Jamaican Caving Notes
June 13, 2004
Field notes: R. S. STEWART
Cavers: R. S. Stewart, I. C. Conolley, A. Hyde, M. Bellinger, M. Peterson, C. Timmons, R. Stirling, Lilly Bolt
Time in: 14:30 EST, Time out: 22:30 EST
THREAT VULNERABILITY: Low
June 13, 2004, a Sunday, was the mid-point of the June session. The cave that we would visit today, Volcano Hole, was anticipated to be the most challenging work of the entire expedition. The day of our visit had been chosen carefully; the main crew had at this point a week of caving in them, and were in gear; and it was a weekend, when we would have the most help available. At the end of the day, it could be said that it was indeed challenging, and it was good that we had a full team.
Volcano Hole is one of the northernmost of the Cave River caves, and the deepest. In fact, it is listed in JU as the fourth deepest cave on the island. It had been descended into once before, in 1965, by the Karst Hydrology Expedition, (KHE), and since then, nothing. It must be admitted that we had no great aim of aiding research and conservation by tackling this dread hole... we mostly did it to see if we could push it further, and also for the fun of it. Nevertheless, biological observations were made and noted that should prove of some value.
The day began by having most of the team, Stefan Stewart, Ivor Conolley, Mark Bellinger, Rona Stirling, Lilly Bolt, Melissa Peterson, and Cory Timmons, journey from Windsor to Linton Park in two cars. There, we would meet Adam Hyde arriving from Kingston. We, of course, all ran late, but this proved to be beneficial.
The Windsor crew reached Linton Park, a hamlet located 5 km north of Volcano Hole, by about 11:00 AM. We had arranged to meet Adam here, because it was the closest, named, easily-found, place on the map near the hole. Via cell-phone, en route, we'd learned that Adam had run into bad traffic leaving Kingston, and was about an hour behind us. This gave me some time to track down our target, Volcano Hole.
The deep, dread hole, that we would descend into today, was somewhere in the bush north of Norwood, St Ann. I had never been there before and had only a dodgy position from JU to work with. Nevertheless, I was confident that I could find it. This is no run-of-the-mill sinkhole, hidden in the bush. Volcano Hole is a monster. It drops 160 m, to intersect an underground river, and is called Volcano because of the steam and vapours that issue from it. I was certain that it could be located with a bit of asking around of the older members of the community. The one problem was that that section of the district is riddled with holes, and we had to find one special hole. I had assembled a total of eight people to tackle this descent, the entire affair being my idea, with none of us knowing where it actually was. Adam's late arrival gave me a chance to do some work on this, before we potentially had a large team hiking to the wrong hole.
At Linton Park, it being a Sunday, there were people around, and it gave me a chance to start inquiring, in search of anyone knowledgeable about the caves of the district. A young man, who was said to know of caves, soon arrived, and a series of careful questions led me to believe that he knew of a particular cave or two at the south end of the Cave River system, but knew nothing of Volcano Hole. Knowing that I had an hour until Adam arrived, it seemed best to jump in a car and roll down the road to the spot closest to where I thought the cave might be, (5 km's south), and then look for an older gentleman who knew the hills. Accordingly, Ivor and I climbed into my rental and headed out to scout.
At the end of the road, or rather where it is only possible to continue on the road by foot or donkey, we found a collection of houses, a shop, and a church. After having parked, I began by asking at the shop. The proprietors and customers were of great help, and although they didn't know of caves themselves, they knew of an older gentleman who was the man to ask. He would soon pass by on his way to church, so all we needed to do was stay put. This was great progress. About 10 minutes later, a well-dressed gentleman made his way along the road towards us, bible in hand, and I politely asked if he could spare a few moments. He graciously agreed, and after less than 5 min's, he knew what we were looking for and was arranging a guide. As I'd hoped, the description of the steam rising from a very deep hole was what enabled him to figure out which of the many holes, that he knew of, was the one that we sought. I neglected to write down his name, which I regret, but I'd like to note anyway that he was instrumental in us finding our target. The guide was soon arranged, after appropriate negotiations, and Ivor and I headed back to Linton Park.
The timing turned out to be perfect. Ten minutes after Ivor and I had rejoined the rest of the crew at Linton Park, Adam arrived. After several minutes of consultation, the entire team was en route to the end of the road, and the start of the hike to Volcano Hole.
Once back at the end of the road, cars were parked, ropes and packs were donned, and with positive vibrations all around, the crew began the trek to our dread hole.
The hike to Volcano Hole is much easier than the hike from Volcano Hole. On the way in, one strolls down a very long hill, through pasture, and then hikes back up another hill that is not so high. On the way back, after having done over 100 metres ascending on ropes, that long hill is very, very long. This would be a factor when we finally hiked back out, at 11:00 PM that night.
At about 14:00, after 30 minutes of up and down through the pasture-land, we arrived at what was most certainly our target. A large hole, high on the side of a hill, was surmounted by a cloud of mist. We had found Volcano Hole.
I will give a brief overview of the morphology before I describe our rigging method. The entrance to Volcano Hole is found high on the SW side of a large hill that rises about 30 m higher to its summit. The NE side of the opening is a rock-wall that rises about 15 m, and on the SW side there is just a terrace on a hill. From the terrace edge of the pit to the wall is about 30 m. The opening at this point is just the intro to the rest. On the SW side, about 10 m below the top opening, is a wide sloping shelf. This has a number of trees growing on it and slopes down to the NE, towards the wall, and the lower opening to the hole. It requires a rope to move down to the shelf. On the shelf is much leaf-litter and loose deep loam. The slope is only about 20 deg, but the footing can slide away at any time. At the bottom of the shelf is another opening, hard against the wall, that is about 15 m wide and 12 from the shelf to the wall. This is the way down.
Our ropes that day were 100 m, 90 m, 50 m, and two 30 m lines. The KHE map indicated a drop from the shelf of about 90 m. There was some concern over the amount of time that would be used having several cavers pass a knot, both down and back up, and we figured this would be necessary if we rigged from the top terrace; the plan therefore was to use a 30 m line to get us to the shelf, and then anchor the 100 m to a tree on the shelf itself. We hoped that this would get us to the bottom without the need to move past a knot. Nevertheless, we tied the 50 m onto the end of the 100 just in case. Adam's 90 m line would be used for belaying one of the more inexperienced members of the team, and it was hoped that this would be long enough. At worst, it would be useable for most of the drop.
The arranging of this rope set-up then began; it ended up consuming at least an hour. Working with the 100 m, 11 mm line, with another 50 m, 10 mm line tied on the end, on the bushy shelf, meant untangling things several times. I suspect it would have been faster if we'd had the whole works on a large spool, despite the extra weight on the hike in. I might try this in the future. Nevertheless, things were eventually straightened out, after a final 10 min's spent by myself on rappel at the lip of the main drop untangling things, while the crew at the anchor, with what would be the lowermost end of the 50 m, took in rope as I sorted out the mess in the middle. The ropes extended in a long U into the hole, one end tied to a tree, the other held by the crew. I ducked my head under a bit of an outcrop, shouted to let it go, and with a great swoosh the rope slid past me into the pit, and we were ready for descent. I resumed my rappel, and headed down.
A series of several narrow steps were passed, and then I was on vertical wall. Above me, mist rose into the light. Below me, nothing could be seen in the foggy darkness, just the rope disappearing into the gloom. After some 15 m, the wall began to recede and I was hanging free in the air. With one hand on the figure-8 checking for heat, and the other braking, I slowly slid into the darkness. By 50 m down, there was still no sight of the floor, just a foggy murk, with my headlamp illuminating only a narrow, misty, beam that faded before it hit anything below me. The wall was now back about 10 m and there was a feeling of great spaciousness. I slowly continued the rappel, thoroughly enjoying this magnificent misty emptiness, until finally, about 30 m below me, I glimpsed a pile of rope on the floor of the shaft. Another 15 m, and I could make out the knot that tied the 100 m to the 50 also on the floor, with several metres to spare. This was indeed good news, so I took a moment to radio up to the crew above that there was no need to pass a knot; it was clear sailing right to the bottom of the first drop.
I was soon standing at the bottom, in a shaft 50 m wide, on a hill of breakdown boulders covered with sand and clay, which fell away to the north down a long slope into another chamber. I unclipped from the line, made my way to the side of this large entrance shaft to where I would be safely out of the rock-fall zone, and radioed up that the next person could come ahead. After a little while, I could make out a tiny figure far above me, in the entrance-brightened fog. Adam Hyde was making his way into Volcano Hole.
I took a few minutes while Adam was on descent to have a look around, steering clear of where rocks from above would impact. To the north was the slope that led down into the next chamber. At the top of it, I could hear the noise of the river, from somewhere further into the cave. This was most definitely the right hole. The hill was too smooth, and steep, to scramble. Fortunately, we had 50 m of extra rope piled on the floor attached to the end of the 100. All was good. Soon, Adam had joined me in the depths, and a radio call to those above let them know that we were clear, and the next caver could get on rope. This would be Ivor, and in a very short time, I saw again a tiny figure far above me, slowly dropping towards us. Adam and I found a good spot to sit, against the wall of the entrance pit, and I had the pleasure of shaking his hand and letting him know that it was good to finally be in a cave with him. This was the first time plans had come to fruition and we had actually gotten underground together. Truly, Volcano Hole was a good one to start with. For both of us, it was new ground, and also appropriately challenging.
In quick time, Ivor had joined us at the bottom and I radioed up that the next person could get on rappel. A discussion now ensued, amongst those above, and with us via walkie-talkie, on whether there would be time for more than three people to enter this hole. It was now late afternoon, about 16:00. Both Mark and Melissa had planned on coming down, but it looked as though we would run out of daylight for the hike out. Myself, I was quite sure that we'd be coming out in the dark whether Mark and Melissa came down or not, and being of the thought that this was an excellent cave, I very much wanted at least Mark to join us. He's one of the vertical crew for the serious stuff, and I wanted him to have the experience with Volcano. I also knew that he loves verticals, and he'd regret it afterwards if he passed on this one. Dark anyway, in for a penny, in for a pound... I talked them both into joining us at the bottom.
Melissa was next, with Mark belaying her, and then finally Mark himself. We had put 5 people into a very deep hole, which to the north got deeper. I sent a message to those above telling them that we were about to go do some exploring, and that we would be out of radio range for a while.
We needed a rope to descend into the next chamber, which would need an anchor, but we already had 50 spare metres of rope sitting at the base of the drop, tied to the 100 m line that extended to our anchor at the top. Rather than wasting time, we decided to go with this rig. As soon as I'd gotten on rappel, and started to move, it was realized by those above me on the hill that the rope would be stretched taught too far way from them to reach. Adam took care of this by clipping in a line, using a carabiner, on the rappel rope that he could use to haul it back within reach. Good stuff. I resumed my journey down. After about 40 m, 20 of it vertical, I was into the next chamber and was able to get off the rope. The others began to make their way down, one after the other on rappel. While this was underway, I took the time to try and find the river that I could hear rumbling in the distance.
Before I describe our explorations in this cave, I must note that the JU plan map, (the overhead view), appears to be a mirror image, or somehow rotated about an axis, of what the map should be.
The map, seen at the right, shows the chambers past the drop-shaft to turn to the east, (right). They do not; they turn to the west, (left). I had a copy of the map with me in the cave and was baffled when I first climbed the breakdown hill in the first lower chamber, swung right, and soon hit a large vertical wall. I confirmed this with Adam and the others when we were in there, showing them the map, aligned in the right direction, and asking if I were crazy or if the whole thing was flipped somehow. The JU published map is a rough, but representative version, of what we found if one rotates it left-right 180 deg. There seems to be no doubt that this map, like others in JU, has suffered en route to appearing in the book, perhaps at the printers.
While waiting for the full team to get down the second pitch, I went in search of the river. I could hear it somewhere close-by, to the left. I found the sound loudest at a pile of breakdown boulders low on the west wall, not far from the base of the second pitch, but I could find no way through. I decided to climb the large, muddy breakdown hill in the centre of this lower chamber, and see what was at the far end. This is when I realized that the map was wonky. At the top, I swung right, which should have been towards the far end of the cave. It wasn't. Within 30 m I was at a large wall with no connecting chambers, no nothing. I swung back across the hill to the left. After 70 m, I hit muddy verticals of about 10 m into a lower, further section of the cave. There was no sound of the river ahead of me, just behind, where I had started from. I worked my way back to the bottom of the second pitch as the last of the crew finished the rappel. I gave an account of what I'd found to the others, and then we discussed the time of the day and the fact that we had 5 people who needed to ascend three pitches, the terrace, the main, and the slope, for a total vertical of about 125 m. It seemed best to get this underway, there being time for the others to explore while the first person was on their way up. Accordingly, Adam and Melissa headed up the line to reach the bottom of the main drop, where Adam could coach Melissa on her first cave ascent, (other than her 12 metres in Deeside Roaring River Cave, the day before). While this was underway, Ivor, Mark and I all headed off in various directions to see what could be found.
The three of us stayed fairly much within shouting distance of each other, but we weren't terribly concerned, because this was not a Marta Tick, a confusing cave that will get you lost... this was just a large simple set of chambers.
Needing to assure myself that the map was indeed messed up, with compass in hand, I again ascended the large muddy hill and swung right. I reached the wall and explored in both directions. To the south, back towards the drop-chamber, there was only a large wall rising to the ceiling, 30 m above. To the north, the wall turned to the west, the left, and I followed it until I once again hit the muddy verticals. There was no time to set a rope for this descent, and anyway, we'd need one sent down from above to do it, so I worked my way along the top edge of the long vertical step, back towards the river again. On the way, I met Mark, or rather talked with him from above, as he worked his way along a channel that he'd found, that seemed as though it would offer a scramble down into the lower section that I'd seen from above. Ivor was somewhere back towards the river, so as Mark seemed to have the exploration of his route well in hand, I headed back to see if Ives had had any luck. A few minutes later, I reached him to find out that he'd found a better route down to the river. It was closer to the base of the slope than I had tried before, and seemed very promising.
Ivor led me to his discovery, and it seemed very, very good. At the top of a scramble of about 3 metres, through boulders, the river could be heard very loud. I carefully eased my way down, rock-climbing on fairly clean stone, and began to squeeze, scramble, and worm my way through a vast collection of boulders of various sizes. The largest were over 5 m, the smallest less than 1, and the only route was through the voids between. I managed to get about 5 m lower, and 10 m further on, and the roar of the river became ever greater, yet I could still not see the water. I reached to where the river obviously rises at times, as evidenced by rafted garbage, but at the point where the noise of the river was greatest, where it seemed to only be several metres lower, under boulders, I could find no way through. The gaps and voids were under 30 cm. This was frustrating as hell. I worked my way back up a little, and found what seemed to offer some promise around another side of the upper boulders, but then concerned with the time, I went back to the bottom of the scramble to check with Ivor and Mark, who were at the top. Word had reached us from the surface, via Cory at the top, to Adam at the bottom of the main drop, shouted down to us in the lower chambers, that Lilly had advised us that we should, "Get the hell out of there!" Melissa was still on rope, and that meant that we could not use the bottom part of the line that extended down into the lower chambers, so all we could do was wait anyway. After about 20 minutes of this, I grew bored and decided to see if I could scramble up the slope to the main drop.
I tried the left side, where it seemed most do-able, and by kicking footsteps in mud, and moving carefully, and at times laying my whole body on the muddy slope to get even a little friction, I managed to almost get to the top. Five more metres and I would have done it, but the last section was so treacherous, and I was high enough up, that I knew if I came off I would not be in good shape when I reached the bottom. I decided to stay put, on my last precarious little perch, and see if Melissa was up, and done with the rope, so that Adam could move it across to me. I heard from Adam that Melissa was still on ascent, so I decided to bide my time. Mark and Ivor, below me, had heard this exchange and then worked out a cool little manoeuvre that would get a usable section of rope to me. They shifted the bottom of the rope across, to where I could grab it, and then hauled it back to the centre somewhat so that I had a line with tension to haul myself up. It only moved Melissa, 100 metres above me, a little, and it enabled me to haul myself up the rest of the way, hand over hand.
Not long after I had rejoined Adam at the bottom of the main drop, Melissa was reported to be successfully at the top, and Mark and Ivor came up from the lower chambers. Adam was next on ascent; Ivor gave him some tension at the bottom, while Mark and I found a good spot to sit, well away from the rock-fall zone and Adam began to move steadily up the line.
As Adam ascended into the heights above, the last of the light that penetrated through the fog into the hole, 100 metres above, began to slowly fade. Sunset had caught up with us. We began to see peeny-wallies, fireflies, drifting around above us in the mist. It was quite beautiful. Eventually word reached us from above, via the walkie-talkie, that Adam was out and that the next caver could get on rope. This would be Mark.
While Mark ascended, Ivor and I had retired to our good seats at the wall, and Ives produced a can of sardines from his pack. This was opened, and shared, and was a great bit of re-fueling before the rope-work. Surprisingly soon, word reached us from above that the next person could come ahead. Mark was a vertical star on this day. I timed him, from bottom to top, at 23 minutes. Very impressive. Next would be me.
Ivor and I had decided that I'd go next, so that I could get the GPS position while he was on rope. This turned out to be a good decision, because the wall to the NE, and the trees around the entrance to the hole, made getting a decent fix difficult. Once up, I had to run the GPS for about 20 min's to get an acceptable position.
My ascent was both strenuous and magnificent. Because Ivor would have no one to give him some tension at the bottom of the rope for the first stretch, necessitating holding the rope below him every move with his feet, or hauling it down by hand, it would be best if I took the 50 m rope with me on my ascent. If we had left it tied to the bottom of the 100 m, one of the rocky edges at the top would have caught the knot, for sure. It had to be carried up. I hung it from the front clip-in point of my harness, with enough spare rope to have it about 2 m below me, and hung my pack from the back of the harness, got the Jumars on the rope, and headed up.
Now follows one of the most magical times I have had in a cave.
There was now no light from above, only mist and fog, with fireflies drifting lazily around in the dark. On rope, I began to rise into this. After some 30 metres, there was no floor below to be seen in the light of my headlamp. Ivor, headlamp off, conserving batteries, was alone in the dark, somewhere beneath me. I had rotated so that I was faced away from the nearest wall and could see nothing to the sides, except for the foggy beam of my headlamp, and the fireflies. Above me, there was only a thin rope stretching away into nothingness. The entire world was the rope, the mist, the fireflies, and me. I steadily moved upwards, hauling my pack and the spare rope beneath me, with no reference to tell me how high I was, or where the top would be found. The one link with the rest of the world that I had was my watch. I had checked the time at the bottom and glanced at it occasionally to see where I might be. Fifteen minutes... must be about half-way there. Hey fireflies, how are tings, man? Nice likkle hole you got here. Move up, move up, rest, move up... ahhh... the wall. My rotation on the rope brought me around to where my headlamp shone on the wall of the pit, five metres away. Although it was somewhat reassuring to once again know that there was more to the universe than the rope, the mist, and the fireflies, and me, I rather missed leaving the void behind. It was a very unique experience.
At the first edge, the work began. I had to drag the 50 m rope, and pack, over rocky steps and brush until the main anchor was reached, and then transfer to the 30 m line for the uppermost pitch, then drag my load up the final section. When I finally reached the terrace, I needed a few minutes break before I could even boot up the GPS.
Word had been sent down to Ivor, upon my arrival up-top, that he could come ahead. About 25 minutes later, Ives was at the shelf.
It should be noted that Mark had stayed at the top of the main line, on the shelf, since his arrival at the top, and when Ivor reached the shelf, the two of them did real work on getting the lines ready to haul up. With the help of the rest of the crew on the terrace, we worked out the easiest method of getting all of our gear and ropes back to the top, and we were soon ready to hike through the dark to where we had parked the cars.
The hike out was work. That first hill that we had come down, on the way in, was a killer on the way out. Ives, bless his heart, carried the 100 m rope, plus one other of the lines. I don't know how he did it. The lot of us were moving very slowly on that hill, and if Miss Lilly hadn't needed frequent rests, which gave me a chance to bend down, hands on knees, to try to grab some strength, I might still be on that hill to this day, having died while trying to keep up. At about 23:30, 11:30 PM, we were back at the cars. Incredibly enough, just before we got there, en route, there was a shop still open where we could grab some water, smokes, and Red Stripe. That was a fine thing.
Soon after, Miss Lilly and I headed back to Coxheath, and the rest of the crew were on their way back to Kingston. I have to thank Miss Lilly for keeping me awake on that drive. She could have taken the opportunity to doze off herself, but instead, she stayed awake and regularly chatted with me to keep me also conscious
Our caving that day, at Volcano Hole, was a fine bit of work and everyone involved should be very proud.
N. farri were observed close to the river, under boulders, and that same 1 cm, reddish spider with the odd legs that we see in healthy caves, was also present. There were no invasive roaches.
A medium-sized colony of bats is present in the lower chamber, dark-zone, numbering over 500 but probably not over 2000, (pure guestimate). Fluffy guano deposits are found in places. There is no history of guano mining, of course, this being only the second time the cave had ever been entered.
At the top of the breakdown hill in the lower chamber, there are notable mud formations of the deep drip-hole in thick mud variety. I avoided walking on them as much as possible and due to the hardness of the mud, didn't see damage where I had stepped between them.
The rock-fall coming down at us, while the first few people were on ascent at the main drop, was brutal. There were several close calls. The source seemed to be primarily the rope itself, where it passed over the steps to the shelf. It had been impossible for us to do a Hutchinson's Hole rigging, because of the wall on the NE of the opening, so our main-line was disturbing rocks as the climbers moved up, shifting the rope slightly as they did it. By the time I was on-rope, most of the rocks seemed to have already been dislodged, and I had no problems, but those who went up before me experienced, a number of times, the disturbing sound of rocks whooshing past them in the dark, that then smashed loudly on the floor below. As Mark notes elsewhere, despite the extra time that would be required by passing a knot, it might be best to rig from the top of the NE wall.
More notes for Volcano Hole will be found at Volcano - Jan 13/05, and Volcano - Feb 13/07. (We try to visit it on the 13th of the month whenever possible ;-)
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