Jamaican Caving Notes
January 15, 2005
MINOCAL'S GLORY HOLE
Position: 18 16' 26.7" N, 77 42' 46.8" W
Field notes: R. S. STEWART
Cavers: R. S. Stewart, I. C. Conolley, G. van Rentergem
Time in: 15:00 EST, Time out: 19:00 EST
THREAT VULNERABILITY: Low
Minocal's Glory Hole is situated north of Quick Step, Trelawny, and is one of the deepest, known, not fully descended shafts on the island. It had been on the JCO to-do list for many years and had been visited briefly by our crew on Aug 23, 2003, to locate and GPS mark the entrance. On January 15, 2005, a year and a half later, our intention was to get as far down into this pit as possible and perhaps find the bottom. By the end of the visit, we had indeed reached further than the only other attempt on Minocal's, by the NSS in 1985, but we had yet to complete the exploration of this intriguing sinkhole - we had only raised more questions.
Four of us, Ivor Conolley, Guy van Rentergem, Elizabeth Slack, and myself, had journeyed to Quick Step the night before, after paying a visit to Me No Sen Cave in the Stonehenge district of northern St Elizabeth. Our plan was to again stay at Joanne and Hortenses's place, just north of the village. We had intended to arrive before dark, so that we wouldn't be taking them too much by surprise, but this, of course, was not to be, and as usual we ran late. We didn't roll in to Quick Step until after 8:00, having grabbed dinner in Maggotty en route, after having made the inevitable time-consuming wrong turns from Me No Sen to Maggotty, and after having not even gotten out of Me No Sen until 5:00 PM. In fact, arriving at 8:00 PM meant that we were moving along at a decent pace. The drive around the Cockpit Country had gone quite well this session, compared to some of our previous partial-disasters. At the very least, we'd had no accidents and this was an improvement. It must be noted that our steady vehicular progress was entirely due to Ivor driving, with all of us in his car. Ives had taken on driving duties for this expedition and things continued to go smoothly.
Upon our arrival in Quick Step, it was immediately apparent that things had somehow changed. It was a Friday night, there were few people at the bars and shops at the centre of the village, and those who were to be seen seemed subdued. We carried on to Joannes, and again things seemed odd. The power had gone out in Maggotty when we'd been there, and continued to be out when we got to Quick Step, but in this expected darkness there were no glows of kerosene lamps, or candles, in the several houses that cluster here. At 8:00 PM, on a Friday night, everyone was asleep.
I climbed out of the car once we'd parked, and headed up the path to Joanne's while Ivor gave a few beeps of the horn. As I approached the house, there were at last signs of life. Hortense and Joanne came blinking their way onto the porch, blinded by the light of my headlamp blazing in their faces, until I clued in, reduced the power, and tilted it down. As I asked if we could again rent their extra room, they gestured in that direction and mentioned Hurricane Ivan. Looking, I saw that it had been half-destroyed. The roof was gone, along with part of the concrete wall. Bloody grim stuff. Asking, I soon learned that the entire district had been hit hard. Farms had been washed away, houses, especially of those who could least afford to lose them, had been destroyed, and there had been no disaster relief that had reached Quick Step. Times were very hard.
It must be realized that Quick Step is, officially, in Trelawny, but only by a couple of km's. The adjoining parts of Trelawny, to the west, north, and east, are bush. Quick Step is often overlooked by the rest of the parish, and never in a worse way than now, post-Ivan. Sitting high on the side of the great faulted valley that cuts through the Cockpit Country to the NNW, it was perfect prey for the winds that blasted the island on Sept 11, 2004. In the aftermath, they weren't helped, just forgotten about once again. All I can think of to do personally is to put a SE-targetted page on our website asking that more-fortunate people offer any assistance they can.
Joanne and Hortense, bless their hearts, made space for us in one of their two remaining rooms, a task that took much work on their part. Soon, our things were stashed, Guy and Elizabeth were crashing on the floor in their respective corners, and Ivor and I were heading back to the village to have a beverage and check in with other people that we'd met there in the past.
The few people out and about, in the village proper, mostly seemed to share the same shell-shocked mindset of Joanne and Hortense. We heard stories from people who had been in their houses as they had been smashed around them, stories of crops totally lost. Those who related these tales seemed to still be living them, still there in the storm. There was no organisation that we could discern, just individual lost souls. During the course of things, as we talked and had a few Red Stripes, Ivor and I encouraged them to form a Community Association of some sort, so that they might be better heard. Ivor, at one point, with a dozen of us standing in a circle in the middle of the street, in front of shops closed early due to lack of business, gave a speech that was good enough for parliament, and it was quite impressive to watch. Let's hope that the people's natural resilience, along with a few suggestions, might overcome the current local inertia.
Saturday morning came, (with at least myself having had an interesting sleep due to being on a concrete floor with nothing more than a blanket), and we once again enjoyed a cup of bush-tea courtesy of Joanne as we watched the sun rise over the great mist-filled valley that lies to the east. The plan for today was to get Elizabeth down to Maggotty, where she would begin a long journey via route-taxi to return to Peace Corps responsibilities in St Mary, and then for Ivor, Guy, and myself to return to Quick Step, and then move on to Minocal's Glory Hole. We were soon on our way, Elizabeth was dropped off, and the rest of us returned to Joanne's. After having picked up a couple of Minocal Stephenson's grandsons as rope-watchers for the top of the pit, we were en route north into the Cockpit Country, along the rough road that eventually dead-ends partway across.
I had visited the entrance to the hole in August, 2003, and I not only had a GPS position but had a good recollection of the surrounding topography. After 30 minutes of crawling northwards in Ivor's car, we were parked, loaded up with gear, and hiking into the glade that held our target. We were soon there.
The entrance to Minocal's Glory Hole is high on the NNW side of a glade that also holds another more shallow shaft, Belmore Castle 2. The entrance is horizontal, because it is a shaft, and has a vertical wall rising some 10 - 15 m on the back, hillward side. To the south, the land drops into the glade. The opening to the shaft is about 10 m across, slightly oval, with the long axis parallel to the hill behind it. Rigging took some time, due to discussion about the best manner, but was finally done using a large tree on the SW side as a main anchor, and a diversion line anchored to the east to reduce rope-damage on edges. Personally, because we were using the "monster-rope", a 100 metre long, 11+ mm diameter static rope that is more like steel cable than nylon, I wasn't tremendously concerned about a bit of fairly soft limestone making contact with it. Although it weighs a ton, the thing is seriously bomb-proof and is probably more suited to hauling elephants out of deep pits, (if such an unlikely thing were ever to be necessary), than holding a caver or two. With rigging done, and vertigear set, I headed down into the deep dread hole that I'd been looking forward to for years.
The hole I was descending into had been entered once before, by the NSS in 1985. They had run out of ropes and ladders before they had gotten to the bottom, but had made a decent map of what they'd found, (seen to the left). That, and their notes as published in Jamaica Underground, indicated that there was a series of at least three steps. My thought was to stage things from level to level, with the vertical team linking at each point, in order to maintain communications and be more able to make collective decisions. Accordingly, at about 50 metres down, (freehanging for the last third), when I reached the first step, I got off-rope and radioed up to Ivor that he could come ahead. Ives was soon down and I prepared for the next stage of the descent.
The shaft at the bottom of the first drop is much the same size as the opening at the top. At apx 210 deg true, the shaft resumes its downwards course shifted about 12 metres to the side. I had pitched the remaining length of the monster-rope, about 50 metres, down into the second drop while waiting for Ivor, and although this would now stretch to the side, as I carried on rappeling into the next stage, it wasn't a concern. The rope barely made contact with the wall of the first step as it diverted and continued its way down. With harness, and figure-8 descender, I made my way into the second drop of the shaft.
Several metres below the first step, the shaft is partly blocked by large breakdown boulders, jammed like giant chockstones from the east to west walls. To the north, a gap of about 1 m width is found, and to the south is the bulk of the continuing pit. I chose the southern route, even though it seemed less direct for the rope, because of the spaciousness it offered for the return ascent. Taking this on descent, I was at the second step after another 10 metres. I found a safe perch, got off-rope, and called up to Ivor that I was clear. Ivor let me know that he was about to head down, and while this got underway, I scrambled around somewhat and took a look at where I'd come to.
The second step of Minocal's Glory Hole is muddy. At times, it takes much water, although it is unknown whether it comes from above or below. The general layout of the second step is high on the farside, furthest from the first step, and sloping into continuing shaft to the north. It is unlike other shafts that I've been into, which have generally been quite dry. There is flowstone, and active stals. At the edge of the continuing shaft, to the north, it is apparent that much of the second step is in fact breakdown boulders jammed into the pit, much like that found above, after the first step. The hole displays a surprisingly active history for a simple/complex shaft, or Jamaican sinkhole, and it's obvious that it is still alive and not a simple choked pit. It was at this point that I began to feel impressed about what I'd entered. It felt like I was really on/in new-ground. I tossed what remained of the rope into the third drop.
Ivor was soon with me at the second step, and I got on rappel again to carry on down into what would be new territory. The NSS had run out of ropes at the second step and had merely lowered a tape-measure into the third drop to measure the depths. Now, it wouldn't be a tape-measure, it would be me making my way down to see what could be found. I felt very alive.
The top of the third drop of Minocal's is a little tricky. On the side where the rope passes, (our faithful monster-rope still snaking into the depths), it is tight, jagged, and overhanging. It was obvious that it would take a bit of work to move across and get past this on the way up. This was a surmountable problem, so I ignored it, assuming I'd work it out on the way back up, (which was indeed the case). Once past this, I moved down and after passing another breakdown step on the way, (step 2-B), touched down about 14 metres lower, on another step in a now reduced-diameter shaft, some 3 x 3 metres. As I let the stretch of the rope slide up the descender, I took a look around and immediately spotted a Sesarma crab, looking just like one of the S. verleyi seen in Windsor Cave and many other hydrologically active caves. This was astounding. I'd only ever seen them in river-caves, never in a deep pit. Carefully, I took off my pack, grabbed a large set of tweezers and a vial of 95% alcohol, and plucked a leg. To explain, I am collaborating with an expert in Sesarma who is doing DNA analysis on this genus of crabs, and by taking a leg, which will be replaced next moult, one can sample without killing the subject of the analysis. Myself, I'm using them to determine hydrogeographic associations between caves. At any rate, this was major. There shouldn't have been a crab for me to pluck a leg off of.
Once the leg was safely stowed, I took a further look at things. To the SW, there were three gaps around the breakdown boulders that had partially plugged this part of the shaft. To the left, there was an opening, [L1], under a metre on all sides, that at first glance looked like it might choke. To the right, two gaps led around a boulder with the smaller of the two, [R1], giving the best view to what lay below. By getting on my belly and squeezing my head and shoulders in, I could see at least another 5 metres of shaft with no visible floor. To the left of the boulder, the larger opening, [R2], was large enough to allow a person to slip through, although the slope did not allow a view of the bottom. I decided that I should have a closer look at the last step, (2-B), that I'd passed on the third pitch, to see if there were a better opening to the rest of the pit, and shouted up to Ivor to let him know what I was doing. Once I ascended to the step, and found nothing, I suggested to Ivor that he should come ahead and have a look at things. He was soon sliding past me to reach the bottom of the third pitch.
Ivor, intrepid caver that he is, had a much closer look at the squeezes past the third step, as I watched from the step above, (2-B). His observations will be recorded in separate notes, but my recollection of it follows: Ives squeezed into R1 and found that it led into a narrowing fissure. By dropping the last bit of the monster-rope into it he found that it went at least another 3-4 m, but was too tight to pursue. At R2, Ives had a go at getting through the squeeze but was concerned about getting the descender caught in clothing and decided to leave it until another time. He looked into R1 and could see the continuation downwards. While Ives was doing this, I decided to hang a long orange flag from a rock at step 2-B, so that any future visitors who made it only to step 2 would see the flag below and know of our efforts. This bit of JCO vanity would turn out to be very informative.
Ivor, having done what we thought we could manage on a first visit to these stygian depths, rigged for ascent as I remained at step 2-B. While he was doing this, I noticed that the long orange flag that I had hung was waving around in a breeze. I had noticed that the temperature had dropped past the second step, and had a vague notion that the air seemed fresh, but hadn't been aware of the breeze until I saw that long piece of ribbon fluttering in a subterranean wind. This, combined with the Sesarma that I'd plucked a leg off of earlier, added up to something amazing. The pit was connected somewhere below us to something larger, something that went somewhere. At the very least, there was enough shaft below us, below 90 metres, to act as a reservoir for "breathing", but this remarkable breeze in the depths, along with the crab, suggested/suggests much greater things. It is hard to not think that we have come close to achieving the dream of every caver who has worked the Cockpit Country - hitting an underground river, somewhere down a very deep shaft, to come out Jah knows where.
The ascent began. Ivor carried on to the second step, while I waited at step 2-B, and after I'd fought my way around the dicey spot noted on the way down, I reached the second step to see another Sesarma. A few minutes of stalking resulted in it being relieved of a leg, (in the name of science, and it shall recover). Our ascent continued, by stages and with some hauling of ropes and gear en route, until we were both again at the first step. I headed up, making great time, being assisted by a light-heart and the knowledge of what we had found, and what we might find in the future, and soon after, with me at the top, Ivor began his way back up the last stage of our journey. It must be noted that it was rough for him, because he'd forgotten the boots that he usually uses for vertical work, and was in pain for much of that last ascent. Nevertheless, before too long we were together again at the top of the hole and hauling up the load of ropes and packs that had been tied onto the bottom of the rope at the first step. This was done and we headed out from the hole in a dark night, through the bush, to find the car.
It is at that point of the visit that I conducted myself poorly and must confess to bad-form. My legs were tired, I had a heavy load, and I wound up in the back of things as the two others of the JCO crew, and our two local rope-watchers, attempted to hike out of the bottom-land. I could see early on in the hike that we were going the wrong way. Even in the dark, I know the topography of that glade and I knew where the car was. By the time I caught up with the others, trying to catch my breath and get the blood moving again in my legs, it was too late and the others were very far from our track back to the car. Rather than being the "boss", which I'm supposed to be, and in a confident, authoritative fashion leading us back in the right direction, I made a couple of feeble efforts to say, "No, man, it's this way!", and then headed off saying, "F*ck this, I'm going to the car. I'm tired of stumbling around in the f*cking bush, in the dark, with people who don't know where they're going. You can follow me or spend the night out here." In my defense, I have to note that I've been through that sort of thing too many times, following local "guides" after dark, who approach things by rushing off as fast as possible in the wrong direction, as I try to tell them that they're lost. Also in my defense, I should add that I found my way directly back to the trail, called to the others, and then led us to the car, a fact that was not appreciated by those whom I got out of that glade in the dark. Nevertheless, I should have handled things much better. I am a very poor guide when regarded in terms of taking control and doing a proper job of things. At Windsor Cave, the first day of the expedition, I'd led us in a circle, staring at the ground and thinking of nothing but keeping people out of the mud, while constantly turning left in a very large chamber. The pressure of being a guide/boss/whatever is something I have to come to grips with. On my own, with just a couple of others of our old-time crew, I'm very solid; otherwise, things need work.
Once back to Quick Step, I hit the local bar, while the others had a bite to eat, and several hours were spent hanging with the locals, drinking some Stripe, and digesting the day's events. Despite our poor exit from the bush after our ascent from the pit, we had done great work this day and I was justifiably proud of it.
All those who read these notes are advised that I claim priority on further exploration of Minocal's Glory Hole for at least the next two months. Visiting cavers are advised to stay out of it until we've pushed it further - it's our turf and we won't be happy if you have a go at it before we next have a chance. It has the potential to be one of the greatest explorations in the history of Jamaican caving, and it's going to be the JCO who does it.
[More notes for Minocal's - May 18, 2005]
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