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Pushing On

February 17, 2014

by: Rand Heazlitt

Alrighty boys and girls this is a report about the February 8th trip back to survey a passage off the Dining Room we have been referring to as Tim’s birthday passage.

We met at the usual location Fredrick’s Cafe: Shane Miles, Tim Pride, Aaron Valandra, Gary Roberson and myself. Gary was just meeting for breakfast and the regular pre-trip speculating. Brad was to meet us at the entrance. I left breakfast a little early to go pick up a new tape from the store as I realized that mine had been left in Wilson Way.

I met the guys at the Historic Entrance and all were getting dressed when I arrived. Running behind, i was the last one heading into the cave as everyone else had already gone in to get out of the cold. I met Brad on the way down and he said he wasn’t feeling well and thought he shouldn’t go on the trip. Knowing we were looking at a 12 hour trip we both knew everybody needed to be all -in and feeling good. Agreeing to call when we got out I headed into the cave.

The entrance was ice covered and gorgeous but the water from the freezing rain had run down the entrance, creating an ice stream all the way to the river passage. There was evidence of recently fallen rock all around so the no touch the rocks mantra was on red alert. I joined up with the rest of the team at the stream where we decided to take Lamon’s Cutoff to get over to Fantastic Avenue. It is a much shorter route but has been considered to be a more strenuous passage to traverse. The air was was very strong and cold and the bats which usually hang near the entrance room had moved further back into the cave.

Entering Lamon’s Cutoff, we found it was filled with more water than usual perhaps the most we had ever encountered. We made good time thru the passage and were soon in the 140 passage it was at this time Tim began to have some pack problems- a Swago malfunction looked imminent. Tim was also carrying my a pack with the rope to rig the pit at the end of the survey. We continued on our route thru the Sewer Tube and up towards the Fatigue Way.

Aaron was treated to seeing a part of the cave he had never been in before. Despite it’s historically bad rap, this route has some very nice passage and formations. It is a beautiful part of the cave. Again at Jagger’s Trail, Tim experienced more pack issues but he was able to get them under control and we headed on toward our objective.

The rift in the ceiling prior to the turnoff for Fantastic Avenue was running very heavily and the waterfall was quite magnificent. We spent several moments there enjoying the display. From there we quickly made our way to the junction and headed over to the climb up in to Fantastic Avenue. It was at this time when Tim’s Swago had a catastrophic strap failure. We took a moment to collect ourselves and have a drink and a bite to eat. Shane being the great cousin he is allowed Aaron to double strap both packs on his back while Tim focused on just carrying the rope pack.

We carefully climbed into Fantastic Avenue, one of my favorite places! There are wonderful formations here including some amazing calcite blades. In the 1997 flood the water backed up into the passage covering many formations that had been white or multi-colored with a good coating of mud obscuring their lovely colors. Now it appears that this coating is washing away and a lot of this color is once again visible.

We continued on past the Two Mile Hike and Rock Island Road until near the Dining Room passage we entered into the passage where we would survey. The passage was typical Binkley’s slime belly crawl in water improving to some hand and knees. We passed several other leads on the right and left that still need to be surveyed two of which looked better then what we were in.

We reached what was believed to be the end of the survey and I took the rope pack forward to rig the pit up ahead while Shane, Time and Aaron surveyed up to it.

The pit was 300’ from the end of the survey and looked to be less than 20’deep. While not very deep I was none too happy with my rig points! I ultimately chose a small rock bridge that crossed the stream and backed it up off another wall protrusion. I felt secure enough to use this rig to check the pit out but did not like the idea of several people going up and down on it so I planned a solo drop with some recon.

I waited until the survey crew caught up with me and informed them about my thoughts on the rig for the pit. All agreed just one of us (me) would go this time. It was not difficult to convince them. They were already cold from surveying in the water and I was going to have to rappel into the waterfall and get soaked.

I began my descent which was quite easy and not nearly as wet as I had feared. Reaching the bottom I could see a nice hands and knees passage heading off the bottom of the pit and a second waterfall draining an entirely different stream at about the same level from which I had just descended. Additionally the water from both Waterfalls was going into a drain in the floor which had the potential to be enlarged. I set a point at the bottom of the pit we measured it at about 15’. The waterfall passage I had just rappelled from was trending about 350 degrees. The other waterfall passage was trending about 30 degrees and seemed slightly larger with a little more water the air was strong and seemed to be heading up into it. While I felt I could likely free climb up to the top of the waterfall I opted to wait until I had backup and and a better rig point on the other waterfall.

I now turned my attention to the hands and knees crawl heading off the base of the pit trending about 260 degrees. It was an easy crawl about 3-4’ wide and and 3.5’ tall. It was a solution passage with pooled water and several blind crayfish. I could see no evidence of anyone having been here before but the water could have easily obscured any previous trek. There was some fine organic debris in the pools that may have washed in from one or both of the waterfalls. After about 250’ the passage dropped about 5’ over flow stone into a 20-25’wide river passage likely the South Branch river.

A very noteworthy thing is right where the flowstone begins there is a fossil the size of a black walnut. It appears to be the same type as the one in the Subway Passage in Blowing Hole. It was beautiful a small piece; broken off revealing the inside. It was just like finding a shell on the beach. The interior detail was fantastic. I believe it is a ancient sea urchin, melonechinus.

Back to the river passage it was about 7’ tall where I was but you would have to duck under breakdown to go either up or downstream. It appeared that we had indeed likely found the passage that Aaron Atz had seen nearly 15 years ago.
There appeared to be plenty to explore and survey here too. Aaron would have come from downstream but it was apparent you could continue upstream too. Where would that go??

I quickly headed back to the pit and conferred with my companions. We decided to exit the cave leaving the rope and come back with a larger survey team and attack both the river and other waterfall. I easily climbed out of the pit using my ascender more as handholds then really loading the rope.

We quickly loaded up putting Tim’s broken pack in my rope bag and out we headed vowing to return soon.

(Fast forward )

We chose to again exit via Lamon’s. Cutoff and perhaps it is because of the difficult Miller entrance trips but this trip was really quite easy and MUCH shorter than going the long way out. We were treated to a good cold soaking in the cutoff so our clothes would freeze nicely as we climbed out.

We allowed plenty of room in between each of us as we exited to limit our exposure to the strong entrance air being sucked in from outside. As is usual hands were numb and clothes freezing by the time we reached our cars. We quickly changed called Gary and others. We convened the post trip debriefing and speculating at the Waffle House shortly before midnight. It had been a 12 hr trip as predicted a great one in fact with the promise of more virgin passage.

It was another great day under the Sinkhole Plain!!
Rand Heazlitt

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