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Quashies River Cave
May 5, 2007
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, B Zane.
Notes: RS Stewart
Videos: First Waterfall - Descent (15MB AVI), Second Waterfall - Ascent (3MB WMV)
[June 4/07 - The table with the positional data, biological info, etc, will be added soon - I'm getting the general account online before I forget details that aren't on the fieldsheets.]

Stefan ascending through the Second Waterfall at Quashies on May 5/07 - Photo by Jan Pauel This was our fourth visit to Quashies. The first, done in Jan 2005, was a quick stop to georeference the entrance, and we didn't go in. The second visit, in Oct 2006, was to have a look at the cave itself, but the river was in flood (rainy-season) and it was impossible to proceed past the First Waterfall. During the third visit, in Feb 2007, there was no flow in the river, and we penetrated as far as the top of the Big Ape. Our hope for this visit was to get past our previous farpoint, and closer to the final sump.

The crew for the day, Jan Pauel, Brian Zane, and myself, had met in Troy the evening before and stayed the night at Paul's, in Tyre. It was the first time the three of us had been together since the Feb 2007 expedition, and as a result, talk and beers extended until well past midnight. This caused us to start moving a little later in the morning than we would have liked, but the night before had been enjoyable, and the visit to Quashies was mostly for the fun of it, rather than for research purposes, so we weren't too concerned. By 10:00 AM, we were having breakfast in Troy, and at about 11:00 AM, we were at the start of the track to Quashies, and gearing up.

Unfortunately, we arrived just as a group of tourists were about to be led to the entrance gorge, with them being several minutes ahead of us by the time we'd gotten our gear organised. Because there is a vertical descent involved of about 15m down the side of the gorge, done on ancient, rusty, steel ladders, and there were 7-8 tourists plus a guide or two, we lost close to an hour as we waited for them to be ferried down in front of us. If we had arrived 30 minutes earlier, we would have been out front and avoided the delay. Nevertheless, we eventually got on rap, popped down, and passed them (they didn't enter the cave). The tour operator was kind enough to let us rappel down the static line that they'd set as a handline, and we'd like to thank him for that.

The weather had been somewhat rainy in the days before, and the river was flowing into the cave at moderate levels, that is, much less than in Oct 2006. The scramble across the river to reach Brian's old traverse line, which passes to the side of the First Waterfall (Video - AVI - 15MB), wasn't too tricky, and after tieing in another line to use for SRT, we soon reached the top of the Second Waterfall. Here, we already had an anchor in place, and only needed to put in a hangar. This was done, and the rope tossed down the pitch, with it dropping through part of the waterfall itself. To look at it from above, it appeared as though the flow wasn't so drastic that it would be difficult to ascend back through later. However, when Jan got on rap and headed off, my opinion of it began to change. He first eased his way down about one metre, then hit the flow and suddenly disappeared beneath the waterfall, looking as though it had shoved him down the rope on rappel. However, he reappeared seconds afterwards to the side of the falls, apparently in good shape, so obviously hadn't come to harm. Nevertheless, it looked a little rough. Brian and I consulted on this, and it was decided we'd have to move the anchor point - there was no way we would be able to ascend the line where it currently hung, since the force of water was too great. The best thing I could find was a solid boulder on the righthand edge of the waterfall that would have to be bolted. Jan had the bolting gear with him at the bottom, but fortunately he'd stayed close to the rope when he hit the deep water at the base of the pitch (a deep canal, about 15m long, continues at the bottom of the Second Waterfall). Brian headed down on rappel to arrange for the bolting bag to be tied onto the rope, and when this was done, I hauled it up and set to work.

I began the hammering that would drill the hole for the anchor, thinking about my two compadres floating in the water below, losing body temperature. After what seemed to be much too long a time, the hole was deep enough, and I cranked in the hangar. Within about 30 sec's, I was on rappel and heading down. In my haste, I had my feet slip away at an overhang while my hand was between the rope and the rockwall, with this pinning my hand for about 20 sec's as I struggled to remove it. Finally, after much pain, it was free and I finished the descent. As it would turn out, my haste did not only cause damage to my hand, it caused me to not set the anchor as well as it should have been - this did not cause us to come to mishap, and it held, but I shouldn't have rushed it.

After swimming through the canal beyond the Second Waterfall, the three of us assembled at the top of the Little Ape pitch. Here, we were met with an impressive sight - the river, more constricted now, launched off into the dark, misty void below, with a tremendous roar that echoed up from the unseen depths. The route we had descended before was now impossible, as part of it passed through the great mass of water that hurtled down the 22m pitch. Clearly, we could not use our previous anchors, and indeed would have to traverse some distance on the left wall to reach a spot where the rope would fall dry into the water below. To do this would use up a large fraction of our bolts, and would require a couple of hours of hammering holes. According to Jamaica Underground, there is a scramble reached via the right wall that eventually leads to the top of the Big Ape pitch, but close examination of the possibilities showed that this could not be done safely without the placing of at least several pieces of protection (my hats off to the person who found that route, doing it only on belay - I wouldn't even consider it, myself). It was collectively decided that we could make no further progress on this route today. After some close scrutiny of what we hope will be our future, all-weather route, we turned around and headed back to the Second Waterfall.

Our ascent at the Second Waterfall was not easy. Jan went first, and although the ascent rope was out of the worst of the flow, another rope that he had hanging on his back kept swinging to the right, into the falls. It was painful to watch his progress, as he inched upwards, but after about 5-10 minutes, he was finally out of the worst of it and pulling himself up the final metre. Next was Brian, also with a rope on his back. I remained on dry land, toward the Little Ape, as he swam to, and then clipped into the line. Unfortunately, neither of us had noticed that when Jan got off rope, it had shifted about 50cm to the right, further into the waterfall. However, it became obvious as soon as Brain had gotten on-rope, and moved up about one metre. The water was pounding directly down on him, and although he wasn't in the worst part of the flow, it was serious all the same. He made no progress whatsoever beyond about 1.5m. At first, I just kept my high-beam on him, giving him some light, as I fully expected his headlamp to be ripped off by the waterfall (I leant afterwards that it had, but had come down around his neck preventing it from being lost). After a couple of minutes, I realized he would need some kind of assistance, so swam to the bottom of the pitch, just to the side of the waterfall, and about 1m to the left of him. I had hopes that I could haul the ascent rope to the side, but every time I tried, I was right under the falls and driven back. Through the roar of the water, I heard him shout that he would have to drop the rope that was on his back, and that I should be ready to grab it. This was done, and I made a quick swim in front of the falls and caught it before it was swept away. With the load now greatly reduced, he was able to move, and within several minutes was at the top. My turn was next.

I was soon clipped into the rope (after making sure it was as far to the left as possible), and I began my ascent. Before I even had my body fully out of the water, I ground to a halt. Although I didn't have a rope on my back, I had my pack, with the bolting gear and a sodden 10m etrier in it. And worse than that, the pack is not waterproof - when you wear it in water, it floods and holds it - the weight is considerable when you climb out for the first minute until it has drained. However, this time, it had no opportunity to drain, as I kept swinging into the falls, and this pumped more water in. I estimate that I had about 25kg of extra weight as I hung there. Even worse, it was on my back, not hanging from my harness, as I had thought of the load as fairly light, and it was a relatively short pitch. As a result, every time I tried to stand in the footloops, I tipped backwards, with this putting my head, and the pack, directly into the waterfall (I rotated, actually, but it just keep swinging me back full circle to hit it again from the other side).

After several minutes of extreme effort, and zero progress, I realized the pack had to come off. I hauled up a length of rope from beneath me, formed a loop, eased the pack off while trying to not have it taken away by the waterfall, and then tied the pack to the rope below me and lowered it into the canal. I was apprehensive about doing this, as I had visions of my pack, complete with my valuables in a drybag within, disappearing downstream, but there was no choice - I simply could not move with it on me, and there was a limit to how much time I could spend hanging on the rope, in a harness, while being pummelled by a waterfall. Fortunately, the operation went well, and with the massive load finally off my back, I was able to continue upwards. Within a minute or two, I was above the falls, and pulling myself up the last metre (Video - WMV - 3MB). At the top, Brian and Jan were both reaching out to haul me the last little way, and although I resisted at first due to professional pride, I relented for the last couple of steps, and was soon on solid, relatively dry rock. With Jan's assistance, I hauled my pack up, now realizing how heavy the thing actually was.

I should note that the period when I was struggling on-rope, and removing the pack, was the most difficult caving I've done since I pulled the giant video camera out of Minocal's Glory Hole for the JIS. At one point, as I hung in the falls, it passed through my mind that I might simply die there. This was disconcerting, as I had almost drowned the previous visit to Quashies while swimming to the top of the Big Ape (with no life-jacket and too much metal hanging from my harness), and to have the cave kill me on the very next visit seemed to be terribly bad-form. That, more than anything else, is what drove me to get up the rope, no matter what.

Despite our travails on the ascent of the Second Waterfall, we were not ready to exit the cave quite yet. We decided to do a bit of recon in the upper level, toward the Tar Pitch, to assess it as an alternate route to the further sections of the cave. This was done, along with a little more poking around in that section of the cave, until about 30 min's later we once again made our way upriver in the entrance passage. As we did this, we noted that the river had come up during our time in the cave (we had suspected this to be the case when we battled the Second Waterfall), and the flow had increased appreciably. This was to such an extent that our exit was more dicey than we normally prefer when caving. Crossing the river, from boulder to boulder, was somewhat perilous, as one wrong step would have caused us to return at high speed to where we had just left, smashing against rocks the entire way. Nevertheless, we all made it out, then ascended to the top of the gorge, and hiked slowly back to the cars.

I must note one last event for the day: Jan, resourceful, well-organised person that he is, had a supply of cold Red Stripes in a cooler in his truck. Upon our reaching it, the first thing we did was open several and suck them back (beer tastes great when you've almost died earlier in the day). This done, we got the gear off, and changed into dryer clothes. As this was happening, several youths whom we'd talked with earlier stopped to ask how it went. They were all cool, polite, young men, and simply curious. As we moved into the second round of beers, our conversation became more wide-ranging, and eventually drifted into politics, in the Jamaican context, and how things might be improved. Unbeknownst to us, an older gentleman, Ausley Chambers as we later learnt, had been listening in from his nearby yard, and he suddenly came trundling up to dispute what we were saying. Apparently, Mas Chambers is a deacon (these are plentiful in Jamaica), the head of the Freemans Hall Community Association, and a firm believer in the merits of the PNP. The discussion became more heated than we would have liked, and finally ended with his poor wife coming to convince him to return home, and the youths leaving in disgust after making it clear that his church had never done anything for them. If Mr Chambers should ever stumble upon these notes, I would like to suggest to him that he learn to be more open-minded, and less prone to becoming upset about politics, at least not to the extent that he might drop dead from a heart attack while expressing his opinions. I would also like to send my best wishes to his wife, who I suspect is thoroughly tired of listening to that stuff, and his son, who dutifully came up and stood nearby, while looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. Respect.

KHE survey, 1965, by way of Jamaica Underground, 2nd edition, Alan G. Fincham

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