By Published On: December 23, 2023Categories: california, canyoneerTags: , , ,

Dark Shadow Canyon is a seldom-visited technical canyon in Death Valley. Located in the Grapevine Mountains, Dark Shadow is one of seven canyons that are accessed from the Titus Canyon trailhead. This collection of canyons all descend into various parts of Fall Canyon, which is a popular non-technical hike in the park. Permits are not required, aside from paying the park entrance fee.

Max and I did the Fall Canyon hike in 2009, years before we ever heard of canyoneering. At the time, I was struck not only by the beauty of the canyon and its blue-grey narrows, but also by the difficulty of walking uphill on loose gravel for three miles, until reaching an impassable dry fall and turning around. I think past me would have been in complete disbelief if someone had told her about Dark Shadow and its approach. Here are a couple photos of me in Fall Canyon in 2009.

Fast forward to 2023. It was a beautiful day right before Christmas, and we had a group of 10 people led by the legendary Rick Kent. The approach to Dark Shadow is actually pretty good by Death Valley standards. It’s a long and fairly arduous hike with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain and only a couple of short sections where there is scree and exposure and you see your life flash before your eyes. None of us had ever been to this canyon, although some had done its neighbor Black Void, which is a much shorter and easier approach.

The landscape was fairly typical of Death Valley, featuring rugged slopes in various shades of yellows and browns. There were actually a few flowering plants, probably due to the drenching Hurricane Hilary gave the park a few months prior. The plants I saw on the approach were Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), shown below.

Getting to the canyon takes about 2-3 hours of hiking. The canyon itself is quite short, with about seven rappels. Since this area was closed since the hurricane, all anchors were washed out and had to be rebuilt. Which brings me to an interesting point about Death Valley canyoneering. Since all the anchors are cairn anchors and bolting is not allowed, it takes a considerable amount of manpower to rebuild them. Having a large group of people is actually quite beneficial, as you can send part of the group down using a meat anchor to parallel process and rebuild the next anchor while you work on the first one.

The first part of the canyon was not particularly scenic, with fairly short rappels and some small downclimbs.

As we got to the lower part of the canyon, views of Fall Canyon started opening up, and the canyon itself changed character completely. Dark and sharp stone gave way to beautifully polished pink and white bedrock with a couple of interesting downclimbs.

The last rappel out of the canyon was quite a doozy, with several technical challenges. The original anchor was washed out, lying somewhere under a false floor with several large and loose rocks which we kicked down prior to setting up our own anchor. The rappel consists of a 100-foot rappel down a very narrow chute with even more loose rock that will fall on anyone directly below who is trying to belay. A second 80-foot stage from a narrow ledge is anchored from a sketchy rock chock which we declined to use, preferring to multi-stage from the top. From the ledge, you need to change the angle of your rappel completely and go down a different slope in order not to pendulum wildly. Max went down first and remained on the ledge to provide belays and direct people on the second half of the rappel. This mostly involved hiding in a small alcove to dodge the bullet-like rocks whizzing past him as our team rappelled down. Due to the angle of the rappel, we were fairly certain that the rope would have a high chance of sticking, so our friend Sri volunteered to go last and figure out how to manage the pull. The first test-pull did not work, as predicted. The eventual solution was to move the knot tying the ropes together out past the constriction and to anchor both the pull and rappel side from the ground so Sri could rappel down safely. We looked like little ducks all in a line, sitting on the ground and weighing down the pull side of the rope.

The new pull strategy worked, and we were able to get our ropes back without issue. All that remained was a beautiful two-mile walk down Fall Canyon in the golden hour with a setting sun. I think the hike out was better than the canyon. Not sure I will repeat this one again, but I would like to explore Black Void in the future, which is rumored to be a pretty canyon.

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