After the larger grotto trip a week before, I ended up returning to Providence Cave with my father and brother. We visited everything we could find, and had plenty of time to try some different picture techniques. One technique we effectively used, and I keep in my arsenal of ideas, was leaving the shutter open with a long exposure on my camera while someone else’s camera takes several other pictures with their flash. Poor/lazy man’s way of creating a lot more light without carrying extra flash units. It does require your companions either have spare batteries, or are really tolerant of your experiments with getting a shot of large rooms…
This was a quick trip to show Austin some of what I had been up to lately with caving. I also used the trip to correct and add to some of the sketches I had done on previous mapping trips. We weren’t planning to sit still long, so minimal warm clothing this time around.
We zipped through the loop route, and in the big breakdown room we decided to figure out where some of the pine cones and sticks were coming from. We found a high crack in a corner and started jamming ourselves up it. Eventually it became too tight to get higher between the breakdown boulders, but on top of ledges we were finding considerable organic debris. After noting where the crack roughly started relative to the survey, we headed back to the warm surface.
Once on the surface, we did a surface survey to try and figure out where our crack was headed. After guess-timating the one shot that of course went directly over the entrance pit, we paced off a rough location. Underneath a massive rotting log we found surface chunks of flowstone, and a previously unnoticed fracture system that was being filled with debris from the rotting log and nearby live pines. It matched up with ten feet of our estimated surface location, so I went ahead and called the mystery of the wood and pine cones solved.
On our way back down, we enjoyed the beautiful alpine meadows, and even found ourselves another small sinkhole forming in a flat in the meadow. Given the dirt layer on top of it, it won’t be accessible anytime soon, but fascinating to know there are still new holes in the area that no one has been in yet.
This was my first trip with the majority of the Wasatch Grotto. It was a different experience than any camping trip I had previously experienced for various reasons. Food was a big difference. (Food has typically been a low point of my camping trips–I manage to sustain life, but it is rarely a priority.)
I came rolling into the camp area right near dark. I hadn’t left any too early to begin with, and rutted dirt roads with a car take a while. Luckily I was fairly familiar with the roads in the area after spending several years in college seeing how far I could go before I gave up and started hiking. I had just enough light to throw out my bedroom, and then went and socialized around the fire. This is where the food started. Mike Beard had a large pot of soup ready for anyone to eat. When I say large, I mean a 5 gallon pot. To this day I couldn’t tell you what was in that soup beyond some ramen-type noodles and a variety of other stuff. But it was good soup. I had to stop myself from drinking too much broth, in order to limit my middle of the night bathroom trips. (Always more exciting in the woods.)
The next morning we were up and moving at a reasonable time. My car wasn’t recommended to make the last part of the journey, so I hitched a ride up and back from camp. We drove out to the parking area with 5-10 vehicles, and everyone unloaded. As we started up over the nearby hill toward the cave, I couldn’t help but laugh at our motley crew of over a dozen people slowly lumbering up the trail. We eventually made it to the cave and everybody geared up.
Providence Cave is a rather unique cave here in Utah. It isn’t in regular limestone, and just has a very different feel to it. Reddish walled, and cobbles and rocks in the walls. Very little in the way of formations, but there is a bit of almost everything if you look hard enough. The first section involves a couple tight squeezes around awkward corners, which have been known to stop some of the barrel chested folks, as well as those who aren’t very flexible. After you get through the squeezes you work through a series of almost keyhole like passages, then find yourself in a meandering stream passage. At the bottom of the s-curves you suddenly pop out into a couple of seemingly massive rooms, with bedding planes creating almost a square roof above you. Eventually things just pinch out in a down-trending crawl, probably choked off by collapse debris and mud washing downstream through the cave.
We ended up getting most of the group all the way to the big rooms. That even included Damian, who had a little more carrying help from others than his grandparents were expecting when the journey started. After getting everyone thoroughly muddy, we all slowly made our way back to the surface. With a group that large, even when you divide up a bit it takes a long time to go anywhere.
Once on the surface again we warmed up during the hike through the August afternoon back to the cars. Mike had returned ahead of the rest of us, and had the meat and other hot dishes ready to go. This trip involved a potluck, which was several steps above what I normally have to eat when out roughing it. I ate until I couldn’t stand to take on anymore, and headed back down the mountain to visit relatives before I went back home.
With the main route of the cave laid out from top to bottom the prior trip, a couple of us decided to continue working on the map. Partially because we could use the practice, and partially because it was a really fun little cave. This time around we had a much smaller group, so we spent more time playing around taking pictures and crawling into the nooks and cranneys.
We focused on mapping long enough to complete the loop and tie things back in. Ended up with only about a foot and a half of error when we closed the loop, which I will call really good for people still figuring out how to do everything involved in mapping. (After this point the mapping data sat untouched for several years, until I finally dug it out and handed it off to Max Barker when he mentioned he was planning to do some mapping up there.) It gave me enough experience with the mapping process to determine that mapping is not one of my favorite parts of caving, but I can struggle through when necessary. And it gave me some funny little graphics and pictures once I plugged all the data into a computer program.
After we completed the loop, we played around a little, taking pictures of the formations and each other. Some of my favorite cave pictures were taken on this trip. Long exposures to backlight formations, quick shots with the flash, and silhouette shots of Ben and Sam in the entrance area. My first vertical cave was visited several times in rapid succession, and will stick out in my memories for years to come.
We were up bright and early, slowly dragging out of our tents. Many had been up talking around the fire late the night before. But a cave was awaiting us! A few stragglers showed up that had driven to camp early that morning, and patiently waited for us to finish finding some sort of breakfast and get a packs loaded.
We had a relatively large group for a caving trip. 10-20 people, my memory fails me updating things years after the fact. This meant progress up the trail and then cross country was slower than usual, but there were plenty of people to talk with and we weren’t in any particular rush. We grabbed our stashed ropes and gear from the prior day enroute, and were soon standing above the large entrance pit. It still held a large snowpile in late August. Folks who had been in the cave a few months earlier mentioned puddles and small running streams, so I opted to leave my digital camera on the surface for my first grotto sponsored caving trip.
Realistically I had enough to do trying to keep track of not hurting myself or someone else. Originally there had been several interested participants that weren’t familiar vertical techniques. It ended up that I was the only person on the trip who didn’t have his own vertical equipment, and plans had changed a little. (I had assured Brandon I was fine with hiking along and reading a book topside if it came to that.) Someone asked if I thought it would be any problem to rappel in if they loaned me their harness and I sent it back up to them. I had rappeled before, but not much. This was luckily a short 30′ drop, so I confirmed the rappel didn’t concern me at all. I mentioned that I wasn’t familiar with ascending, and getting out of the cave might be my issue. They grinned and told me that if I had done any rock climbing and rappeling, they could certainly teach me ascending on the way back out. Talk about having a thought weighing on you while trying to have fun!
The rappel was simple enough, and I was on the group that was headed to the bottom of the cave and surveying bottom up. The other group was coming top down, and we would see where we met up. It was definitely a cold alpine cave, and worth moving around a little to keep warm. We were an easy ten minutes from the surface in this case, but I learned that some of the deeper alpine caves definitely would require an upgrade in warm clothing.
Mapping a cave is a slow tedious process. Not particularly hard to get the survey data, as long as you don’t mind standing on your head trying to read a compass in the dark. The truly difficult part is trying to sketch a three dimensional cave onto a two dimensional paper. Plan and profile views help, but when you start stacking two or three layers of passage on top of each other from any angle it becomes more of an art form than a science. There have been some dramatic improvements in mapping with recent advances in rangefinders and other things, but many situations are still simply easiest to use a measuring tape and compass, plotting on graph paper and sketching as you go. As you can imagine, this does not proceed very quickly most of the time. Survey progress is often measured in number of “shots” taken, and average length measured. In a wide open passage that could be thousands of feet. In a tight and twisty passage, that may be measured in tens to hundreds of feet per day.
Once we matched up the surveys through the most direct route to the bottom of the cave, it was decided that was enough survey for the day. We quickly visited the remainder of the easily accessible cave and found that the bottom half could be looped in a circle. We admired the few formations in the cave, and then headed back to the surface.
At this point you will recall I had an adventure of my own awaiting. We found someone reasonably close to my height, and they set me up to use their “frog” style ascending system. This is one of the more commonly used styles of system, particularly if you are going to be against walls or encountering obstacles. It’s drawback is it does not have an intuitive learning curve. You have to use a sit-stand motion that not only feels funny to do at first, it also looks hilarious to the outside observer. If you have all your connection lengths correct it is fairly efficient. If they are incorrect, such as when you are borrowing someone else’s setup and don’t adjust anything, it is a monumental battle all the way up. Luckily I only had to struggle up 30 feet, with only one person anxiously waiting for their gear back shivering on the large snow cone in the pit.
We had several hours until dark still, so we took a meandering path back to the campsite looking at nearby cave entrances and enjoying the beatiful scenery. I couldn’t help but realize how many times I had cut cross country between the various hiking trails in the area, and never seen a cave. There were meadows I know I had crossed years before that had massive pits hidden just behind the screen of trees on one edge. What you see can be greatly influenced by what you are familiar with, and what you are looking for. Luckily I never fell into any of these holes while stumbling around in semi-darkness and racing back to camp/vehicles, as is common on my hiking trips.
This was my first trip with the Grotto’s. Brandon Kowallis was running a training trip to teach people the basics of cave survey, and was willing to let anyone interested come along. I quickly found someone at the grotto meeting willing to let me borrow a helmet, and arranged a meeting place with Brandon for Friday.
At the time I was essentially unemployed, so I was available to meet up earlier in the day on Friday to help deposit gear for the Saturday trip. I found Brandon and Sam in the designated parking lot, we grabbed some Subway sandwiches and piled into one truck.
We reached our campsite, grabbed our gear, and headed further up the mountains. Brandon quickly proved he was in better shape than Sam and I, carrying on a conversation while we were busy gasping for air. Eventually the hillside levels out a bit, and we were able to at least admire the scenery.
First stop was one of Brandon’s ongoing survey projects. I hadn’t had the vertical experience to feel comfortable dropping a couple hundred foot pit yet, and didn’t have my own vertical gear anyway. Brandon handed me a map with a few nearby pits plotted on it, and said they would be back in 30 minutes or so. Sam and Brandon rigged the pit, and dropped down into the void. I hadn’t mentally made the connection of how deep the little crack we were looking at could really be until I saw Sam’s light fade away completely.
Having family in the populated valley below these mountains, I had spent considerable time years before hiking these mountains and meadows. I had heard rumors of caves at the time, but never really seen any except one prominently gated along a highway. I took Brandon’s map, and set out to see what these little dots looked like. Several were within a half mile or so, and looked like good targets to check and still be back when my guides resurfaced. I couldn’t find the first one, chalked it up to inaccurate plotting, and headed off to the second. It was a black fracture heading into the earth. Remembering Sam’s voice fading away, and light dissappearing, I was impressed that there could be more than one of these pits so close.
I found the third point, appeared to be a choked out hole similar to the others. At this point I decided I better head back. I was just straight line following my GPS for simplicity at this point. As I crossed back near the first point I couldn’t find, I discovered a hole near the base of a boulder and next to a tree. I had missed the hole the first time simply by being on the wrong side of a car sized boulder. It was a pitch black hole, and a small rock bounced out of earshot. Amazed at how deep such a small hole could be, I headed back to meet Brandon and Sam.
The emerged and pulled their rope back up. I confirmed I had found a few holes, and we talked as we headed over and stashed the rope near the next days adventures. We ran back downhill to camp much faster than we had come up. As people arrived we spent the evening getting instructions on how to use survey instruments and practicing our survey skills by “mapping” a course through the campsite. Talk around the campfire followed, I met several people that would become familiar friends in years to come, and we crashed into our sleeping bags.