Gas Chamber Discovery

Caver sitting cross-legged in the Gas Chamber
Gas Chamber

NPS Photo

1st Trip: On 2/11/2006, Carl Bern led Derek Wolfe and Larry Schaffer on a 17-hour trip to the Skinner area in the southern Comfort Section, where they discovered the Gas Chamber.

Trip Report: Spent the whole day mapping in a new area on the SW edge of Wind Cave. Found a fairly large room, which we named the Gas Chamber. Surveyed 809 feet of new passage. This is the largest discovery on the edge of the cave since Marc Ohm's 1999 discovery of Pizza Hut off of the Colorado Grotto Section.


2nd Trip: On 1/23-25/2009, Carl Bern led Ben Tobin, Andrew & Evan Blackstock to Camp Cosmos in the Southern Comfort Section where they discovered some water table lakes they named the Deep End off of the Gas Chamber area.

Trip Report: Summary- The January 2009 camp was the first to achieve the true potential of camp-supported exploration in Southern Comfort and was quite successful. None of the participants got sick or suffered any significant injury. A total of 1,383.35 feet of passage were surveyed, most of that beyond the Skinner. Two major new passages were mapped on day three of the expedition, extending the southern boundary of Wind Cave, intersecting the local water table, and discovering a number of unusual speleothems. After leading 22 trips into the Southern Comfort area, making such a find was quite personally rewarding. Multi-flash photography was used to document the camp, and some of the nearby passages. Minor improvements were made to the camp, flagged trails, and water collectors.

January 23, 2009

We were awakened by the sound of the snow plow driving by the VIP building, as the previously dry roads had picked up about 4" of snow since our 23:00 arrival the night before. After that, we were greeted at 6:45 by the first arrivals of the lighting crew. Jason Walz from the cave staff met us in the VIP building. Wiping the sleep from our eyes we made a breakfast of mashed potatoes, sausage and gravy while packing up our camp packs and stowing our overnight gear. At 09:20, we headed into the cave, which was sucking in air.

Ben Tobin has a number of trips into Wind Cave, but it had been a few years since his last, additionally this was his first time traveling with the two-pack system. Despite that, he moved just fine through the cave and we made steady progress out to the Pile-Up. The Pile-Up water collectors are functioning well. I replaced the water in the brown glass bottle with fresh water and placed a log-sheet in a plastic bag for noting the age of waters in the emergency containers. At Rt. 66 the big climbdown remains covered with unstable rock, but removing the unstable rock is more dangerous than gently climbing past it. Additionally, any gardening seems to only destabilize underlying layers.

All four of the 5-gallon reservoirs of the Rt. 66 water collector were full. Considering how well the system is functioning, and the rapid rate of refill. We decided not to cache large amounts of water in the gallon cubetainers, as water stored for long periods has been suspected of sickening cavers and campers in Jewel Cave. Evan Blackstock had carried a digital camera and two slave flashes along and he took a number of photos of the water collector.

We proceeded to Camp Cosmos and dropped our gear at the staging tarp. Andrew and Ben retrieved water from Rt. 66 while Evan and I added additional flagging to the trail leading up to camp. In places, we created two 'rails' for cavers to stay between, similar to the flagging in Lechuguilla.

We then assembled survey packs and headed over towards Pervert Alley to get some footage before dinner. Top priority was a lead that pointed towards a possible bypass to The Skinner. We mapped it, but it becomes a hammer dig well short of approaching its possible connection on the far side. We mapped another very low, but wide crawl to a dead end and discovered two buttons from the clothing of a previous explorer! We took the buttons out of the cave.

Back at camp we unpacked the sleeping bags which appear to be surviving storage just fine. Some mold was discovered growing on the aquasocks, and we discussed packing those in plastic with desiccant. After dinner we set the watch alarms to give us eight hours of sleep to get us caught up and prepared for exploration the next day.

Surveyed: 128.6'

January 24, 2009

Everyone slept hard and awoke excited for a day of exploration. We picked up water at Rt. 66. One of my water cubies had a major manufacturing flaw and leaked. Seconds after placing the cubie in my day pack a dilute solution of Gatorade was soaking out the bottom. To clean it up, we washed the pack with fresh water and poured more water on the floor to leach any sugar away. We joked about me being "Wet Pack Guy" for the day. After that incident everyone was checking their cubies closely, but the only other leak on the trip occurred from a loose lid on a water cubie during the trip out.

I wanted better documentation of the Skinner and so we stopped at three different spots in there for Evan to take multi-flash photos. From there we headed into the crawlway maze partially explored on the last camp trip. We picked up the hammer at ER102 and began surveying. Progress was tediously slow at first as we squeezed past boxwork and plowed through rock flour. Having a Disto instead of a survey tape helped to speed things, but the tick of the clock was hard to ignore. Faint air movement can be detected in these crawls. On this trip, we decided to name the area The Flour Box Maze. Several leads remain to be mapped in the area, but many will link to each other.

We mapped southeast and soon connected to a known lead on the route out to the Gas Chamber at ER36. A side lead soon connected to more known cave near ER60A, but we did not survey the loop in the interest of time. We continued towards the Gas Chamber and surveyed a dead-end side lead along the way.

We did another thorough investigation of the Gas Chamber. The high lead marked as "Not Good" on the quad map is accurately described. It goes further than surveyed, up into breakdown. There is evidence of air movement (corrosion), but little air has been felt on the two occasions of investigation. Some hammer work would be necessary to peek around what is probably the final corner. We left that task for a more optimistic trip. At least three interesting climb leads exist in northern and western walls of the Gas Chamber. I backed off climbing the one in the western wall after two different hand-holds broke off. The exposure is sufficient for a bad tumble for an unlucky climber. The two leads in the northern wall are interesting, but protected by more than 15' of very crumbly face rock. They are probably better tackled by pole-climbing techniques, or extremely deep bolting.

We dropped into the western side passage off the Gas Chamber to check a marked crawlway lead. Noting our location on the map, Evan took the hammer and battled fiercely into the lead. It circled back to the known passage and we mapped the easier part of the crawlway. We headed back towards the Gas Chamber. As I was disappointedly climbing up the breakdown into the Gas Chamber Andrew asked, "Has anyone checked this?" It was a side lead, hidden above a shelf with a bit of air. I could not see back down the passage to Andrew, but he was too close to be coming out of our previous loop lead. I backtracked to check it out and gave him my blessing to hammer his way in. I then dashed out to the southern extent of the same passage to check for missed leads. None existed, but I noticed that the map did not quite describe the area fully so I recruited Evan to help me map a small parallel passage. We heard excited noises from Ben and Andrew further north. With great effort Andrew had looped back under the breakdown pile at the bottom of the pit from the Gas Chamber and hammered a small opening there. The excitement was due to the discovery of a sizeable south-trending passage underneath the breakdown. Andrew and Ben enlarged the hole through the breakdown so the team could get through safely. As we crammed ourselves through the spot was dubbed The Cram Hole.

The hour was getting late, but we wanted to see if the new discovery went anywhere. The passage descended and opened up. We mapped one branch which immediately in a dead end canyon with tiny rafts on the floor, but there were two more leads and one of those looked huge. We quit for the day in high spirits and traveled back through the normal route out of the Gas Chamber area. It was quite satisfying for me to travel back through so much cave that I had helped discover, and still have strong leads waiting for the next day. We gave ourselves 7 hours to sleep that night, eager to return to the survey.

Surveyed: 409.8'

January 25, 2009

In order to focus on speedy travel and survey, we left the big slave flash in camp. Back at the leads, things started off fast. We fired off several long shots as the floor dropped into tall canyon passage. We found more tiny rafts on the floor. Suddenly the tall passage came to a dead-end. Ben climbed high at the terminus and could find no way on. Andrew pushed into a floor-level crawl on the west side, where there was a hint of flowstone. He hammered open a constriction that followed an awkward turn in the passage and the wooden handle broke off the hammer. Eventually he made it through the constriction and reported increasingly interesting finds: small pools of water, a trickle of water, a lead completely floored by glowing white flowstone, other big leads going multiple directions.

We surveyed through the awkward spot. Passing through required curling up in a ball, re-orienting one's body, extending one's legs into an alcove, and then wriggling through the constriction. We named it the Flip Turn.

Everything Andrew had described was found to be present. Additionally, the floor was covered several inches deep with tiny rafts (1/2" square and smaller). We ate a hearty lunch in anticipation of big survey. Evan photographed the lead floored with white flowstone as best he could while we started mapping. The lead heads southeast for at least 20' at about 4' height before bending slightly. Extensive measures such as those used for Rio Colorado would be required to explore without transferring lots of dirt onto the flowstone. We surveyed to an intersection, and took a south-trending lead. A side lead off that passage lead to a 10' deep blue pool. We followed the main passage which was floored with tiny rafts on top of calcified sediment. The rafts were covered with a thin layer of mud. To minimize impact we walked single file and used the same footprints. Andrew was becoming enamored of the Disto and fired off a 78' shot. There were no side leads so I could not cry foul. The passage ended abruptly in a small room with a bigger 10' deep pool. A pile of white rafts lay at the edge of the pool. These were much bigger, with some being about 5" square. The room seemed to end, but Ben traversed above the pool and rafts to check a climb, it ended. We named the area The Deep End.

Returning to the intersection, we surveyed northwest into more tall canyon passage. The tiny rafts through this section were sometimes 4 or 5" deep on the floor, but are not coated with mud. We tried to keep to a single set of footprints in the areas where we walked on the floor as opposed to chimneying. After many long shots, we reached a room of sorts where the passage split. The larger left side ascended a slope and quickly degraded into a crawlway and a dig. Slight air could be felt moving out of the dig. Andrew pounded the rocks which decomposed into rock flour for several minutes before deciding that the passage did not go. We surveyed into the right fork which also ascended. At the top, the passage doubled back to the southeast in a 2-3' tall crawl. Having run out of time, we left it for the next trip. I carried the wooden hammer handle out of the cave, we left the steel head near ET18 for future use. After coming back through the Flip Turn, we left a piece of blue and white striped flagging with a written warning that there are delicate features immediately on the other side of the constriction.

At Rt. 66 we tinkered with the water collector. By bracing rocks against the reservoirs at strategic locations we hope to ensure continuous flow from one reservoir to the next. A small dose of bleach was poured into the top of the system. Between Rt. 66 and camp we re-routed the trail to more completely avoid a short section of 'lipstick mud' which could easily get tracked everywhere. Back at camp we took a few photos using the multi-flash set-up. Then we set the alarms to allow for an early departure.

Surveyed: 844.95'

January 26, 2009

We got up at 05:00 and tried to get out of camp quick. Between breakfast, packing sleeping bags, and sweeping the tarps though, it takes some time. Again, the camp area tarps were very clean, while the staging tarp was covered with dirt. Some additional sharp rocks under the tarps need to be hammered off on the next trip, we never had a hammer in camp this trip. We packed three desiccant packs with each sleeping bag, and two in the group gear bag. The aquasocks got packed in a big ziplock bag with two desiccant packs to fight their slight mold issue.

The trip out was largely uneventful. We got out of the cave at 13:45 and found even more snow on the ground accompanied by brutally cold temperatures. Our overnight bags were stashed in my car and each of us got to wash our hair with frozen shampoo! The post-trip chips and salsa were also frozen, but some careful microwaving thawed the salsa. We returned our survey gear, photocopied our notes, and headed out for dinner in Hot Springs and a long frozen drive to Colorado.

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Last updated: December 28, 2017

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