A FIRST DESCENT IN THE FUNERAL MOUNTAINS OF DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

March 27, 2017


Scott Swaney tossing a 600ft rope in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

From the top of the remote and desolate funeral mountain range, the views of the Amargosa valley basin and the near by ranges in the foreground, brought some of the most incredible views that I have seen in Death valley National Park to this day.  The expanse of the landscape is a testimony to the unforgiving environment, but life is able to find a way to hold to the strength to endure the absence of essential resources.  The limited amount of spring water that Ash Meadows provides is the very life blood among the self elected and permanent residents of the valley.  We walk down a course where this similar life blood has flown for millions of years through the down pour of life bearing water as it would pour over a tiered 350 million year old limestone rock wall of around 750 feet, this is where we began our first descent. 

 
 Scott Swaney and I have been talking a bit about a possible cave lead in Cyclops Canyon and I was intrigued to find out more about this range and to see first hand if this lead is worth pursuing.  The most intriguing part of this trip was the opportunity to meet a legendary canyoneer that has pioneered a number of first descent Death Valley canyons. This will be his 275th. canyon and it was an honor to join the group.

looking at cyclops canyon cave in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

At 68 years old, Scott has lived a lifetime of mountaineering, canyoneering, caving, and cave diving where he has forged a lifestyle of risk management and mitigation through his wealth of risk oriented decisions that he has developed to ensure all of his successful pursuits. Read a bit more about Scott Swaney here: https://www.outsideonline.com/2098431/68-year-old-canyoneer-legend-descending-death-valley

Gastropods in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

I met up with Scott Swaney, Justin Pugh, and Alvin Walter at a GPS coordinate in the alkali basin of Amargosa Valley which was situated in the middle of the evening on a dark Friday night.  The paved road ended in a dusty dirt road with a couple more miles of sustaining 20 mile per hour winds howled over the brush picking up dust and debris along the way. 




I see a few lights flicking in the distance where the blue GPS arrow was pointing and it was obvious that I came to the right place. The crew was just finishing up dinner and getting ready for bed as we wanted to get on the trail at around 6 am.  Soon after chatting about the route and viewing a dark silhouette of a mountain in the distance, we headed to bed and I crawled up into my Subaru and what appeared to be in just a few minutes, it was 5:30AM.

gastropod fossil in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We fired up jet boils in unison which sounded more like a space heater in a garage and made a heavy breakfast full with massive calories and a protein booster for the 15 mile hike with 4000ft of elevation.  I was not able to see our route the night before but in the morning, Scott pointed out where we would be hiking up to which would be almost to the summit, past Iron Man and Hulk Canyon, and down the other side into a unknown first descent.

gastropod fossil in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We included over 100ft of webbing, a wrecking ball chain full of links, extra food/water, and over 1000ft. of rope.  It was estimated that we were all weighing on at around 25 lbs. which is not too bad. Another benefit was that we are at a lower elevation which made this approach a bit less of a inconvenience.



We set off up an alluvial fan of scree and moderately sized boulders or (Alluvium) for short. While we debated on what this thing was that we were walking on, we concluded that it is an aluminum fan since it was the quickest way to say it, so after hiking up the Aluminum fan, we made it to a wash that we followed up to where a set of canyons connect into the wash. 

Scott pointing down into sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

The Funeral Mountains are known to have some giant drops that exceed 500ft. for a single pitch.  Iron man canyon and Hulk canyon were on the other side of the mountain but Juggernaut and the canyon with a potential cave lead, cyclops canyon, was just to the left of us where we were going to descend. 

Scott Swaney

Cyclops canyon has a series of drops with the last drop being a 350 ft. sheer rap to the bottom.  This last drop also rewards the rap rider with an interesting karst feature in the wall.  The rock is 350 million year old Mississippian era limestone that appears to be dolomitic in nature, or at least a very sharp and unfavorably rough stone when a rope comes in contact with it, we found that out really quick later on in the day.

Justin Pugh and Scott Swaney

I have had this limestone experience before in the Karst region of Tony Grove in north Utah, where the rock eats through gear at an incredible rate with the potential of destroying brand new gear in a single trip. From the view point we had when we were looking into cyclops canyon, I could see some seepage coming out of the entrance but I could also see the back wall which appeared to be trending a bit to the right which was away from a vertical fault in the rock, more on this cave a bit later.  

Justin Pugh

Upon our ascent to the high point of our approach, we encountered a lot of gastropod fossils in the rock and a few there were still in tact!  That was really interesting to see.


We could see 6 options of descent that have already been accomplished by Scott on his previous teams but this last canyon on the mountain has not had any human contact, so we proceeded down the canyon with care and focused on not knowing what we would expect to find.

the top of sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

I remember previously thinking that running canyons like this would not be that interesting since they are open and gorge like with just some big drops to rap down from.  Although this can be true with a perspective, my meaning for first descent canyoneering changed dramatically upon our entrance into this canyon and into the unknown.

Scott descending into sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

There is no beta, no hear say and no telling what we will expect to find other than there is going to be a big drop and problem solving.  This started to have a similar feeling to a cave that has not been discovered or ever traveled down by humans, is the term expedition canyoneering a inappropriate meaning for this type of first descent...I think it is spot on. 

Scott in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We encountered a few down climbable raps and came upon a potential drop that could have a rap but we were able to down climb this section.

Scott in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

Finally we came to a solid 120ft. drop to another tier in the canyon.  Unfortunately the "narrow section" ended and we were almost out of the canyon. We lost a lot of elevation on our descent into this canyon so we did not have much elevation left but with this last section.  We estimated the canyon to be around 750 of rap.

Justin Pugh descending down in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We ate some lunch and built a dead man out of boulders while talking a bit about risk mitigation and safety.  It was interesting to get a lot of insight from Scott through his experiences and how he develops a plan of action and his style of risk management.

Scott Swaney in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

At this point in the canyon, the rock was a meat grinder of sharp limestone which was so bad that we noticed wear on the webbing and on the rope from each carefully orchestrated descent. We even found a core shot along the way that was not previously there.  This added a bit more of rope management awareness to each movement as we wanted to make sure we did not cut the rope.

Scott tossing the first rope in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We went over the limestone dryfall and down to a table of rocks and boulders that was full of anchor material for our last tier, down to the bottom. We all descended without any incident and headed over to the final tier.

thanks for displacing the ants to make a deadman anchor, Scott!!

These tiers were pretty open but what lacked in narrows was made up for with the incredible view to enjoy.  It never got old.

Scott Swaney and Justin Pugh in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We set up on a bristlecone pine trunk and gazed out into the abyss of desert back country that gave the appearance of an endless horizon of unforgiving terrain. After the consideration of our options, we decided to bag half the rope and flake out the other half so we could toss the end over a pothole and have the rope actually make it to the bottom instead of being tangled along the way. We deployed the 660ft. rope and Justin backed up the anchor, so that if we shocked the primary anchor from the rope toss, the risk to the integrity of the anchor would be next to zero. We also tested each anchor before rapping off. 


Overlooking into 40 miles of desert in a vast basin, Scott deploys the rope bag with 330ft of rope which cleared the obstacles and subsequently pulled the flaked rope over the edge which all landed successfully on the ground.

Justin Pugh building a deadman in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

Scott made his descent through the surprisingly flaky rock down to the bottom.  We could hear rocks falling on Scott's descent to the bottom. Thankfully, we had 2 way radios with us so we could communicate to each other about our occurrences that we were having from the top to bottom.


Scott Swaney building a deadman in in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

Once Scott was off rope, Alvin was next up.  Scott mentioned that we should set up an anchor in the pothole tier to break up the pull and to ensure that we do not get the rope stuck in the pothole when we pull the rope.  This was a wise decision as we could see a number of boulders and choke points where the rope could have got stuck. 


After Alvin worked his way to the bottom, I got on rope and attached one end of the pull cord to me to bring down to the pothole tier with a task to ensure that it would not get snagged along with way. We should have brought an extra bag for this rope but instead, we had a garage sale display of rope on this platform flaked out so it would not bird nest on the way down. I started my descent and could see the bottom magnify a bit, I was pretty high and I was glad to be on the squrl.


There were loose boulders everywhere and many opportunities to peel a section of the drop which would send widow makers tumbling down like tons of giant size asteroids raining down to the bottom. Every step had to be carefully coordinated which became difficult as the rope started to get tangled above but I was able to manage my way around the boulders until I made the last turn where rocks from the pull cords gave way to some golf ball and baseball sized rocks.



I literally dodged the baseball while yelling rock and ended up taking a stone to my pelvis that left a bit of a braise inches from the gems. It got real when I became aware that I would be on this pothole where rocks would be raining down upon me.  I considered going all the way down but I found a place where I could dodge falling rocks so I got off rope and prepared for the worst.



A backpack has many qualities and it can make a great shield to deflect rocks  instead of using arms so I highly recommend holding your backpack over your head if you are near any kind of rock fall situation and there is nowhere to get out of a potential fall zone. We did a test pull and the pull cord was stuck so thankfully we had our two way so we could communicate from the bottom up and work our way to free the stuck pull cord. 


 Justin descended down and we encounter a barrage of rocks flying down where one rock hit Scott at terminal velocity in the shoulder giving him quite the bruise. Finally Justin made it to the bottom and we pulled the rope and set a station to safely make our final descent to the ground.  Such a short technical section but a lot of events happened during that short time span.



We got to the bottom and hiked down the wash.  I hiked up to Cyclops canyon cave and got a good look of the "cave".  Knowing the geology of the area being Mississippian era limestone, crumbly and broken, the cave itself had a back wall with some seepage coming out of the wall, I concluded that, yes, this is a cave but I think the passage is 50ft. or less.   It has a big entrance but this would require a lot of effort to enter the cave with, in my opinion, little reward to find extensive passage. I do not think it is worth the climb or a cave that I would pursue knowing the capped limestone but it can be technically referred to as a cave.

Cyclops Canyon Cave. Photo By Scott Swaney.
Here is a close up of the cave.  It has a massive entrance and would make for a unique and fun canyoneering route, which it already has been documented by Scott, so I would be happy to descend this canyon to get a closer look at this cave, maybe there might be something that I can not see but knowing how the other karst features are on this mountain and how the rock is, it is most likely that this cave will not have any passage or formations. 

Click here to learn more about Cyclops Canyon.

More photos HERE

Justin coming down the rope in sinbad canyon, death Valley National Park, california.

We had another 5 mile hike back to the car and eventually, we made it back to the car with a clocked time of just over 12 hours.  I want to thank Scott for inviting me out on this First Descent and for the open invitation on future first descent pursuits, I think I caught the bug now. The planning and thought process that went through this canyon and other canyon routes reminds me a bit of project caving and the project process that gets executed. I was not only surprised by how much I enjoyed myself but the experience was fantastic and the crew was excellent.  It is not so much the destination as it is the experience and how you feel through the experience that makes the event memorable, and this route is one I will remember.  Now what are we going to name the canyon?


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