By: Ron Hudson
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 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, and 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.
Tuesday Nov 18
8:00 am Left car at gate to Indian Ranch (1070 feet on map). Start of north side trail to Hall cabin (1780 feet)- where canyon turns from SE to NE (0.3 mi. upstream from canyon mouth). 10:15 Rest break (2700 feet). 11:45 Rest break with view of upper canyon (4200 feet). 1:20 pm Reached Hall cabin and spring (4560 ft on map).
Wednesday Nov 19
6:40 am Start from near cabin (4560 feet). 7:55 cottonwood tree and end of vertical canyon walls. 8:05 Canyon opens up. Looks like you could climb out sides. 8:10 200 yards of canyon in straight line pointing west. Canyon turns left. Easier travel. 8:25 Huge room-size boulder overlooking first rappel. We down- climbed south side of canyon to rappel. 9:10 RAPPEL 1 / 50 feet (3730 feet) (anchor- I sling around boulder next to BLM sign). No brush or water. Could have downclimbed around the south side, which would have been easier if you started higher than BLM sign. RAPPEL 2 / 45 feet (anchor - 2 existing pitons and sling) Rappel consisted of 2 stages. There was a ledge 30 feet down. You had to rappel in water all the way, but only your feet got wet. No brush. Small pool at bottom. 10:12 RAPPEL 3 / 70 feet (anchor - I bolt and a sling around a tree). There was a deep slot to the north. We stayed south of it having to go through heavy brush. Easy to stay away from slot but it was hard to manage rope in brush. We used 2 ropes but only 1 was necessary. 10:38 RAPPEL 4 / 100 feet (anchor - 1 piton and I bolt). 2 rope rappel consisted of 2 stages. 1st was 20 feet through a hole to a ledge. No brush or water. RAPPEL 5 / 25 feet (anchor - 2 pitons way back from edge on north wall of canyon with a long sling). Slings went through lots of brush. 11:17 RAPPEL 6 / 120 feet (anchor -2 bolts (1 new) at top of waterfall). This led to a (dangerous?) slot on the south side and was very wet. We used the above anchor to belay from, and climbed 70 feet north (2 pieces of pro) traversing to a big ledge with a single piton. We added a hex and extra slings for the anchor. 2 rope rappel from here was on a smooth 50-degree slope, which was brush free and dry. 12:30 Lunch just before rappel 7 RAPPEL 7 /70 feet (anchor -2 slings around a boulder) 1:26 RAPPEL 8 I 100 feet (anchor - 3 pitons on north side of canyon). We used all 3 by adding a sling. 2 rope rappel. 2:10 RAPPEL 9 / 120 feet (anchor - 2 slings around a small boulder) Boulder rocked a bit, but seemed secure enough and was located on top of a roomsized boulder near middle of canyon. Anchor was hard to find at first because we went too low. We added 3rd sling around another boulder as backup. 2 rope rappel.
Ropes got very tangled in brush as we threw them down. 2:40 RAPPEL 10 / 50 feet (anchor - I loose piton and one very small boulder on north wall). We did not rappel. We walked past the old anchor and lots of barrel cactus before climbing down an easy gully 100 feet down-canyon on north side. 3:03 RAPPEL 11 / 140 feet (anchor - 2 pitons on south side of canyon). 2 rope rappel was low angle and some of it could have been down-climbed. No brush or water. 3:30 RAPPEL 12/70 feet (anchor - 2 pitons with bright orange perlon on north side of canyon). There was another old bolt nearby which preceded Steve Smith's descent in 1994. It looked possible to down-climb south side. RAPPEL 13 / 45 feet (anchor - 2 pitons on south side of canyon). Lots of ferns and some water flow. We handed packs down before down-climbing to anchor. 4:32 RAPPEL 14 / 100 feet (anchor - 2 pitons on north side of waterfall). We stayed out of water while rappelling steep cliff. No brush. This rappel was not described in the write-ups of the previous two ascents. We thought that it was the 14th rappel and that we were finished. With little daylight we hurried downstream thinking we could finish walking out the canyon at night. 5:10 pm We reached a steep cliff requiring a rappel, and it was practically dark. We didn't see an anchor. We camped at flat spot just upstream.
Thursday Nov 20
6:45 am RAPPEL 15 / 80 feet (anchor - I bolt and 1 piton on south side of waterfall). Used 2 ropes but 1 would work because 2 ends of one rope were on bottom at retrieval. Steepest rappel in canyon. No brush or water. Small pool at bottom with constructed rock wall around it. Nice waterfall in slot and luxurious growth of ferns. 7:45 Passed entrance to north side trail 8:50 am Reached car at Indian Ranch gate.
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