Feb 16, 2007
Team: RS Stewart, G Van Rentergem, J Pauel, A Haiduk, A Snauffer, G Shiffer
Notes: RS Stewart
Video: Stewart and Haiduk in the river at Gourie Cave (48s - 640x480 - 9 MB .AVI)
This was our first visit to Gourie Cave, other than a quick recon done by Jan Pauel a few weeks before. It had been on the to-do list for quite a while, by virtue of it being the longest known cave in Jamaica, but the location had been outside of our project areas during the preceding four years, and we simply hadn't found time to visit the site. During planning for the Feb 2007 expedition, it had been decided to devote a day to Gourie - Feb 16. Our goal was to reach as far as possible, at least beyond the "duck" to Gourie II, while not exposing ourselves to an excessive flood-risk. By the end of the day, we had covered most of Gourie II, and reached to within 50m of Gourie III.
The team was a mix of old hands and relatively new cavers. On the experienced side were Guy Van Rentergem, Jan Pauel, Andreas Haiduk, and myself. Drew Snauffer and Greg Shiffer balanced things out on the other end, with Drew having some experience, and Greg virtually none before the current expedition.
The weather in the days before our visit was cool for February, with frequent showers. Combined with the high altitude of the cave (close to 900m WGS84), this caused the water in the system to be rather chilly, something that would be a factor by the end of the visit, especially for those foolish enough to wear shorts (such as myself).
A map of the cave produced in 1972 by the Jamaican Caving Club (JCC), led by Dr AG Fincham, will be found at the bottom of the page. Readers of the following account will find it helpful in understanding where we were and what we did. We encourage those who are interested in the caves of Jamaica to consider purchasing Dr Fincham's excellent book, Jamaica Underground, which was the source of the map.
Our entry into the cave, by way of the "Steps", wasn't until about 11:00 AM, this caused by a drive from Cross Keys in southern Manchester, where we'd spent the night before. As there were six of us in total, there was a certain amount of spreading out right from the start, with us collecting again at verticals and other obstacles. As it happened, I was slightly out front for the first section.
Immediately inside the Steps entrance, one reaches a river passage of respectable size. Turning left takes you downstream, which was our direction for the day. For the first stretch, I waded through knee-deep water, and reached the Sinkhole Entrance after not many minutes. This rose up on the left, admitting light, but it appeared to require at least a scramble to ascend. As we had much cave in front of us, I carried on, although now more slowly so that the others would catch up and come within talking distance.
Deeper water was soon hit at the start of the Plunge Pool Passage. Before too long, it gets shallow again, but the passage becomes much more narrow. A series of scrambly verticals were passed in this long section, some with rimstone pools as part of them, and others with fine sections of flowstone. The river was flowing at moderate levels, creating small waterfalls at every step. I didn't note the exact locations and heights of the verticals, but all except two could be scrambled.
On the first (an overhanging pitch of a few metres), we used a long etrier. On the second, we used a static rope and vertigear for a pitch of a few metres. The total depth covered by these vertical steps is at least tens of metres. Surprisingly, at what is called the Peg Pitch on the JCC map, we did indeed find the very old, very corroded piton that had been left in place 35 years before.
In the section with the last of the verticals, the passage broadens somewhat. After another 50-60m, a deep pool is reached, with the passage widening out to about 10-12m. The ceiling becomes lower, and no obvious way on is seen at the far side. This is the end of Gourie I, the part of the cave known historically until the JCC, in 1972, found a low opening that led to a much larger section of the cave, which they would call Gourie II, and eventually after further exploration, Gourie III.
As I am not terrifically comfortable with deep water, I stopped at the edge of the pool, and eyed it warily. Jan (who is part fish, at least in the water) had no such qualms and headed in without delay. As I watched, and the rest of the crew collected on the edge, Jan did a tour of the far end of the flooded passage, swimming along with no fear. Gathering my nerve, I started to follow, and before I'd reached him, he had already found and passed through the low gap that leads to the rest of the cave (airspace 20cm high and 30cm wide), probably the first to do this since the explorations of the JCC, several decades before. After reappearing and pronouncing it to be no problem, the rest of us followed him through. I can't recall the exact order, but I was not one of the first. However, when I did duck under, I spent some minutes floating on the far side, flagging the hell out of it. We knew that the system is subject to flooding, and our route in would be unfindable if the water were to rise even 30cm.
On the other side of the duck, the passage resumed its course at similar dimensions to that found before the pool, with at least one set of fine rimstone pools along the way (my recollection is vague, but we have that in a photo). After about 100m, the stream cuts down into a narrow passage on the right, and if one carries on in the "main" passage, the stream is now left behind. The side-passage that takes the river, unexplored by us but mapped by the JCC, carries on for over 200m, running roughly parallel to the main passage, until it sumps (we are unsure as to whether the connection to the passage beyond, as seen on the map, is permanently submerged).
At the point where the stream enters the side-passage, there is a rocky fissure several metres deep and 1m wide that requires caution to cross. Beyond, for the first time since you've entered the cave, you're suddenly out of the water. Ahead, there follows about 250m of muddy overflow passage until the next junction is reached (other than a short parallel passage on the south side, which will figure later in these notes). This mud is much preferrable to being constantly soaked for two hours, especially when wearing shorts.
At the "Junction", the main passage suddenly turns hard to the left, to cut over to a fault line, which it then follows for about 60m before cutting back over to the original course. In the direct line between these two points, there is a small overflow crawlway, the "By-pass Passage", that connects them. To the right of the junction, an obvious passage heads to the downstream end of the passage where the stream was left behind. Our goal for the day was to get as far as we could in the main line of the cave, so we did not explore to the right, but instead followed the "main" passage, to the left and the fault-line.
The main passage from the Junction to the Wallows is not particularly narrow, being about 10m in places and several metres high. The section along the fault is rifted, but not especially more so than in other parts of the cave. The floor has much sediment (silt), with a gully of standing, wet mud running down the centre between banks of sediment 50-100cm higher. The cave appears to be taking much silt during flood episodes - the smell that arises when it's walked through is typical of organic sediments in caves.
After the original course of the cave is again reached at the end of the By-pass, another 50m of similar passage follows until it suddenly gets low, and very muddy. This is the start of the "Wallows", the final, short part of Gourie II. It is also where we pulled the plug for the day.
It was now mid-afternoon. We were a long way into a river cave, during a time of showers, and we had a section to pass through on the way out, the duck, that had only 20cm of airspace. As we took a break at the start of the Wallows, it was decided that it was time to get out.
Our return journey consisted mostly of retracing our steps, although Guy and Jan did a quick crawl through the By-pass, arriving at the Junction much sooner than the rest of us. However, beyond the Junction, we all managed to get ourselves spread out to a large degree. I was in the middle. On my way to the side-passage fissure, I kept slowing down so the ones behind would catch up, but by the fissure, they hadn't, so I stopped. Ahead of me, the two people in front were far out of sight. I waited, with increasing concern, until after about 15 minutes I decided to go back and see if someone was hurt. Just as I'd recrossed the fissure, I saw the lights of the others coming up the passage. I soon learnt that the delay was caused by an unintended detour down the short parallel passage on the south side. As Guy explains, "The group who got lost was Greg, Drew and me. I was the last, to check if all the lights were out in the cave ;-) Somehow, Greg had lost contact with the group in front of him and followed the right wall of the passage, and wandered into the side passage. Drew and I just followed him in the knowledge he knew the way and had eye contact with the rest of the troop. Soon, the dimension became too small (just before the end of the passage) and it hit me that we were in the wrong passage. So we turned around, with me at the front now, and I took the lot of us out back to the main road. Soon after that we were back at the fissure where we found you waiting for us". It should be understood that it was my responsibility, as the leader that day, to ensure that the team stayed organised on the way out, which I didn't do. Guy was careful to bring up the rear, checking for stragglers, which quickly corrected the minor confusion en route.
The rest of the journey was uneventful (Jan and Andreas were waiting for us not far ahead), although it became tiring toward the end. From the fissure, there was over 500m of passage, with many scrambly ascents, one vertical and one etrier pitch, and the duck back through to Gourie I (which, thank goodness, still had as much airspace on the way out as on the way in). We came out of the cave not long before sunset, into wet, cool conditions.
I believe that I wasn't the only person very cold by the time we were back at the vehicles. I hadn't taken the altitude of the cave into account at all - wearing shorts was not a good idea. I suspect that even during warmer times of year, the cave is still quite cool.
It should be noted that Drew and Greg, the less-experienced cavers, were both very solid, and pulled their own weight the entire time.
Little biological data was recorded during the visit - we were there in "exploration" mode, essentially carrying out a major recon visit. The JCO intends to tackle Manchester starting in 2008 (NEPA permit project), and we will return to the cave at a very dry time of year to address it in more detail.
All who read this account are cautioned to not enter the cave during rainy times. The flood-risk is real and potentially deadly anywhere beyond the Plunge Pool. Much of the cave floods to the roof during heavy rains.