As I dangled from the side of a stone wall, with my legs getting tired and sharp rocks underneath me, I realized that if I tumbled to my death at a place called Fall Canyon within Death Valley, at least it would be poetic.
I had little climbing experience and no protection, but I did have help. I was camping with my friend Doug Heinz, who has climbed the mother of them all, Mount Everest –and even he had to take it slow on the way down. In the video above he demonstrates how to climb the sheer rock chimney that leads from Lower Fall Canyon to the dazzling limestone narrows above. Be sure to watch the second half, which includes the trickier part: getting down.
It’s not easy getting to the top, but it’s so worth it. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Unless you want to attempt an even more difficult 18-foot ascent up the dry fall that requires a rope, you have to climb the chimney to keep hiking. The handful of people we saw that day all turned back for their cars when they reached this point three miles into the mouth of Fall Canyon. Which is fine, because they still made a world-class hike.
The layers of rock here change color as the sun rises and sets. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
But if you’ve come this far to one of the most beautiful, remote parts of America and you can do it safely, you must continue. The true magic of Death Valley reveals itself overhead.
The reward after the climb: walking through the narrows. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The climb is challenging and you won’t want to look down, but you don’t have to be an expert. It’s a straight shot up the chimney, and there’s little footing. I had a relatively easy time on the way up, though Doug wisely waited until after he coached me to the top to tell me that this was a Class 4 climb – as in, I could die if I fell onto the rocks below. And there wasn’t medical help for miles if I did.
Looking down at the 18-foot dry fall near our climb. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Once you reach the top you can gaze down from the dry fall, which makes a great photo-op. We hiked another 2 ½ miles from there, our feet crunching on the deep gravel that lies throughout the canyon, and the scenery left me speechless. The polished, metallic-blue nature of the narrows rising high above us was like something out of a fantasy movie.
Of all the things you expect to see in Death Valley, a swarm of butterflies isn’t one of them. But they waited for us outside the narrows, like a gift from the rock-climbing fairy.
Butterflies in Death Valley. Who knew? (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The sounds of Fall Canyon are almost as great as the sights. Occasionally a raven would fly past us, and the echoes created by its flapping wings were one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard. We kept going another 2 ½ miles through the Mid Canyon, at which point we turned back (we hiked 10 miles in all).
As for getting back down the chimney? This was not my finest hour, and the scariest moment of my Death Valley trip was when I looked down from the edge. I knew I was in for an ordeal when I saw how deliberately Doug ventured down, and when I asked him to videotape me trying the same, he sternly responded, “I’d rather not.”
OK, then. With just a crack or two to place my toes along the way, I froze in uncertainty a couple of times on my descent, and my body was tiring. With Doug’s coaching, it took me almost 10 minutes to make it down safely, at which point my heart finally went back down from my throat.
(Doug, by the way, is CEO of an online trip-creating tool called PathWranger. You can see a map of our Death Valley route)
More eye-popping scenery in the narrows. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
If I may go all PSA for a second, don’t attempt this climb by yourself if you’re alone and have never climbed. You also shouldn’t visit Fall Canyon in the summer, because you’ll be exposed to the sun for hours with little shade to duck under. And finally, because the ravine is prone to flash floods, and there’s almost nowhere to hide, don’t go if rain is a possibility.
The pre-climb hiking is awe-inspiring in its own right. Fall Canyon is north of the more popular Titus Canyon, in a more remote section of the park. I dare anyone to not feel insignificant as they first step into the mouth. You’ll be surrounded by steep, towering rocks that rise hundreds of feet and reflect a kaleidoscope of colors, from tan to a deep red, because of the varying sediments they’re made of.
You might get a stiff neck from looking up at all this. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The rocks, which are 23 million to 30 million years old, look like a layer cake in some places, or pockmarked Swiss cheese in other places. The ravine, which runs along a fault line, offers no dirt path, but rather, a wide wash of deep and loose rocks that you’ll have to walk over the entire way – I nearly sprained my ankles about 20 times.
The rock star of this amphitheater. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Rest often so you can cool off and admire the grandeur around you – one pre-climb highlight is the amphitheater in the first side canyon, punctuated by a huge, jagged shard of rock. Make sure you pack lots of water, too; in the morning we had plenty of shade to protect us, but we wouldn’t be so lucky after the sun had risen on our way back.