Category | Trips

Breath of the Rock Cave

Posted on 20 June 2011 by admin

Sometime in 2008 or 2009, Brian Winchester told me about a sinkhole having a small hole with air flow on the property of one of his clients. I replied that it could lead to an extensive cave, since caves on that ridge often exhibited relatively large sizes; i.e., Warrens, Dead Man’s and Little Dead Man’s Caves. He quickly obtained permission from his client to do some digging at the site. I enlisted Mike Gordon on the project and a few weeks later the three of

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us were looking down into the steep, obviously active sinkhole. The blowing hole was small, perhaps a few inches across, so we began enlarging it using hammers and an entrenching tool, carrying away the sediments with a 5-gal bucket and spreading them around on the ground a short ways from the sink.

As the excavation became larger and larger, so too did the amount of air issuing from the hole. I won’t say it blew the hats off our heads, but it was a right smart wind and it fairly howled. We were impressed. After several hours of pounding, shoveling and lugging, we were stopped by a 1.5 ft diameter chert nodule that completely

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resisted efforts to either break it into smaller rocks or undermine it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010
On Sunday, October 24, 2010, Mike Gordon and Kitty Markley met me at the parking area and we walked to the dig site. We had not been there since the last digging operation, so we had to hunt a little before re-finding it. Once there, it did not look exactly like we had remembered, appearing to have opened up below the 1.5 ft chert boulder that had stopped us before. We quickly set to work with the entrenching tool, set at 90 degrees rather than being straight, and hoed and hefted a bunch of 5-gal buckets worth of sediments out to expose a drop of several feet down to what looked like the top of a joint-controlled passage. As before, the more we dug, the more that the hole blew air, although not as much air as we remembered during the first dig.

The critical chert boulder, however, this time came free quickly under Mike’s persuasion as a result of erosion having significantly undermined it. The left wall is relatively soft limestone that erodes easily under the hammer, but the chert nodules on the right-hand wall were what needed to be moved. Quite hard, the chert yielded only slowly under our hammer blows, and yield it did but not much. Furthermore, the fissure narrowed as we excavated our way down into it, making it very hard to hammer effectively at the chert, so we were limited to digging and hammering with short strokes at awkward angles. Finally, we were working in such tight quarters that we were almost unable to remove the sediments that we could loosen from the walls and floor.

Nonetheless, on our bellies with head down and feet up, we could see beyond the dig that passage large enough for possibly two people side-by-side continued another 8 or 10 feet. That sight gave us renewed energy and we continued to pound away on the rocks, but this time we had only a masonry hammer to work with, I having forgotten to bring my 5 lb sledge hammer. Mike and Kitty could almost pass through the entrance squeeze, but projections above and on the lower left stopped them. Finally, we called it a day and agreed to come back the following Friday afternoon.

Friday, October 29, 2010
On Friday, October 29, 2010, Kitty Markley, Mike Gordon and I returned to the dig site and continued enlarging the entrance. This time, I brought my 5 lb sledge hammer, two cold chisels and a crowbar. First Mike and then I took turns at hammering rocks and shoveling sediments out of the hole. Kitty lugged the earth away in a 5 gal bucket for scattering around the small entrance sinkhole. After I finished my stint, Mike went into the hole head first and announced that he thought he could get inside. “No guts, no glory,” he said. Slowly, he was able to push his way in as we cheered him on. Once inside the entrance passage he was able to use the entrenching tool to excavate the hard-packed dirt floor of the passage down several inches. Kitty then tried to push her way in, to no avail, so Mike began working on two large rocks at the base of the left wall. Surprisingly, they broke free after only a few whacks with the sledge hammer, and he pulled them further into the cave and out of the way.

While I was staring at the slightly enlarged squeeze and trying to decide whether I really wanted to push it, Mike explored the passage onward another 30 ft, turning around in a second room after finding that the passage continued on at least another 30 ft. I still didn’t like the looks of the entrance squeeze and declined to push it, so Kitty crawled forward and she was able to get in. She crawled off and found Mike, and the two of them returned to the second room and pushed the passage further into more and more passages, exploring perhaps a total of 200 ft.

They then returned to the entrance to coax me in. Kitty emerged from the cave to show me that a person really can get in AND out, so I resigned myself to exploring a tight, viciously sharp-rock cave without elbow pads and knee pads, got down on my belly head first and boots several feet higher than my head, and ground my way in. The entrance squeeze is very tight, and we all had to work our bodies like inchworms to get past it, Mike scratching his rib sides, Kitty mashing her breasts and me banging up my knees and elbows. Ow!

The entrance passage before and after the squeeze is perhaps 10 ft long and heads roughly WNW, opening into a very small room (Foyer) about the size of the inside of a small car that one can sit up in. There is a tight passage at the SE corner of the Foyer that drops down 2 – 3 ft and heads off in a roughly SSE direction. Mike took that a short way when Kitty was first trying to enter the cave, perhaps a distance of 30 ft. Heading off roughly in a NNE direction, the passage continues below a tabletop rock through a narrow, body-height route over a (bed)rock that had a sharp nubbin pointed straight up. Mike and Kitty were able to pass that obstacle but I could not, so I took the sledge to it and solved that problem and then slithered past it into the Second Room.

You can also sit up in the Second Room, but much more spaciously and with more sitting spots than in the Foyer. The Second Room is perhaps 10 ft long by 6 or 7 ft wide and 3 – 4 ft high. Continuing in a NNE direction, the passage narrows down into a body tube that was armed with several more floor nubbins that raked my boney chest. Ouch! I backed out and took the sledge to them, lowering that floor by another inch or two. I don’t know how Kitty and Mike passed those nubbins without flesh wounds, but then again, I never did see their bare chests, so maybe they didn’t?

That passage quickly opens up into a hands-and-knees crawlway several feet wide that turns into a vertical fissure 6+ ft tall at its far side. At that point, to the ESE there is exposed a second, parallel joint-controlled passage accessible through either of two body-sized windows in the rock separating the two passages. The first fissure goes another 20 – 30 ft and ends. Climbing through the windows, the second fissure passage continues on in a NNE direction at least 60 ft to a third room about the size of a closet that you can sit or stand in. The second fissure passage is a bear, having rough wall projections that grab clothing and being narrow enough that the caver has to move through first at one level and then another. Its walls are very soft and crumbly, often causing foot- and hand-holds to fail, plunging the unwary ape down into ever-smaller fissure passage, trapping boots and knees. It is slow going, and somewhere in there, I suffered a small avulsion in my left forearm, which bled like bloody hell, only I was so focused on making the passage that I didn’t even notice it until later after the blood had thoroughly dried!

From the third room, the cave continues on in three directions: the fissure continues to the NNE and there are two more passages headed SW and WSW. Mike and Kitty made it to that third room, from which Mike explored another 30+ ft down the NNE passage. Neither Kitty nor I went further than the third room. I turned around at the third room because I was by myself, was quite tired at that point and had no backup lights with me. It turned out that Mike was not too far behind me, in the original NNE passage, but had slipped down into the narrow fissure and encountered an “issue” in getting back up to snuff. Clearly, it was time to call it a day.

I have to admit that the three of us were poorly equipped on that recon scoop. Oh, we had backup lights, helmets and other gear outside the cave, but we had intended to enter the cave only for a quick look-see and did not plan to push very far. Under those conditions, we expected to have to do additional digging or pounding inside the cave (which we did), and planned on returning for full cave gear if the cave proved to go. What we had failed to consider was that none of us wanted to go back through the entrance squeeze any more than we had to, so we resigned ourselves to exploring “just a short ways” without proper kit. We bad!

Upon finally exiting the cave, Mike and Kitty were able to come back out without assists, but I needed Mike to help me by grabbing my arm and pulling me past a crux section. We planned afterward to return on Sunday October 31, and I plan to enlarge the entrance squeeze some more before going back into the cave. We also plan to take surveying equipment and start mapping the cave on Sunday.

Sunday, November 14, 2010
Kitty, Mike and I met at the parking lot at 2:30pm and walked to the dig. I walked my bike in case we needed to go back to the vehicles for anything, a capability we indeed needed in digs 2 and 3 but not on this 4th dig trip.

After I sketched the entrance sink, Kitty and Mike entered the cave and surveyed stations 0 to 2. I was unable to enter the cave due to my larger size or worse technique, or both. Maybe my attitude toward that horrible entrance squeeze also had a bearing. Whatever, I don’t intend to re-enter the cave until the entrance is enlarged in one particular place. We agreed that I would phone Sean and invite him to blast that one particular place. It’s either that or I pound away with the sledge for no telling how long, and if I can’t get in, I can’t work on the survey.

Abandoning the survey, Mike and Kitty spent the next 45 minutes walling out all the cave’s passages, turning up a disappointing total estimated length of 250 ft. The cave was exhaling air during the visit. Mike and Kitty followed the air but lost it in the 3rd room, which is formed at the junction of several joint-controlled passages. The Dunellon Duo believes there is slim possibility for significantly extending the known length of the cave, but if so, it would most likely be via side passages currently too tight for cavers.

Tuesday January 4, 2011
Sean and Becky Roberts, Bill Walker and I met at the K-Mart parking lot to drop off Sean and Becky’s car. We went to a nearby store and Sean got a damaged, free wood dowel to use as a packing rod. We then drove to the property and down the back dirt road to park close to the cave. It took Sean and me two trips, plus one trip by Bill and Becky, to carry all the stuff to the cave entrance.

The mission was to enlarge the crux restriction at the entrance through the use of gunpowder; specifically, to remove altogether or at least reduce the width of a long boulder on the lower left wall that we called the “pillow rock” due to its shape where it hindered passage. Sean uses a 120vAC drill with a long masonry bit, a 125 amp-hour car battery and an inverter to convert the battery’s 12vDC current to 120vAC. He uses a good quality bit, but it won’t penetrate chert and it is getting dull and bent.

Sean looked at the situation and was not encouraged. The pillow rock was inaccessible to him and his drill, so he had to blast rock from the left wall four times in order to access it. His fifth blast was to the pillow at its junction with bedrock (or a much larger boulder), and perfectly broke it off there, but it proved to be too large to easily move out of the way from above. Mike and Kitty had meanwhile arrived, having walked in from the parking lot. Mike slipped into the cave and began working on the pillow from below. He tried working it back and forth, but it was wedged in too tightly, so he put the rock hammer on the rock pointy end down while I pounded on the rock hammer’s head with my 5-lb sledge. After 15 minutes or so, we succeeded in breaking it free from the wall. Mike dug under it and horsed it around from below, while from above I pushed on it with my feet and dug dirt away from its side so it could slide away further from the wall. At one point Mike was corked in. This bothered Sean, but Mike was confident and not a bit claustrophobic. He then moved it over to the right wall, giving him (and me) enough room to pass.

Mike moved back into the cave and I slipped down beside the pillow to see if I could get it even more out of the way, as it still resulted in a constriction too small for our larger comrades. The pillow was long, half as wide and half again as thick, with a flat edge that I wanted to use to stand it up against the wall on edge. That would get it well out of everyone’s way. I hammered a ledge of rock off the right wall and scraped down the floor sediments a few inches to a flat plane and then set the rock exactly where it needed to go. At least, it needed to go right there for the time being; in the future, we might want to move it further down slope into the first room of the cave.

At that point, being finally able to easily slither in and out of the entrance, I was a very happy caver. Now, I can enter at will to survey or even push new passage. What a team! Since the cave is tight overall and Bill and Sean wanted to see the cave (for the first time), I elected to exit the cave and prepare to go home. I didn’t get to bed until midnight, but I slept happily and soundly.