Tag Archives: caving

Leaving Belize tomorrow

After a week of intense and amazing caving, I will be leaving Belize tomorrow. I will not get home until Saturday, however, as my flight ends in El Paso at about 11 pm. I will drive home on Saturday.

I intend to post several essays about my trip, one describing the caving and why it is happening, one describing the ruins and my impressions (with photos), and maybe a third with my overall thoughts about the experience. Since I have a lot of other work that needs to be done, some with deadlines, it might take a few days to pump all this out. Stay tuned.

Off to Belize

This Friday morning I am leaving for Belize for a week long cave expedition. I do not know if I will have the time or internet access to post as normal. Moreover, the days will be spent underground surveying and pushing new cave passages, so if I do any posting it will be in the evenings. In addition, some of us will also be heading to Guatemala for a day to visit the ruins at Tikal.

I have never been to Belize before. If I can’t post there I will definitely post my impressions of my travels upon my return.

Posted from El Paso, Texas.

Back from a weekend underground

Bob Zimmerman underground

The picture on the right will explain why I have been silent posting since Friday. I have just returned with five friends from three days of caving in New Mexico, doing some wild caving plus my first visit to Carlsbad Caverns since 1992, guided by a local caver who has been helping me with my cave survey project in Arizona.

New Mexico probably has the largest concentration of truly large and spectacularly decorated caves in the entire world. I’ve caved there previously, but this was my first trip driving from Arizona. We went to two wild caves, one of which I had never visited before and a second that I had seen during my 1992 trip. The picture shows me in the latter, standing above a large clear pool near the back of the cave with some giant flowstone speleothems all around me.

The new cave contained a room dubbed Speleogasm, because every formation there, of which there are too many to count, is completely festooned with helectites and sodastraws in a mad protrusion that no geologist can as yet explain. Nor is there any way to describe it adequately or photograph it successfully. To witness it you need to go, requiring the specialized caving skills that include the techniques and equipment required to rappel and climb a 40 foot rope.

As always, the advantages of learning how to do this successfully is the reward of seeing things that few ever see. It is why engineers and scientists strive so hard to get planetary probes to distant planets. And why humans want to travel to the planets. For me, getting inside a remote and beautifully decorated cave will just have to do.

New human species found?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists in South Africa think they have found fossils of a new human species.

In the end, the work of more than 60 researchers yielded a picture of “a relatively tall, skinny hominid with long legs, humanlike feet, with a core and shoulder that is primitive,” Berger says. Some body parts have come into sharper focus than others. In an analysis of the remarkably complete hands, paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom found that bones in the wrist were shaped like those in modern humans, suggesting that the palm at the base of the thumb was quite stiff. That would allow forces to dissipate over a larger area of the hand than in more primitive humans—a trait associated with tool use. At the same time, H. naledi had a weird thumb and long, curving fingers, as if it still spent a lot of time climbing.

The story of the discovery is interesting in that the fossils were found in a cave in a room that is very difficult to access, so difficult that the scientists themselves have never seen the site. Instead, they have sent very small cavers inside to do the fossil gathering.

There are many caveats to this story. The 15 skeletons appear different than humans, but to then create a whole human species from this single location is a bit risky.

I think the biggest mystery about this find involves its location. How the heck did these 15 individuals get trapped in this room at the back of a cave that requires you to squeeze down a vertical 100-foot chute only about 8 inches wide to enter?

Been underground

I just got back from a cave project weekend in the mountains of southeastern Arizona, which is why I have not posted this past weekend. The project involves surveying and mapping one of the more significant caves in Arizona, and has been on-going now for almost three years. We hope to finish sometime next year. I am the cartographer and project leader.

Posting to resume shortly. Stay tuned.

There is an ongoing rescue of a caver in one of Europe’s deepest cave.

Breaking: There is an ongoing rescue of a caver in one of Europe’s deepest cave.

A team is trying to rescue a 52-year-old man injured in a rock fall in a 1,000m-deep (3,280ft) cave in Germany, in an operation that could take days. The Riesending cave is Germany’s deepest and it took one of the man’s companions up to 12 hours to return to the surface to raise the alarm. Some 200 people are involved in the operation, near Berchtesgaden in southern Germany. The first rescuers reached the man in the vertical cave on Monday.

At a cave rescue course

Posting this weekend is light because I am attending a class here in Tucson on cave rescue. Today, Saturday, was a mostly in class session going over the basics, most of which I am very familiar with from many years of experience. We did spend ninety minutes learning how to carry people around in a sked or sled, two different types of equipment used to carry a patient through difficult cave passage. In this case the terrain was simulated by going up, over, under, and around scaffolding and vehicles inside a garage. Lots of fun.

On Sunday we will be doing a mock rescue, whereby we will arrive at a cave entrance where we will have to locate the patient in the cave and get that person out of the cave safely. Should be most interesting.

Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) in Vietnam

An evening pause: As I have been out today doing survey work for a cave project of which I am the cartographer, I thought this video of Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) would be appropriate.

Note that this cave is definitely not the largest in the world, as is often claimed. It appears to have the largest single room of any known cave, but the cave itself is relatively small at about four miles, compared for example to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is the world’s longest cave at 400 miles.

Mammoth Cave is now officially longer than 400 miles.

Mammoth Cave is now officially longer than 400 miles.

This official announcement is a bit old, as the survey work that brought Mammoth over 400 miles was probably done during the October or December 2012 expeditions.

Update: I contacted some of my caving friends who survey in Mammoth regularly, and they have confirmed that the survey reached 400 miles during the October 2012 expedition.

Cave exploration the astronaut way

How not to go cave exploring:

An international crew of six astronauts will start training for a caving adventure designed to prepare them for spaceflight. CAVES, an abbreviation of Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills, prepares astronauts to work safely and effectively and solve problems as a multicultural team while exploring uncharted areas using space procedures.

Or to put it more bluntly, overly complicated, bureaucratically organized, and not very efficient. For example:
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Cave exploration in the western mountains

scree slope
Anthony Smith struggling up a scree mountain slope.

I have only visited Nevada twice before, and those visits had been limited to the area around Las Vegas. Thus, my impression of the state had been similar to what most other people assume: a big ostentatious urban city surrounded by boring flat deserts.

Instead what I found is that Nevada is probably one of the most beautiful states in the nation. It has many mountain ranges, interspersed with wide flat valleys, a number of which have lakes or swampy areas because the water is trapped there, draining neither to the Pacific or Atlantic.

Yet, it is desert country. The limited amount of water means that the state is lightly populated, and the few farms or ranches that you pass actually act to amplify the feeling of emptiness. This is further enhanced by the frequent mountain ranges. Every time you cross over a range, you find yourself high in the air with a spectacular view of the vast valleys below.

The Forest Service job that I was part of this past week was focused on inventorying and surveying a number of known caves covering a large area in northeastern Nevada. The work had actually started several years earlier, so that this particular week was the final wrap up, mapping the last few known caves on the list while also ridge-walking several different canyons in an effort to find some new discoveries.
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Caving in Nevada

I finally have an hour free here in Nevada.

For the past three days we have been intensely hiking up mountains over a vast area of Nevada. The goal has been to locate and map caves for the Forest Service in some of the most remote areas of the state. So far we have focused on mapping known caves, putting the possible discoveries aside for later work.
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First day caving in Nevada

It is late and I have to up at 5 am to head to another cave tomorrow, so there is no time to give a detailed update of what happened today

However, here is a quick summary. Our goal was to find and map a rarely visited and difficult to find cave. After four miles of hiking and a lot of wandering across some pretty spectacular mountainsides, we failed to find the cave. However, we did locate two other small caves, which we surveyed, and then, on the way back to the vehicles, discovered a previously unknown cave of some size with significant formations. This was quite exciting, as the cave was clearly virgin, never seen by humans before.

We hope to return to explore and map it later in the week. Once again, I will get to go where no one has ever gone before!

Tomorrow will probably be as long a day as today, so I probably will not be able to post a more detailed report until Saturday. Stay tuned.

Off to Nevada

Nevada

For the next seven days my daytime posting is going to be spotty, as I will be in some remote areas of Nevada working on an on-going Forest Service project to inventory and survey caves in an area in the northeastern area of the state. The project is mostly over, but as I have surveyed, sketched, and done the cartography for many eastern U.S. caves, the guy running the project asked if I would be interested in participating. Interested? I was thrilled.

Though we will be in a somewhat remote area, I still hope to post periodically during the week, not only about the usual topics but also about some of the caves we will have surveyed, some of which are rarely visited. I will also try to post some pictures of the spectacular country we expect to visit. (The photo on the right was provided to me by Tom Gilleland, who is running the project.) Stay tuned.

Underground again today

glass plate

Posting will be light today, as I am joining University of Arizona PhD student Sarah Trube and several other Arizona cavers on a cave trip to collect water samples in a southern Arizona cave. This is in connection with research Sarah is doing to analyze the chemistry of cave dripwater and how it leads to the formation of cave speleothems. Moreover, she is tracking water flow and attempting to link it to climate and weather variations over time.

I noticed Sarah’s water collection equipment on my first Tucson-area cave trip back last January. In one case she had attached a tube to the bottom of a stalactite which fed the dripwater into a bottle. In another case she placed glass plates on top of stalagmites to allow the dripwater to drip onto the plate and then evaporate. Last month I joined her on one of her collection trips, where she gathered glass plates for later analysis in the lab. Though the plates had not been in cave more than a few months, you could easily see a thin layer of calcite deposit on their surface.

Below the fold is an image of Sarah gathering dripwater during an earlier trip.
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Underground exploring today

No posting today, as I am leaving home at 6:30 am with several cavers for a day trip to a cave in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona. The drive one way is about three and a half hours, so doing this as a day trip will likely break what I like to call Zimmerman’s law: “The cave time must exceed the drive time.”

However, when I first visited Tucson last winter and mentioned I might move here, the local cavers asked if I’d be interested in being the cartographer of this particular cave and help them get a project started to survey it. Three previous attempts to survey it were never completed, so no good map exists. And since I have recently completed two significant cave maps of two important West Virginia caves (see monographs 3 and 4 on this page) and am without a map project at the moment, how could I say no? Tomorrow’s trip is my first visit to the cave in preparation for getting the survey project off the ground in January.

Anyway, I will be back late, and will return to the computer on Saturday. For everyone, have a Merry Christmas weekend!

An international team of astronauts recently completed a six day underground cave mission

An international team of astronauts recently completed a six day underground cave mission in an effort to simulate some of the aspects of space exploration on another world.

I, along with my cave exploration friends, find this article somewhat humorous, as these astronauts weren’t doing anything that unusual from our perspective. Routinely we have teams going underground for three to five days to do exploration and survey work as part of the Germany Valley Karst Survey in West Virginia. The result has been more than fifty miles of virgin passage in the past eight years.

But, if these astronauts want to join us and do some exploration, they’d be welcome!

New cave discoveries in the western Caucasus of Russia

From an email sent out by Ukrainian caver Alexander Klimchouk, received today:

Pavel Rud’ko of Krasnoyarsk (Rissia, Siberia) has reported the success of the recent expedition of Krasnoyarsk cavers to the Sarma Cave, Arabika Massif, Western Caucasus. The cave, previously explored by cavers from Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk to -1570 m, has now been made almost 200 m deeper, to reach depth of -1760m and become the second deepest cave in the world.

The expedition led by Pavel Rud’ko has been carried out between September 1st – October 7th, 2011. The main branch has been pushed to -1760 m after breaking through a narrow meander at the old bottom. Many side and ascending passages in other parts of the cave have been also explored. The expedition performed systematic temperature measurements, and speleobiological and microbiological sampling.

With its new depth figure, Sarma surpassed the Illjuzia-Mezhonnogo-Snezhnaya system (-1753 m), located in the nearby Bzybsky Massif, and became the second deepest cave in the world, following Krubera Cave (-2191 m) located in the same massif. Thus, the western Caucasus now hosts three deepest caves in the worlds, two of them in Arabika Massif and one in Bzybsky Massif.

Some details of geology, hydrogeology and cave locations of Arabika can be found here. [pdf]

Caving in Druid Cave, Cheat Canyon, West Virginia

An evening pause: Caving in Druid Cave, Cheat Canyon, West Virginia. The caver is David Riggs. The videographer is caver Aaron Bird. The caver who arrives at the end with the ATV is caver Brian Masney. All are world class cavers, with whom I’ve had the honor of caving.

The video is nicely done, and gives an excellent and accurate feel for modern cave exploration and techniques. Watch especially how the rigging allows David to climb past the waterfall while on rope and hardly get wet.

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