Scott Swaney, a former oilman and current badass a couple years shy of 70, has more first descents in Death Valley National Park than anyone on earth. He spent the past decade looking for everything from tight canyons to massive drop-offs and is believed to have led or been involved with 203 of the 258 first descents in the park. Swaney has burned through partners who couldn’t stand the heat and hard labor of exploring his hellish playground, but he continues to recruit new ones, eager to keep exploring. This spring, photographer Ian Tuttle, who had never canyoneered, stuffed his camera—a film Mamiya 645 AFDii—into a backpack and followed along.
Photo: Death Valley Road, Inyo County, California.
Death Valley is enormous, hot, dry, rugged, and remote. It’s the largest national park outside Alaska and holds the world record for hottest air temperature (134 degrees Fahrenheit). Of its 3 million acres, 91 percent is designated wilderness. It’s not a friendly place if you don’t know what you’re doing. As of this writing, there is only one paved road across the park—flash floods wiped out the other two in 2015. Cell service is sporadic at best. To have any chance of seeing much more than the tourist sites, you need to hike, carrying all of your water, for miles across open desert.Eureka Dunes from Hammer Mjolnir Canyon. May 24, 2016.
Extreme conditions leave much of the park unpopular, unvisited, and undisturbed but full of splendid beauty. And while there are fewer “firsts” available to true adventurers, Death Valley has in the past decade provided a select group of canyoneers the opportunity to rack up hundreds of spectacular first descents through the park’s dramatic canyons. Of these first descenders, Scott Swaney, 68, has distinguished himself as particularly committed to exploring, logging, and naming all of Death Valley’s numerous canyons.Swaney eating breakfast below the Eureka Dunes. May 21, 2016.
I learned about Swaney from a good friend who’s been following him on Facebook, fascinated by stories and photos of huge rappels, remote natural bridges, slick rock dryfalls, and rattlesnakes. My friend and I have been exploring Death Valley regularly for 15 years, and we’ve had many hikes end abruptly at the foot of an impassible canyon dryfall.
I reached out to Swaney via Facebook, and he quickly replied within minutes with a thumbs-up emoji. Then: “You will have to join up. Been going every weekend this season. Lots of new canyons to check out.” One month later, I’m riding in his dust-coated Nissan Pathfinder, heading from Los Angeles to Death Valley, while he gives me lessons on rappelling.Swaney demonstrating a Prusik knot. Amargosa Valley, May 2, 2016.
There are five of us on this trip, and we car-camp that night on the Amargosa Valley floor, a few feet from a wilderness boundary sign. Swaney teaches me the Prusik knot, explains ascenders, and talks about how it’s likely that no human has ever been where we’re going.Swaney shows Navarro and Plummer the route of the first descent we’ll attempt. May 3, 2016.
The next morning, we’re up before the sun and hike in the dark for two miles while Swaney’s GPS shows zero feet of elevation gain. Our group: Jared Plummer, Stephanie Navarro, me, Aysel Gezik, and Scott Swaney. I’m the only one without multiple first descents under my belt. Around sunrise, we reach an alluvial fan dotted with fragrant creosote bushes and finally begin to gain some altitude. “What he did is a pretty cool thing,” Swaney muses about Buzz Aldrin. He says Neil Armstrong gets all the credit, but Buzz was right there with him. And yet there can only be one first.The group approaches the top of Cyclops Canyon in the Funeral Mountains. May 3, 2016.
Swaney’s not the only one exploring remote canyons in Death Valley. He’s not the first one, either. But nobody has documented as many Death Valley first descents as he has. By his count, Swaney has personally led or partnered on 203 of the 258 first descents in the park. Klaus Gerhart, owner of Uber Adventures, a canyoneering store in Los Angeles, hosted a lecture in September 2015 called “Scott Swaney: Master of First Descents.”A 350 million-year-old fossil high up in the Funeral Mountains. We saw hundreds of fossils throughout Cyclops Canyon. Nobody has been there to disturb them. May 3, 2016.
Perhaps the greatest danger with first descents is you don’t know what you’ll find. Swaney researches as much as possible ahead of time, using topo maps, Google Earth, and on-the-ground scouting, but there are always surprises. Nobody has been in these canyons before, so there’s no information about what’s in them. What if you encounter a 250-foot rappel and have only a 200-foot rope? What if there’s nothing to anchor from? What if your hair gets stuck in your belay device?Swaney inspects a rock-pile anchor in Sand Witch Canyon. May 21, 2016.
We are now climbing a steep ridgeline toward an unnamed summit, at which point we’ll traverse around and drop into a drainage that will deepen into a canyon. I ask Plummer if I can trust Swaney. Plummer’s accompanied him on about 30 canyoneering trips in Death Valley, including many first descents. He tells me that Swaney knows what he’s doing. He also tells me that I need to make my own decisions about what is safe and what is not. I respect his response.Swaney plays with a snake in Sand Witch Canyon while Plummer looks on. I’ve visited Death Valley more than 30 times and had never seen a snake. Every day I spent with Swaney, he found at least one. May 21, 2016.
The weather is pleasant. We’re up around 5,000 feet, and it’s not too hot. We down-hike the drainage just a few hundred yards and reach our first rappel. Swaney and Plummer scope out potential anchor points. Gezik finds a little pool of standing water in a rock and scoops it into her bottle, using her bandanna as a filter. “Plenty of UV,” she says to explain its potability. There’s a desiccated, twisty tree growing near the edge of the rappel, and Swaney declares it perfect. He loops webbing around it, clearing a couple twigs out of the way, and then attaches a rapide quick link. Once the rope is thrown over the edge, he inspects its lie. The stone is sharp where it transitions to vertical. Swaney uses another rock as a hand sander to smooth the lip. “This could cut the rope,” he says. “Try not to pendulum or bounce.”Swaney smooths a sharp rock lip so it won’t cut the rope. Cyclops Canyon, May 3, 2016.
So many things can go wrong that when I am finally leaning backwards over the edge of my very first canyoneering rappel, I have to adopt a mind-set of pure faith. Behind me is a 160-foot drop. In front of me is a gnarled knee-high tree with a loop of webbing around it. I trust Swaney. I trust Plummer, who has already descended this section and is waiting below, backing me up with a fireman’s belay. I trust the others and their decades of combined experience. I trust this tiny tree. And I do trust myself to stay calm and execute a proper rappel. Swaney reminds me to never, ever let go of the brake rope in my right hand. Otherwise, I’ll zip straight down the line and die on impact.The tree anchor Swaney set for the first rappel into Cyclops Canyon. May 3, 2016.
Swaney started his Death Valley canyoneering project about ten years ago. Around 2003, he met Chris Brennen, who was working on a guidebook for the San Gabriels and is known as the father of canyoneering and adventure hiking in the Los Angeles area. They made their way up to the Black Mountains in Death Valley to run a few first descents together. Brennen’s guidebook was published in 2007, but according to Swaney, Brennen lost interest in the trove of first descents they’d identified in Death Valley. “I think he got remarried or something.”Swaney flakes rope after a rappel in Cyclops Canyon. May 3, 2016.
Swaney then partnered with Rick Kent, another Death Valley canyoneering pioneer, to knock out more first descents in the Black Mountain range. Abby Wines, a ranger at Death Valley National Park, refers to this period as the “golden age for first descents” in the park, with Kent and Swaney as the “ringleaders.” Wines, an avid spelunker and canyoneer herself, has accompanied Swaney on more than 20 trips, including at least ten first descents. A big part of what made those years so golden is the paved road running the entire length of the Black Mountains through the park, providing easy access and shortening the grueling desert approaches.Jared Plummer on rappel in Sand Witch Canyon. May 21, 2016.
Swaney and Kent eventually recorded first descents in almost all of the canyons in the Black Mountains. Fortunately, the Black Mountains comprise but one range of seven within Death Valley National Park. Unfortunately, many of those ranges require miles of cross-country hiking to access.
The long approaches did not appeal to Kent, and he and Swaney parted ways. Eager to explore the many untapped canyons, Swaney kept at it, using Facebook and Meetup to recruit teammates to help haul the necessary gear and chip in for gas money. He took dozens of weekend trips over four years, relentlessly logging as many descents as he could during the cool winter months. (Summer’s average highs around 120 degrees Fahrenheit make canyoneering in Death Valley out of the question).A pinch-point anchor in Hammer Mjolnir Canyon, left over from Swaney’s first descent in 2012. May 22, 2016.
I survive the first rappel. It’s actually quite fun. Up until now, we’ve been able to walk back down the way we came, but we are fully committed now that we’ve pulled our rope. There is no retracing our steps. There’s only going forward.
I keep asking how they know for sure that nobody has been down this canyon. Death Valley teemed with miners from the 1840s to the 1930s, and, in Wines’ words, they were “ultracrazy” in their exploration for gold and silver. So while it’s impossible to say for certain that we are the first people to ever set foot in this canyon, it’s highly likely that we are the first to descend it from top to bottom. And we’ll absolutely be the first to publicly document it.
The documentation itself can be a point of contention. Swaney has been called out by other Death Valley hikers after posting locations of particularly scenic and remote natural features. In Swaney’s view, it’s in service to the canyoneering community. Other people see it as spilling secrets to the masses. But if you’re going to be known as the first to do something, you need to document it for proof. Swaney is meticulous in this department. He uses a GPS to log mileage and altitude and a compact water- and shockproof Nikon Coolpix to photograph just about every cliff and gully he encounters. After each expedition, he uploads a detailed report and dozens of date-stamped photos to a public Facebook album. Thanks to Swaney and his teammates, Death Valley is now home to, among many others, Hulk, Gastropod Casket, Sisyphus, Achilles, Jackalope, Carrion, and Roasting Dog canyons.Swaney throws a rope bag off the final rappel in Cyclops Canyon. May 3, 2016.
We make our way down four more rappels and reach the top of a truly massive wall. We can see the outlet and gentle hike back down to the valley far below. But atop this cliff, there isn’t anything to use as an anchor. We scrounge rocks for a cairn anchor, but there aren’t enough to make a sufficiently heavy pile. There’s a small ledge about ten feet below us that we’ll use for the anchor point, but there aren’t any rocks on it. Swaney throws rocks down to the ledge and curses as one rock after another bounce over the edge. He downclimbs to the ledge to investigate and soon shouts up that he’s found a chockstone— a golf-ball-sized rock that some past flood event has wedged into a crack in the top of the cliff. This will be our anchor.
Swaney clips in and looks over the edge. He tells me I might want to try a Z-rig on this one, and then disappears over the edge. My Petzl Reverso device (from my climbing gym days) doesn’t offer a lot of friction, and I noticed it can get going really fast on the longer rappels. I clip a carabiner to my leg loop and another to the rope above my harness, giving myself the option to add friction mid-descent. This is the Z-rig that Scott had shown me earlier. Then I sit at the edge and shimmy over, letting out rope, looking down at the tiny specks of Swaney and Navarro below. Halfway down, I’m having trouble gripping the brake rope. I’m sweating like crazy, my fingers ache, and the rope is getting very hot as it passes through my gloved hands. I engage the Z-rig just before the rappel goes free-hanging; the added friction is a welcome relief. I slowly descend past a huge cave in the cliff face in front of me. With my legs dangling and my heavy backpack pulling me backwards, it takes a lot of core strength to remain upright. I try to enjoy the view, but mostly I just want to survive the descent.Plummer on the final rappel of the first descent of Cyclops Canyon. May 3, 2016.
When I finally reach the bottom, my arms are exhausted from managing the rope and my whole body trembles. I unclip and accidentally press my forearm into my belay device, which has heated so much from friction that it causes a blister burn on contact. I hardly notice with all the adrenaline. Swaney is thrilled about this rappel, especially the cave, and the dark hole inspires its name: Cyclops. Gezik comes down next. Plummer is the last man down. There’s a sense of exhilarated relief when we’re all safe at the bottom. We’ve made it. We’ve navigated a canyon that no person has ever navigated before. Swaney makes note of the vertical drop of this last rappel (350 feet!) and puts another waypoint in the GPS. It’s nearing sundown. We won’t get back to camp until after 8 p.m.Swaney and Plummer coil the 660-foot rope after the final, 350-foot rappel in Cyclops Canyon. May 3, 2016.
The next morning, driving east with the Funerals behind us, Swaney calls his daughter and leaves a message: “We had another great first descent yesterday!” He leaves specifics about our location and plans, and then turns up a George Thorogood track. Swaney, now divorced, also has a son. Both his daughter and son have children of their own. I have a very difficult time thinking of him as a grandfather.Swaney orders the $6 footlong special at a Subway in Baker, California. “Unfortunately it’s always tuna fish on Fridays, which doesn’t keep so well in your pack.” May 2, 2016.
Born in Traverse City, Michigan, in 1948, Swaney started rock climbing in 1965. He taught himself knots at the library. He started reading Mariah in 1976, the publication that would eventually become, with the purchase of Outside from Jan Wenner, the Outside of today.
The golden age of rock climbing was just ramping up in Yosemite, and Swaney was tramping around the world looking for mountains while riding a few business booms and busts. Based out of Boulder in the late 1970s during an oil boom, he developed wildcat wells. In 1983, he and a partner attempted to climb all 15,325 feet of Mount Fairweather in Alaska, beginning from the beach. They made it to around 13,500 feet when a blizzard turned them around. (At the time, they would have been the ninth party in history to accomplish this feat.) In 1986, the oil crash killed his drilling business, so Swaney moved to Florida and started a trading company with a partner, importing and exporting building materials during a real estate boom. That busted too.Cyndi Lang on rappel in Sand Witch Canyon. May 21, 2016.
Retired now, Swaney lives a spartan life north of Los Angeles in an apartment complex filled with what he calls “old people playing checkers all day.” He complains about aging, how he feels like a machine ineluctably wearing out, but hiking with him, I’m humbled. The guy’s calves are Olympian, and he zooms up steep scree slopes in tattered sneakers and jumps across rocks with a grace hard earned from a lifetime spent in the mountains. Still, he’s annoyed that his body can’t keep up with his desire to explore. “You get a few discounts here and there. That’s about the only good thing about getting old.”Swaney cuts into a roast chicken at the top of Townes Pass. May 4, 2016.
Canyoneering is a new sport with just the rudiments of an industry building up around it. Most of the equipment comes from rock climbing. A few innovators are starting to supply specialized gear like rope bags, seat protectors for harnesses, and special anchoring equipment that can be removed after a rappel so no trace is left behind. Wines tells me that in Death Valley there’s been an explosion of canyoneering activity, so much so that the park is working on official guidelines and potentially a permitting process.Swaney on rappel in Sand Witch Canyon. May 23, 2016.
First and foremost, the park is concerned about people’s safety. Canyoneering is dangerous. Death Valley’s harsh conditions substantially amplify that danger. “Canyons in Death Valley tend to be very, very long,” says Wines. Compared to a place like Zion, where canyons might require three or four rappels, many Death Valley canyons require a dozen or more, and these rappels often exceed 200 feet. The number and length of Death Valley rappels mean it can take 12 or more hours to move through a canyon. And then there’s the lack of bolt anchors. Without thorough experience building safe rock-pile anchors, you risk catastrophe.
Luke Galyan was similarly cautionary: “Canyoneering can be pretty easy right up to the point where things go wrong. Then, when things go wrong, it can get real hard real fast.” There has been one incident in the park already—an inexperienced group got cliffed out with too short a rope in Willow Canyon. They were lucky to get a cell signal and called for rescue. But Wines says that with the increasing popularity, “it’s just a matter of time before we have a big one.”Alvin Walters, Cyndi Lang, Laura Palazzolo, and Frank Ramos prepare for a rappel in Sand Witch Canyon. May 21, 2016.
I join Swaney and a seasoned group of six other canyoneers on another trip two weeks after my first. This time we’re in Eureka Valley, 100 miles northwest of the Funerals, to run two canyons that Swaney first descended in 2012: Sand Witch Canyon and Hammer Mjolnir Canyon. It’s day two of the trip, a Sunday, and we’ve all agreed on a half-day because people need to drive home for work on Monday.
Hiking up a very steep ridge on the approach, I find myself at the back of the pack with Randy Worth, a very experienced canyoneer who has traveled with Swaney many times. Our “half-day” is beginning to look like a full day, and Worth is angry—for good reason. Not everyone has enough water or food to go up much higher. We identify a viable sheep path down to a drop-in to the canyon and shout the message to the next hiker far up the slope. While we’re waiting for everyone to get down to us, Worth tells me, “This is not different from most Scott Swaney trips. I don’t care how much logic you put in, Scott gets what he wants. He goes where he wants to go.”Swaney rappels into Hammer Mjolnir Canyon as Walters, Worth, Lang, and Plummer look on. May 22, 2016.
When Swaney finally downclimbs and we’re all together, he’s visibly upset that his leadership is being questioned. Words are exchanged, the mood passes, and we all head for the safe drop-in where we can descend into the canyon from the ridge.
Plummer, who had been up ahead with Swaney, now hangs back with me and Worth. “He’s got this spot in his head that he’s trying to find,” Plummer says. “Yeah, that’s just it,” says Worth. “He’s chasing something that’s in his head, and he doesn’t consider any of the other factors.”Swaney in Hammer Mjolnir Canyon. May 22, 2016.
I never once felt unsafe with Swaney. Over his 50 years of climbing, he seemed to have already encountered and solved just about every problem you could imagine. But then again, things went smoothly on the three days I spent in canyons with him, and in the half-day episode I definitely caught a glimpse of the Ahab in him. When we get to a strange rappel through a tube that looks like a vertical stone wave breaking, Swaney is delighted. The first time he came through was in the dark. I can’t imagine attempting this kind of highly technical first descent with nothing but a headlamp for light.Eureka Valley and its sand dunes under an incoming storm at sunset. May 22, 2016.
As Wines put it, “Scott has been carrying the torch forward. He’s the most motivated.” Most everyone else looks at the difficulties inherent in Death Valley canyoneering, particularly in accomplishing first descents here, and asks, “Is the effort really worth the reward?” In Scott Swaney’s case, the opportunity to write himself as first into the history of a place as mythic and challenging as Death Valley is absolutely worth it.