Jamaican Caving Notes
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Morgans Pond Hole
July 25-26, 2008
Morgans Pond HoleMorgans Pond Hole had been on our to-do list for some time, primarily because it was known as the deepest cave in Jamaica until our exploration and survey of Smokey Hole in 2006. The cave had only been descended once before, by A Waltham and P Smart of the Jamaican Caving Club in 1975. The survey carried out during the visit had determined the depth to be 186 metres, and as our survey of Smokey Hole had given a depth of 195 metres, just slightly deeper, we judged it important to resurvey Morgans Pond in order to confirm the accuracy of Waltham and Smart's effort. Two days of the July 2008 expedition had been set aside for this purpose.
July 25-26, 2008
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, P Kennedy, M Rohr, A Haiduk.
Notes: RS Stewart
Mike Rohr's account of the visit
On July 25, the advance crew of Stewart, Pauel, Kennedy, and Rohr arrived at the site to carry out prep work for the actual descent the following day, by Stewart, Pauel, and Haiduk. During a recon visit the year before, we had determined that it would be necessary to set bolts at the top of the main pitch (there were no natural anchors), and possibly at a shelf about 10 metres lower. This would be the first day's work, along with carrying out a line survey to the top of the pitch (refer to the W & S map found lower on the page).
The approach to the cave is short, about 150m from where one parks. A track leads southeast from bottomland through a low, narrow saddle situated between two 100m high hills, to the north and south. The entrance is just beyond the mid-point of the saddle, on the southwest. It is about 5m wide and high, and easily found.
We were accompanied to the cave by 6-7 local residents, amongst whom were several youths, the oldest about 17-18. This was not unusual, and I paid it no mind. However, when we began the survey inward from the entrance, they began to literally get in the way. One of our team told them that we'd be in the cave for some time, and would not be able to guide them back out (they had no lights), so it would be best if they left immediately. I was engaged in taking shots and writing down survey data, so didn't listen to the discussion closely, but I don't remember our team member being disrespectful. The youths did exit the cave at this point, but would return later to cause serious mischief, which will be addressed lower in this account.
The shelf protrudes about 3m from the wall, and is about 6m wide. On the right, as one faces the pit, a steep muddy slope leads to a lower terrace of similar dimensions, which faces the shaft at an angle rotated about 45 degrees. The rope that we had hung from the upper anchors passed over rocks at the edge of the shelf before it dropped into the shaft, and as the risk of abrasion was great, we decided that we would need to set two more bolts to divert the line to where it would hang smoothly. We believed, based on the W & S map, that we would then have a smooth run for about 80m to a bouldery ledge. Our plan was to reach that the next day, and then set more bolts if required. Without further ado, we set to work once again with the hammer and drill.
The first bolt was not too difficult, although it was necessary to lean out over the pit while hanging on the 11mm rope to drill the hole and put it in place. It was soon done, with hangar attached. The second, however, was lower, and required one to be fully on the rope, hanging with feet against the wall of the shaft. Paul took on this task, and about 25 minutes passed before the hole was finally deep enough to put in the bolt. Just as we were about to do so, I heard Jan call from above, "Stef, pull it and come up now". Jan had stayed at the upper anchors, it being standard procedure to always have someone at the top of the rope to keep an eye on things. I called back up, "Yeah, man, just about to tap in the second bolt and we're done". He replied, "No, leave it and come up right away!" The tone of his voice was serious, and worrisome. There was obviously some threat that did not involve caving. It went through my mind that he was in need of immediate back-up, and that I was fastest on rope. Accordingly, I told Paul to take care of Mike on his ascent, and I'd head up first. I clipped onto the line while saying this, and within a minute called up to Jan, "Coming now!" I wasn't sure what I would do when I got there, since my machete was in the truck, and the only thing I had to use as a weapon was a Jumar ascender, but I'd certainly do something.
My gear was poorly adjusted as a result of my haste, but I was past the overhang quickly nevertheless. Here, a final short, sandy slope leads to the top of the pitch. As I looked up at Jan, I was baffled. There was a thick haze where there should be none. Seconds later, my sense of smell told me what it was - smoke. As I ascended the last few metres, I rose into an increasingly thick fog, bright in the light of my headlamp. Jan told me what he could while I did this, that he'd heard voices and the breaking of branches out toward the entrance, and that he'd told us to come up as soon as he saw the smoke. I pulled myself over the edge and started to unclip from the line as Jan said, "Stef, look at this, man, you can't see a fucking thing". He was right. Now that I was up in the passage, it was horrendous.
The visibility at my brightest headlamp setting was less than one metre. I tried it lower, but it was no better. In the short time since I'd reached the top of the rope and located my backpack (stashed at the top of the pitch, with my ID, cash, and survey gear in it), the fumes had gotten thicker. We still had two people on the shelf below us, one of whom had never before ascended a rope with vertical gear. The rule that the team should not become separated was very much in my mind, but it was obvious that we had to find the fire and put it out. Conditions were very bad, and rapidly getting worse. If we didn't stop the smoke, Paul and Mike had no chance, and neither did the two of us. I told Jan, "We've got to find it, man, we have to find it and put it out right away. Paul will have to take care of Mike". Jan agreed, and we moved off to search.
Words were few between Jan and I, the situation being so thoroughly intimidating that it did not invite discussion, but communication was good. We chose to follow the righthand wall to maintain our orientation. I cannot remember whether Jan was on his feet or not, but I soon chose to crawl, knowing that in fires one should stay low. Also, it prevented tripping, because when standing, I could not see the floor of the passage. The smoke thickened quickly as we went. Within what might have been 10m (it was difficult to judge the distance covered), visibility was less than 30cm. That is, I could not see the wall unless my head was almost in contact with it. We were now moving mostly by touch alone. Soon, we came to a rocky section that forced us out into the centre of the passage. I attempted to crawl in a straight line in what I hoped was the outward direction, and within metres saw a dull reddish-yellow glow shining dimly through the murk in front of me. We had found the fire.
The fire, surprisingly, was not large considering the amount of smoke - about 60cm across. But the flames were low and subdued, and the main output was what we were attempting to breathe, and see through. Jan had his water-bottle close to hand and drenched it, as I scooped wet mud and dumped it on. We soon had it out, and moved on to try to determine where we were. After several metres, incredibly, we saw another dull reddish-yellow glow ahead of us - a second fire. Things now began to feel nightmarish, rather than simply a predicament that we would overcome.
We did our best to extinguish the second fire, but Jan's water was gone, and there was no handy wet mud. I scraped what I could, while Jan stamped on it. We had only partial success. We had found two fires, one of which was still smouldering. Were there more? I came to a decision, one that was accompanied by a feeling of guilt, as though I were bailing on our comrades. We had to find the entrance. It was within shouting distance of the rope, and no one would find their way out unless they had a direction to aim for. Both Jan and I at this point had no real idea of where we were, and it would be the same for Paul and Mike. If they could travel in a straight line toward us, and the entrance, they would be through the smoke very quickly. Also, Jan and I had been crawling around in it for at least 20 minutes, I was moving more and more slowly, and didn't know how much longer I would last. I have a vague recollection of Jan expressing a similar opinion in the gloom, but I most definitely said something to the effect of, "We have to find the entrance, man, or none of us are getting out of here".
From the second fire, we had no idea which way to go. We'd left the righthand wall behind, and could see nothing. We crawled off in seach of something we could identify by touch alone. Soon, we hit the side of the passage. I thought it was the one on the right, and we began to follow it. Suddenly, ahead of us, we heard shouting. At first, I thought it was someone at the entrance yelling to guide us out, but we then it realized it was Paul or Mike, and we were heading back into the cave, toward the pit. I now began to think that we might not make it. My breathing had been laboured because of the very thick fumes and lack of oxygen from the time we'd first set out in search of the fire. It had gotten worse, with dark blotches floating through my vision, and I knew that I would pass out eventually, along with everyone else. I felt a little sad thinking that I would end my days in such a useless way, but also felt resigned to what would be. So, armed with my sense of resignation, and also the orientation that our friends behind us had supplied (we shouted back, "Come this way, this way!"), I refound the righthand wall. Now, in theory, it would be following it left, and out.
For much of the way this time, feeling along the wall, I stayed on my feet. This proved to be more successful, giving me a better idea of where I was by being able to touch more of the surface, avoiding fissures, and discerning short verticals. Jan was close by the entire time as we worked our way along, and communication was good. I actually had a bit of a chuckle at one point, thereby relieving my tension, when he shouted to locate me while he was about one metre away. Jan has several very bright lights on his helmet, and they were all on high, including his 3W beams. That massive source of light was the one thing I could see in the gloom, and I always knew where he was. However, he couldn't see me, just hear me. I assured him, "Right here, man", and we carried on. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes or ten hours, time having lost all meaning in our strange hellish world, we crawled over leaf litter on an upward slope. Thank Jah, we knew we were somewhere near the entrance, and carried on. Jan said, "Look up", and above us were tree branches and leaves. We were out of the cave, in the gully, and hadn't even known it at first because the smoke was still so thick.
I scrambled up the side of the gully a few metres to find clean air, coughing, and shouting back to Paul and Mike as best I could. Jan was a little behind me, still couldn't see through the smoke, and was asking which way to go. It was incredible - the several metres vertical I'd gained gave me a view of the solid smoke exiting the cave, also hanging in the lower part of the saddle. Jan's head was about one metre vertical into it, barely visible. I shouted, "this way, just a bit man, you're out!" He came up far enough to catch breathable air, and we both kept yelling into the cave. At first, we heard Paul shouting back. Then, nothing for a minute or so. No reply. I feared the worst, and a sickening feeling swept through me. The smoke had been too much. We'd have to run to the truck and grab the SCBA pony-bottles to go back in for them. Suddenly, we heard Paul again, much louder, and seconds later he was out, with Mike close behind. I cannot properly express how relieved I was. I also cannot describe how pissed off Paul was. If the ones who'd lit the fires had been close to hand upon his exit from the cave, they would have probably had their heads removed from their shoulders. However, the ones who lit the fires, who had been amongst those asked to leave the cave earlier in the day, left seconds after I'd scrambled into the gully. They were there, watching. I reached them while Jan was coming out, and they'd run off.
There is no need to go into detail on how we dealt with the incident after we'd left the cave, other than to say that we didn't kill anyone, even though we caught up with the main culprit, and had the inclination and equipment to do so. Our main concern was that behind us in the cave we'd left an 11m rope, three bolt-hangars, and three carabiners. Clearly, we could not pursue the full descent of Morgans Pond Hole the next day, as was our plan (speaking for myself, I sure as hell didn't want to spend hours in there again one day later after what we'd been through), but we at least had to recover our gear.
The next morning, July 26, Andreas (whom we had linked with the previous evening), Jan, and I returned to the site to retrieve things. The first people we met, once parked, were the community elders, including the owner of the land above the cave, all of whom expressed their great regret and concern over what had happened. Once we described the culprits, they knew who we were talking about. We decided to leave the affair in their capable hands.
A quick trip to the top of the shaft was made to recover the rope and upper two hangars/carabiners. The cave still smelled of woodsmoke, but seemed fairly clear. We found the remains of three fires, all within about 20m of the entrance, a distance we covered in under a minute with visibility back to normal. I was relieved to see that the bat-roost, quite substantial in the area of the shaft, still seemed to have good numbers present, relatively unaffected by the smoke. To speculate, the air down the pit remained clearer, giving them a temporary refuge. Perhaps if we'd also been well down in the shaft during the fires, we'd have had good air. It's nothing I care to test, though.
After hiking back to the car, and having some last words with the local elders, we headed off in the Landrover to eventually reach the Cave River System, in Aenon Town.
We will definitely return to Morgans Pond Hole to finish the survey, and also have a closer look at the biology of the site, which we've neglected so far. The bat-roost is of interest, as well as trog invertebrates associated with the fresh-fluff guano. The cave benefits by having the roost in part directly over the shaft, with guano accumulation on the shelf below where it cannot be easily mined. Needless to say, when we return, we will have enough top-side security to prevent any problems.
Before closing this account, a special mention must be made of Paul and Mike's conduct. Mike had never ascended a rope before, and the pitch, although only 10m, included passing an overhang, something that is not easy in the beginning under normal circumstances, let alone done in the kind of insane situation we dealt with that day. Paul's coaching of him, also done under bizarre conditions, must have been superb. A big-up to both of them. Also, I must thank Jan for staying close during our retreat from the cave. I am very glad I wasn't crawling around in there alone.
For my part, it should be said that I handled things poorly during the crisis. I did not properly communicate the situation to Paul and Mike below us before we began our search for the fire. The visibility was somewhat manageable at the top of the rope, and I thought we'd walk for a minute or two, put it out, and then come back for our friends. Once we'd gone 10m, we were in much thicker fumes and everything changed. My only excuse is that it was getting worse so quickly that the one thing in my mind was to stop the smoke as soon as possible, which is no real excuse at all. If I ever find myself in a similar situation (and I very much hope I don't), I'll try to handle it better.
Lastly, I must note the irony involved. The main reason we were there was to compare the depth to Smokey Hole Cave, which, unlike Morgans Pond, isn't smokey at all. Perhaps a shifting of names is in order.
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