Coffin Canyon – Death Valley

Coffin Canyon, 3AII
Death Valley National Park

Whew. And we thought yesterday’s approach was gnarly? Rick read off Luke’s description of the approach hike before we headed out; “Surprisingly it is pretty easy travel although a bit steep. There are a lot of loose rocks along the route so be careful what you pull or step on..”

Hmm. We all made confused faces and hmm-ing noises, looking at eachother with question marks in our eyes. That hiking description sounded like yesterday’s hellish approach, which was not “suprisingly easy travel”

I guess what he meant was that when you’re standing at your car looking up at the slopes next to Coffin Canyon, they don’t really look climbable. Instead, they look uncomfortably close to vertical, completely loose, and never-ending. But trusting his advice, we just started hiking and hoped we’d make it. Within a few minutes we found ourselves on a pretty decent little trail. At times I was convinced it was definitely a bighorn sheep trail based on the obstacles it threw at us, but the absence of desert raisins gave me hope that it was human.

At first the going was actually a little easier than yesterday’s, as the slope was more packed in and we had a little bit of a trail (sometimes). However, there were more 4th class climbs involved, and they had way more exposure. We quickly found out this hike would last a lot longer, as well.

We totally rocked this hike, though. We made it through without any puking OR passing out, which is more than can be said about this weekend. Just kidding. Sort of. ….Anyways, Coffin Canyon’s approach was definitely the hardest hike I’d ever done in my whole life, which erases when I said that about the last time I went canyoneering with Rick. Even HE was impressed with the approach, and Adam thought it may be one of the gnarliest hikes HE’S ever done even though he’s climbed like tall mountains and stuff. PLUS, the boys were doing it with 25+ pound backpacks on, carrying the ropes. We were pushing ourselves physically, for sure, but also mentally; Holly & I are both heights-sensitive, the crappy rock was nerve-wracking for everyone, and I kept alternating my iPod  between “Party Rock Anthem” & “Pumped Up Kicks” which was hard for some people.

The chaucy rock was the worst part. There was so much more physical effort put into each step than if it had been on compact terrain; we first had to ‘test’ our step or handhold with a tiny bit of weight, while keeping our balance backwards so that if the rock we stepped on slipped away or our handhold chipped off (they often did), we weren’t thrown down the mountain side. We had to brace our entire body with every step, and oddly enough my abs were totally sore the next day from all the balancing (guess it’s time to get this Pilates teacher back in shape, huh?)

The views from the hike were amazing, keeping my morale up. For a little while, we could see right into Coffin Canyon where we’d be rappelling later.


Because Death Valley mountains don’t bother with things like hills or talus slopes, the mountains shoot straight up from the valley floor with no hesitation. As we hiked from 282 feet below sea level to 1800 feet, we had the feeling of being on a cliff the entire time.
I loved looking out at the valley. I kept taking pictures, marvelling at how small the cars were, etc, only to climb another hundred feet, turn around and get even MORE excited because now we were HIGHER! I did this probably 6 times and I am willing to bet people got sick of the following phrases,
-“Oh my God, look at how tiny the cars are!”
-“We are SO high up.”
-“Look at how high up we are!”
-“I can’t believe how high we are.”
-“This view is so cool.”
-“Party rockers in the house, tonight. Everybody just have a good time. Now we gon’ make you lose your mind, we just wanna see ya…..shake that. Everyday I’m shufflin.”

oh my god, look how tiny the cars are!

we are SO high up

everyday I’m shufflin’

We watched a few people stopping to be creepy around our cars;

…Probably becauset we were parked right near Copper Canyon. That place is big-time off limits as the Feds are currently hiding fugitives and top-secret nuclear activities there. They claim they have found lots of paleontological awesome in the area, like ancient mammal footprints and what-not, and they closed the area until scientists can scope the place out. Likely story. Apparently if they think you’re screwing around back there they will check your camera, maps, GPS, short-term memory, private areas, etc, until they decide you are innocent. Luckily no strip searchers were waiting for us when we got back to our cars later. Luckily.

still approaching…

Holly hikes towards Rick, who is hiding in a cave up top.

maybe this gives you an idea of how high we were & how steep the climb was. use your imagination & empathy.

OK, pretty, but are we there yet?

I didn’t have firm expectations of what we’d see once we reached our 200 foot summit, but a moonscape was not on my list of possibilities. This area is just unreal.

I wonder how many people get to see this area between the mountains. From the valley you can’t even tell it exists.

We scrambled down into the big wash (the 3 mile long reason that Upper & Lower Coffin Canyon are typically done separately) and started downcanyon.

At first, the canyon walls were just made up of dirt in various stages of hardening, some of them unwilling to let go of their rock friends.

we explored a little side canyon

Adam told me to go stand on this rock. I said “OK! Should I do a yoga pose?” Perfectly in unison, everyone shouted “NO!!!”

 So I said, “OK, hold on!”

Back into the main canyon the walls are beginning to harden and narrow.

After a few easy downclimbs we hit rap #1: the 190 footer. No reason for baby steps with this crowd.

We determed that both pieces of webbing at the anchor were safe but were fussing over the slack in one of them when Adam noticed something important.

He’s like, “Wait. That’s an American Death Triangle.”

It sounds scarier than it is, I think. The ADT is a shitty anchor set-up where the webbing is threaded through both bolts and a carabiner to hold the rope. The goal is to put half the force of the rappel onto each anchor, but some freaky physics end up exerting TWICE the force on each anchor, because as the rappeller’s weight pulls down on the bolts, it’s also pinching the two bolts together. It’s usually sufficient to anchor a rappel. But we don’t like usually.

Learn some physics about the ADT here.

So anyways, Adam caught it which was awesome because the rest of us didn’t. Here he is with his find, while he scratches his belly to show his disapproval.

ADT= please god, no

Adam, ready for take off. First one down the 190 foot rap. Good work

Holly looks like a rockstar.

but I actually am a rockstar.

So let me back up a second, to the part where it’s my turn to rappel. I go right after Adam, and I’m about 20 feet down when I hear a “rip” sound. That’s maybe the worst sound you want to hear while you’re hanging on a rope 170 feet off the ground. The rope right in front of my face was torn. Well, the sheath was torn. So there are two parts to a canyoneering rope, the inner core which provides the strength, and the outer sheath which protects the core. A core shot is when the sheath tears, even just a centimeter, allowing the white core to peek through. I didn’t know much about core shots except that it is super dangerous to rappel on them. Now what I had in front of my face was no tiny one centimeter tear with the core peeking through. The sheath had completely torn, split in two, exposing a couple inches of totally unprotected core. There must have been a small core shot, a tiny hole in the sheath that we didn’t catch when flicking out the rope. When my rappel device ran over it, the pressure tore the sheath. I thought for sure I was going to die. The rope was going to break and I’d fall 170 feet and that’s it. I called up to Rick but he couldn’t hear me. I called down to Adam and told him what was going on. There was a long pause, and then he said “Just get down.”

Ho-ly shit. I got down that rope as fast as I could without jerking the rope around. I was shaking so hard but I was somehow not paralyzed by fear. I didn’t even start crying until I was about 20 feet off the ground. I didn’t die. The rope didn’t break.

Rick switched out the ropes (luckily we had an extra!) and when everyone was down I learned the reason why core shots are bad. Without the protection of the sheath, the core can be cut with just the tiniest abrasion. The reason I wasn’t dead was because the core shot had happened on an overhung part, where the rope was not coming into contact with the rock. There wasn’t much of that rappel that was overhung, just that tiny part. Think about that for a second. What are the chances that the rope split THERE? Some things are just way too intense to wrap my head around.

 photo PB120170.jpg

I recovered pretty well from almost dying. The next few rappels (4? or 5 total? something like that) were pretty fun. Someone had done the canyon fairly recently and most of the anchors were already set up for us. Scary things, like knot-chocks (a knot tied in a piece of webbing and stuffed in a crack) and cairns (piles of rocks to anchor down the rope.) At one rappel, we had to build our very own cairn anchor and we did it with style, if not efficiency.

There were quite a few areas that were too tricky to downclimb but too short to worry about rappelling. We did a good job of sequencing, even if we did ignore the basic premise of the idea which is sending people down heaviest to lightest. Instead, the people who felt uncomfortable with the downclimb would rappel down off of either Rick or Adam (they were the best climbers) using a meat anchor (hehehe. meat anchor=body anchor). Then one or both of them would climb down with the rest of us down at the bottom to place feet, slow slides, and cushion crashes.

Adam helps Rick place his feet while Rick demonstrates how well a cast works for a forearm-jam

Luke’s beta had informed us that this rappel was very pleasing. It did not disappoint.

It took us a little more then 6.5 hours to complete the canyon, with half of it being the approach. The canyon was fun and the geology of the area was really interesting. I can’t wait to go back and see what other crazy shit DV has for me!

Coffin Canyon beta, trip reports, photos:
Luke’s beta
Chris Brennen’s beta

Adam took some of these pictures, I took the rest. See them here.


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