Off-Trail in Death Valley, California
THE RED AND WHITE marble-splattered wall had stopped us all in our tracks. It was so striking, with crisscrossed veins arching with the curve of the wash.
As we walked past mesmerized, it occurred to us that we had seen something like this two days earlier.
I turned around to check the view behind: Yes, yes it was true, we had passed the feature 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 had 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, or off-trail, 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 trailhead 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 trailhead to Cottonwood Canyon. The driver with his sandy, stringy long hair and weather-grooved skin held a corncob 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!”
But after some more prodding he finally told us where we could find the start of the trail — about eight 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.
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 welcome 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.
A spring cut through the landscape, allowing for trees and other plants to grow in the inhospitable terrain. 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 not 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.
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 roused us from our slumber.
Day three 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 signposts, though, and we were 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 at what had 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?
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 hundreds of feet above us. Further into the canyon, we came across the skull of a mountain goat. My nervousness tripled; it’s a well-known fact that mountain goats eat this type of terrain for breakfast. Yet here was a dead one, 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. We descended further into the slot canyon, 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 size our friend Brandi was having more and more difficulty getting down. Soon they were so technical we had to pass our packs down them as we continued to be lured into the marble canyon. My mind was set on getting out as quickly as possible.
I positioned myself to be in front so 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. “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 to another down-climb 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 us.
As Brandi and Ben came behind me, it was decided 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 we couldn’t climb back up. We all agreed and Ben continued.
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 coaxed Brandi down. 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. I pulled the webbing up the 40-foot dryfall and to my horror saw what had been tied to it.
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 dryfall and leaned against the wall. All the anxiety I had been feeling in the canyon reached a pitch. 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, and how had they ended up in such desperate circumstances?
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 couldn’t get 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 to see how it would go; besides, she hadn’t even made it down the other down-climb yet. And where were we anyway?
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 she stay put for a bit. Ben seemed to have the same reaction as I to the webbing-and-clothes rope. But he was also 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 climbed 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 the bigger one.
I wasn’t so sure but went with it. I thought I’d see what her reaction to the dryfall 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. 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 we definitely were not in the right canyon. I also said I was less than 50% comfortable with continuing forward and sending Brandi down the dryfall. So it was agreed we would turn back 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 scree 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 supposed to be.
And then we passed it: the red and white marble-splattered wall from two days prior.
Shock is the best word to describe how we all felt. We had been more off-course than we’d 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 six 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.