Jamaican Caving Notes
|Mar 03, 2003|
Field notes: R. S. STEWART
Cavers: R. S. Stewart, I. C. Conolley, M. Taylor, Clive
Upon our return to the Lada from Schaw Castle Cave, we drove a short distance towards Maroon Town, parked at the top of a trail that headed down to the NW, loaded up with gear and ropes, and then Clive led us on our way. The trail we followed contours well enough that there are few steep climbs. It is a very pleasant walk of about 25 minutes to Belfield Cave. Along the way we spotted several very fine bromeliads in bloom, (photo), all of the same species, a ground loving type of about 80 cm width and 70 height.
At a place where the trail cut along the side of a hill, a valley with the remains of an old farm below us to the right, a bushed up hill rising to the left, Clive brought us to a halt and informed us that the entrance was a short distance up the hill to the left.
The story that we had on this cave was that it was entered by a deep hole, up the hill to our east, and that the cave then crossed the trail beneath us to exit at a second entrance in the yard of the old farm in the valley below. This had been learned by Clive's Uncle, who had at some time in the past, the story goes, climbed down a rope into the caves from the entrance above us, on the hill, and then travelled to, and exited from, the lower entrance. As far as Clive knew, the Uncle was the only person who had ever entered the cave. It should be noted that the entrance was well enough known for the cave to have a local name, Belfield Cave. This all sounded quite good to us; the cave required rope work to enter, was little explored, and probably undisturbed by humans as a result. Clive led the way, machete at work, up the bushed hill.
It was slow-going, pushing through vines and dodging Cowitch, but after only 20 metres of this, Clive began to range to left and right, telling us that the hill had become very overgrown since his last visit but he knew the cave was right around us somewhere. I found a comfortable log to perch upon, well clear of Cowitch, and swatted mosquitoes while watching Clive beat the bush. Ivor and Malibu waited a short distance down the hill. Time passed, and Clive continued to chop and push through the growth above us, then below us, then off to the south a ways. After some 20 minutes of this I began to wonder if we were looking for a phantom cave, a Flying Dutchman of caves, but Clive seemed certain that what he searched for was real. He passed below me again, then began to range along the hill to the northwest. At last! Clive had found the cave not more than 15 metres from where I perched. As I crossed to where he was, the entrance remained invisible, hidden in the undergrowth, until I was only several metres away. Ivor and Malibu came up, we had a good look, and set to work.
The entrance to Belfield Cave sits on the side of a hill that looks to the west, is inclined at about 45 deg, and is about 6 x 4 metres wide. A low wall, presumably constructed to keep goats from falling to their deaths, has been built on the downhill side of the opening. A look into the hole shows a vertical drop of about 14 metres into a chamber of about 30 x 20 metres that has its long dimension NNW - SSE. A suitable tree is found downslope that was used as an anchor for a rope.
While I connected the antenna to the GPS and began getting a position, Ivor rigged the drop. A good WAAS GPS position was taken, the geo-synch differential satellite being, as always, high in the SE sky and nicely placed for this cave entrance, and saved as wpt's 68/69. By the time this was done, Ivor had the rope tied and dropped in the hole, and as he got on rappel and headed off, I got the harness on and prepared to go next. As soon as Ivor was at the bottom he gave a shout that we'd need a second rope, and this was sent in. I followed on rappel and then Malibu, who was already set to go, came soon after. We were all down within 10 minutes, except for Clive who remained above.
At the bottom of this first chamber, a large continuation leads downslope to the west, which gives way to another chamber that is larger then the first. A rope is required due to an overhanging vertical of about 5 metres, at the bottom of the slope, that drops one into the second chamber. Ivor had already begun to rig the second rope, so I had a careful look for inverts in the interim.
The first chamber of Belfield Cave is all in the twilight zone, and although it has a small number of fruitbats in residence has not acquired enough guano to support any significant colonies of invertebrate other than the expected outside species such as spiders etc. The entire cave is also quite dry and has humidity much the same as the hill outside.
When the second pitch was rigged, the three of us rapped down into the next chamber. This second chamber has very, very fine, clean calcite formations covering most of the horizontal surfaces. These are low, only centimetres high, and resemble cauliflower. All the calcite in this chamber sparkled wonderfully under the headlamp and reflected back thousands of tiny points of light. The overall effect was magnificent and quite beautiful. We tried to be as careful as possible in moving over these formations to prevent damage, and kept on boulders whenever we could.
The three of us now worked our way to the bottom of this second chamber in search of Clive's Uncle's route to the farmyard. The vertical orientation of this cave is down to the west, in the required direction, and we began a thorough search of the bottom perimeter in hopes of finding a route on. It must be said that even at first glance, it didn't look promising. The nature of the caves suggested a limited number of linked breakdown chambers, there being no hydrological activity that might have created a continuing passage. Nevertheless, we looked long and hard to no avail. There was no route that we could find. If indeed Clive's Uncle went into this cave, hand over hand down a rope from the opening we had entered, I have a hard time believing that he came out anywhere else. In fact, this tale of someone having travelled a long distance underground to pop out in another parish is one we've heard again and again about caves that we know to dead-end and have but one entrance. This particular story has at least given us a convenient code when getting info from local people about caves, "Clive's Uncle", and a knowing look...
Having done all that we could do for a first visit, we began to make our way out. The second pitch was approached in a manner expected to best give Malibu another good bit of practice with the Jumars. The plan was that I would go first, demonstrating the technique, and then Malibu would follow while Ivor coached from below. Accordingly, I headed up, stopping between manoeuvres and explaining, until I was out of sight, and then went the rest of the way more quickly.
I arrived at the point at which I would unclip from the rope, not having looked up at the entrance yet, and heard Clive say from above, "Check what I done". I stood, turned and looked up, and was met with the most horrifying sight that I have ever beheld in a cave. Clive, in an attempt to be helpful, and having no conception of how we would ascend the first rope, had tied a very large, long tree to the rope, and lowered it into the hole so that it hung at an angle of about 70 deg with its thick end standing on the floor of the cave. The knot that held the tree was some 35 feet above me while the lower end of the rope hung caught up in branches on the tree with the remainder just reaching the bottom. From the knot to the entrance, the rope stretched taught at a diagonal angle until it disappeared through the opening. The helpful Clive apparently thought that it would be easier to climb the tree than the rope. I said, "J*sus f*cking Chr*st Clive, what have you done??" This was perhaps not the most diplomatically phrased question possible, but it accurately reflected my thoughts at that moment. I do believe that it made Clive understand that what he had done was not good.
The dilemma was this: To ascend that rope with jumars, untangling rope en route, passing a knot, then continuing on a taught diagonal rope the rest of the way seemed suicidal. There was a chance that the jumars would twist right off on an angle like that, let alone trying to use the frog-method in that manner. But to untie the tree required an ascent to the knot, untying it under tension, then having it crash to the floor while I swung in a great pendulum above, to probably hit the wall at high speed. Clive, of course, couldn't reach the knot because it was some 20 feet from him, out and down in the chamber. I walked over to the second pitch, where Ivor was coaching Malibu up the line, and yelled down, "You are not going to believe the nightmare you have waiting for you up here." I walked back to look up again, wishing that I had the camera that was in the pack on Malibu's back so that I could record this incredibly improbable worst-case scenario. For the life of me, I couldn't see a solution other than Clive going for any old kind of rope that could be lowered into the cave and then used to haul up our second static 11 mm line to tie on outside, then have it pitched down so we'd have a straight, unknotted line to ascend. Ropes are not especially common items in the Cockpit; it looked like we might be spending a while in this cave.
Clive began to try to haul the tree out of the hole. He managed to bring it more to the vertical but that was it. The whole affair was strangely entertaining in a horrible kind of way. Clive let the rope back out and the tree resumed its previous position. Malibu and Ivor could be heard talking down in the second pitch, still oblivious to the little drama that was playing out above them. Clive then had a new idea, imperfectly communicated to me, that caused him to disappear for a minute, then return with a very long stick. He began to reach down with it, attempting to hook the rope below the knot. Inquiries on my part finally made me understand that his plan was to get the bottom end of the rope, which was longer than the part above the knot, untie the line from the tree outside, and then lower the tree that was inside the cave until it lay on the floor and could be untied by me. I had visions of him dropping the entire rope, tree and all into the cave. I expressed my dislike of his plan while he continued to try to, and then finally succeeded in, hooking the lower part of the rope. He was not to be dissuaded from this course of action, feeling, I suspect, somewhat chagrined at his mistake in assuming that we would climb the tree he had so helpfully provided. I didn't order him to stop, it seeming as good a plan as any I could think of. I foresaw two scenarios: One, he would drop the whole rope along with the tree into the cave and would have to go find another rope to haul our second line up with. Two, he'd succeed and then we could use that first line to haul up the second that we had with us, tie that outside, and lower it down. I wasn't sure how much I trusted the first line until we'd inspected it, what with it having had a large tree hanging from it and all. Malibu and Ivor had still not come up so I went over to the top of the pitch to consult. I don't believe that I had yet successfully communicated the gravity of the situation. As I perched on a rock above them, I heard a loud "Thump!", and turned around to watch the large tree that had hung in the hole come to a sliding stop, chopped, bottom, pointy end first, two feet from the back of my neck. Clive had carried out his plan successfully, unfortunately with no warning to those who waited below. That little incident is the closest I've been to serious injury while caving. Give thanks to Jah for hearing my, "Protect I", before I entered Belfield Cave.
Malibu finally came up to the top of the second pitch, having missed the entire preceding spectacle, and despite my suggestion that we wait until Ivor was up, then use the second line, he was in such a focussed state of ascent that he decided to carry on up the first pitch directly. He clipped into the first line, the former tree-line, made his first moves up, then slowly slid downwards, rope and all, with a slight look of consternation on his face, as the slipknot that Clive had apparently used above gave up its slack. Unperturbed, once he'd realized what had happened, he headed upwards again, moving very fast, then disappeared out the opening above. Ivor had come up by now, and while I tried to explain what he'd missed, we hauled the second rope and made ready to ascend. Ivor went next, figuring that if the first line had held Malibu, it would hold him, and then I followed. I have to confess that I didn't dawdle on the ascent, and probably set a personal record for the 14 metre rope sprint. With three having gone in, and three having come out, we hauled rope, stowed gear, and headed back to the Lada.
N.B. To Self:
Whenever leaving a person at the top of the pitch in caves in the future, such as Clive, who has no understanding of the techniques that we use, remember Belfield Cave. It must be made quite clear that the rope, and any rigging, MUST NOT BE TOUCHED! I shall explain, Malibu shall explain, Ivor shall explain, there will be no doubt that this is understood.
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