Caving Narrative 1997 - Southern Comfort

Cavers crossing a section of Southern Comfort
Cavers crossing a section of Southern Comfort

NPS Photo

Stan Allison, Paul Burger, Myk Coughlin, Kelly Mathis, Mike Wiles

Duration of Trip:

New Cave Surveyed:
3223 feet

Trips to the Southern Comfort area of Wind Cave have slowed down to a mere trickle of one or two per year during the past four years. We had many excuses for making few Southern Comfort trips. Jewel was (and is) going BIG, certain two-wheeled contraptions were distracting me and we had no big going leads in Southern Comfort. What we did have was lots of airflow and small leads that had the possibility of leading to more cave if only someone could find the "right" lead. On September 13, 1997, we decided it was time for another look.

Kelly Mathis, Mike Wiles and I made plans to get out and see if we could track down the tremendous airflow felt at the Hole Thing in Route 66. Kelly was intrigued to see more of Southern Comfort as he had never been past Blind Faith. Mike and I were excited to return to this area and give it a thorough looking over. We spend over 3 hours pushing various leads at the bottom of the Hole Thing. One lead in particular had good airflow going towards known cave but got too tight even for Mike. Finally Mike and I decided to go look at a too tight lead at the end of an unpleasant snaggy crawl called The Skinner. Kelly wanted to look at a lead near the water collector so we split up. At the sigh spot in The Skinner, Mike felt airflow leading to new cave. He began chipping on a chert obstruction that prevented us from continuing. As he chipped he babbled along happily about various topics. Meanwhile I drifted in and out of consciousness until he made the squeeze large enough to pass. On the other side, Mike found a lead going north that had airflow and went 400 feet with more to look at. While Mike looked at this lead, I began making my way though a series of tight, snaggy crawls heading west. I must admit that my perseverance in pushing this tight crawl was with the hope that it would end and no one would ever have to return to its' ugliness. As luck would have it, after several hundred feet, I popped into a southwestern trending passage. Starting out as a stoopway, it soon became 15 feet high and wide! Running down it for several hundred feet I came to a junction. Taking the main passage I came to a breakdown obstruction after another 150 feet. Backing up to the junction I traveled down the smaller passage for 50 feet and found myself looking at a 20 foot tall 10 foot wide passage going both north and south! At this point I decided it was time to head back and hook up with Mike.

We made our way out of the crawls and met Kelly in Route 66. His leads had not gone and he had been waiting for us for 2 hours. I excitedly described the walking passages I had seen, and admittedly did not give equal time to describing the horrors of The Skinner continuation. We spent the next three hours surveying 372 feet through the discomfort of The Skinner. By the time we made it to the start of the walking passage it was getting late and time to go. Kelly was so disgusted with the crawl that he said he never wanted to go back it it! We made good time out of the cave arriving at the elevator four hours and 20 minutes after leaving the water collector in Route 66. This sixteen hour trip caused me to spend the next several weeks daydreaming about what was in store for us in the blackness of the passages I had seen..

Myk Coughlin, Mike Wiles and I returned on October 25th. On our way into the cave we could feel the cave inhaling strongly in the Looney Toobes. We began surveying south from our previous survey into the 15 foot tall and wide passage. Myk Coughlin made an observation that the airflow was coming from the south. We realized that somewhere behind us must be where the cave was going. Even though we were surveying towards known cave we continued our survey down the large passage. This area had 700 feet of mostly walking cave. Since it did not lead to more cave and was merely a distraction we named it the Tangent. Part of this area was on top of a previously surveyed passage and one tight lead has airflow coming from known cave. We have hopes of finding a bypass to The Skinner in this area.

After finishing up the survey of these nice walking passages, we headed back to the north trying to track down the airflow. Mike Wiles and I checked into some crawly maze areas with no airflow. Myk Coughlin, went up a climb and followed strong airflow through 400 feet of hands and knees crawls that led to walking passage. We surveyed the 400 feet of crawls, marveling at airflow that seemed to be as good or better than that felt in the Looney Toobes! Because of the airflow, Myk C. named the crawl The Wheezer. The crawl eventually popped up into a large walking passage surrounded by hydromagnesite and frostwork, both indicative of airflow! We suspended the survey and scooped about 700 feet of cave, finding some nice gypsum flowers and needles, but no obvious way on. Where was the air coming from? We were tired and decided that we would have to wait until the next trip to find out.

Paul Burger, Myk Coughlin, Mike Wiles and I returned on November 21. We surveyed the 700 feet we had scooped noting many interesting features that we had missed during the heat of the scooping moment. The bedrock in the area had cross-bedding and there were Jewel-like spar crusts in the ceiling of a dome. As we surveyed we checked leads heading away from the roughly square loop that the 700 fee of cave made. But we could not seem to find anything that was going away from what we already knew.

I was beginning to wonder where the air was going and whether or not we would be able to follow it. Luckily Myk came through for us again. He followed the air up a scary, loose climb with 30 feet of exposure, through a crawl and down a pit where he left leads going and returned with his light running very low on carbide. We began surveying up the climb which we decided to call Dangaroos Crossing after the tourist question to a ranger about the "Bison are Dangerous" signs along the highway in Wind Cave National Park. When we got to a place where the cave went both up and down, Paul tried climbing into a dome which did not go. I tried down, and found several hundred feet of going cave past where Myk had been, When I returned from my scoop, I immediately suffered from a case of instant karma as I got a painful piece of girt in my eye that took me several minutes to remove.

Most of the 1000 feet of cave that we surveyed beyond the Dangaroos Crossing was walking to large walking sized. Several of the lower level passages had calcite coatings and hydromagnesite growing in clumps found about every three feet along the floor. This made for an interesting game of caver hopscotch as we tired to avoid crushing these hydomagnesite clumps. We soon climbed up and the calcite coatings disappeared. Instead we found a layer of manganese that was one to three feet thick in the ceilings of many passages. Paul fond another interesting feature; a sediment floored passage that had signs of large amounts of water flowing across it. In the center was a channel one foot deep and one foot wide that drained a massive sediment pile coming out of a high lead. We were careful to flag a path on one side of this sediment feature preserving most of it untouched. We left the cave with several enticing leads in this area but not being sure as to where the elusive airflow was. Paul and I lagged behind the Mikes as we took pictures of Southern Comfort for an exploration talk Paul is planning for the 1998 NSS Convention.

So far we have surveyed 3223 feet of cave beyond The Skinner. Wind Cave is currently at 81.06 miles. Airflow in the area indicates that this is the place to find more cave in Southern Comfort. Our last survey is very high stratigraphically in the Paha Sapa Limestone. It takes roughly, and I do mean "roughly" 30 minutes to travel through The Skinner and The Wheezer. Mike Wiles claims that he would rather do the whole length of The Miseries in Jewel. The rest of us feel that it is definitely worse than the Mini-Miseries due to its snaggy disposition. Hopefully we will be able to find a bypass to The Skinner in the future. Big tight, nasty crawls are easily forgiven when they lead to lots of new cave.

Report by: Stan Allison

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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