An Explorer's Perspective

Exploration at Jewel Cave

by Andy Armstrong

Exploring Jewel Cave is different from caving in other parts of the United States. Many factors make Jewel Cave unique: its great length, strong airflow, and difficulty of travel all contribute to a style of caving that I have not experienced elsewhere.

The camp site 5 miles into Jewel Cave
Cavers must camp in Jewel Cave for up to four days in order to explore leads at the cave's eastern edge.

Andy Armstrong Photo

As of early 2006, Jewel Cave has been surveyed to a length of 135 miles, and is the second longest cave in the world. The longest is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky at 367 miles. One primary difference between the two caves is the number of entrances. The Mammoth Cave System has more than 25 entrances and has been explored and interconnected between these many points of access. Jewel Cave has only two entrances about a mile apart from one another. One of these is an artificial elevator entrance. This not only makes Jewel the longest cave in the world with only one natural entrance, but also means that a lot of distance must be traveled to reach the edges of the known cave. In the east, the “end” of the cave is seven miles from the elevator, about eight miles from the Historic Entrance. It would be very difficult to travel this route both directions in one day. So, most exploration out there takes place on four-day camp trips. Camping in the cave was begun in 1997 when a camp was established in the Big Duh, about five miles from the elevator. Since that time about 22 miles have been surveyed, and the known end of the cave is 3.5 hours from camp. On the most recent camp trip, we estimated that we traveled about 20 miles underground in four days. Such distances are unheard of except in a few other caves worldwide. Seven miles in is probably the farthest underground distance you can travel from a cave entrance in the United States. At the edge of the known cave there are unexplored leads and strong airflow, indicating still more cave beyond.

Another unique thing about Jewel is that there is strong airflow deep in the cave. I have explored other caves with strong barometric wind, like Wind Cave and Lechuguilla Cave. Both of these caves have extremely strong winds at the entrance, but inside, the airflow disperses through many passages and can hardly be felt. In Jewel Cave, there are definite airflow routes. When traveling through the Miseries or the Tenderizers, the airflow can be quite intense. There are places named Hurricane Corner, the Exhaust Pipe, Snow Blower, Long Winded Passage, and the Mind Blower; all because of the wind blowing through these passages. There are even places where the wind is so strong that it is audible. Thus, we get places called the Humdinger, the Horn, and the Whistle Stop. When exploring a cave, airflow is probably the best indication of more cave beyond. So we follow the wind to see where the cave will go. Barometric airflow can be used to calculate the cave’s volume. Herb Conn did volume calculations based on airflow and came up with four to five billion cubic feet. The known cave only accounts for about 120 million cubic feet. This means there could be more than 95% of the cave still awaiting discovery.

A caver crawls through the Miseries
A caver emerges from the Funny Little Hole.

NPS Photo

Jewel can be a difficult cave to explore. It is not particularly dangerous among caves of the world; for example, there is no vertical caving involved and there is virtually no chance of flooding. However, the distances covered and the seemingly endless succession of obstacles can make for some hard, tiring trips. Heading east from the elevator, one of the first major obstacles is the Miseries. The Miseries is a series of crawls about 1,800 feet long. There are 1,100 feet of Miseries proper, followed by 700 feet of Mini-Miseries. The Mini-Miseries include 200 feet of belly-crawls, and tight spots like the Calorie Counter and the Funny Little Hole. After the Miseries, there are miles of travel over breakdown boulders, up and down ladders, and free climbs of varying difficulty. The ever-present “manganese” (manganese oxides and hydroxides) that coats the trail surfaces makes the footing slippery. There are also long stretches of walking, which can be covered at a brisk pace. On the way out of the cave, some cavers actually look forward to the Miseries, because they can lie down as they crawl and rest their feet. On the way out to camp there are designated rest stops about each hour along the way. The cavers take short breaks at each of these places. It is necessary to eat a snack at each stop in order to maintain energy levels for the long trip. Traveling in this way, the camp can be reached in about 8 hours.

So, exploring at Jewel is rather unique. Caving here can be strenuous and committing. Even experienced cavers that are new to Jewel need to go on a few “break-in” trips before heading far out beyond the Miseries. Why go to all the trouble? Because leads abound, and the recently discovered passages are not small. Some of the biggest rooms in the cave are at the far eastern end. Jewel Cave is still “going.” In 2005, 4.3 miles of new passages were discovered and mapped. Jewel Cave remains one of the most promising underground frontiers in the United States.

Last updated: August 13, 2021

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