Tag Archives: Desert Cave

Out in the dry, dusty deserts. Often warmer caves in the area, but can be dusty unless they go deep into the bedrock.

2013 Great Basin Ridgewalking

Carrying on with my 2013 efforts of checking off old leads, Jeremiah and I headed west for a day. This was primarily a recon trip to figure out access points for future searches. With a 6 AM start out of town, we had more than a half day to drive some roads and do a bit of hiking.

We started in a flurry, with several openings in the first hour of walking. The big obvious holes of course had been seen by others. But Jeremiah came across a couple smaller holes in close proximity to each other that appear to be new. They would be digs, and require removing a very old Juniper tree, so we’ll likely leave that for a future generation.

We were both surprised how much ground we had covered in the first few hours, and had to decide what to do with the rest of our day. From our stopping point on a ridge, it was apparent there was one big high point west of us that was near the cliffs on the west side of the mountain range. We decided that we would have to check that high point someday, and we could get an overview of the in-between areas if we took a shot at it today.

90 minutes later we were on top of the world catching our breath. We had a better feel for how far we could go in a day from various access roads, and the areas that should be looked at carefully. Along the way we found several spots that had promising deposits in the limestone, but very few new holes. We do have a couple distant suspicious points to get back to on future trips, and managed to still get home before midnight.

2011 Snow Canyon Lava Tube

This was a somewhat spur of the moment trip. We had spent the weekend with my grandparents at their rental property in St George. My wife was unimpressed with the fact that our midwinter trip to “the warm southern part of the state” coincided with rain and snow clear down to St George itself. But overall we had a good time and found some fun activities. On our last morning down there we made the last minute decision that instead of stopping at Zion on our way home we would swing through Snow Canyon. Steph had already seen part of Zion once before, and we are planning more extensive trips in the future. So the 3-4 hours we had free seemed better spent at a new and smaller destination.

We loaded our stuff, including Jeremiah as a hitchhiker who realized our vehicle would pass his home long before my parents vehicle would arrive. (They were headed into Zion, and planning to be there most of the day.) Jeremiah humored us, since he had been through most of Snow Canyon a few weeks earlier. We ran up a few of the short trails, and enoyed the views of snow on the surrounding mountains. It was warm enough that a t-shirt wasn’t quite comfortable, but a sweatshirt was a bit too much if you were moving.

We decided to take Steph out along one of the trails that ran across the petrified sand dunes, and over part of the lava flows. Primarily because these were both things that Steph hadn’t really seen or been around before, and with a vague idea that we might poke around and see if we could find some lava tubes. I knew there were a couple tubes out there, but hadn’t found out much about them before the trip because we weren’t sure if we would have time to see Snow Canyon that weekend.

As we wandered around taking pictures, Jeremiah and I tried to explain what a lava tube looked like for Steph. She decided she understood the concept, but having never been on a lava flow she wasn’t certain what she was looking for yet. That uncertainty became hilarious over the next couple hours, as Steph would be walking ahead of us and yelling back, “I think I found something. Is this what you are looking for?”

She proceeded to be the first one to find every lava tube we discovered that day. Jeremiah and I would climb inside and look around, and Steph would walk ahead and find the next one. Ideal teamwork in this case.

We found several different tubes, basically right along the trail. Obviously many people had been here before us, and heavily influenced the route the trail took across the lava flow. Jeremiah and I felt under-prepared as we climbed into the dark areas with only our headlamps. No helmets or gloves on this particular trip. But adventure is where you find it, so we just took our time and didn’t stand up fast without looking at where our head would be going.

We felt less guilty about our single light source each, and lack of protective equipment, as we met some of the other people who had found the tubes. One large group had come to the park that day specifically to visit the lava tubes they had found on an earlier trip. This time they had come better prepared, by making certain they had at least one light for every two people. As we stayed out of their way in a wider area while they came out of the deepest part of the tube, we found ourselves having to light the path to the entrance for a couple people. And most of the group that actually had lights were holding them in their teeth while they climbed up a short section that was nearly vertical. I heard at least one kid slip and fall a few feet while still out of sight below us. (The short bout of crying was a giveaway that it wasn’t intentional.) I mentioned to Jeremiah that we may end up involved in his first cave rescue if we were unlucky.  Fortunately, it seemed to be more of a surprise at falling rather than any actual damage, and everyone in their group was headed back to the entrance under their own power when Jeremiah and I zipped down to see the end of the accessible tube.

It was a neat little find for our day overall. As is unfortunately too common in well known caves, there was quite a bit of trash and human evidence everywhere. But there was also some of the brightest colored oxidization of the lava that I have seen in a while, and the tubes were also easy to find and get inside in this case. The above picture is the “hard” route out, just to see if we could do it. There is a better route to drop in through the boulder pile 20-30 feet away from the obvious large entrance.

Steph had become bored on the surface waiting for us, and wandered around a bit. We talked a bit with the group we had encountered while we waited for her return. She showed us her new discoveries, and we headed on our way. We still had some quick stops we wanted to make before we hit the freeway, and headed back north into the cold again.

2006 Tripod lessons with Schurtz

Somehow I talked my way into what was basically a Shurtz family trip for this event. It was the first time in quite a while that I felt like the slow person who was out of shape and slowing everyone else down. But it was an absolute blast!

We started out with an assignment to deal with some parts missing from the gate. There is a metal bar to keep people from having to negotiate the 90 degree corner while travelling both directions. It was rumored to be at the bottom of the shaft, so Dave arrived with materials to make do.

Dave showed us the basics of making a tripod in a few minutes. We added a few extra safety features, and tested it out. Partial slow motion failure ensued. We had a good laugh, and added a couple nails to keep the ropes from being able to slide along the smooth 2×4’s. If we would have started with anything with a rough surface the initial design would have been golden.

Everybody double checked gear, and made last surface stops. Around this time we found the “missing” bar stashed in some trees and bushes 100′ away. Since the tripod was already set up and ready to go, we went ahead and left the bar to deal with on our return.

We dropped down to cave level, and decided we would skip anything requiring further vertical gear for that day. We left some gear behind and began to travel pretty light, with basic necessities like water.  A couple of them had spent considerable time in the cave over the years, so Dave took some time to point out some of the important features and junctions for those who hadn’t. There were a couple potential leads a couple of them wanted to check out, and Dave trailed along and humored my picture taking while pointing out the places to be extra careful. There are parts of this cave where you do your best to reuse the same footprints and handholds everyone before you have used, to avoid additional damage.

We eventually looped back to a part of the cave I was familiar with, coming up into it from below! I was starting to understand why there were requirements that you have been on several trips to the cave before you should be considered qualified to lead trips. It is rare that I have no idea how parts of a cave interconnect, but this was one of those times. It didn’t help my cause that everyone I was following either had levitation abilities, or a shorter genetic link to spider monkeys.

Our return to the surface was relatively uneventful. Once up top we took the tripod apart, and attached the bar back to the chains below the gate so it wouldn’t disappear again. I had a great time on the trip, and got a taste of what it is like to be the slow person holding the group up. That was a very different experience for me, since years of hiking had trained me to take lots of pictures to slow me down for others with shorter legs.

2006 Whipping into a caving frenzy

This cave is well into Nevada, and requires some planning if being visited from Utah. But the extra effort of thinking through your nights is well worth it. An interesting desert cave, with some reflecting pools and a massive formation deep inside.

The cave begins with a rappel through a double opening pit. In this case we discovered some buzzard chicks still in the nest on one side. Neat to see, but a little ominous to think about this being the “ideal” nest location above where we were headed. We rappelled into the cave anyway, and proceeded to enjoy ourselves immensely.

After traveling through some massive breakdown boulders we found ourselves among formations. In some areas you have to be careful where you put your head to avoid them. In others there are neat little pools of water and some rimstone dams that create little reflecting pools. And one of the real reasons people know this cave is the massive column deep inside. It is at least 30′ high, but subject to wild exagerations of up to 80′ in many places. It is a little like going from a regular forest and then to the Redwood and Sequoia forests, your brain can’t quite wrap itself around the change in scale.

After seeing the cave, we had some daylight left. We took a detour past a warm spring near Sunnyside to clean up a bit. Warm water, and a beautiful setting in the midst of endless desert. We also discovered what happens to a metal table at a rest stop when someone backs into it, and a disturbing lack of checking the spelling on a roadsign in the western Utah desert highways.

2006 Candle lit Formations Galore

This was my first visit to this cave. It requires a 90′ free hang rappel, then you have to get into a side passage before you get off rope to avoid going another 100′ straight down. Not a good place to be learning basics of rappelling, and best to visit after you have had some considerable practice first.

The cave itself is billed as Utah’s piece of Lechuguilla Cave. It is formed bottom up, and full of fascinating formations and unique features that aren’t normally found in other Utah Caves.  There are thick deposits in some places, and in others the formations are so thick and delicate you are scared to breathe hard. In order to protect the cave there are some established routes to follow, and it is best to go with someone who has visited the cave several times to avoid getting turned around in some of the labyrinth sections. And they are able to point out some of the fun items to see like the bubblegum pink popcorn and candycane striped passageways.

We had a good time this trip, right up until we were back on the surface and discovered one of the vehicles had taken some more serious damage than initially thought on the way to the cave. Some temporary repairs were made, and we rushed back to civilization.

2006 Old Man’s Cave with Wasatch Grotto

Old Man’s Cave is an interesting place to visit near Great Basin National Park. The cave is a maternity colony for bats in the summer. So you can only get in during the winter months. And the logistic’s are a little tough, since you have to get the key from Ely, which is a long way out of the way from the Utah side. Pre-planning and coordination are usually key elements.

This trip someone else had done all the hard work for me to get the key and permission to visit. Steph and I made a weekend out of it, staying at the exclusive Border Inn. (At the time there was not working TV or cell phone reception, that is how remote this part of the world it.) Steph opted to hang out in the room and get some things while I went caving on day 1, the next day we went through Lehman’s Cave for Steph’s first visit to Great Basin National Park.

Our first challenge for the trip to Old Man’s was getting the gate open. After fiddling for a while, Jim and Paul looked up to find one of the kids offering to help from the inside. It turns out the bat friendly gate stops an adult, but if your head is small enough you go right through. Good laugh for everybody, particularly when the gate was opened shortly afterward.

The main part of the cave is big walking passageway, with interesting domes and other solution features. A couple of us pushed almost every corner we could, while the main family friendly group headed up the main passage. We wandered all the way to the back in no particular hurry, and took plenty of pictures along the way. There are some neat big formations in the cave, but most of the little items have been damaged in some way over the years. Makes a great beginner cave in the winter, and I don’t have any problem giving it up to the bats in the summer.

Lehman’s Cave is a must see if you are in the area. Filled with formations, it is fascinating even if only from the allowed tourist trails. One of the unique things about it is the large number of shields throughout the cave.

I have the picture of Larry as the feature picture on this post. Mostly because it is one of my favorite pictures I have of a Utah Caver still using carbide. It had absolutely nothing to do with Larry’s age, he didn’t become an old man until a few years later than this… :-)

2006 Lava Tubes

This was the second part of jam packed day of caving. Earlier we had gone and seen Stanley’s Cave. Then we kept trucking down the road. It was an amazingly warm day in January, and we weren’t going to waste it.

Tabernacle Hill Lava Tubes are another reasonable beginner cave area. A high clearance vehicle or willingness to hike a bit is a must if you don’t want to bash up your car crossing the lava flow. The largest flow is easy walking through tunnels with occasional skylight holes broken through. There is one side tube that gets to total darkness, but much of the tube is simply in deep shadow. Again, being well known and relatively easy to access leads to a large amount of visitation, junk, and garbage. People occasionally camp inside the tube itself. I’m not sure why, it acts like a wind tunnel and blows absolutely nasty sharp volcanic dust everywhere. I wanted a shower after simply walking through it, can’t imagine how dirty you would be if you spent a night in there.

The thing you have to remember about lava tubes is that they are black. Not just dark, like any cave. But absolutely light sucking black. Every time I visit a lava tube I feel like my headlamp batteries need to be replaced, even if they are brand new. It is important to keep this in mind as you are traveling through the tube–you simply can’t see quite as well as you are used to. And it is hard to tell a rock from a hole if you aren’t paying close attention. I recommend stopping to look around, rather than trying to walk and look around at the same time.

We walked through the main tube from beginning to end with everyone along on the trip. Afterward we rattled our way across the flow to some of the other known tubes and checked them out quickly as well. Getting off the flow and onto the “smooth” desert plain was a welcome relief for everyone.

The information I have heard is that this flow was covered by Lake Bonneville, and it has accumulated a lot of “soil” over the surface of the flow because of this. Nearby younger flows are essentially bare rock, and difficult to walk on.(Impossible to drive on.) We spent the last of our daylight running around one of those younger flows in our t-shirts simply looking for additional tubes in the 60+ degree weather. We watched the full moon come up as we talked around our vehicles back on the paved road. Jeremiah absolutely crashed into sleep on the way back home in the dark, and I have to admit I was very glad I wasn’t the one driving the vehicle I was riding in.

2006 Stanley’s

This was the first half of an absolutely jam-packed day of caving. We had a large group and multiple vehicles. I believe it was also the first time I took Jeremiah on a big group trip.

The day started with my first visit to Stanley’s Cave. This is a popular beginner friendly cave because it doesn’t require technical equipment like ropes. It does have on tricky little downclimb that is a bit tough for short people or kids. We had an adult top and bottom since we were dealing with a few kids on this particular trip.

You will notice the cave also has a large amount of graffiti. This is one of the problems that comes up with caves that are known, and don’t have a multiple mile hike to reach them. People bring whatever they can find to enlighten future generations with their name and current crush. I’m a little torn about graffiti. When it is new, it is trashy and an eyesore. But when it starts to get older it suddenly becomes “historic.” Somewhat of a double standard in my mind.

2005 Rocky Mountain Regional

Three monster days of caving. And I’m going to cram them all into this one post because it was all one big fascinating blur for me. Prepare to be overwhelmed–and your page to load slowly. Three caves means three slideshows all in one post!

This was the biggest caving event I had ever attended. It was one of the biggest caving events in Utah for several years before and after. Cavers from all over came and camped out west of Utah Lake for the Labor Day weekend. I was able to meet quite a few new people, and see some awesome caves for the first time.

Day 1

My first trip for the weekend was eventful before we ever got to the cave. We were headed west from our campsite, and were informed there was a shortcut road we could take to save driving a long loop around the paved road. So we headed on up the suggested route. It turned out to be a fiasco. Rodney’s lifted pickup was shoving through piles of tumbleweeds that were stacked deep enough to come up on his hood occasionally. The vehicle behind us was able to proceed only because Rodney was bulldozing a path. Eventually we made it through our “shortcut” and onto more travelled roads. (To this day I still don’t know if we took a wrong turn, or if our suggested route hadn’t been used for a decade.)

After a couple hour drive we made it out to the cave area. We unloaded from our vehicles, picked up our shovels and headed up the canyon. Yes, you read that correctly. Shovels. For various reasons, not the least of which is safety for the unprepared, the entrance is buried. So we walked up the canyon looking for our place to dig. Unfortunately we only had one person in the group who had been there before, and the entrance dig was missed due to a bad GPS location that another person had been given. So we spent at least an hour wandering the hillsides determining where we should be. Eventually we figured it out, and dug the entrance open. After figuring out a way to tie off a safety handline for a long slope inside the entrance, we headed off for adventure.

It was a neat little cave, with several interconnected passages inside. Some rooms were highly decorated and covered with flowstone or soda straws, and others were totally bare bedrock. Eventually I need to go back, with a better understanding of what I am looking at, and figure some of it out.

Day 2 — Mossy treasures

Since I was relatively new to vertical caving, I was a bit limited which caves I was able to go see. There were a few that I had heard were amazing, but I wasn’t qualified to make a 90′ rappel and then get off rope partway down a hole yet. So I took some recommendations on another cave or two that weren’t quite so intense to get into.

I was pleasantly surprised by my first visit to Spanish Moss. It wasn’t one of the caves that everyone was fighting to sign up for, but turned out to be perfect for my needs. Brutal uphill hike to reach the entrance, reminding me that most interesting places require some effort to see. Enough of a rappel for me to get some more practice in, but not pushing any of my limits. And some absolutely fascinating formations packed into a short stretch of cave. I took dozens of pictures, have since been back and tried dozens more, and would happily spend a relaxing day just slowly moving through the cave admiring and taking pictures again. Throughout the cave there are formations all over the place, and many of them are conveniently high on walls and ceilings where they have stayed out of harms way as people have visited the cave.

I was able to meet some Colorado cavers on the trip, and was introduced to a high quality cave, complete with a high quality register. (You will see someone took some serious time in the pictures. Not your typical makeshift visitor log.) And the journey back down the steep walled canyon was much faster than on the way up. We also ran across some goats on the way down, which were practically on top of our trail.

Day 3 – Serious cliff entrance

I had thought my previous day was a brutal hike up to the cave. This trip was a few hundred vertical feet further, and required some looping around to stay out of the cliffs below the cave. But it was well worth it.

This cave is in the top portion of a massive cliff. So you are required to rappel 20-30′, but are looking down a couple hundred feet to the first place you will bounce, before continuing on to the canyon floor. I am well acquainted with heights, and still found it a bit unnerving. But I found the cave well worth it.

You enter through a small gated opening. Years ago the entrance passage had to be initially dug open for human visitors to get in. And it is still a lengthy army crawl to get into the first place things open a bit higher again. And even when it starts to open up, you have to keep your head down. There are delicate formations everywhere on the ceiling in places! The advice Brandon Kowallis had given me about looking up before I lifted my head anywhere was understandably important once I was in the cave.

We carefully made our way through the areas of the cave that were open to visitation, taking time to admire some of the green and yellow tinted formations. Trace minerals cause these fascinating color differences, and make for some very unique tints in the formations. I spent some time taking some pictures of both large and small delicate formations, and Brandon and Jason Ballensky poked around in some of the corners where there are rumors the cave could continue if enough effort were applied.

Once we were done in the cave, we headed back to the ascent at the top of a cliff. I learned a fascinating lesson at that point. If you are standing on a solid floor as you start to ascend a rope, and have the rope pulled back a bit from the edge, you will swing a little as you leave the ground. When you are looking out at a couple hundred foot drop, swinging forward out over that drop is extremely disturbing. Almost in a “need to change my pants now” sort of way. If you want to save yourself that heartstopping moment, consider facing toward the wall as you leave the ground. Harder to see how far down it is when you are staring at the cliff wall. Discussing that experience later, it turns out there are several cavers in Utah who learned that lesson in that same spot. I haven’t heard of anyone actually wetting themselves yet, but several people have admitted they came close.

After we found our way back off the mountainside, I was spent for the day. Brandon and some of the others were headed over to where I had been the previous day. I salute their ambition to do another thousand foot vertical climb in the day, and happily headed downhill along a reasonable trail to my waiting car.