St Clair Cave
June 3, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, A Haiduk.
Notes: RS Stewart
JCO activities at St Clair Cave began in January, 2005, with a visit to the system in search of the bat P. aphylla. During our time in the cave, a route beyond the "Inferno" was found by D McFarlane and G Van Rentergem. A return visit, in March of 2006, to push this route resulted in the discovery of a new river, The Acheron. (A fuller account of these activities will be found in the notes for St Clair Cave - Mar 21-22.) Foul air had prevented any progress in the new river passage on March 22, and with the intention of determining the exact nature of this, a return visit was planned for the next session to carry out air sampling. This would take place on the weekend of Jun 3-4, 2006. The crew would be Jan Pauel, Andreas Haiduk, and myself.
Initial planning for the air-sampling visit had begun soon after the last expedition had ended, on April 3. There was much interest from Dr Don McFarlane and Dr Alan Fincham, and of course much interest from the JCO team that had reached the new river. It was recognized that early June, in the rainy season, would not be an ideal time to go back, but that was when I would next be in the field, and I very much wanted to get in there again as soon as possible. Accordingly, and with hopes that things wouldn't be flooded during our visit, arrangements were made to have us supplied with gas-sampling gear, and post-visit analysis (courtesy of Dr Don) that might give us a better handle on the problems that lay before us on future explorations of the Acheron passage. One sticking point on this return visit was the crew; it had to be very solid or we couldn't even attempt it. I knew that Ivor, Knut, Adam, Guy, and Elizabeth were unavailable, and that I had to be circumspect about taking in new volunteers (it's rough). On this front, I got very lucky.
Several weeks after the last session had ended, Ivor pointed someone my way who was interested in linking with us for caving, Jan Pauel. He came with a solid recommendation from Ivor, and amongst other things was a diver. I soon made contact with him. He struck me as being a cool guy, and even better, he was enthusiastic. For purely mercenary reasons, I included him in the email correspondence that was going on regarding how we would get back to the Acheron. We had absolute need of a SCBA, and I was begging for the loan of appropriate gear from anyone I thought could be of help. Incredibly, Jan immediately took over the on-island task of arranging what we needed. His own tank was 50 lb's, and it seemed like a daunting task to haul the monster all the way to the Acheron (although we were prepared to do it), so we were in hopes of getting something smaller. With much effort and many phone calls, Jan finally got the loan of a more reasonably-sized tank from Jamaica Scuba Divers in Runaway Bay, Jamaica, and we were good to go.
Early in our correspondence, Jan had mentioned a friend of his, Andreas Haiduk, who was interested in joining us. He had prior caving experience in Jamaica, and even better, he was the chief hydrologist for the Water Resources Authority. I soon realized that I'd been hearing of Andreas for quite sometime, and had been told that we should link, but I'd never remembered the name or tried to track him down. Now, with a particularly challenging bit of work ahead, we had suddenly come together at a perfect time. This gave us three definite on the team, all used to cuts, bruises, and rough-ground, and that was close to ideal. (A fourth might have been of help, but in my experience, a team consisting of three rough, intelligent (or almost so) people can move fastest, with the best communications, and least discussion to slow things down.) Everything was set, and it had all fallen into place like it was preordained. On the morning of June 3, 2006, our intrepid crew of three was assembled in Pollyground, and stuffing gear, air, and a little white rum, into backpacks in preparation for the hike to St Clair Cave.
The usual track was followed, leading at first through farmland, and then a short section of bush in a valley, en route to the Black River. By the time we left the farmland, it was obvious that the recent, heavy, albeit brief rains, had pumped up the system that lay before us; ahead several hundred metres, we could hear the roar of the normally dry Black River in flood. The riverbed was our approach route. The Acheron was possibly at a lower level than the river. Mostly, it was surprising, because there had not been more than one day of heavy rain, on Friday Jun 2, and some showers in the days before. The source of the Black River is undoubtedly Worthy Park, and perhaps the rainfall was greater in the Vale, but it certainly didn't take this system, Worthy Park/Riverhead, long to reach flood levels. May was quite dry, and the ground wasn't soaked.
Upon reaching the normally dry Black River (not to be confused with the one in St Elizabeth - this one is actually the start of the Rio Cobre), we were greeted with the sight of an impressive flow of water passing before us. There was nothing to be done other than to give it a try on riverbanks, and in shallower parts of the stream, so after a short break we carried on, edging our way upstream along the right bank. We were soon forced down into the water, but progress was made nonetheless. My recollection was that the left bank would be easier upstream, so at the first chance, we made the crossing, where several boulders and a fallen tree made it possible. Remarkably, the river smelled sweet, despite the great flow and volume, with its load of waste-sugar from Worthy Park. At this point, the water had travelled from the Vale of Lluidas through Worthy Park 3 and associated sinks, then through Riverhead Cave, then down a kilometre plus of external riverbed. It is no surprise that foul air is found in certain parts of the Worthy Park/Riverhead/St Clair system, because there is certainly a great input of nutrient to whatever microorganisms are consuming it (the biological oxygen demand for this water must be enormous). So, through this sugar bath, we continued to wend our way upstream in search of the bottom of the track that would lead us to the entrance.
The entire time, from Pollyground to/through the river, Andreas had been portering the air tank in a large backpack, and as it had now become immersed in the water a number of times, the added weight was apparent every time he stepped up on rocks and fallen trees. Indeed, at this point, he was bearing well in excess of 20 kg's, and did so uncomplainingly. Jan and I tried to stay close on this approach (and the subsequent retreat when he would again carry this load through the river), at least in the tricky spots, pushing up on the pack from behind, or steadying him so that he wouldn't be swept away downstream, but I must confess that I did not ask, or more properly insist, that I take this burden over - it was obvious that he was physically capable of it (strong as a packhorse), and I had great doubts as to whether I would be. My earlier thoughts were that we would sling the load from a yam stick, and have it carried by two of the team at a time - I had not considered it possible for one person to do it. Incredibly, Andreas was able to haul this load, alone, all the way to the entrance pit.
It was again difficult to spot the track that runs up the side of the valley from the riverbed, but I had done a patch-job on my GPS antenna cable prior to the expedition (one in a series), and with the aid of this I was able to refind the start of the track after only two stops for positions, these totalling perhaps seven or eight minutes. (For those who read these notes, and attempt to use a GPS to locate the cave, be advised that it is very tricky getting enough satellites in the river gully when using only an internal antenna.) After more than an hour spent reaching the cave, compared to the usual 35 minutes, we were finally at the beginning of the truly challenging part of the visit. Gear was lowered into the pit, cavers climbed down the roots that line the descent section of the wall, and a Q of rum was extracted from my pack with which to appease the duppy.
It has become standard JCO practice to make a little offering at the entrances to "serious" caves, although "offering" is perhaps not the right word; a "trick" is more like it. The technique involves supplying the resident spirit with a strong alcoholic beverage, preferably white rum, to put it to sleep soon after. The longer one intends to stay in the cave, the more rum must be given. We have found this approach to be very effective in the past, and when neglected, we have had problems. However, in the case of St Clair, it seems as though the duppy has caught on. Not only was the rum untouched when we finally left the cave (even though it had been poured directly upon the ground), it was made very clear that the full-time resident was wide-awake and not particularly happy (more on this later in the notes). Nevertheless, at this time, secure in our ignorance, we felt that we had done what was necessary and therefore began our journey into the dark.
The first stretch, from the entrance pit to the junction at the start of the Inferno, went quickly and smoothly. At the junction, we took a little break. Some tens of metres away, in the nearby Inferno passage, a great roar could be heard, rising and falling in intensity. It sounded like hurricane winds, or the thunder of an unseen waterfall, and was much louder than I remembered it being during my previous two visits. The overall effect was to make the hairs on the back of one's neck rise slightly, especially knowing that we would soon walk into this. Jan and Andreas showed signs of being equally impressed, but gave no indication that the thought of not pushing forward had entered their minds. Considering that neither of them had ever been in a situation remotely similar to this, it was a mark of just how solid the two of them are. So, after finishing what I expected to be my last cigarette for quite some time, we rose from our seats upon the boulders, and waded into the waters of the Inferno.
The first part of our trek into the passage was not much different than the last time, with the water-level only slightly higher, perhaps 25-30cm, than Mar 22/06, and only at times much above our waists. The bat density seemed similar, as did the heat. After about 50m, we hit the first thermocline and the temperature rose a couple of degrees within a 5m stretch of the passage (this would continue the entire way, with the thermocline boundaries markedly more pronounced than our Mar 22/06 visit). We carried on (Jan had taken over tank-portering duties from Andreas, and would haul the load the rest of the way, to the start of the Inferno Plus), moving from ever hotter zone to zone, until, after what seemed a long time, the boulders at the end of the Inferno proper came into view. At this point, we would try to recover the route down and through to regain the Inferno Plus, and then push on to the Acheron. This was not to be.
The last 20m of the passage, which brought us to the boulders, was very hot and stifling. Upon reaching the boulders, I found myself rather breathless and steadily panted for air, with little improvement in my condition no matter how deeply I sucked in the foetid mess. We decided to take a little break before searching for the ongoing route, and sat down on the guano laden rocks. After a couple of minutes, still not feeling much better, I began a search in the area where I recalled us having passed down through voids in the rocks the previous visit. Everywhere I looked that gave a view to the bottom, I saw water pooled. The last time, I could not remember us hitting water until we were right through the rocks, and then only down the far side of the passage, well away from where I was looking. After a couple of minutes of searching, I again had to sit; I simply could not breathe fast enough. I tried two more times to find the route, separated by breaks to gasp air, sitting down, but the situation began to seem impossible. I felt bad about this, and felt that I was failing the group, perhaps because of many years of cigarette smoking.
Soon after our arrival at the boulders, I had checked with Jan and Andreas on their condition, and although Jan seemed to be breathing somewhat heavily, Andreas struck me as not being overly concerned. I very much believed that I was the only one feeling this rough, in fact rough to the point where I felt faint. Although I now knew we could not reach the Acheron, or even the Inferno Plus, I wanted to at least find and flag the route through the boulders. I stood no chance of doing this, feeling as I did, so I suggested that perhaps we should break-out the air, recover a little, and then search some more. Very quickly, Jan and Andreas were connecting the breathing apparatus to the tank, and after Jan gave it a few test inhales, it was passed to me to supply the sweetest air I have ever had in my life. The second mouthpiece was used by Andreas, and for several minutes we passed air around amongst the three of us. I immediately felt better, but the effects were short-lived. Within 15 seconds of being off the tank, the gasping, pounding heart, and faintness returned. Thankfully, Andreas clearly stated the obvious, thereby relieving me of the guilt I would have felt by saying it, "We must turn back!" He was entirely right about this, so after two air samples were taken (A0 and A1), we headed back out.
Before I move on to the retreat, several things must be noted: Two months before, I had scrambled all over those boulders, from top to bottom, without any serious breathing problems. Indeed, I had had enough oxygen to do the very strenuous scramble back up through them from the Inferno Plus. Secondly, there were no bats roosting in this part of the passage on June 3, although they had not only been present on March 21, but had extended for hundreds of metres further in, in the Inferno Plus, before they suddenly ended close to the bad air of the Acheron. There is little doubt in my mind that on June 3 the air was so foul in the last part of the Inferno proper that it was even too much for the bats. So, we must wonder what caused this great change in conditions. Water levels were apparently higher in the Inferno Plus, and presumbably in the Acheron. We believe that the Acheron is at a lower level than the Black River, which was in flood, so this is not surprising. But, was the decline in air quality caused by reduced air volume, and thus concentration, or had the bad air of the Acheron been pushed back outwards into the Inferno? We could smell no hydrogen sulfide, as we seemed to at the Acheron in March, but I do not know what this indicates. The only thing I am of certain of is that the "danger zone" in St Clair expands greatly in times of external floods, and that it is best to always have at least one SCBA when exploring the further reaches of the Inferno, and onwards, so that when foul air is suddenly encountered, it is possible for the team to make a hasty withdrawal.
Again, I must stress the danger of the bad air described above to those who might read these notes and feel an urge to push exploration into the Acheron - this part of St Clair Cave has the potential to be deadly. Do not enter it without bringing an appropriate breathing apparatus.
Our retreat from the Inferno was orderly, and uneventful, other than Andreas making an incredible observation of a bat floating in, and then taking directly off of, the water pooled in the passage. Within 25m of our leaving the boulders behind, we suddenly passed into breathable air, the temperature dropped a couple of degrees, and the bats again flew around over our heads. This continued, with air becoming better, and temperatures more bearable, until we finally stumbled back to the junction. Only a very brief break was taken, all of us feeling like we would prefer to get back to outside air and a cool river as soon as possible, and not wanting to overly delay things. This time was spent filling the last of the sampling bags (A3). Soon after, we had climbed the mud hill from the junction, popped out through the low opening above, and were back in the upper-level passage that led to the entrance pit. Now began one of the more bizarre times I have spent in a cave.
The upper-level of St Clair is not long, perhaps 150m, and runs from the entrance pit to the junction where it drops down via two routes to join the main passage that runs from the Inferno to the Lemon Ridge entrance. It is about 3-4 metres high and 6-8 wide in most of it. At times (e.g. Jan/05), there are some hundreds of bats roosting in it, and at other times (e.g. Mar/06), there are virtually none. On June 3, when we entered this area on the way out, it was alive with thousands of bats hurtling about in a mad frenzy (this had not been the case on the way in). For the first time ever in a batroost, I was hit repeatedly by them as we pushed forward, trying to cover the last of the ground before the entrance pit. I brought my arms tight to my sides, elbows down and hands protecting my face, and slowly shuffled forward, leading the way. It all seemed very unnatural, since I had never seen this in the passage before (even though we had exited on Mar 22 at roughly the same time of day, after leaving the Inferno), and I began to feel very creeped-out. I began to periodically shout "Soon gone! Soon gone!" in hopes of mollifying the non-human residents of the cave. This had little effect and it wasn't until we were fully in the entrance pit, with sky above, that we were out of them.
Now, the situation in the upper-level, described above, can be looked at in two ways:
First, the rational, and likely explanation: It was us who had driven the bats out of the Inferno, with many thousands seeking haven in the upper-level. The reason why this should be, while it was not the case on March 22, is that they could no longer escape to the Inferno Plus, or indeed the boulder area of the Inferno proper. While on March 22 they had had more room to move on to, on June 3 their available roosting space was compromised by bad air coming from the Acheron (originally Worthy Park, probably). Rather than using the great expanse of the main passage toward Lemon Ridge, which is not part of their usual flyway, some of them retreated to known ground, that is, the upper-level passage where they travel while exiting during foraging hours. The implication of this is that it is particularly disruptive to the bats to enter the Inferno when rains have been heavy, when one can expect the same to occur again. Accordingly, we will make no further rainy-season forays into the Inferno and ask that others also refrain from doing so.
Second, the explanation that lingers in the back of my mind for odd occurrences in many of the caves we visit: The white rum simply isn't enough anymore. There is some sort of Duppy telegraph and the word has spread on what we're up to. The rum isn't a nice little gift, it's a trick, and when I chant, "We're here only for a likkle while Mas Duppy, not so long", they no longer believe it because they know we'll probably be back repeatedly. The massive flurry of bats that was thrown at us was making the point that no one was asleep, and our visit, of whatever length, was not appreciated. In this regard, it must be noted that the smell of rum was almost as strong when we passed it on the way out as it had been on the way in - this despite it being almost pure alcohol that evaporates quickly, which should have been wafted up and out of the cave. Apparently, not one drop was taken by our possibly malicious friend, and yet none was allowed to escape. It was shoved right in our faces that the rum was not only unwelcome, but actively resented. The obvious solution to this dilemma is to abandon the tricks and offer out-and-out bribes. Accordingly, from now on, when we enter dread caves, we shall be preceded by a white rooster that has had its head very recently removed (just outside the entrance, in fact). We'll see how that goes.
Our hike back to Pollyground was no easier than it was on the way in, and again Andreas carried the tank. I did my best to stay right behind him, and push up on it often, but this was probably of minimal help. At any rate, by late afternoon we were back at Pollyground and sucking down very fine, very cold Red Stripes that Jan had in his cooler. Although we hadn't made it to the Acheron, we had made some very interesting rainy-season observations, and sampled the air at the point where it was essentially no longer possible for humans to proceed without protective gear, and could quite justifiably feel as though we had accomplished something of value.
Before closing this account, it must be noted that right from the start, the three of us immediately came together as a team, with all the positive benefits: no time was wasted on unnecessary discussions; everyone pulled their weight (Jan and Andreas, especially, by acquiring, and then lugging the air tank around); and no one needed their hand held. Looking back on it, it was very cool how smoothly we pulled-off what was really quite a difficult task. Much respect to the rest of the crew.
 - More info on the hydrology encountered here can be found in Andreas' notes, including Riverhead and Worthy Park, which will be posted online very soon.
 - We're still waiting for the results of the gas analysis as of Jun 17 and will post them as soon as we have the numbers.
 - Preliminary Plan for the Inferno Plus, with new data adapted by G van Rentergem to JU pg340 version of existing survey (final map to follow):