This past Thanksgiving weekend I joined some caving and canyoneering friends in Death Valley to celebrate the holiday in the great outdoors as well as explore some of the park’s more inaccessible canyons. We did not camp in the park, since campfires are not allowed and the park has a size limit for groups. Instead, we camped on BLM land just outside the park, in what appeared to be an abandoned RV trailer park that canyoneerers call Slabby Acres.
First a primer. Regular readers will know that I have been doing cave exploration and mapping now for about thirty years. This recreational activity not only involves knowing how to use survey instruments in a cave, you need also to be trained in the vertical rope techniques required to reach some remote places underground, sometimes dropping multiple pits on the way in and climbing those same domes on the way out.
Canyoneering is somewhat similar to caving. Just like caving you need to know how to travel over boulders and rough terrain and also know how to rappel and climb ropes. Unlike caving the canyons are open to the sky, and you rarely climb the ropes to travel up the canyon. In canyoneering the goal is to find the head of the canyon and travel down its many drops to come out at the bottom safely, all the while getting to see some wild, majestic, and rarely seen places. In addition, modern canyoneering rarely involves virgin exploration. Most canyoneerers visit already explored canyons whose details are well documented so that they know what ropes to bring as well as how to find the canyons.
This was our goal this past weekend. Some of the western cavers who have joined my survey projects and learned how to cave survey are also active canyoneerers. While none of us had ever visited the canyons on our trip list, several were very experienced with finding and traversing places they had never been before. My plan was to follow them and enjoy the experience. Below are my pictures during one of this weekend’s canyoneering trips. The canyon is Scorpion Canyon. It was the first we visited and was relatively easy to do, only 4.6 miles long with only six rappels and only an 1,800 foot elevation drop. It would take us over one of the mountain ranges that form the eastern wall of Death Valley. In fact, this was how I was going to enter Death Valley for the first time. Rather than drive in, like most tourists, I would rappel in. » Read more
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.
Last week’s fly-by of Pluto by New Horizons illustrated forcefully once again the power of exploration on the human mind, and how that exploration always carries surprises that delight and invigorate us.
First of all, the images from that fly-by demonstrated clearly that the decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to declare Pluto a non-planet was very much premature. Even project scientist Alan Stern himself enthusiastically noted at the start of Friday press conference that Pluto-Charon was a “double planet system”.
The IAU definition itself was faulty and difficult to apply. The clause that required a planet to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” made little sense in the real universe, as even the Earth has not successfully cleared its orbit after several billion years. Was the IAU suggesting the Earth was not a planet?
New Horizons’s discovery last week that even a small object like Pluto, orbiting the Sun on its own with no gas giant nearby to provide tidal heating, can still exhibit significant and on-going geological activity, shows that our understanding of what defines a planet is at this time quite limited. We simply don’t know enough about planetary evolution and formation to definitively define the term. Nor do we have enough knowledge to determine if Pluto falls into that category, though the data strongly suggests that it does.
Are planets made up of only gas giants, rocky terrestrial planets like the Earth, and dwarf planets like Ceres and Pluto? Or are there numerous other as yet unknown categories? » Read more
The landing test described in the first story above will also be the first test flight of China’s new heavy lift rocket, Long March 5.
That China is both politically and culturally serious about this effort can be seen by the nationalistic enthusiasm for this space effort that permeates these stories. They also can’t help comparing their plans to U.S. efforts. » Read more
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.
Leijerstam used a modified version of the commercially-available Sprint trike, made by recumbent tricycle manufacturer Inspired Cycle Engineering (ICE). She chose to go with a recumbent trike because it would allow her to maintain stability in the often very-high winds. This allowed her to concentrate simply on moving forward, instead of having to waste time and effort keeping her balance. The strategy paid off, as she not only made it, but also beat two other cyclists who had set out for the Pole on two-wheelers, days before her Dec. 17th start date.
The globe, about the size of a grapefruit, is labeled in Latin and includes what were considered exotic territories such as Japan, Brazil and Arabia. North America is depicted as a group of scattered islands. The globe’s lone sentence, above the coast of Southeast Asia, is “Hic Sunt Dracones.”
Those words mean, of all things, “Here be dragons.” The globe is dated from 1504, only a dozen years after Columbus’s first voyage.
The one thing about the Grand Canyon that attracts hikers is its intimidating nature. People feel challenged by its large size and depth, and want to prove to themselves that they can do it.
The irony of this to me is that it is that intimidating nature that generally causes most people the most problems. People worry about the climb out. They worry about the heat. They worry about the lack of water. And they worry about vastness around them.
All of these things — the climb, the heat, the lack of water, and the vastness — must be dealt with. Each has caused the death of many visitors. Each could kill you if you are not prepared. In fact, one or all of these factors are probably the primary causes behind all of the approximately 300 rescues that occur each year at the Grand Canyon.
Yet, none of these factors is actually the biggest obstacle for most people trying to climb in and out of the Canyon. Instead, it is the worry about these things that causes people the most difficulties. » Read more
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 isthe world’s longest cave at 400 miles.
Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in Texas, outlining his reasoning behind his proposal that the United States send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade. The key phrase:
But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Video below the fold. The full text can be found here. (Interesting sidebar: When I posted Monday’s evening pause that quoted this speech I hadn’t realized the 50th anniversary of the speech was this week!)
This speech is worth watching, in full, if only to see the passion of both Kennedy and the audience for what he says. It also reveals a somewhat higher level of sophistication coming from a politician than one would see nowadays. Kennedy not only understood the deeper philosophical reasons for exploration, his thoughts were grounded in history as well as recent events, all of which he referenced repeatedly. » Read more
This image (cut out from a mosaic) shows the view from the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet (meters) of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet (meters) show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States.
Click through to the image itself. Like all mountains, what appears to be a featureless mountainside from a distance instead becomes a complex and rough terrain in close-up.
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. » Read more
We are right now driving between Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, and should be home late tonight. Thus, I should be able to resume blogging sometime tomorrow. I will also write up a description of my experiences this past week and post it tomorrow.
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. » Read more
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.
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!