Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Colassal and Great Onyx Caves,
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY

Well, I survived my very first Cave Research Foundation Expedition at Mammoth Cave! It was fun - but a bit tiring because of late starts for both days.

Saturday, May 24th, 2008 - Colassal Cave - Werner Link Area
Attendees: John D., Randy P., Ralph E, and myself
Start time: 2:15 pm
Total time in Cave: 7hrs, 45 min.

Sunday, May 25th, 2008 - Great Onyx - Great Onyx/Mammoth Connection
Attendees: Dave W. (for beginning), Bill K., Joyce H. and myself
Start time: 11 am
Total time in Cave: 10hrs, 30 min.

Tom B. was in charge of the Memorial Weekend Expedition (his dad, Roger was there too by the way). I didn't get to do any sketching but I think this first trip was kind of a testing ground - so they could see if I did all right and what kind of a caver I was - so it was all good. I didn't really mind, afterall - no sketching = less crap to haul. Randy P. and I drove up Friday the 23rd, after taking in a few Nashville sights - the Frist and Hatch Show Print before we checked in that evening. Hatch Show Print was pretty cool because after I dropped some technical printing terms and told the gal I had my own Chandler and Price letterpress in my garage - she let us wander past the "employees only" into the back to see all their presses and another nice fellow pretty much gave us a private tour!)

We were greeted Saturday morning with an excellent breakfast of spinach bacon scrambled eggs and pancakes. After Tom's briefing - all but one team was assigned with the task of helping haul a bunch of heavy stuff (a generator/welding equipment) down a steep slope to a cave so they could assemble a gate - before our cave trips. So we didn't see the entrance to Colassal till 2:15 in the afternoon. We actually parked at the cemetery where Floyd Collins is buried, walked down the road a bit and wandered off into the woods to look for certain landmarks (a wash bucket and a particular clump of trees). There were 2 teams going into Colassal and all of us chatted jovially along the way. The Werner Link team's task for the day was to resketch a junction and fix a blunder in the survey. Survey-wise - its rarther crazy in there - at on point we stopped and John told us a few bits of history about a sign that said "This was to New Year's Junction" and pointed out all the different survey/resurvey carbide dotted stations. At one junction I think there were 5 or 6 different surveys that had gone through the same area!

We buzzed on down into Salts Cave and hit the junction we wanted to resketch. There had been surveys before but they only gone 2 of the 4 ways you could go. No one had tied in all 4 surveys into a cohesive sketch so the cartographer didn't really know exactly what the area looked like. First we had to hunt for stations from 4 different surveys (N, NA, Y and I think C) - so we could tie them all in. John found the one he thought would be the hardest right when we popped up out of a little canyon. He turned around, sat down and just looked up and voila! There is was - C-61 -the main carbide connector station. I want to say it was from book 35 or 36 (they preface the stations with chronological book numbers - so its easier to keep track of everything) all the more crazy when they are currently on book 4,000 and something!! So the stations we were connecting into were actually from sometime in the 1960s. It took us at least an hour and a half or more to track the rest of them down. Some of them we couldn't find, so we had to backtrack a ways away till we found ones that were labeled... and then had to reverse engineer them because the carbide stations had long since been obliterated. Once we surveyed the area and tied in everything we blew on down a canyon and re-took compass and clino readings on a small section where the front and back sites didn't jive. When we retook them - both were WAY off. But in reviewing the original data we realized, most likely magnetic North had actually changed that much! I want to say it was at least 5 degrees.

When we pulled into camp - a good dinner was ready and waiting - which was incredibly awesome! I really like that they have someone up whenever a group comes in. And folks chat about what and where they went that day... and plenty of interesting stories about past and present expeditions float around.

Sunday's 8 am briefing reviewed what all the teams had done yesterday and plans for the teams that day. Tom said that everyone needed to help haul gear the gear back up the hillside from the cave-gating project so folks needed to be back by 4pm - which was great because Randy and I could drive back that evening and have a full Monday to do whatever. Dave W. was opening the door to Great Onyx when Bill said something to him about an 11pm callout time. Apparently we were the only folks who didn't have to be back by 4 to help and I was the only one who didn't know this till we were walking in the door. Uh.... oops. By then it was too late to call Randy - and we could always drive back Monday morning. So into Great Onyx I went.

Great Onyx was a show cave back in the 30s-60s - with some nice pretties and a fantastic gypsum ceiling - flowers and snow ball and the lot. Mammoth Cave National Park offers a lantern tour of Great Onyx which has never been physically connected to Mammoth. Tom explained the connection was all a part of "great flint ridge con" that he wanted to suck new folks like me into. Our team - Joyce, Bill and I (apparently chosen because we were small folks) were to investigate/survey an area that might lead to the connection - a connection that's been sought after for over 50 years. Dave W. led us through the tourist trails and to the pit we were to go down and then bid us adeau as I dropped out of sight.

And then there were three. The pit was a split 60' with a natural anchor redirect around a small corner after the first 30 - plenty of room to get off rope, turn the corner and do the super undercut bottom 30. We landed on a dock. That's right - a wooden dock. Great Onyx competed against another local cave that had a boat ride, building a dam in a slender canyon to plug the water from an incoming waterfall to raise the water level so they could do a boat ride. There used to be lights down there and a huge staircase down the 60 ft pit. There are some small remains - like copper wire, rusty nails, bits of bulbs, and parts and pieces of boards - and lots of penciled signatures on the walls - but the 5x4' dock and another submerged partial dock by the waterfall is all that remains.

Stepping down off the dock you're in a couple of inches of mucky silt/water. Off to the right is a really tight canyon that's only partially passable. Joyce and I poked around in the canyon for a bit. You could go on through if you chimneyed up about 8/10 feet - which I did to investigate while the sketcher (Bill) did his thing. In between the waterfall off to the left and the canyon there were two water-filled holes at the ground level - one of which sumped. It looked like it went around the corner and popped out beside the waterfall. The second was apparently our goal. The hole was about 2 feet high, 1/2 a foot of water and a foot and a 1/2 of air - only as wide as my shoulders when I'm on all fours. My shoulders scraped the sides and my back was flat against the rock ceiling. If you went in you HAD to back out. And the only way for me to hold the tape and light the stations for Joyce to read the instruments was for me to back in because I pretty much blocked the whole passage. This is where I began thinking a wet suit would have been a happy addition for me, but I donned my balaclava and plain black heavy duty trash bag dress and crawled on in.

Doing a bit of reconnaissance, I found a whole, waterlogged 2x6 in the passageway and started tugging it back out - since it took up precious space. The second time I yanked on it I heard this weird suction noise and then the sound of rushing water... I tugged it all the way out to see Bill and Joyce with really odd looks on their faces. I crawled back in to investigate, turned a small corner and reached a point where the floor wasn't under me - or rather the 50 + years of silt wasn't there in the canyon anymore. So I hunted for foot holds in super cloudy water, and saw the edge of the concrete dam in front of me with water spilling over it. The board must have just been blocking a small kink in the top of the dam, blocking the water. I grabbed the concrete and pulled myself over to it and looked out into a wider canyon and down about 8 feet of concrete - which is probably what the passage originally looked like when they built the dam 50+ years ago. To go over the dam you had to kinda chimney out with your hands far enough to squeeze you knees and feet past the top. I got to practice canyon perching (oh, joy. canyons and I have a love/hate relationship. I don't really care for them, but I can do them if I have to.) when I climbed back up to the top of the dam out in the canyon to light a station for Joyce.

Bill had brought a small sledge hammer and worked at making the dam a bit shorter. The concrete was INSANELY strong and he only managed to knock out a couple more inches - but you could tell the water level in the crawlway did drop at least another inch. So we surveyed on and I tuned a corner and found an old rustly metal bucket wedged in the middle of the passage - head height. When I unwedged it - it was full of water and silt. Note to self: this area obviously takes on a LOT of water.

We came to a T intersection - skinny impassable canyon to the right, mushroom-shaped passage to the left. The bottom was between 1ft of water and a couple inches, so we chose the high road. Everything was coated in a couple inches of soupy slime and pretty small which made it a bit interesting. I had to keep double checking to see if the stations I was choosing were ok. I think our longest shot was 7.3 ft since it was such a winding passage. I apologized to Bill and Joyce that this is the first time I've ever set stations and - that my main job in Fern is sketching. I think they were surprised that I'd never done anything else but sketch. The cramped, winding, slime coated passage was a bit of a challenging start for my first time as lead tape but I don't think I did too bad. The mushroom stem widened up a bit - enough to stand up again - and then it constricted even more - the top becoming a bellow crawl in the canyon and the bottom a belly crawl in water. All of us were pretty cold by then, soaking wet and in constant contact with some form of the wall ceiling or floor at all times because it was so tight. Even with my balaclava and trash bag dress I was getting to the point where my shivering was getting aggravating. I told Joyce and Bill that there was no way without a wet suit that I'd last any more than one station laying in the water before I 'd have to get moving out of there.

No complaints from Joyce - and only a bit of cutting it short grumbling from Bill but he was ok with it and eventually admitted he was a bit cold too. (I learned later that he's the guy to go with if you want a 12-18+ hour trip - he's apparently famous for it). I have to admit that right before we turned back that my imagination was getting the better of me and I was beginning to feel a bit constricted. Not panicky in the least... just antsy and cold. So I was happy when we popped out at the bottom of the drop and I could finally stretch without immediately hitting wall or ceiling.

Joyce climbed first, followed by me. We stayed on the landing till Bill climbed up, then I climbed up the top 1/2. They'd already derigged the 2nd 1/2 when Bill realized he'd forgotten his micro-rack so they had to rerig. He borrowed Joyce's rack went back down the 2nd 1/2 of the drop and climb back up. Meanwhile I was getting cold once again at the top of the drop waiting on them, so it was the basic black trash bag dress for me once again. I think I nodded off a couple times while I waited. We stopped for a couple minutes to stare at the gypsum pretties on the tourist paths on the way out, and were locking the doors to Great Onyx around 9:30pm.

Dinner was once again ready for us when we rolled in. And everyone who was still up was really interested in what we had to report. The last time someone had been down to investigate the dam was something like 18 years ago! And she had apparently had reported walking passage after she went over the dam..... ha ha... obviously she hadn't gone too far. But the cool thing is Great Onyx grew that day by about 150'. No one had added anything, let alone something that had never been surveyed, to that map in at least 20 years. When Randy appeared (he'd been sleeping since 8 pm so he could be rested to still drive us home that evening) Tom and a few of the other regulars had just started discussing all of the other tight leads they could shove me in the next time I came to an expedition weekend. What exactly have I gotten myself into?

Randy and I pulled into Paul's office parking lot to meet him around 3 am. I'd put up a brave front, chatting with Randy till we'd passed the KY border. But after that I literally fell asleep in mid-conversation.

After being used to "warm and cozy Fern" for surveying - I knew Mammoth would be colder overall - even without the water factor - which is why I'd packed my heavier Chilli heads. Lots of folks wore cave suits. I have one - but I can't stand it because its way too bulky. I need to add more layers of cave clothes to my list and my wet suit for sure - and be prepared for whatever little lead they decide to shove me into in the next time I visit the longest cave in the world.

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