Chris Amidon, Scott Babinowich, Alison Carlyle
Duration of Trip:
New Cave Surveyed:
"The Push to the North through the North"
I wanted to push myself now that I'm comfortable navigating, surveying, sketching, and leading cavers in the historic zone. I've been on a number of trips to deeper areas of the cave, but had not yet led such a trip. On this trip, I decided to push my route finding abilities. I decided to explore "The Happy Route", the second connection to the "Western Wilderness" of Wind Cave. To my knowledge, no one has traveled The Happy Route since 1987. Twenty years had elapsed since this route saw caving activity.
Not only did I want to push myself, I wanted to push some of the younger cavers I had trained over this summer season. With this in mind, I asked Scott Babinowich and Alison Carlyle to join the trip, which they both eagerly did. I would be pushing these two cavers too--neither had ever caved outside the historic area of Wind Cave. From talking to other cavers and examining survey notes, The Happy Route included significant crawling, minor climbing, and significant mazy passageway. I made it crystal clear that if at any time either one felt uncomfortable, we'd turn around and return to leads in the historic area.
With an atlas of survey notes and lineplots, the push to the north through the north began. The initial leg of the trip, from the Post Office to Rainbow Falls flew past in less than 20 minutes. After Rainbow Falls, I was in unfamiliar cave and the challenge began. Out of Rainbow Falls, we followed the NQ, which has good survey stations, but no sketches in places. We quickly found the T survey, which is fairly well marked with old carbide stations. It descends from the upper cave level down into the middle level through a fairly easy climb down (it was harder coming back up). However, there is a "ghost" NQ survey in this part of the cave with orange tags which can confuse things. These should be verified as "ghost" and then pulled at the next opportunity. The WQ survey has a good tag marked on the floor off of the T survey and it goes up through a vertical crack in the ceiling, a moderately difficult squeeze and climb. This was Alison and Scott's first real challenge and Alison flew up the climb without any trouble. For Scott, it took several tries, but after each attempt he calmed himself down, caught his breath, and tried again. On his third attempt, his foot slipped off its hold, and he caught himself with his arms, spread as if wings. His legs flailed beneath him, four feet from the ground. These are the moments all cavers fear. Finally he found a foot hold and descended safely to the floor. After a few minutes of contemplating the vertical crack, he made a fourth attempt and slipped vertically up the crack with little trouble! We were on our way through the Happy Route!
The beginning of the WQ survey, The Happy Route, twists and turns over itself like a plate of spaghetti, most of it on your hands and knees. This makes for difficult route finding. In addition to the difficult passage, only a few stations are marked! We tried just about every hole before finding the way on at WQ13. The "Cairn Crawls" are not too bad with only a few minor squeezes and plenty of places to sit up. However, the crawls are poorly marked. Often times you must pass by five or six stations before a tag is visible. This created problems. I would route find ahead, searching for stations, leaving Scott and Alison behind in case I had chosen the wrong path, but when the path turned out to be correct, I would should for them to follow me. However, as expected, sound travels extremely poorly in this cave. At times, I could see the light of Alison behind me, but she could not hear me. Once, for a few moments, when I crawled particularly far ahead of her, she panicked that I had disappeared. She couldn’t hear me, couldn’t see me, and didn’t know which way I had gone. Eventually I could see her light, but still she couldn’t hear me. I had to crawl a significant distance back in order to make contact.
The rooms after these crawls are significant, "Cave City", Fireball Hall", and "Happy Hollow". Travel time is much quicker from Cave City to the KY survey. The "500 Foot Pit" is an easy pit to descend. There is one tight squeeze after Happy Hollow and then we saw “The Cairn”, the same cairn the first explorers found in 1986, revealing they had found the second connection to “The Western Wilderness” of Wind Cave. When we finally popped out into the KY survey, we easily understood the excitement the first explorers felt at making this connection trip. It took us 3 hours exactly to traverse this section of cave, from Historic to North sections, which is the time I allotted--to the minute--to travel the route. On the way out, strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the same “group separation” occurred in the same exact place; this time Scott lost Alison's light and had a few moments by himself to contemplate the maze of Wind Cave. However, the hardest spot for us to leave was Rainbow Falls, a well traveled path! The first time we tried to leave the room, I traveled in a circle checking all the holes, yet not finding any tags or traveled paths that appeared correct. I had to scratch my head when I suddenly found myself staring at Rainbow Falls again. This just proves yet again that no matter how comfortable you are in Wind Cave, it will twist you around even in familiar passage!
On the second try, we found the NP route and made it to the Post Office without further incident. The return trip took us 2.5 hours. I surmise my next trip, having done the route once now, should take 2 hours, and eventually as little as 1.5 hours. This area of the cave twists and turns, but it was definitely not as nasty as I expected. I would go this route again to mop up leads off of the WQ and this area of the KY.
As to the survey, we mopped up leads off of KY355 and KY357. Nothing went anywhere significant, but we got some sizable shots and good sketches. Then we went to the HA to start mopping up leads. One went a short distance into a room we named "Rock Lobster" after an old song Scott knew, though he had forgotten the lyrics. There remain only a few nasty crawls to mop-up along the HA4A-HA4E survey. Two crawling leads still exist around HA4 as well as a Pit, which probably leads to other HA survey. Lastly we mopped up a lead at HA2 which the notes stated was nasty and crawling, but in reality was 4-5 feet high and simply connected back into KY359. There is still significant mop-up to do in this area of the HA and further along the KY. At some point it certainly makes better sense to take the Yellow Trail to get out to this area of the cave instead of traveling via the Happy Route, but I'm glad I challenged myself. I'm more secure in my route finding and caving abilities than ever. Even after some challenges, both Scott and Alison stated they would absolutely do this again (after significant rest). For two first time "deep" cavers into Wind Cave, I think that says it all about the trip. Cave on!
Christopher M. Amidon