoughts ran wild with ideas about native people traveling over the land. I became inspired to really learn how to move over the land efficiently; Traveling light, being self-contained with the skills to move fast and light. After some snacking and resting we packed up and continued towards a series of mountains. Another hour and we were heading over Dead Horse pass and down into a tight, tree cluttered gully.

We seemed to be racing down the slope with excitement of progress. At the gully’s end we were released out into another wash, laden with the occasional Joshua Tree and sage brush. We found another knoll and set up home for the night. Once again, as the stars circled above, we rested soundly with bellies full until the early morning light would rouse us from our slumber.

Ben Ditto photo
Ben Ditto photo

Day 3 and we were off steadfastly towards Marble Canyon. Up until this point we had referenced the map and compass almost hourly. The landscape provided the best reference though and we seemed certain of our location. And so the compass fell by the wayside as we entered the mouth of a marble canyon. About 200 yards into the canyon we came upon the remains of a ram; The horns, spinal column, and some rib bones along with a lot of fur. I was immediately struck with wonder of what happened to this strong being. How did it die and end up here in this canyon? Had it been caught in a flash flood? Had it slipped on the rim and fallen to its death? However it had happened it left me with an unsettled feeling. Weren’t these animals quite nimble in this terrain?

Ben Ditto photo

We continued into the ever narrowing canyon of polished marble walls. At times the width was no more than a few feet across with the walls rising a few hundred feet above us. Further into the canyon we came across a skull of a mountain goat. My nervousness tripled; it is a well-known fact that mountain goats eat this type of terrain for breakfast. Yet, here was a dead one, here, in this tight canyon where the slightest sign of rain could be deadly. I wanted to get out of there, something was telling me to get out and get out quick. Further into the slot canyon we descended, with little down climbs over boulders which had been wedged into the narrows by rushing water. The deeper we went the bigger the drops were becoming. Being rock climbers Ben and I thought nothing of these down climbs but as they kept increasing in their size our friend Brandi was having more and more difficulty getting down them. Soon they were so technical that we had to pass our packs down them as we continued to be lured into marble canyon. My mind was set on getting out as quickly as possible and so continuing down the canyon in a timely manner was all that I was thinking about.

I positioned myself to be in front, this way I could set the pace at which we walked. This also gave me the advantage of scoping out what was ahead. As I turned a corner the shadow of a large bird passed over head. Looking up I saw that it was an owl. “An owl!,” I yelled. Looking back at Brandi I said, “Gosh, that’s weird, why would an owl build a nest in a highly traveled area?” Then it dawned on me that we hadn’t actually seen anyone else in three days. But, I pushed those thoughts aside and kept moving until I came upon another downclimb that stopped me in my tracks. A boulder about the size of a small house loomed over our heads – wedged into the canyon, too large to fit. It reminded me of a guillotine the way it rested above.

As Brandi and Ben came behind me it was decided that Ben would go down first, then Brandi and then I would go. As Ben started climbing down I stopped him and set the rule that none of us would go down anything that we couldn’t climb back up. We all agreed and Ben continued down. It looked technical, maybe a V2 stemming boulder problem. I was concerned Brandi wouldn’t make it down this 15 foot drop. After watching Ben go down and then climb back up and then down again I decided I would go next. Something about this steep drop and the large boulder overhead had me concerned about what lay ahead. I scrambled down, yes it was tricky and Brandi would indeed have a hard time of it. Once on the ground I ran ahead, passing underneath the looming boulder, as Ben coached Brandi down the technical down climb. Disappearing around a bend I came upon another drop. I noticed a piece of webbing, tied to a piton that had been pounded into a natural jug full of sand, dropping down and out of sight. I approached slowly, looked over the drop and my heart sank with such a clunk that I stopped breathing for a moment. I pulled the webbing up the 40 foot dryfall and to my horror I saw what had been tied to it.

Ben Ditto photo

The webbing was about 15 feet long, one end tied in an overhand knot and attached to the piton. On the other end a series of clothing had been tied together – one long sleeve shirt tied to a pair of green rain pants, tied to another long sleeve shirt which was tied to a delaminated belt which was tied to a pair of suspenders. A thin tent cord was also in the mix along with a short black rope. All together the “rope” was still about 10 feet shy of the ground. I let the webbing drop back down the dry fall and leaned against the wall. All the anxiety I had been feeling in the canyon added up to this point. We were not in the right slot canyon. Looking up at the boulder hanging above I was filled with the fear these poor people must have felt. Who had come here before us, how had they ended up in such desperate circumstance?

Perhaps they, too, thought they were in the right canyon and had descended further and further, coming upon the initial 15 foot down climb and ending up trapped between this 40 foot fall and there. Had they not set the rule for themselves of not going down what they could not go back up? And who in the world would be in Death Valley wearing suspenders!? I was baffled by what I had just seen. Perhaps Ben and I could make it down there but Brandi would not. I didn’t even want to send her down there to see how it would go, besides she hadn’t even made down the other down climb yet. And where were we anyway?

Ben Ditto photo

I walked back over to where I had left Ben and Brandi. He was still trying to coax her down. I stopped them and suggested that Ben come and have a look at what was ahead. I didn’t want to alarm Brandi so I suggested that she just stay put for a bit. Ben seemed to have the same reaction as I to the webbing and clothes rope. But, he was curious as to where it ended up? Perhaps, he thought, the end of the canyon was just ahead. After much deliberating we decided Ben would go down the rope and see what he could find. After retying the webbing and black rope he descended, hand over hand down the water polished, pink marble. At the rope’s end he jumped to the ground and set off around another series of bends. Some minutes later he came back, he was unsure of another down climb but thought maybe the canyon ended just beyond it. He climbing back up the “rope” and we both went back to Brandi. Somehow he had convinced me that maybe if we got her down this initial down climb we could figure out how to get her down this other one. I wasn’t so sure but went with it. I thought I would see what her reaction to the dry fall would be and that would determine what we did.

With much assisting we got her down the 15 foot boulder problem and all three of us were standing on the edge of the dryfall peering over. She was horrified. It was decided then and there that we would not be going down that way. With much excitement and enthusiasm Ben wanted to keep pushing forward. He was still under the impression that we were in the right canyon and this just happened to be the kicker at the end, the surprise they don’t tell you about. Brandi and I agreed that we definitely were not in the right canyon. I also said that I was less than 50% comfortable with continuing forward and sending Brandi down the dryfall. So, it was agreed that we would turn around and go around.

We retraced our steps until we came to an area where it seemed to me one could get a better view from scrambling up a rocky hill. Ben and I picked our way up the loose slope. Towards the east there seemed to be a path that would take us down and around the canyon and into a wash. It was decided we would go that way. The descent was down a loose, exposed, skree slope. Brandi was almost paralyzed with fear and Ben and I patiently talked her down into the wash. Once down we were all so excited and certain that at any moment we would walk into the correct Marble Canyon, that we were only a slot canyon or two away from where we were suppose to be. And then we passed it, the red and white marble splattered wall from two days prior.

Ben Ditto photo

Shock is the best word to describe how we all felt. We had been more off course than we thought. All of us had been under the impression that at any moment we would be walking through the petroglyph filled slot canyon described in the guide. That Marble Canyon was just a few yards to our left. Turns out we were more east than we knew and had diverted off track down a side canyon at the beginning of the wash after Dead Horse Pass. We got lucky in our misdirection and ended up 6 miles from the start of Cottonwood Canyon. Morale sank with the realization and we kept our heads down as we hiked out towards the car. I thought about the people who had tied their clothes together, about the relief they must have felt when they too realized they were back at the beginning. And although we hadn’t gotten to where we wanted to go, we had indeed experienced a marble slot canyon; we had indeed found an adventure. We had gone into no man’s land and had made it out alive and best of all with all of our clothes!

About Katie Lambert

A Louisiana raised California climber. View all posts by Katie Lambert

One response to “Lost in Death Valley

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