|Cave Exploring 101|
by Stormy on April 27, 2007
So let's say you find a new cave. How do you tell other folks how to find their way around in it? Rand McNally doesn't come out to map
I was given an incredible opportunity to come to Cave of the Winds with a survey crew that would work after the cave had closed to public tours to map out a section of the cave that has been locked down for well over a decade. Mapping caves isn't all that unusual. Any time a new cave is found or a new extension of an existing cave is discovered, someone has to go in and map it. Mapping in commercial caves isn't all that unusual, either. If new passage has been discovered. This, though, was an unusual event. The mission was to map a section of Cave of the Winds that has never been open to public visitation and has been gated to prevent entry by anyone for well over a decade. A lot of people knew it was there, but no one has gone there in a very long time and as a consequence, a map of this stretch of cave passage has never been made.
Exploration itself is exciting. I understand that even the old timers didn't really know what was on the other side of the gate. Guesses ranged from walking passage to tight nasty crawls to incredible formations too fragile to be visited. Doesn't just going in there, knowing that there is no clear cut answer, sound exciting? I was excited!
We arrived at the cave after the last of the day's tourists had left and let ourselves in with the keys that had been given to us. We would be spending the night in the cave. Having set up our camp in Canopy Hall, we gathered our gear and made our way to the very back of the tour route. We would be surveying the mystery passage just off the Adventure Room. Finding the lead and the gate past it was fairly easy. The lead itself had been excavated and secured with a culvert decades ago. The problem was tying the survey in with the known cave. Just like mathematicians, we had to find our "known" to identify where on the already existing map we were. This was a little tricky as there are no big flashing signs that say "survey marker" in this cave, especially off the commercial route. The last thing anyone wants is to have tourists mess with the markers. Instead, the markers are small ink spots at the point where the survey was made. They are too small to be seen by someone just walking by. And that, of course, included us.
To find the old survey stations we had to use the existing map of the cave and track down the proper location to a nearby marker. We looked for three in the immediate area with absolutely no success. Then we got lucky on the fourth one and located a dot where it was expected, on a protruding knob in one of the passages. From here we used the existing survey data to track back one station. We had the inclination and compass heading and distance available and found the right spot in a flash. It was the tip of a very obvious stalactite and it was not inked for the obvious reason that no one wanted to mess with a formation.
From here we tried to locate an even closer station, but just weren't able to do it. The inclination and compass heading and distance were available, but the spot they pointed to was not an obvious survey station and there was no ink to confirm that we were in the right place. That was inconvenient, but we had a place to work from, so we added new survey points to make it to the start of the passage we were to survey.
Here came problem number two. The lock on the gate was old and rusted. We had the key, but it would not work. We also had a back-up plan -- a large pair of bolt cutters that tore the lock off like it was string. We were ready to go!
We surveyed down the passage past crumbling rock and areas of breakdown, under a low overhang and over a field of dried and cracked mud. We ended up in a small room with moderate decorations and a crack in the wall about seven inches wide and three feet high. Most of the surveying party were far too big to make it through. Two of the women on the team were just small enough to try it, but there was a lot of debris in the hole. They could continue the survey through there after cleaning up the debris. That took a long time and ultimately a lot of huffing and puffing. We got a lot of work done, but did not complete the survey.
In the middle of the night we all decided to let it rest until we could arrange for another trip into this area. It was all very exciting, but it was also very late and everyone was tired! Just what is it that we'll find past the little squeeze? There's a room visible at the other end of the pinch, which is five or six feet long. This exploration of the unknown will have to continue another day. I hope I'll get invited on that trip!