Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Exploring Twin Dees

Twin Dees is an incredible place; it begins at the entrance. There is a small pool of blue water in the middle of the woods. White sand slopes to the middle where a small solution tube appears. The tube is around 2’ in diameter, and can be a miserable place. The mission of this dive was to explore the southern lead out of the Beleriand/ Deep Earth Tunnel that was explored and surveyed the week prior to my dive by Brett Hemphill and Andy Pitkin.

The lead is 2800’ back and 315’ deep and requires navigating hundreds of feet of restrictive cave and major restrictions. A dive like this requires many tanks for OC bailout and decompression.  The task of shuttling 9 tanks, 2 scooters, a goody bag of food, spare lights and battery packs along with myself with the rebreather on was quite the task.

Fortunately KUR is composed of great guys and awesome divers.
Eric Deister and Jerry Murphy set me up. They placed an AL40 of O2 in the fitting room, AL80 50% at the fissure, 30/20, 21/35, and 10/65 at the beach.

Derek Ferguson was my entry diver. He placed 2 scooters, my Submerge UV40 and Brett’s Magnus along with my deep bailouts, 2 LP121s with 7/78 in the fitting room.

I entered the cave just before 10:00am on the breather with an al80 entry bottle plumbed in. I had on board O2 and Air for drysuit inflation. All dil was offboard added via an Omni QD.
Entry went smooth, I departed from the fitting room in ~5minutes.

I drove the Submerge Scooters UV40 with viper electronics and towed the Magnus. While the Magnus is slightly faster I do love the way the 40 rides, and the smaller size of the Magnus was more suitable for towing. The slow speeds of the viper were great for the smaller areas of the cave.

At the beach I picked up the bottles the setup divers put in. I put the 120' bottle of 30/20 on the float ball, butt clipped the 21/35 and properly carried the 10/65.

I did a good diluent flush with 7/78 to eliminate any excess nitrogen in the loop and continued onward. I dropped the 190' bottle at the balcony to Middle Earth and descended into the Alph tunnel at ~33minutes.

I made good time in the Alph tunnel only stopping once because the old line can be hard to see on the ceiling. I quickly arrived at the “T” to the Deep Earth Tunnel that is marked with a labeled cookie. I dropped in.

The tunnel was impressive it was relatively wide but fairly tall. The walls were a beautiful white and very soft. Brett and Andy did a great job exploring here. The line made a hard left and was hooked around a large piece of breakdown on the floor, there was a silt stake tied to the line but not placed. This was the spot Brett told me about. I looked left at their line and then right into blackness. I scootered over the breakdown to get a feel for the tunnel, it goes. I looped back to the line placed on the breakdown and dropped my deep stage and backup scooter. I deployed my reel and tied off. The exit was marked with a red line arrow.

I took off with the light and reel in my left hand and the scooter in my right. This has been on my bucket list for years. I was laying line in Twin Dees Cave off of a scooter in huge passage 50' high, 100+' wide. The water was clear with a bit of turbidity. I scanned back and forth looking for the correct route. Ahead a see a large rock spire sticking straight up from the breakdown mass. I did a large scooter loop around it as a line placement. Here the cave got wider. I had a choice, go left or right. I chose left, almost instantly I came off of the breakdown floor and was on a smooth, flat silt floor with no rock.

The ceiling was flat, the walls were chalky and white. I pressed forward a few hundred more feet. The passage made a hard right and dead ended in a large room with a white column in the middle. I circled the column and tied off.  As a reached for my knife I noticed exactly how much my hands were shaking. It was not fear, it was excitement, as Brett says, it is a slow squeeze. Adrenaline was seeping into my system. I was 324' deep, 3300' back, alone in a place where no man has EVER been.  Incredible

I tied off and placed a white arrow at the knot to avoid any confusion about circumnavigating the column.
I deployed my survey book and began the survey out. It went quick with 150 and 190' shots. The 2 page slate was great and avoided page flipping confusion. Black colored knots on the white line were also nice.

My exploration and survey was only 20 minutes, but what a memorable 20 minutes.

The trip out went smooth I picked up my deep stage and backup scooter and hit the door. My first deco stop was 220' in Middle Earth. I completed my 220-190' stop in ME. I picked up my 190' bottle and began the slow swim out decompressing as I went.

Deco out was smooth. I took all of my bottles and scooters to the fissure. At 60' I copied my survey to my wet notes and made a rough sketch. At 50' I took off my scooters before the final restriction.
I spent the next 2.5 hours at 40' in the comfortable confines of the fitting room for decompression.
The suit heater was incredible. I was comfortable the whole time. The support team brought me a sandwich to eat in the air bell and Allen brought an underwater speak to play music. AC/DC Rocks in the air bell at 40'.

I slowly made my way up to 10' through the solution tube, stopping at 30' and 20'. The 80 minutes at 10' was brutally boring with the ipod stuck on repeat…

At the end of the dive I felt great. I accomplished a long term goal. I did an 8.5hr dive to depths over 300' and laid and surveyed ~500' of line in ridiculous cave.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

TAG 2012

TAG 2012

The 2013 TAG Fall Cave in is only a month away, I thought I would share some of my pictures from last year.
I believe 2012 is the 12th Cave-In that I have attended. I have only missed one since I began caving, I hope that is the only one I will miss. This year was a fun year;  it was my Dad’s 50th birthday so He, my brother and I went together as a celebration. We had a great time at camp socializing, did some classic caves, some easy caves and a few new ones to me.

We arrived at the TAG Campground on Friday morning and setup our camp. We wandered around the site saying Hi to familiar faces and waiting for the rest of our group to show up. We rarely have a plan when we get there so the first few hours is; “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know, where do you want to go?”
We decided to make a return trip to Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave. This is not an overly large or extensive cave, but it is very heavily decorated and makes for some incredible photo opportunities.

We spent  a few hours in the cave with a cool group of people from Florida taking pictures and making jokes.

After leaving and locking the cave behind us we headed to Logging Camp Cave. This cave is not far from Cedar Ridge and requires fording a river, climbing a steep river bank and following an old logging road to a sink hole.

Here we rigged a hand line to assist in getting in and out of the cave. It can be a rather slippery breakdown climb. Instantly one arrives in a tall dome room with grey scalloped walls and a walking canyon passage leading out. The walking passage dead ends shortly but there is a short squeezy climb that leads to much bigger cave. It was tighter for some than others…

The climb dumps you atop of a large breakdown slope, traverse down the breakdown and you are in huge beautiful serpentine borehole. This leads to another breakdown climb, at the top is a perfect little sanctuary of formations that made for a nice photo op. From here the cave gets tight and muddy. We poked around for a while and then headed back to camp.

The next morning we joined with Brian Williams, Bill Walker and his daughter to head up to a TAG classic, Rusty’s Cave. Rusty’s is on Fox Mountain and managed by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy.

It is a nice hike up the mountain in early October, it is not too terribly hot and the leaves are just beginning to change. Last year a number of tornadoes devastated the area and we hardly recognized the entrance with a all of the tree fall.

We rigged the rope and made the short rappel into the cave. We headed downstream taking plenty of time to enjoy the formations and take pictures. There are a few “memorable”  formations that you have to take a picture with…

We continued downstream until we reached the wet crawl and we headed back.

From here Brian, Woody, Andy and myself decided to make the trip over the mountain to Byers Cave. Last year Sara and I made the hike but could not find the cave entrance.

This year we found it. It starts off small with crawling. Once inside there is a fair amount of technical climbing, chimneying and spanning over deep fractures. It is actually a relatively terrifying cave.

Finally after a miserable crawl you pop into a huge borehole passage. We went left. It was neat cave; there were big shale breakdown piles, incredible formation gates, large domes, huge haystacks, massive columns, big rooms and a beautiful river.

Brian and I did not get out of the cave until well after dark and it was a long hike back over Fox Mountain. It was a neat cave, but not for the faint of heart and bring a hand line.
Next we visited Tally Cave. This cave was once used as a bomb shelter and later a grow operation. To get in you must rappel 20’ down  a steel culvert and crawl through and old doorway.

The first room has been trashed with graffiti. There were many Cave Salamanders in this first room munching on the remains of a unfortunate buzzard.

We continued onward, climbing down a ladder made of a bed frame that we affectionately call the Jesus Ladder.

We ended up pushing to the bitter end of this cave, it was tight muddy and pristine.
We hung out at the fire that night relaxing with old friends and new.

The next morning we packed up camp and headed out. We had breakfast at this little mom and pop place. No matter what you order they gave you they want, “Turkey Sandwich?... I told them ham was ok.”
Then we went to Pettyjohn’s Cave to relax and play. It is actually a relatively technical cave. This cave has an insane amount of traffic. The main rout has been polished by thousands of spelunker butts. It was a fun cave for the last day and we all had a good time exploring the serpentine river passage, sketchy climbs, and spray pain navigation.

TAG 2012 was a lot of fun.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Weeki Wachee Spring Exploration 2012

Weeki Wachee Springs

Weeki Wachee Spring Basin

In October of 2011 I wrote about my experience with Twin Dees Cave, that is an incredible cave and I will have more updates on that shortly. In the spring of 2012 I was able to visit the other side of Park, Weeki Wachee Spring!

If ever I had put a cave on a pedestal, this was it! Weeki Wachee Spring Cave; it has an intimidating entrance, it is deep, has outrageous flow that cannot be described, with a MASSIVE and beautiful cave below that only a handful of people have had the opportunity to experience.
 Once Twin Dees was no longer dive-able we all crossed our fingers hoping the spring rains would hold off a few more months and allow us to explore this impressive cave.

On March 3rd, Brett Hemphill and I looked at the monitoring well on the USGS website (Well Data) and decided that we could make it in. The mission was familiarization with the cave entrance and to make sure the pull ropes were still in place and in good shape from previous exploration.

My heart was pumping as we waited for the last Mermaid show of the day to finish. I geared up and did a giant stride into the spring basin. The water was peaceful on top with a deep blue hue. Turtles and fish swam around the manmade decorations, and air hoses. The open water and cavern here is impressive! There is a sheer rock wall enticing me into the fissure below.

Cavern Entrance

As we approached the cave we dropped off the sand shoals at 20’ down to the cavern entrance at 40’, this isn’t so bad. We pull gently on the wall to a grate at 70 and drop our 50% deco bottles. Brett signals OK and we grab a hold of the orange rope. One must dump all of the air from the wing and de-tune the regulator. Once over the grate, it is on, the flow kicks you! But this is not as bad as I expected… We pull our way to 110’, here a rock is perched in the narrow fissure and there is a short reprieve from the current. Once off the perch, the fissure narrows and it is rocking again to 140’. The flow is howling, regulators are free flowing and you are working. At 140’ there is an alcove and the last chance to turn around. Brett signals me again to dump my wing and tuck my head, then he slipped over the edge. Flurries of bubbles rush from his regulator. The entire Weeki Wachee River is fed from and opening slightly larger than a normal doorway. This is the gauntlet; it is everything I heard it would be.  Once I went over the ledge and all hell broke loose, the flow pushed on my chest, and sucked the air from my reg.  It was hard to breathe. I tucked my head and pulled on the rope, creeping forward only inches at a time. I forced my way down. My toes were pointed; I was as streamlined as possible. My forearms burned, my ears hurt, but I was afraid to let go of the rope to equalize them. I had to be almost there, but I couldn't look up for the fear of losing my mask. About half way there is a small hump, you can almost think about resting here… almost.

Matt Exiting the Cave- Photo by Jon Bojar

Pull, breathe, and pull…it seemed like forever… just when my forearms were about to give out and I could no longer breathe… the flow disappeared and I fell into the “Witches Den.” The cave instantly becomes huge and the flow is not longer detectable. I try to arrest my fall, as I collapse from exhaustion.  I scream with excitement. I had made it into Weeki Wachee Cave!  It was just as bad as or worse than I had heard. We checked the gear line and swam over to Sheck's restriction. My air consumption was horrible, but I will never forget that first dive at Weeki. I am smiling as I sit here thinking about it!

Bailout bottles that need to be placed in the cave for exploration

Sheck Exley was the first explorer that I know of that was able to make it into the cave. He was unable to find his way out of the first room. Years later Brett Hemphill returned and found the way onward. It is a great story.

So now we are in the cave but one must get out through the miserable entrance… this is the more daunting task. To leave one must ascend from 180’ to 140’ through horrible flow. I watched Brett go first. I dumped my wing, exhaled and wrapped one leg around the pull rope. Here goes nothing… it was terrible. My side mount tanks were passing me, my crotch strap was giving me an atomic wedgie, the flow was forcing me upwards, flipping me over, ripping off my fins, and sucking air from the regulator. After fighting my way to 140’ we still had to negotiate more flow and the narrow fracture up another 100’ until we reached the calmer open water. We did our deco stops and entered the Mermaid tank at 20’. This is the mermaid changing room for their performances, and makes awesome and convenient deco habitat. I would spend hours in here over the next few months.

Brett in the Mermaid Tank

To see what the cave looks like, check out this awesome teaser VIDEO from Liquid Productions.

Now that we knew it was possible to gain access to the cave this season, plans were set in motion to get the exploration underway. Two weeks later anyone who was full cave and trimix certified was invited to participate in the Weeki Tryouts. Something like 26 divers showed up to participate. It was a rough day for some people, not everyone made it in and some hopes were broken.

Andy Pitkin finishing his 10' Decompression stop as the support crew watches

The season was kicked off. For the next two months I would spend nearly every Thursday doing setup dives then every Saturday and Sunday being support and cleanup for the exploration. It was a great time; it really meant a lot to be a part of a team of such great people and divers.

Brett Hemphill and Andy Pitkin decompress at 60'

Brett Hemphill and Dr. Andy Pitkin were the two primary exploration divers this year. While no major new tunnels were discovered this year, many loose ends were tied up.  We had multiple successful radio locations to confirm the accuracy of the survey. In order to accomplish this, a large PVC tube housing the radio transmitter had to be portaged into the cave, along with multiple scooters and many bailout cylinders. This was our usual Thursday dive, every time we had to fight against the massive flow of the headspring.  On Saturday evenings after 3:00pm when the mermaid show ended, the exploration divers followed by a slew of support divers would enter the water and begin the arduous task of diving Weeki.

Travis Emrich and Mike Poucher using the Radio Locator to find the signal 300+ feet below

The radio transmitter would be placed at a pre-determined destination in the cave. Using the paper maps and topographic overlays we could estimate this location on the surface. At a set time the divers would turn on the beacon and Mike Poucher, cave survey and radio location expert, would triangulate the exact location on the tone some 300+ feet below. It is impressive to watch the team function with such massive hurdles.
As the dive season at Weeki Wachee continued the core support crew continued to show up; Travis, Randy, Eric, Gibby, and Scott were there nearly every weekend. Our late night conversations, ideas of practical jokes, and cooking out were all incredible and memorable experiences.

A great team to work with

I had the opportunity to do two dives beyond Sheck’s Restriction this year. The first dive was a stage dive towards Helm’s Deep to investigate the unique microbial formations that inhabit this cave. Once through Sheck’s the cave drops down to a rectangular shaped tunnel with bright white walls and a contrasting ceiling. After a few hundred feet we hit a T; right goes to the River Tunnel, and left goes upstream to the big cave.  We ventured to the left. We passed over some massive breakdown piles and eventually arrived at our destination at the edge of this enormous room. I was diving a 35w Light Monkey HID (an impressive piece of hardware) this room swallowed the powerful light; it was blackness as far as I could see. Charlie and I turned the dive at the top of the hill and headed back out. Since most of the exploration has been done on closed circuit rebreathers there was more percolation than I expected, visibility was reduced, but still good.  We exited the water after 2.5 hours of deco.

Matt finishing a deco stop after a setup dive

The next dive we went to check for possible leads at the end of the River Tunnel. This time we went right at the T. This is a neat tunnel, it is large and has very smooth walls, it almost looks manmade. The cave ends abruptly just past the end of the line, so we turned and headed upstream to take a peek. Total dive time was 4.5 hours.

Matt exiting the cave from a setup dive - Photo by Jon Bojar

Deco in the 20' Habitat

I must also mention that during the 2012 Weeki Project we lost a team member.  I am unsure what exactly to write, a year later and I still do not know what to say. I did not have to opportunity to get to know Marson very well; we had met several times in passing and through mutual friends. I will simply copy the statement that KUR posted online. I can tell you that I will never forget Marson.

“On 3/31/2012 at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, KARST Underwater Research (KUR) team members were performing a series of dives which included entering and exiting the cave system. Marson Kay, a two-year veteran of KUR’s all volunteer team, drowned while exiting the cave system. The following information, based on eye witness and forensic evidence, provides some insight into this tragic accident.

Following a successful dive into the cave at 180 feet, Marson Kay signaled he was exiting. From that point, a 1/2” braided white rope leads upwards to 142 feet, where the crevasse area of the cavern begins. Although the cave narrows at this point, the rope continues, now colored orange with a diameter of 7/16”, and placed in the largest area, leading to a depth of 68 feet, where daylight clearly can be seen at all times. Instead of following the ropes as he had done multiple times in the past, Marson rapidly moved into a highly restrictive area of the crevasse. It is believed that this behavior was not a calculated decision but a reaction caused by the affects of an embolism he incurred while rapidly ascending from depth. According to the coroner's evaluation, Marson developed a cerebral arterial gas embolism prior to his death. Typically, this condition causes profound changes in mental functioning including disorientation, blindness, paralysis, seizures and loss of consciousness within minutes or even seconds of onset. If it occurs after surfacing, it is often fatal or profoundly disabling even with prompt recompression therapy; when it occurs underwater, the incapacity or unconsciousness it causes almost always results in drowning. 

Although safety divers were in visual contact and additional safety gas cylinders were in place, he rapidly pushed himself upward into an area where even side-mount divers could not easily access. Several attempts were made to communicate, by means of light signals as well as touch contact. Although Marson was still moving at this time, he did not directly respond to these communication attempts. After approximately 5 minutes, divers reported Marson was no longer utilizing his regulator. A subsequent review of his equipment indicated that Marson had approximately half of his gas supply remaining in both of his tanks and his regulators appeared to be working properly.

Cave diving is an intrinsically dangerous activity, just as rock-climbing, mountain biking and even horseback riding. All cave divers understand the risks of diving in underwater caves and accept them as an inescapable part of the activity they are so passionate about. Marson's accidental death is great personal loss to all that knew and loved him as well as to our team. We will do the best we can to honor his memory.

There is more I could write about this project, it enveloped all of our time for several months.  It was great diving, hard work, a lot of commitment, new friends, memories and comradery. It does not get much better that that. I am looking forward to future exploration and research at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Keep an eye on Karst Underwater Research on FACEBOOK and online for more information on this project. 

Google Earth Overlay of Weeki Wachee and Twin Dees Caves

Weeki after dark