Golding River Cave
Oct 15, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, IC Conolley, J Pauel, EA Slack, D Lee, D Comer
Notes: RS Stewart
Video: Stewart attempting to enter Golding River Cave, Entrance Two (3m22s - 320x240 - 30 MB .AVI)
This was our fifth attempt to enter Golding River Cave. On the first visit, May 12, 2005, during the Parks in Peril Project, Ivor Conolley, Elizabeth Slack, and I hunted in vain for "Entrance One". In October of 2005, Adam Hyde, Barb Gottgen, and I found "Entrance Two", but it was blocked by stones that had come down on it from the hillside above. In March of 2006, Guy Van Rentergem, Hilde De Splenter, and I basically cleared the pitch but declined to enter due to questionable stability of the remaining rocks. On the fourth visit, Jun 6/06, we returned with Hilti powerloads and a cordless drill to try to clean up the rest, and finally get through, without complete success.
The main problem on Jun 6/06 had been lack of power for the drill. The system itself worked fine. To remedy that, we had decided to bring a generator this time. Jan Pauel had gotten a unit that would do the job, lent from a friend, and the plan was to transport the machine down the side of the valley, and to the blocked entrance, by tieing two long poles on either side so that four people could carry it as a litter, two in front and two in back. The plan was effective, although due to the total weight of the rig (over 70kg), wet ground because of regular showers, and the steepness of the valley, it was a tremendous effort.
Soon after the team had collected at the top of the approach trail, I'd found two strong poles (turned into such by use of a machete) that seemed sturdy enough, although green and rather heavy. Discussions on the best rigging method followed, and then careful tieing using nylon twist rope. Once we decided it was secure enough, Donny and Jan took the front, Ivor and I took the back, we hoisted the beast, and headed downhill.
The trail is narrow for the entire way, and steep in parts, especially where large, smooth rocks protrude from the hill. An unforeseen drawback to our rigging plan soon became apparent; it was not possible for two people to walk side by side on the trail, and even when we staggered ourselves somewhat, one kept being pushed off the track to the side, either downslope to the left, or into the brushy hillside on the right (complete with macca and cowitch). If you tried to walk between the poles while you carried them, scissoring caused by the pair on the other end would threaten to squeeze you between (with this sometimes being your head). As a result, it took over 30 minutes to reach the bottom of the valley, which is usually a 10 minute hike.
Now came several hundred metres along the bottom of the river valley, on bouldery banks, with a crossing of the stream en route. The foliage is thick enough underfoot that it is difficult to spot the many large, sharp rocks hidden below, and even under the best of circumstances, it is tricky knowing where to step. With a heavy generator hanging from two long poles, it became a real challenge. At times we would stop, and a couple of us would hack forward with machetes to clear weeds, vines, and deadfall, after which the portering of the machine would resume. Toward the end, before we had reached the side-valley and the last hundred metres, it started to seem like an impossible task, but with brute force and determination, we carried on. Close to two hours after we'd started on the trail, we finally reached our target, Entrance Two, and deposited the load.
Entrance Two is a narrow, 7m vertical shaft that drops into a stream passage. In the last couple of decades, large rocks have fallen from the valley side above to partially block the shaft. Our task was to carry on the work of the previous visits, and try to get them all out. Drilling and igniting of hilti powerloads soon began. The technique is to drill a narrow hole as deep as possible into the rock, slide in a couple of powerloads, and then a steel rod covered with a rug on the outside of the rock. The rod is thumped with a mallet, which sets off the charge. If things have gone well, rocks up to 50cm thick can be split at one go, and larger ones in stages.
Steady progress was made, although jamming of the bits was a problem at times, with this causing frequent delays. However, rocks were split and we were having much better success than the previous visit. As we toiled away, drilling and hammering and trying to not get electrocuted because of the steady drizzle that soaked everything, a couple of local youths whom we'd met before, Tyrone and his cousin, were attracted by the mysterious noises in the valley and came down to see what was going on. Once we'd explained, they became enthusiastic assistants and were a great help in hauling out the heavy chunks of rocks that we'd split. Not long past 4:30 PM, after a supreme effort, a very heavy piece of limestone that appeared to be the final obstacle was hauled out of the shaft. Below us was a drop of a couple of metres, and an opening from this on the right that passed under boulders still in place. We tied the etrier to a large tree, and I eased my way down.
At the bottom of the first short pitch, I stuck my head into the opening, hoping to see clean shaft straight down. This was not to be. About one metre in front of me were several more rocks, one medium-sized, about 70cm across, that spanned the shaft. There was about 15cm of space on the bottom, and 30cm on the top. Immediately beyond the rocks, the shaft again became vertical and the sound of the stream in the passage, loud and unmuffled, indicated that the rest of the way was probably open. But, there were still those bloody rocks in the way, and overhanging boulders above with questionable stability. There was no doubt that we were beat for the day - there simply wasn't enough time left to resume our efforts. I reported the situation to the others (see video linked at the top), accompanied by some swearing, and there was no disagreement that we'd have to pull the plug. We had an hour and a half of daylight left to get the generator back up the side of the valley, which was less time than it had taken us to get it down. With a general feeling of disappointment all round, we packed up and made ready to move.
The return of the generator to the top of the trail, and the cars, did not go at all as we expected (a struggle up the valley side, made worse by all the rain that had fallen, with our eventual arrival at the road not happening until after dark). Quite simply, it was one of the most remarkable things I've seen during all my time spent in Jamaica. At the front, Tyrone and Donny (who is in his twenties and very fit) manned the poles. At the back were the cousin and myself. As soon as the load was lifted, we started moving at a pace I usually wouldn't achieve on that ground with nothing but a light pack. Tyrone at the front was virtually trotting through the rocks and bush, with Donny matching him. At the back, I did my best to hurtle over the rocks, while not letting go of my pole. This kept up all the way along the valley floor, including through the river, and then with only a moment to catch our breaths, up the valley side. At that point, I was mostly just doing my best to keep up, with one hand clinging to the pole. This seemed to be no problem for my partner, as he simply hoisted my share of the load along with his as we jogged up the trail. They left me behind entirely about halfway upslope, when I slid back down a rock I'd being trying to run up; I watched them merrily trotting onwards and said to hell with it, as they seemed to have things well in hand. Five minutes later, I was back at the cars, where they had already set down the load, with the total time from Entrance Two having been an incredible twenty-five minutes.
The rest of the crew eventually caught up, and after quaffing a few Red Stripes and taking photos, we placed the poles where they would be easily found by anyone else who had need of them, and set off to our various destinations (Ivor, Eliz and I to Accompong for a workshop the next day, Jan and Dr Lee to Kingston, and Donny back home to his Peace Corps site.
Notes will be found online for the next return, when Guy Van Rentergem pushed the way past the boulder and carried out a solo exploration to Entrance One on Feb 19/07.