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Recollection of the fatality on January 30th, 2021 in Deimos Canyon; Death Valley National Park

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by pynkchink, Feb 1, 2021.

  1. pynkchink


    Fatality in Deimos Canyon - Death Valley, CA, January 30th, 2021

    This is my recollection of what happened that fateful day.

    It was my once a year “escape from Utah” jaunt to warm, sunny Death Valley. The plan was originally to descend Cerberus Canyon. Since Dante’s View road was closed, Deimos Canyon became plan B. The group consisted of: Sarah Perlotto, Tim Seavy, Michael Cressman, Justin Ibershoff, Luke Galyan, Joshua Rodriguez and myself (Tracy Kwan). Most of us had been through Deimos canyon before; this being Cressman’s 10th time and Luke’s 6th time.

    Got up to get ready for the day from camp at Slabby Acres at the ripe time of 4:30 AM in order to meet the rest of the group at the trail head for 6:00 AM. After some sleepy greetings, we started up the steep hill littered with loose rock at 6:30 AM. The grueling approach went relatively quickly and smoothly, with Cressman and I in the front, Justin in the middle, and the others chatting it up in the back. We got to the head of the canyon about 3 hours later and started to carefully make our way down the chossy rock. We skipped rappel 1.

    As we started to approach the giant boulder which marked the entrance way to the 3rd rappel, Justin made a comment about this specific rock being conglomerate, therefore we should be mindful of this while being around it being extra weary of its potential to break off. Cressman down climbed into the chamber left down canyon and I followed suit. Rappel 3 was anchored from a large rock. Cressman and I decided to change the anchor to a pinch point. Cressman wrapped some new webbing around the anchor and tugged on it to ensure that it was solid. I yelled up canyon towards Justin requesting that he throw the rope down in order to rig the 3rd rappel. He threw the rope down at my feet in the chamber (he could not physically see me) and proceeded to down climb right down canyon through a crack. Within seconds of Justin’s feet hitting the false floor, rocks began to shift and move quick. Giant boulders followed as the rocks violently rolled over the edge of the 90 foot drop like waves on an ocean taking Justin down with them. It was loud and fierce. I felt rocks rolling out from underneath my feet as I was a only few feet away from the anchor and immediately retreated into a crouched position. Justin was a few feet away from where I was crouched. It was a horrifying moment. I looked up at Cressman wide eyed with shock, absolutely speechless. We did not have to communicate with words as our faces told the tale. The time was 10:35 AM.

    “Is everyone okay?!” Luke yelled from above. “NO!” Cressman replied. Josh ran up canyon in order to push the SOS button on the In Reach. We had decided that it would be extremely dangerous to try to reverse the approach so the only way out was to descend the canyon. Sarah, who was trained as a Wilderness First Responder was sent down first in order to assess for injury. We rigged a rope up canyon on the left side in order to avoid the room with the false floor. Both Sarah and Luke checked Justin for vital signs but unfortunately could not locate a pulse or any signs of breath. Small rocks were showering them as they evaluated the situation presented to them. It was not safe until the whole group came down. The group rappelled down and assisted with rolling Justin over so that Sarah could perform CPR. It was blatantly obvious that Justin had endured immense blunt trauma. There were no signs of life coming from Justin. The sinking realization that Justin had passed away swept over us like a dark cloud. With the spontaneous rock fall still occurring, the group was still in imminent danger. We had to move quickly down canyon.

    Communications with SAR had been initiated and they were gathering information. About an hour and a half later, we heard the Navy helicopter flying over us as we directed them up canyon. We spotted two individuals rappelling with a litter. With great caution, we descended the rest of the canyon as darkness enveloped us.

    6:21 PM: Abby and her friend were waiting for us on the road as they happened to be in Charon canyon next door and heard the helicopter flying overhead. We spoke to another park ranger and proceeded to head to Abby’s house place as she had graciously allowed us all to stay there for the evening.

    The next morning, we meet the ranger heading the SAR team at the airstrip and they debriefed their recovery plan with us. We had wanted to make sure that they were not coming from the top in order to avoid the rock fall danger. They had already decided that they would not be coming in from the top. The rangers explained to us that the military helicopter from the day before did not recover the body due to the fact that when they determined that the individual was deceased, it was out of their jurisdiction, the helicopter was too large, they did not have enough man power and the equipment they had carried in was too heavy. On the afternoon of January 31st, SAR sent out a smaller helicopter with the equipment to do the recovery; which took about an hour from Badwater Basin.

    Justin was a man of few words. Though I only met him once before, I would describe the aura he gave off as Zen. During one of the rest stops on the approach hike that day, I remember he had turned to me and said earnestly, “I love this view… “

    My sincerest condolences to Justin’s family and friends.

    May you Rest In Power Justin Ibershoff.


    Justin, enjoying the views that Death Valley had to offer him that day. PC: Luke Galyan

    145279493_817518932193129_693091330912645724_n 2.

    The room with the false floor on the first descent of Deimos Canyon - March 2009 PC: Mike Cressman

    143532159_415717939762124_5410559252827298118_n 2.
    Seconds after the rock slide.. dust was still in the air. PC: Mike Cressman

    Edit: Comment from Mike Cressman -
    What happened was a rockslide inside the room with the false floor, but it was not a result of the false floor. It was the bed of rocks that accumulates in there between the canyon walls. Yes, it is all on top of a false floor, but the floor is not what failed, and the same rockpile could exist regardless of the floor type.

    That this particular type of failure would occur was not predicted. Because of the false floor, there was always this nightmarish fear of the chockstone floor structure possibly collapsing, but that is not at all what happened. The other concern has always been that one or a few of the rocks from the room would tumble towards the rappel and be a hazard to anyone on rappel or standing at the bottom of the rappel. That is also not what happened.

    What happened was a rockslide of horrifying proportion, where a deep layer of rocks on the floor suddenly gave way and slid down the slope towards and over the brink of the rappel.

    I also want to make it clear that there was nothing unusual or particularly hazardous looking about the locations where any of the three of us were actually standing. None of us were on a steep slope or standing at the edge of one. We were on a gradually sloping floor of rocks, the same kind of thing we stand on all the time in other places. And, importantly, not any different in appearance from the floor in that same room the other five times I have been in it.

    What we didn’t expect, and had no reasonable way to expect, was that a failure that occurred several feet away, closer to the brink of the drop, would cause the entire mass behind it to slide.

    143865117_125881686060661_2390713784579347662_n 2.
    The SAR recovery helicopter on January 31st, 2021 PC: Mike Cressman
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2021
  2. ratagonia


    Mount Carmel, Utah
    Thanks Tre. Sad.

    Dave Melton likes this.
  3. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

    Scary. It sounds like a freak accident. My condolences.
  4. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

    Salt Lake City
    Nice write up Tracy...hopefully cathartic.

    Condolences to friends and family.
    Kuenn likes this.
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