This is a write up of Stephen’s first wild cave trip. I was impressed that he had taken the time to write the experience out so thoroughly, and asked him if I could share it with others. It was originally written for another audience, but other than some minor edits in location names and terminology I have tried to leave it as originally written.
Exploring Utah Deep and Dark
By Stephen Burton
To start off, I am not the best at telling stories and the photos are not the greatest. They are taken with old point and shoot cameras that have been beat up from rough conditions, and have seen their fair share of dirt. Hopefully I can get my excitement across and share the adventure with everyone sitting in front of the computer wishing you were somewhere else.
I believe that the memories that we have in life are of the things that are different from our mundane days that we remember. When your child does something new for the first time, the first time you see the ocean, or your first loud concert that your parents did not approve of. Any chance that I can make another memory to stick in my book of life I try to capitalize on the opportunity. Most of the time, I can get my wife to join me or she approves the activity without much effort on my part, but this trip took a little convincing and was way past her comfort level.
A coworker of mine is part of a group that volunteers and occasionally gets paid contracts with the Forest Service in searching out caves in certain parts of Utah. He explores them, maps them and checks on areas that they are concerned about. He came to me on Thursday and asked if I would be interested in joining him on searching a cave that he has spent the last couple of years exploring, and thought we could make a good day trip out of it. After begging my wife she finally agreed and four of us headed out on the long drive from Salt Lake City to Vernal at 7:00am. Other than my co-worker and I, none of us had ever spent any time together before, so we had a good 3 1/2 hour drive to get to know each other and plan out how the trip would go.
After stopping for breakfast (and a free old-folks concert at the local Burger King) in Vernal, we arrived at the parking area for the cave. We changed into our warmer clothes, and started our half mile hike in the snow to the cave entrance.
The water entering the cave is too high and rough to enter into it during the summer months; so the winter, while it is frozen, is the only time you can get access to it. In 2005 this cave entrance actually flooded and overflowed over entrance sink and actually washed open another cave about 50 yards downstream. I am still amazed at the amount of water that has moved through this cave and the things that it has brought with it.
There is a huge log jam inside the entrance at the bottom left and this is where you begin to make your body into a pretzel trying to push your way through. The original path we were going to take was sealed up with sand, rocks, and logs; so we had to change our plans and head for a different part of the cave. About 10 min into our hands and knees crawl the cave opened up to the window room where we could walk again.
About three or four minutes later we got to the commitment point where it seems the local High School parties stop and the real caving begins. We did not know how long we were going to be in the Cave and were not too excited to get wet yet, so off came the shoes for the first cold water crossing.
After using a spare pair of socks in my bag to dry my feet and legs, we were off to the next sections of the cave where we again came to a larger water crossing, with the ledge a few feet off the ground. One of the cavers in our group had rubber boots and was able to stand a little bit in the water to offer the rest of us support. We used some of the logs around us to make a crossing by holding onto the wall, to keep as much weight as possible off the water soaked logs.
After the water, we were back to the hands and knees crawling, and all I can say is knee pads were the best thing that I packed for this trip (besides the helmet that got a lot of use). We crawled, dug, and wiggled our way through some spots to go further into the cave about an hour and a half. We got to a spot that the cavers wanted to know if it was open again or still blocked. After all the effort, it was still blocked. We tried to dig through but it was just too tight for us.
What I could not get over in my mind was the size of some of the logs, railroad ties and tires that have been washed into and forced into the cave. The force of the water had to be amazing to get them through some of the spots that they were in that I had a hard time getting through
There was another tunnel that branched off that went to a Canyon room that we talked about, as well as back the way we came there was a log jam with a small tunnel that we wanted to explore. We started to head back and one of our cavers, Andy, was in the lead and I was right on his heels. I waited just a minute to give him some space in the crawl, and after the next two corners we got to a junction and he was gone. We had not made a final decision on what way to go and did not want him to get left behind. The three of us took turns yelling down the two tunnels trying to figure out what way he went and tried to look at the ground to see if we could track the way he went; but the rocks are too numerous and you could not tell if anyone has touched them or not.
We decided to leave one caver at the junction in case we went back and Neil and I went deeper into the cave towards the Canyon room to see if we could find Andy. The sound and light does not travel in this cave, and Neil could just get around the corner from me and could not hear me if I yelled. If I turned off my light there was no trace of any light in the cave. In one spot I stopped to rest for about five minutes with my light off. My eyes never adjusted, and I could not see my fingers in front of my face. I can only imagine the tricks that your mind would play on you if you were down there for a long time with the darkness and the silence. Neil and I finally came to the conclusion that Andy had not come this way and we headed back to meet up with Jason at the junction; Andy had not returned there either. About 50 feet up the cave, around a corner, we found him eating his lunch waiting for us. Another learning experience on how three people yelling could not be heard, due to the way the walls and the darkness swallow up the sound.
We headed to the Glowing Stream. Our guide, Jason, has never been through this part of the cave, and it was a spot that several people wanted to know that the conditions were like. So we made our way back to the log jam to see what was there. If you did not know this tunnel was here you would have a very hard time finding it. It is amazing the difference a rough map makes, and also amazing the amount of time people spent down there to survey and map the cave out. Right now there is almost 6 miles of cave mapped at a depth of almost 700 feet, and there is still more not explored. This is currently the longest documented cave in Utah. When we got through the log jam we were greeted with the option of getting wet and seeing more of the cave that none of us in our party has seen, or we could turn back. We decided you are not a real caver unless you are willing to get wet, so wet we got.
There were a couple of pools through the Glowing Stream that were thigh high. Also some tight spots you had to climb over the same log twice that crossed into a hole. We came to a hole that dropped off about 6′-7′ and we had to help each other down into the room that opened up large enough to fit my house in it.
We took a rest in this room where we let the steam come off our wet clothes and inspected some of the collapsed passages. We then decided to continue into the Bone Passage, from here that was a lot of belly crawling and hands and knees crawling. This was the point I was about ready to give up and head back. My wrists were killing me and we had a long way to go. I decided within myself as the only non-caver in the group, I did not want to be the guy who slowed others down. I mustered up some more energy and kept going, and I was glad that I did.
The next passage was called Humming Passage, and it was just like a slot canyon with a roof about 6′-7′ high. The twists and curves in the passage were awesome; and at the end it came down to a hole that was stuffed with a 33″ tire, from probably the late 70’s. You used the tire to hold onto and pull yourself past it, and head into the larger room. According to some other cavers, in years past the tire used to be in the Glowing Stream area and years later it has now made its way down here. Again I am amazed at the force of water, the things that it can move, and where it can move them.
We finally made it down to the Cascade Room, which was at least 4-5 stories tall and about 100′ wide. We stopped here to rest for about 15 minutes with the lights off, and found a nice spot to enjoy the darkness and sounds of the water dripping in this part of the cave. We were at our abort time of 4:00pm, and needed to head out of the cave to be able to get to the car with some daylight left.
We started our long journey back with more crawling. We worked our way back out of the passage, the belly crawls, helped each other up the 7′ ledge into the hole, into the Glowing Stream again, and back up to the original pools that we tried to stay dry through earlier in the day. This time we were already wet, so we just waded through the pools of water and made our way back out of the cave. As we came out of the cave we noticed that some of us had rocks frozen to us. We looked at some of the ice formations at the entrance before we started our hike back up to the road; to walk back down to the car to change into dry clothes and soak in the warmth of the heater.
We spent a total of 7 hours in the cave. 11:00am to 6:00pm. It was an adventure that I would never do by myself, and I stepped outside of my own comfort zone and experienced something that I have never done before. I got to see things that a lot of other people have not been able to see. I have been on tours of caves that you can pay to walk through, but this was a whole new ball game for me. I know that my words do not share the excitement that I felt; but looking at our map, after 7 hours we did not even cover half of the cave. It would require spending the night in the cave to see what else has been found, and who knows what else has never been seen by the human eye. I think I might have gotten cave fever because every night since, my dreams have been filled with crawling through caves. Imagining what might be seen around the next corner, and what the water might open up by the next time. I think I’ll convince my wife to let me go back in and see how much deeper and darker we can go.