Hall Canyon Descent

18-20 Nov 2003 - by Ron Hudson

Ron Hudson and Rich Henke

This canyon seemed interesting from Steve Smith's report of his probable first descent of Hall Canyon in October 1994. Searching the Web, we also found a report by Randi Poer of a descent in March 2003. We thought the trail shown on the 1953 15' topo map should be a good way of getting to the Hall cabin at 4560 feet. John McCully, who climbed Telescope Peak via this trail, and Steve, provided us some info about it. The trail is not shown on the modern 7.5' topo (Jail Canyon) for the area. The trip unknowns included brush, access via a little-known trail, likely only two previous descents, enough(?) anchors, 14 rappels, and a remote and isolated canyon. And we were a party of only two. So, we had some anticipation and worry that we would have enough equipment and clothing. And how to get out if an accident happened. Unknowns, potential thrill, physical exercise, wild places, and doubt about the outcome Hot Dog! Just the ingredients of adventure I am always looking for!

Hall Canyon runs west from Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park. The 3000' up from the Panamint Valley floor is steep canyon for the rappels; then it levels out, above the 4500' level with a cabin and historically a road to that point via Jail Canyon. The road (now closed and disused) was reportedly for grazing and prospecting/mining access, and then 4WDers before it became a wilderness area. Rich took good notes, and a chronological listing of the hike and rappels follows this narrative.

We drove on four miles of 2WD gravel road from the highway and parked our car at the gate to the Indian Valley Ranch (Indian Reservation) in Panamint Valley. In the morning we shouldered our packs and walked up the floodplain about 1.5 miles to the canyon mouth. We stayed away from the ranch area, which had buildings, trailers, meadow, and trees. We saw no people but did not know if anybody was there. We stayed on the north side entering the canyon, then followed the stream and old pipeline remnants. A metal pipeline with intake a few hundred yards up diverts most of the ample flow to the lush area of the ranch grounds.

We found the old trail and hiked up it at the location shown on the map, about half a mile from the mouth. Starting at 1780', it switchbacked up on a mostly distinct narrow track to about 4800'. There were good views of the Panamint Valley, Argus Range, and even the Sierras. There was even cell phone coverage up high before we dropped into the canyon. From 4800', the trail went down, a bit back up, traversing, and then dropping to the cabin and lush spring area (with a good flow of water). The trail was, overall, pretty good. It is more or less maintained due to use by animals bighorns, burros and deer(?). It is possible to be diverted by spurious animal trails, and it may be ill defined up the main ridge, but secure rocks there make the route there like climbing a staircase.

We found a good campsite on huge boulder on the hillside south of the cabin -- with good view -- and hung out for the afternoon, relaxing after the 4000' gain backpack, which took us about five hours. Our packs were not light (40-45pounds), since we had climbing gear that included a full rack, rappel ropes and extra rope and slings. The cabin was pretty messy; the plastic windows were blown out and rodent pellets were all over the place. Five burros were in the area, but they were pretty wary and stayed at a good distance from us.

The trek downcanyon to the first rappel the next morning was about one mile, but took 21/2 hours. The vegetation that day and the next morning was quite thick in places involving climbing on, over, under and through to make progress. I have seen worse, like the stickery chaparral type of coastal southern California. In the canyon it was willows, horsetail, reeds, vines, sage, and other riparian species matted up to 10 feet in thickness. We were also able to climb on boulders at the side at times. Sometimes my attention would lapse and a vine would grab my foot to trip me onto the soft mat. We also would climb onto thin branches to avoid the voids underneath.

There was substantial flow of water down the entire canyon below the spring; typically one or two feet wide. During the entire descent, we often walked in water, but didn't get very wet. I did step into a couple holes and got wet up to crotch level. Going through the vegetation worked up a sweat, so cooling off form being wet was about right in the daytime temperatures in the 60s. Wet suits were certainly not necessary. Rich wore neoprene socks under light hiking boots and I wore regular running shoes.

The rappels were very enjoyable, and we mostly avoided being wet in them and in pools beneath except for our feet and lower legs. Beautiful displays of ferns and nice channels formed in the rock and from travertine deposits in the canyon. We saw a few birds; one a water ouzel. Crickets at night. Some lizards. Bighorn sheep scat in a number of places. I was visited by mice at both campsites.

We rappelled with our 40-pound packs on. We did not belay the rappels. Gear was added to make a redundant anchor where there were not two secure ones present. It was nice that the March '03 party had added a lot of new slings and a few bolts. A number of the nine year-old slings were there in use. A few pitons did not ring soundly when knocked with a rock, so we pounded them in better and/or added another anchor. We took plenty of gear that we did not use, but having the extra stuff was good security. We moved pretty fast except where I led the traverse to avoid rappelling into the narrow wet slot. There it was marginal friction moves with the pack on and wearing wet trail shoes! By the end of the trip with all the rappels we were coiling the ropes in only a minute, so we got pretty efficient. I liked the sense of being in a place that probably few people have ever visited. Even the upper canyon by the cabin probably gets few visits now, as in the Inyo Mountains, because of the thousands of feet necessary to hike up to get there. I would do this kind of trip again for sure.


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