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More notes for St Clair Cave: Nov 3, 2012, August 21-28, 2011, January 19-20, 2010, March 19, 2009, Aug 3, 2008, July 29, 2008, June 3, 2006, March 21, 2006, March 21, 2006.

St Clair Cave
May 8, 2011
Team: RS Stewart, JL Pauel, D Whyte, T Stewart, I Holmes, S Lee
Notes: RS Stewart

En route to St Clair Cave
St Clair is only a 30 minute hike from my current yard in Polly Ground, and thus my "home cave". As such, it is one I know quite well. Or, rather, I thought I did. True to form, in the first half of 2011, it turned out to hold more surprises.

The first surprise had been the discovery of the Acheron River, on March 21, 2006, by Guy Van Rentergem and myself. In the furthest reaches of the cave, beyond the Inferno, there is a river on a lower level that flows year-round. The second surprise was my discovery in April, 2011, of an upwarding-trending, complex section on the south side of the main Lemon Ridge passage, with a strong flow of air that indicates a possible third entrance. I was with a novice caver, and working under a time limit, so did not have the opportunity to complete the exploration. However, I did find a small chamber, with unreachable openings at the top, that seemed to offer a possible route. A return visit to push it was put on my to-do list, along with the construction of a "Maypole" to get to the top. May 8 would turn out to be my first chance to renew the exploration, and even better, the visit would also serve to get a few of our newest members into a serious cave for the first time.

Stefan at the Polly Ground entrance to St Clair Cave
For those not familiar with a caving maypole, and how it is used, it is simply a pole with a rope attached to the top that is leaned into an opening higher on the wall. One then ascends the rope using standard vertical technique to gain access to the opening. The only real alternative in our case was to place a series of bolts up the wall and to proceed by way of "direct aid", that is, clipping into the last-placed bolt, and then placing another bolt as far up as you can reach, and then moving up step by step. It is very time-consuming, and takes many bolts. A third option, carrying in a ladder, would be impossible, since it would not fit through the passage in spots.

My ideal material and contruction method for the pole was aircraft aluminum in several sections that could be assembled where it would be used. Four sections would be best, each 2m long, which would allow us to get it through the tight, windy parts en route to the chamber, and give us a total of 12m to use when there. Unfortunately time constraints prevented such construction before the return visit on May 8, 2011, and I fell back to Plan B, which was green bamboo. This was in two sections, each about 3m long, chopped with a machete while on the approach to the cave.

Cat skeleton in St Clair Cave
The team for the May 8 visit was made up of two very experienced cavers, Jan and I, and five less-experienced cavers, Damion, Iris, Simone, Sloane, and Taneka. The latter group, although relative novices, were quite capable, and had done fieldwork in other disciplines. We were not disappointed in their performance during the day, and in fact, Damion and Sloane, who carrried the two bamboo sections, were instrumental in making it happen. It was far from easy transporting the sections to where they would be used, but they did so without complaint, and without taking forever to do it.

The hike to the cave was uneventful - the river was dry, the weather was good, and other than a stop to chop bamboo, it took the usual 30 minutes. Once there, we climbed down the fig roots, lowered bamboo, and then carried on to the downward scramble beyond the collapse. From this point, we moved slowly, and looked closely for critters. One of our crew, Iris Holmes, is on-island to study frogs and their diseases, including in caves, and this was a perfect opportunity to add St Clair to her fieldsites. Significantly, none were found, and as Jan and I thought about it, we had no recollection of ever finding them there. They certainly should be, at least E. Cundalli. To speculate, the feral cats that inhabit the twilight zone of the cave have eradicated them, which, in turn, should happen to the cats. This is also on the to-do list.

Simone and Iris in the new section
The new section that we'd come to explore is roughly half-way to the Lemon Ridge entrance. The aproximate position is shown on the map lower in this report. I had first noticed it because of a prominent sand-bank on that side of the main passage that had no obvious reason for being there. A minute or two of looking had resulted in the discovery of a small side passage that soon became complex on several levels. Today, we took our time reaching it. We were searching for interesting biota as part of the mission, and Damion and Sloane toiled along with lengths of bamboo balanced on their shoulders. There was no rush.

There are a series of shallow pools in the first half of the main passage, and in one of the first of these, we discovered a small fish, about 3cm long and very pale. It was collected in one of Iris's frog bags, and then left to pick-up on the way out. It is probably a regular, outside species, not troglobytic, but positive identification will be done by people at UWI, where it now resides, and then posted here in an update. The bigger question is how it got there. The outside river does not have a direct connection with the cave, so the only possibility seems that it started in Riverhead Cave, travelled underground to the Acheron, then was washed back into the main passage via the Inferno+ and Inferno during the heavy rains of Nicole in late-2010. We suspect that flooding can occur to that degree, although we have never seen it in action. If a tropical storm happens while I am in Polly Ground, I will visit the junction area to see if it is indeed the case.

Yellow Boa faeces (?) in the new section
After about an hour, we reached the new section. The bamboo was now muscled through the small passages that lead upward to the chamber that I hoped would approach the surface. Things went well at first, but the two parts were a little too long to make it through the last few winding metres. Some was trimmed off, but while this was happening, I explored in a direction I'd missed in April. Several metres of crawling revealed a much larger, higher chamber that also had openings around the top. Accordingly, the bamboo was hauled in, and put together. The sections had split somewhat at the ends where we would join them with an interior rod of hardwood, but it was dealt with by wrapping them with "wiss", or narrow fig roots, that Taneka had found next to the river bed during the approach. This done, we erected the pole and leaned it into the lowest opening that looked like it had good potential. Unfortunately, it was about a meter too short. I donned vertical gear anyway, in hopes that I might manage the last part somehow. All I clipped in was the chest ascender, to hold me on rope in case I fell, and without bothering to use SRT, I began to climb the wall. A minute later my head was level with the top of the pole, and I considered whether I should attempt the last meter. The rock on the wall was slippery, rotten, and uninviting. With some regret, I abandoned the attempt, changed over to rappel, and headed down.

The assembled bamboo was laid upon rocks on the floor of the chamber, and having done what we could do, we began to make our way out. Less than thirty minutes later, we were back at the entrance, and starting the hike to Polly Ground.

With regard to the new section, and why I suspect it leads to a new entrance, several things must be noted. First, there is much washed-in wood, snail shells, and other surface debris in both chambers that is too large to pass through fissures. There is some sort of real opening above, with real passages. The unknown factor is whether these are large enough to let a human pass. They do seem to be large enough to allow a snake through, as evidenced by what appears to be substantial deposits of yellow boa faeces. They also seem large enough to allow bats to fly through, evidenced by bat faeces, which are presumably being eaten by the snake. In my experience, bats cannot fly through a passage that is too small for humans. I believe there to be a very good possibility that during the next return, with extensions to the maypole, we may reach the surface somewhere between the Polly Ground and Lemon Ridge entrances.

St Clair Cave Map

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