Death Valley: Coffin Canyon
Categories: Death Valley
Although I’ve been to Death Valley more times than I can remember since the 1990’s, I’d never done a technical canyon in the park. In late December, 2022, I had planned on going to southern Arizona but changed my plans at the last minute to tag along with some local canyoneering friends who invited me to do Coffin and Scorpion Canyons.
Coffin Canyon is a technical canyon with a strenuous approach in the southern part of Badwater Basin. The day starts with a 2,000 foot climb straight up the mountain above the large alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.
The views of the salt flats kept getting better.
The higher we climbed the more I became aware of how huge and high the alluvial slopes at the base of the Panamints are across the basin. The bottom of the valley is merely an illusion of rubble that has filled the canyon. In reality, the steep slopes we’d been climbing steepen to 50 degrees and plunge downward another 13,500 feet to the true bottom of this expanding rift in the continent. In the photo above, above me to the left is one of the famous (to geologists) Turtlebacks of Death Valley. The 3 Turtlebacks of Death Valley are megamullions, features that normally occur on oceanic ridges, and are sometimes called the “Rosetta Stones” of the valley’s geologic history.
When I first saw this boulder on the top of the mountain glaring in the sun like glass, my first thought was how much it looked glacially scoured. I knew that couldn’t be the case, and after looking into it I am pretty sure this is an example of “slickensides” and asperity plowing, where a rock is part of the boundary along a fault line, resulting in polishing and gouging under great pressure as one side of the fault slides against the other.
Mud cracks where a pool forms at the base of the rock slide. There was driftwood 15 feet above here so the slide must have tightly dammed up the canyon. You can see a little of it in the second shot, with the mud in the back ground.
Me on rope. Photo by Max Feingold.
The final rappel was a pretty good one at 80 feet. Amazingly, right after this you are simply done, and we found ourselves walking out next to the place we started climbing early that morning.