Jamaican Caving Notes
On Mar 26, 2006, members of the Jamaican Caves Organisation (JCO) descended to a depth of 194m at Smokey Hole Cave, which established a new record for Jamaican cavesS-1.
One year later, on Mar 23, 2007, the JCO became aware that Smokey Hole Cave is on, or very close to, ALPART lands that will be mined in the future. As we regard the site to be very important because of its hydrology, biology, and status as the deepest known cave in Jamaica, we have included information for the site as an appendix to a report on the caves of Newport and Old England that was already scheduled for submission to ALPART, NEPA, and the WRA.
This document, Appendix 1 of the JCO report, “The Caves of Newport and Old England, Manchester”, contains recommendations, a map of the cave based on a survey carried out on Mar 25-26, 2006, and Feb 15, 2007, as well as excerpts from the trip report.
Information presented in the Newport – Old England report describes processes of cave degradation that can occur when bauxite mining is carried out at, or near, a cave. Unless great care is taken to protect Smokey Hole Cave, degradation, or even complete loss, is very possible. To prevent this from happening, we can propose one simple solution: the establishment of a buffer area around the cave in which no mining will take place. This is addressed below:
We therefore regard the establishment of an appropriate buffer to be the best preservation solution for Smokey Hole Cave. This leads to considerations of the dimensions of the buffer.
To adequately protect Smokey Hole Cave, the buffer must include the terrain that has the potential to feed water into the cave not only under present conditions, but also if mining were to alter the local topography. A radius of 250m from the entrance is required to accomplish this. We ask that the area shown on the following maps be set aside from all mining activities:
Appendix 1, Map 1
Appendix 1, Map 2
Trip report excerpts for Smokey Hole Cave:
(Full report online at www.jamaicancaves.org/smoky_hole_060326.htm)
On Thursday, Feb 9, 2006, while planning was still underway for the March expedition, the JCO was contacted by Rowan Reid regarding an interesting cave in south Manchester:
"Recently I came across your website and found it quite interesting. I am Jamaican, in fact I grew up in southern manchester... I wouldn't mind discussing with you one specific cave system known as 'smokey hole'. To my knowledge it has only been explored once back in the early seventies. Very few people outside of the local population know of it. Those who do know it's location fear it as it is said to be 'bottomless'. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss this further."
My reply, sent the next day, follows:
"We are indeed interested in 'Smokey Hole' and might have some info on it from the visit in the 70's. Can you tell us the nearest town/village to the hole? That would help us to determine which cave it is (the records of other's visits that we have seldom use the local name). There is a chance that we could investigate it late this March. Would you be available to join us for it?"
Rowan got back to us
the same day, Feb 10, with further information:
Armed with these details, I was soon able to determine that it was a cave listed in Jamaica Underground, and that it was indeed very interesting.
The crew that would gather at Smokey on Saturday, March 25, 2006, had made various long journeys, and, as expected, we all ran late. Guy, Hilde, Elizabeth, and Stefan had bounced their way from Windsor, in a criss 4x4, via the Barbecue Bottom Road. Rowan had dodged potholes on the main from Ocho Rios. Ivor, Adam, Barb, and Knut had done the run from Kingston. It wasn't until well into the afternoon that we were all collected at Chris's yard, at the start of the short hike that leads to the entrance. Gear was donned, photos were taken, and those of us who had yet to see this great mystery were at last on our way to the cave.
The track to the entrance is very short, perhaps 200m, and leads north through a small farm, then turns west, downhill, through old pasture land, and finally back towards the south to reach a large opening, low on a hill. My first impressions were that it was much larger than I expected. An entrance about 10m high, and 15 wide, opened into a very large, descending passage, with massive breakdown boulders preventing a direct route. The crew that had been there for the recon visits led us in.
After an initial series of bouldery steps, having moved down a good distance from the entrance, we reached a final drop of about five metres into a narrower rift that had a wooden ladder placed in it. The approach to this at the top was under boulders close-set enough to require one to remove a pack to get through. This is probably not the best way to descend into this last part of the main passage before the pit is reached, but it is what we all used during the visit.
At the bottom of the ladder, our recon guides led us another 10 metres to finally arrive at the top of "The Pit". To the left, there was a drop into a lower section; Adam told us that this was where the rocks had first been tossed from. To the right was another opening, more narrow, that also connected to the depths below us, but not at first glance as suitable for rigging. As Adam, myself, and several of the others looked down on this, trying to figure out the best way to reach the step to the left, we suddenly saw Ivor moving past below us. With a "How the hell did you get down there?” we received instructions on how to find a way through rocks further back to the left that would lead us to what would become our first anchor points.
Some time was spent in tossing rocks into the pit and then after discussion on anchors, the work of rigging began. It was our plan to get as much done today as possible, so that we would be that much further ahead for Sunday when we would actually make the descent. Adam and Knut began the process of drilling/hammering holes that would be used to place bolts and hangars for the top tie-off point, while Guy and Hilde began the survey of the upper section, working their way outward with disto, clino, and compass.
The layout of the section closest to the pit follows: the scramble to where we had seen Ivor below us is over/under breakdown boulders until an actual vertical of four metres is reached, this dropping into a small chamber that holds the opening to the main part of the pit. The chamber is about five metres across, somewhat oval, and provides a good waiting area for those not on rope. From here, the vertical extends into the depths for what was at that time still an unknown distance.
Our rigging of the ropes began above the "Waiting Room", with two bolts set into solid rock overhanging the first (four metre) drop. Adam and Knut toiled away at this for a while, then bolts and hangars were placed and we made the short rappel down to the chamber and the actual start of the pit. More rocks were tossed in, and those of us who had not been present for the recons were by now suitably impressed. During the latter part of this period, the bat emergence began, and it was surprisingly large. For the rest of our time at the top of the pit, it continued and I guestimate the total numbers to be in the thousands, rather than hundreds. It was obviously a mixed-species roost, as we could see at least Artibeus, and definitely hear MormoopsS-2. After a stretch of bat-watching, and pit-gazing, it was decided that enough had been accomplished for the day (it was now well past 7:00 PM), and that it was time to return to the surface for food and Red Stripe.
During the next half an hour, we wended our way back out of the cave, catching up with Guy and Hilde en route, near the entrance, who were in the process of finishing off the upper survey. Collectively, we made the short hike back to Chris's yard, and then after a short stop at the cars, we carried on to a nearby cookshop that had great food waiting for us and cold beer
Discussions the evening before had resulted in us deciding to use the Monster Rope (100m of very dense 13mm static line) from the entrance to the pit. This would, we hoped, speed things up by getting us past the breakdown boulders of the entry passage more quickly. Accordingly, I headed off first to the cave with the Monster Rope, at about 9:30 AM, while the others were gathering gear, to anchor it and start feeding it into the cave. By the time I had reached the approach to the pit, straightening rope as I rappelled in to that point, the others had caught up and were making their way in. Some used the rope; others took the usual route through the boulders.
The team now assembled above the short drop to the Waiting Room, and then Guy, Adam and Knut rapped down to begin placing our next anchors. These would be two bolts set in the wall directly above the main vertical of the shaft. The rest of us watched on from above while this was done, and after some thirty minutes the bolts were in place and Guy was preparing to descend.
Five or ten minutes passed, and then we heard from Guy, via radio, that he was at a small ledge about 60 metres down, which extended about one metre into the shaft, and he would set another anchor here from which to hang the second rope. This line would be the new 10mm, 100m long rope that he'd brought from Belgium with him. The sounds of hammering echoed up from below as he went about this, and after about 20-30 min's we heard that things were done, the second rope was hung, with him now on it, and that the next caver could come ahead. This would be Adam.
Adam was soon on rappel, and sliding down into the hole. Guy stayed at the anchor-point awaiting him. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we heard that Adam was with Guy at the anchor, but had decided that he would re-ascend to the Waiting Room while Guy continued his rappel on the second rope. I was next in line for the descent, and ready to go. I radioed down that I'd get on rap and pass Adam at the anchor.
While I was getting on rappel, Guy had quickly descended the second rope to the bottom of the shaft, and had reported that there was no horizontal development. This was unfortunate, but we still had hopes that we might have a new deepest cave in Jamaica, so the news didn't alter my plans to go down, nor those of Knut and Ivor, who were next in line. I was soon on-rope and sliding in. I moved slowly and gently, and after ten minutes I was at the bolts and very quickly changing over to the 10mm.
Adam was soon clipped in to the 9mm and heading back up to the Waiting Room, and I carried on down on the 10mm, feeling extremely confident in the safety of the descent. Guy had done an excellent job of rigging, and now that I was off the 9mm, I had no more fears. I made good time, and was soon touching down to join Guy, a very great distance below where I had started.
I should give a description of this deep pit now, although it was on the ascent that I took a closer look at things. At the top, it is about 7 by 15m, with the long dimension left-right as one enters it from the Waiting Room. It seems to become somewhat larger through the first 70-80m, and then grows smaller and more circular at the bottom. In the middle section, there appears to be at least one parallel shaft that intersects, this to the right if one were to look into the shaft from the Waiting Room above. The total depth, as determined by careful measuring of ropes afterwards, is 134 metres, with this in steps of 4m to the Waiting Room, 69m to the anchors at the fraction, and then a final 61m to the bottom of the pit - there was about 4 more metres of vertical at the bottom, sloping down to the sides, so the true depth is about 138 metres. Thanks to an incredibly powerful light that Wayne and Roger had brought, which was occasionally shone down into the shaft (including while I was on rappel), intermittent views of tremendous depth were presented, as the monster light illuminated this monster hole. In fact, when I was on the 9mm line and this happened, I had to not look down since I felt intimidated enough as it was. It is truly a very impressive pit, especially when one is hanging in it, suspended on what appears to be a long length of dental floss.
We sent up word to the crew above that I was off-rope, and that as soon as Adam had finished his ascent, the next of the team could come down. This would be Knut.
Knut was soon with us, sitting on a rock, at the bottom.
Guy had already looked around, when he first arrived, as I also did soon after I touched down, and found that the bottom of the pit was limited to a pile of breakdown debris filling things below us, with just several small sloping extensions to the sides that choked out within four metresS-4. In the course of this, Guy had managed to locate the remains of a radio that had inadvertently been launched into the pit from the Waiting Room while he was on descent. Needless to say, it was no longer useable.
The time was now late afternoon, and there would be many hours required for all four of us to ascend from this abyss, so very soon after Ivor had touched down, Knut was on his way up. The three of us left at the bottom chatted until we got word that Knut was to the 9mm, and the lower rope was now free. Guy was next on rope, having spent much time in the hole already, with thirty minutes of it done hanging, driving bolts, at the shelf, and quite due to get out. He was soon moving quickly upwards, into the dark, above us.
In a surprisingly short time, we heard that Guy was at the midpoint anchor, and the 10mm rope was free. Ivor clipped in, and headed up. I was now alone in the depths, but our radios had been working splendidly (other than the one that fell into the pit, which wasn't one of my mine), and Elizabeth, star that she is, had faithfully maintained communications through most of the day. As Ivor ascended the 10mm rope, I was able to casually chat with the crew up-top whenever I felt like it.
My ascent would not prove to be too strenuous, but, in truth, it was the most work I have done other than bringing the giant video camera out of Minocal's, for the JIS, in 2005. In order to keep things as light as possible, I was wearing just running shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt, and had little weight in my pack. To accommodate wearing the running shoes, rather than the light-mountaineering boots I usually use for verticals, I had adjusted the foot loops, and the new length was less than ideal, as I realized partway up. I considered adjusting them yet again, while I hung from the chest ascender, but the knots were tight and it seemed like too much work. Mostly, I just wanted to keep moving up. Accordingly, this is what I did.
The plan was that I, coming last, would pull the bolts at the midpoint anchor as soon as Ivor was off-rope and in the Waiting Room. The ascent of the lower rope was shorter than the upper rope, and so I arrived at the anchor while he was still some distance below the top of the pit. Still clipped into the 10mm, I found a small area on which to perch at the shelf, and bided my time until the 9mm was free. This would be about 20 minutes. At last, word reached me via radio that Ivor was off-rope, and that I could pull the bolts. Guy had supplied me with a wrench, clipped with a light kevlar line to my harness, and after straightening out my stiff, cold muscles, I changed over to the 9mm, hung by my chest ascender (with the upper ascender also clipped in), and cranked out the bolts. The first one, the upper of the two, took a few minutes, and then suddenly popped out. For the second, I had to arrange things so that when it pulled out, the extra rope at the anchor would fall in an orderly fashion. This took a couple of minutes, and then I cranked out the second bolt. Everything fell as I expected, to hang suspended from the bottom of the 9mm, and I headed up.
This next section seemed to take forever. It was late, my energy reserves were rather low, and I had to take a break for a couple of minutes every 10 metres. However, this did give me an opportunity to take a better look around than what I'd done on the way down. The most important thing that I saw while ascending the second rope is that the bat emergence (well underway for several hours now, and consisting of flight both in and out) was concentrated in an overhanging area about five metres to the left, as one faces the wall, about 15-20m above the midpoint anchor. I could not see into this, but there was a constant flight of bats in and out of it, suggesting development that includes appreciable roosting space. Secondly, about 30-35m above the midpoint anchor, I could see what appeared to be a definite opening into a parallel shaft, at the far left of the pit, as one faces the wall on ascent. I should note that lower down, I thought I had seen something similar, but had come to the conclusion that it was just dark lignin staining. For this upper observation, I believe I was actually looking into an adjoining shaft, but my headlamp was not bright enough to make it 100%, and I was tired to the point of perhaps seeing what I wanted to see. Nevertheless, it is not unusual (more common, actually) for a pit in Jamaica of this size to have parallel shafts, so I consider a return visit to check on this to be worthwhile.
The last 30m of my ascent were the most difficult. Physically, I knew I could do it, but when looking up, the opening to the Waiting Room, lit by the lights of the others, and with chatting voices echoing down, didn't seem to get any larger. I kept thinking, "Another 10-15m, max", and then I would do another 10m and it would look exactly the same. We have a good number for that section, 69m, 231 ft, but it certainly seemed longer. At any rate, after what felt like a very long time, I arrived back at the Waiting Room. I didn't immediately have the strength to haul myself to the side, to get off the vertical, but Knut, who is incredibly strong, stuck out an arm, pulled me in, and I laid down on my back on the floor muttering, "Yes Jah-jah, give thanks and praise, man". After a couple of minutes, lying there with my eyes closed, I asked how close to the pit I was. Elizabeth matter of factly told me that if I were to stretch my legs out, they would be hanging in the hole. I roused myself, crawled back from the edge, and the others quickly started hauling up rope.
We had now put four people into, and out of, the pit, but the task was not yet over. We had to get ourselves, and the gear, though the series of steps, over massive boulders, which would finally return us to the entrance. Very early on in this, above the ladder, on the first scramble, the first member of the team suddenly had unstable rocks tumble out underfoot, and bounce onto the rest of the party below. Elizabeth got the worst of this, and had some nasty gashes on one of her hands as a result. It was in no way the fault of the person above, but was very much because of all the traffic that the cave had seen during the recons and this two-day visit. Apart from the JCO team, there had been many other curious people, repeatedly taking their accustomed route, that of the recon visits, and rocks that had been held only by old dried mud were now starting to let go. As soon as we were all past this worst part, it was decided that we would forget about the "regular" route, and use the Monster Rope, which still stretched down from the entrance above. This would be more time-consuming, since it necessitated the use of vertical gear for the entire way, and staging, but it was definitely much safer. As the first of the group worked their way up, the atmosphere became somewhat surreal. We had now been in the cave for over twelve hours, we were all tired to the point of entering the dream-like state that accompanies exhaustion in strange places, and above us, the Mormoops blainvillii, the same bats that had sounded like children playing in St Clair Cave five days before, whirred, buzzed, and zoomed, with the sounds echoing in the dark.
The last of our team reached the entrance soon after 1:00 AM. Guy had brought out the entire rig from the pit with him (9mm and 10mm ropes, with bolt hangars attached), with this weighing probably over 30 kilos (the whole works had been kept intact so that it could be measured the next day, by using bolt hangars and strategically placed knots as indicators). This bit of work, especially done so late in the day, was truly a remarkable feat. All that was left to do was haul and coil the Monster Rope, and this was taken care of as quickly as possible.
At 1:30 AM, Mar 27, we stumbled our way along the final hike from the cave, to ten minutes later reach the cars in Chris's yard. Adam and Barb had come out earlier carrying surplus gear, and were still hanging-in. Incredibly, they would make the drive back to Kingston that night, giving Ivor a lift, and Knut would also make the drive in his own car. Myself, I only had energy left to make it to Marcia's and collapse into bed. After a short time spent congratulating each other, and making an effort at sorting out gear, Guy, Hilde, Elizabeth, and I made the final trek to Marcia's, and Knut, Adam, Barb, and Ivor headed for Kingston.
By about 8:00 AM the next morning, we had all crawled back out from our beds. It could be seen that we were all pretty baked, but that we had the knowledge in us that we'd done something very special the day before. After brushing of teeth, and wrapping of sleeping bags, we made our way to the car and stowed things. While the others walked it, I drove the car the short distance to the cookshop so that we could measure our ropes on the road, out front, after coffee. A nice breakfast was soon had, and we then stretched out the ropes. The marked distance was 130 metres, from Waiting Room to the floor of the pit. Guy had done a very quick estimate earlier, based on the uncalculated survey numbers, and we at this point believed that we had 157, total, for the depth of Smokey Hole Cave. If any of us had thought about it, we would have realized that there was something wonky with the numbers for the upper part, but there had been no time, and we were all in recovery mode after we'd left the cave. At any rate, we felt good about things, and after saying goodbye to everyone, we climbed in the SUV and bounced our way back to Windsor.
After the expedition had ended, on April 13, while I was in the process of writing this account, I checked with Guy on the survey numbers. He had first worked on St Clair Cave, and the Acheron River, and then Dunn's, and had not started work on Smokey Hole yet. We were still of the thought that it was about 157m. In reply to my inquiry on the total depth, after he'd run through the numbers, he sent me this email:
This number does not
include the extra four metres at the sides of the bottom of the pit,
so we can safely call it 195 metres, which is indeed a new depth
record for Jamaican caves, (Smokey Hole Cave - 195m, Morgans Pond -
186m, Thatchfield - 177m, Dunn's Hole - Dr Fincham agrees that it
should have the stated depth adjusted, to be based on our survey done
last session, and it has been accordingly moved well down in the
First: Hilde was at the top of the pit the entire time and supplied great help in double-checking people's gear before they began their rappels. This resulted in a couple of things being noticed before, rather than after, they became a problem.
Wayne Francis and Roger Hendricks were onboard for not only the main visit, but one of the recons. It was my first time caving with them (something that I had been looking forward to doing for some time), and it was great to have them with us. They were both solid, they picked-up on vertical techniques quickly, and if they decide to link with us more often, they'll be real assets for the JCO. Apart from that, the giant light they had with them was impressive as hell - I didn't know such things existed. If we have the honour of their presence again in the future, I hope they drag it along with them occasionally.
Barbara Gottgen was another solid hand, and her efforts on that day are greatly appreciated. We knew that if we had problems, she was at the top of the pit, experienced, and would help to get us out.
Lastly, there are two important things that must be noted:
We would not have been successful without the efforts of everyone involved. The information that Rowan supplied, and the GSD visit recorded by Alan Fincham, were what got us there in the first place. The crew who were there for the recons made the main visit possible, and if these had not happened, we would have not put anyone into the pit on Mar 26. The entire team that was there for the main visit, on Sunday, Mar 26, devoted many hours to ensuring that the exploration was a success. All of the participants, from beginning to end, should feel very proud of themselves.
Although this is the deepest known cave on the island at present, we have hopes that there are even deeper caves to be explored someday.
S-1 On Mar 31, 2006, the JCO descended into Dunns Hole Cave, near Stewart Town, which was the first time this had happened in many years. An accurate physical survey was carried out that refined the listed depth of the cave to 70m (it now does not include the very deep cockpit in which it is found), which moved it well down the list of deepest caves (the change was made after consultation with Dr Alan Fincham, whom had originally listed it as a candidate for the deepest cave on the island).
S-2 The bat roost found here could prove to be interesting. It is medium-sized, with regard to numbers, and consists of mixed species. External foraging is in an area that is not forested, and generally dry. This is in contrast to the better-known bat roosts, such as St Clair, Windsor, and Marta Tick, located where flora and fauna is more lush, and rainfall more regular. Netting would be most efficient at the "Waiting Room", although something could still be accomplished at the entrance.
S-4 Once again, a deep shaft in a Jamaican cave would turn out to have no lateral development at the bottom. Why this should be, we do not know, but to date there have been no deep shafts discovered in Jamaica that do anything other than end in a pile of breakdown at the bottom. (We still have hopes for Minocal's Glory Hole, but this might be wishful thinking.) Smokey Hole Cave is formed in well-jointed white limestone that extends hundreds of metres deep (Smokey was determined to be at about 630m during our visit). There is no formation of yellow limestone beneath this that is exposed at the surface in the entire district - to the south, where the land drops steeply to meet the sea, the white limestone gives way to alluvial soils before reaching sea-level. We can speculate that because there are no strong bedding-planes found below the entrance to Smokey (only massive/poorly-bedded white limestone), development has been entirely vertical down to the basement rock, with the shaft of Smokey being now filled with breakdown material to a great depth, but made up of loose enough material that it still allows water to run through. There remains the mystery of where the great amount of water that flooded the cave during Hurricane Ivan finally emerged.