Camp Cosmos First Trip

Three cavers with sleeping bags and thermals at Camp Cosmos
Camp Cosmos 1st Trip

NPS Photo

Camp Cosmos First Trip

Trip: On 6/13/08, Carl Bern led Andrew Blackstock, Evan Blackstock, & Larry Shaffer on the first camp trip to Camp Cosmos in the Southern Comfort Section.

Trip Report: June 13, 2008

After meeting with the Park cave staff, and taking before-trip photos of the team, we headed into the cave. We stashed the key to the elevator and some bottles of Gatorade on top of the elevator structure for when we returned. All four of us were using the two-pack system for carrying our gear into the cave and we found this to be a great strategy for traveling the route out to Camp Cosmos. A small side pack, typical day-pack sized, is worn close to the body and loaded with heavier items. A larger pack (most of us used the Monster TAG pack) loaded with less dense items is worn as a backpack. The small and delicate nature of many passages on the route to camp necessitates removing the backpack frequently. Keeping the large pack as light as possible reduced the strain on our arms as we rolled or slung it forward. Having the heavy items in the little side pack is nice because they essentially move with the caver's body, and that pack only rarely has to be removed to fit through a constriction. Neoprene sleeves over the shoulder strap of the side pack worked nicely to keep our necks from being rubbed too raw over four days of caving.

I led the way in, and kept the pace moderate, to preserve energy and let everyone get used to moving with the two packs. Andrew took over after the BM1 climb-down to get more familiar with the route. We stopped at the Pile-Up water collector for a while to shore up this key link in our water supply. By adding a small funnel and rearranging the plastic sheeting, the 1.5 gallon water collector has been restored to reliability. The 1 gallon jug and funnel collector remains reliable. We filled and stashed a 1 gallon cubetainer of water at the Pile-Up as well, to be an ultimate safeguard against collector failures.

The unstable slope with the handline in Rt. 66 continues to shed small rocks and requires caution. We arrived to find the Rt. 66 water collector full to capacity! Even with slumping of the containers, approximately 16 gallons of water had been collected, in addition to the 7 gallons previously stashed. We got a quick drink and proceeded to camp. Total travel time to camp was about eight hours.

At Camp Cosmos we dropped our packs on the staging area tarp. Andrew and Larry returned to Rt. 66 to get water for camp and transfer water into the stockpile. Evan and I found a spot for the latrine around station LO51E. We used the same orange flagging tape used to mark the rest of camp to flag a narrow path from camp to the latrine. The path keeps cavers off of delicate features and on the smoother parts of the floor most friendly to cavers wearing thin aquasocks. Evan and I then used green flagging to improve the trail between Camp Cosmos and Rt. 66, but quickly ran out of flagging. We stashed some emergency freeze dried food in the camp.

Andrew and Larry returned with water, and we quickly packed up for a couple hours of survey. At nearby LO55F we found the northern lead more promising and started a survey. The lead was virgin, but generally small and slow to survey, a common theme on this trip. We pushed along, encountering lots of rock flour. At 20:30, our pre-determined quitting time, Andrew found the crawlway blocked by a nice display of coral that would be difficult to squeeze past. Our last station (LO55R) plots near passage we later surveyed on June 15.

We returned to camp, shed our dirty clothes in the staging area, and changed into clean polypro and the aquasocks that stay in camp. Here we found the only item that had been missing from Larry's exhaustive camp-trip checklist, a stuff-sack for shuttling between the staging area and the main camp. Juggling Ziploc bags, we settled into camp.

Camp Cosmos is quite pleasant, and compares favorably to the camp in Jewel. We found it warm enough to lounge around on our foam pads in polypro and balaclavas without benefit of sleeping bags. That makes life more convenient, and should save wear and tear on the bags. The Trangia alcohol stove worked like a charm; while the titanium Decagon stove proved a bit slow to boil water. I took the position next to the kitchen, and due to the linear nature of the camp was in charge of the stoves. We found several sharp pieces of floor hiding under the camp tarps. Some were dispatched with blows from the fuel bottles, others will require a hammer. This task needs to be done soon or the tarps will degrade quickly. After dinner we agreed to an eight hour block of sleep time and turned out the lights.

June 14, 2008

Got up at 06:45 We packed for a full day beyond the Skinner, the primary focus of this trip. At Rt. 66, we found that approximately 4 gallons of water had accumulated in the collector in the 14 hours since emptying it. Fresh from a night's sleep and breakfast, we also found the Skinner to be quite tolerable. I located the hammer near the end of the Skinner and we went to our first lead at ER29. Two shots finished that lead. We backtracked to the leads at ER26 and mapped over to LLB31. This is a complex area with connections between the parallel ER and LLB passages and another parallel between. More could be surveyed here, but the area is bounded.

We traveled south to the LLB37 area, the one area beyond the Skinner I had never visited. The marked lead south of LLB33 is really an alcove. At LLB37 we found a very promising lead headed south off the map with air movement that Larry enlarged at two spots. It ended in contorted passage, too tight to continue. We mapped two shots and Larry sketched the rest. Another lead curved north before becoming too tight after three stations. I poked down to LLB41 and found two connected pools there. These are likely part of the same water table observed out near Vega that has risen since the original exploration. Scouting north to LLB34A we noted a sketchy climb of dubious potential on the west wall, north of LLB34.

Next we checked the area from LLB33A-D. Evan and Larry checked the lead out at LLB33D, which had small leads up, down, and to the east that were quickly choked with red sediment fill. Andrew and I checked around 33A. There are numerous holes in the ceiling accessible by loose climbs here. Some on the north side of the passage have aragonite lining, but quickly become very tight and contorted and end in brown mud chokes and constrictions. And others loop back to the main passage. On the south side, where a dome is marked there are some crumbly loop passages in the ceiling. Andrew kept track of my location as I checked these by noting where sand and rubble were gushing from the ceiling. As all these leads would be either dangerous or tediously slow to survey, with no potential for expanding the cave, we left them.

At LLB33A we mapped three stations north in a marked lead before it became too tight. A little hammer work could continue the passage. The passage heads straight towards a 'too tight' lead at LDL10F, and could provide a bypass to the Skinner. Checking the LDL10F side can be accomplished on the first day of the next camp trip.

We mapped two stations in the LLB32 lead before it ended. From there we returned to LLB29B. Low crawl leads heading southwest from here looked better than I remembered, even though they head towards the Gas Chamber. We started mapping. The crawls are low and slow to survey, but air moves through them, and we encountered several junctions. At 20:30 we quit for the day. We left the hammer at station ER102 and retreated to LLB29B to pack up. Here we discussed what to do with the tape. The 100' open reel did not fit well in anyone's pack for the return trip through the Skinner. Confident we would be returning the next morning, we left the tape behind.

June 15, 2008

Around 04:00 Andrew awoke and became violently ill. For the next two hours he was vomiting and dry heaving. We brainstormed what might be causing him to be sick. One guess was an allergic reaction to some antelope billtong (jerky) that I had brought along as a treat and shared around at dinner. Evan and I had eaten more billtong than Andrew and suffered no effects. Larry did not eat any. The only other thing Andrew ate for dinner was freeze dried food and that seemed an unlikely cause. There was little we could do for Andrew except reassure him that a gallon cubetainer could transport the vomit out of the cave, and then wait to see if he got better or worse.

We slept in by an hour after the restless night, giving us nine hours of sleeping bag time. Andrew was only feeling tired and queasy by now, but did not feel like eating. Taking Andrew beyond the Skinner was obviously unwise, but surveying close to camp seemed feasible. Luckily we were not scheduled to exit the cave this day, because hard travel would have been an issue. I decided that Evan and I would and retrieve the survey tape. We packed a single day pack to travel through the Skinner. Larry, the other designated trip leader, remained with Andrew. If Evan and I did not return in three hours, Larry and Andrew would come after us at whatever pace Andrew could manage.

Evan and I breezed through the Skinner, grabbed the tape, drank some water, and made the return trip in about 1 hour 20 minutes. Andrew was definitely on the mend when we returned, but needed an easy day. We decided to map leads 5 or 10 minutes away near the DOH Room. We left camp at noon telling Andrew to expect someone at 14:00. At that time he could join us on the survey, or continue resting in camp.

Larry, Evan, and I started mapping a lead headed north from NG10. The passage contains impressive boxwork more than three feet deep, and many large pillowy vugs that are only occasionally broken open to reveal spar-lined interiors. The ceiling, walls, and particularly the floor are sharp and snaggy. The calcified sediment floor of the belly crawl passage has lots of little vermiform features to hook on clothing. At 14:00 Larry went to check on Andrew. Larry made sure to tell Andrew about the unpleasant nature of the survey passage, but Andrew joined us anyway. We found dusty, rounded aragonite features around stations NG10H and J suggesting airflow from the end of our survey back towards camp and we could feel air moving that direction.

At NG12 we mapped another lead into punky rock and rock flour lined passage. Everything ended in digs and constrictions without airflow. We looked at the south trending lead between NG9 and 10 and deemed it too horrible to enter. The floor resembles large calcified sediment fishhooks.

The largest and most pleasant leads of the trip were off the north end of the DOH room, where we went next. It was a challenge not to shed rock flour from our clothing on the relatively pristine calcified sediment floors. We mapped a marked lead into a low, wide basin of a room to NG7C. We then mapped a lead that had been missed into two branches of passage. The north trending passage eventually came to a climb that led upward into a chimney with middle cave characteristics and ended. Andrew checked holes in the breakdown floor of the DOH room and found a system of crawls that seemed likely to yield good footage, but we were out of time for the day. Back at camp we organized our gear a bit and Andrew was hungry enough to eat dinner. Evan stitched a hole in his pants.

June 16, 2008

We got up at 06:00 with the hope of leaving camp by 07:30. Sleeping bags and the bag containing the first aid kit were stowed with fresh desiccant. Waste was collected from the latrine. I swept debris from the tarps in the sleeping area into a Ziploc bag and obtained less than a teaspoon of sediment and a single piece of food debris. In contrast, the staging area tarp was covered with perhaps half a cup of sediment and absolutely filthy. We poured this dirt into the same Ziploc and packed it out.

Having a staging area for dirty clothes and gear was a great idea. We all commented on how clean the sleeping area remained even though the majority of our gear was covered with dirt and dust.

We left camp at 08:00. Although we were tired from three previous days of caving and fully burdened again, we were now fully accustomed to moving through the cave. The trip out went fast. Larry led from Camp to the Pile-Up. There are a few places where an additional flag would help a person not familiar with the path. Evan, Andrew, and Larry led various parts of the rest of the trip out. We arrived at the elevator around 14:30, after a 6.5 hour trip from camp.

Summary and Conclusions

The first camp trip to utilize Camp Cosmos was a success. All team members exited the cave safely and without more than the usual scrapes and bruises. The camp itself has minimum impact on the cave, and the utilization of a small team, properly equipped, has barely more impact on the route to camp than a day-trip. All trash and human waste was packed out of the cave. The camp itself is pleasant and provides the intended benefit of allowing explorers to rest and recuperate and extending time available for surveying. The water collector at Rt. 66 provides ample water to support exploration, and currently recharges faster than a team of four cavers consumes water. The Pile-Up is also now a more reliable water source.

Having a team member get sick in camp was a reminder of just how self-reliant we must be in Southern Comfort. The camp affords us options and margins of safety we did not have before, but avoiding illness and injury must remain a top priority.

This first camp mapped 1,166 feet of passage, all south of the Delusions of Grandeur. While we might have hoped for more footage, the nature of the cave is a major control on the pace of exploration. No 'easy' leads remain in Southern Comfort. Virtually all marked leads were checked for some distance by the original explorers. The best strategy now is to methodically check areas, always with the mindset that we might be the last explorers to pass judgment on whether any potential remains. We are looking for marked and unmarked leads and casting our eyes high on the walls and ceilings, noting leads that might require climbing or digging.

My strategy of focusing effort on a south to north sweep of the area beyond the Skinner was hampered by having an ill team member. However, we still made measurable progress out there. We checked/mapped 9 marked leads in the area, and left a promising system of crawlways to explore on the next trip. Additionally, in the vicinity of the DOH room we checked/mapped 5 marked and 1 unmarked leads. By crossing leads and areas off the map we eliminate possibilities, allowing us to focus on areas where potential remains. Only by such methodical work can we answer the question, does another breakout exist in Southern Comfort?

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Last updated: December 27, 2017

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