Jamaican Caving Notes
January 13, 2005
Field notes: R. S. STEWART
Cavers: R. S. Stewart, Guy van Rentergem, I. C. Conolley, E. Slack
Time in: 15:00 EST, Time out: 21:00 EST
THREAT VULNERABILITY: Low
On January 13, 2005, a Thursday, it was seven months to the day since we had last been in Volcano Hole. During that visit, June 13, 2004, we had been frustrated in our attempts to penetrate through breakdown boulders into the river, and had pencilled it in for a return visit some time in the future. Guy van Rentergem, who had not been with us during the June expedition, had indicated an interest in exploring and mapping this massively deep cave, so at the mid-point of the January, 2005 expedition, with Guy onboard, our crew returned to Grants Bailey, Norwood District, St Ann, to renew our quest for the river. This time, we were to be successful.
There were four of us this day: Ivor and Elizabeth, who would act as surface crew, and Guy and myself, who would conduct the exploration and survey. As usual, we ran late and weren't finished rigging the drops in preparation for the descent until mid-afternoon. The method used was the same as the June visit, and went comparatively fast. We used a 30 m, 11 mm line to get us from the very top to the shelf of the main-anchor, and then the 100 m, 11+ mm monster-rope for the main pitch. By feeding the monster-rope down from the very top of the pit, before the sloping shelf of the main anchor-point, we were able to avoid the tangles that had wasted so much time in June. The main-line was soon tied to the same tree as last time, and we were ready to roll.
Once again, I would up being fed into the hole first, acting as a human guinea-pig to check if ropes had been tied properly, or if cave-dwelling duppies had shown up since the last visit, and with an, "on-rappel", to the others, and a quiet, "Jah guide and protect", for myself, I headed down. My descent was briefly delayed at the top of the true vertical section of the main drop, while I unsnagged the end of the main-line that was caught in some shrubbery, but this was soon sorted out, and with a very impressive swoosh, the rope raced down into the pit. I followed at a more liesurely pace.
Despite Guy having brought more vertical gear with him from Belgium, as yet another wonderful contribution to the JCO stockpile, I relied on a figure-8 for the descent, not wanting to try anything new on such a serious drop. Carelessness on my part had resulted in this being rigged-in so that it wasn't running in a nice U-shape through the descender, instead doing the turn that results from the figure-8 being rotated 180 before being clipped-in, and as a result I began to spin within metres of leaving the wall, as the pit widened. By the time I was half-way down, I was rotating at at least 10 rpm, and decided that I needed to either increase the speed of my descent, or vomit. I chose to go faster. By the time I was nearing the bottom, I must have been up to about 20 rpm and was quite glad to finally touch down. After a minute of recovery, I got off-rope, made my way dizzily to a place well away from the zone of rock-fall, and radioed up to the crew that Guy could come ahead. [I should note that I will retire my figure-8 descenders as soon as I have racks. The new ascenders that Guy has contributed will be used by me first chance, but I still don't like the bobbin type of descenders that he has supplied, although others of our crew do, so they will definitely be used].
Guy joined me at the bottom soon after, having made impressive time on the way down, and after anchoring another rope, (the 65 m, 10 mm line), I got back on rappel and headed down into the main chambers. Unfortunately, the rope ended about 10 m short of the bottom of the steep slope that gives access to the lower chambers, so I found a relatively safe stance and let Guy know that we'd have to tie another rope onto the end of the 10 mm, this being the new 50 m static line that Guy had brought with him this session. Guy followed me down, we joined ropes, and finished the descent. Although the last little part of that slope looked like it could be scrambled, I had found things surprisingly slippery on that pitch during the June visit, and figured using another rope was the better choice.
Surveying had begun at the bottom of the main drop, and continued down into this lower section. After setting up a station down-slope, we temporarily suspended this so that we could explore the scramble down into the river passage. Guy took the lead on this, and within 10 minutes had pushed through, finding a route through what had seemed the most likely spot, that I had noted in June. This was great stuff. Following, through the maze of voids between breakdown boulders that makes this section so difficult, and with the roar of the river ahead of us, I was finally rewarded with the site of the Cave River, in its last accessible downstream point, crashing through rocks from right to left. It was as impressive as hell, and is etched into my mind like a video-tape.
A look downstream showed nothing immediately possible, so Guy led us through/under/over boulders upstream. I followed, flagging diligently lest we become lost in this confusing array of giant rocks, and unable to recover the way out, while Guy pushed on. The route that we took soon led up and away from the river proper, into a higher section of the river passage, and after some tens of metres of this, we decided to pull the plug. This was not cowardice on our part, just common-sense. We had much survey work ahead of us, in the rest of the cave, and by finding a way into the river we had already made great progress, and it isn't wise to push things too far at any one time, (we all intend to live to explore more caves in the future, and conduct ourselves accordingly). Turning around, we made our way back to the scramble up to the main section of the cave.
Before moving on with this account, I should note that Guy seemed doubtful about how much further the river-passage could be followed, but myself, I think through some of those many voids between those many giant rocks, a way might be found. We will certainly have another go at it, at any rate.
Returning to the main section, we now ran into one of those situations that can spring at you out of nowhere, and bring things to a grinding halt. Guy had placed the bag that contains his survey gear somewhere at the beginning of the scramble into the river-passage, and we could not find it. What made things worse is that it was the exact same colour as the mud and rocks in which it might be found. After a while, Guy relocated it, further down than we expected it to be, and after adorning it with many lengths of orange flagging-tape, we carried on with the survey.
Time was once again a factor in things, so it was decided that we would attempt to map as much of the cave as possible, and forget about exploration of the further reaches of the main chambers. Guy swung into high survey-mode, and we managed to get over half of the cave done in very fast time. Finally, with a great awareness of the vertical work still ahead of us, and the hike out, in the dark, we headed back to the ropes and began to make our way out.
My ascent on the free-hanging vertical section of the main pitch, magical in June, was this time truly bizarre. I felt good, and mechanically everything was fine, (to the point where I sang a few Jimmy Cliff songs while heading up), but rather than peeny-wallys, (fireflies), drifting around in a nebulous void, as in June, there was some large bird that decided it had it in for me. We had heard the thing shrieking in the dark at the bottom of the main drop. Partway up, suddenly, I got buzzed by something with a wingspan of about 30 cm's, fluttering around my head. I laughed it off and carried on up. A minute later, it was back, but right in my face. I laughed it off again, and waved my hand at it. It returned a moment later, even closer, looking for all the world like it was about to rip my eyeballs out. At that point, I started seriously trying to smack the thing, while making it verbally clear that I was not pleased. This carried on for the next 30 metres of ascent, me moving up, stopping, fighting off this crazed bird, then moving again. Finally, I got to the top of the vertical, to the bottom of the sloping shelf, with eyeballs still intact and bird left behind.
At the bottom of the shelf, I again began the same strenuous hauling of pack and rope, (the 65 m line), hanging from my harness, up to the main anchor. This had been a killer in June, and it was again this time. When I'd finally reached the very top of the pit, after ignoring the uppermost 30 m line, other than clipping in the chest ascender, and actually rock-climbing the last part, I advised those at the top to get the rope and pack away from me before I took a machete to them. One thing that can be said, though, is that anger did me great service in getting up the last part of the vertical ascent.
The surface crew radioed down to Guy that he could come ahead, and eventually he was at the main anchor, untying things so that we could haul the main-line out. I was satisfied to see, when he was finally at the very top, that he was as knackered as I was. I tend to think of him as incapable of running out of steam, and took some pleasure in seeing that he too is human.
With our underground part of the visit out of the way, we hauled ropes, gathered gear, and began our trek out. I must thank Ivor for again carrying the monster-rope, both to and from the cave... I don't know how he does it
I will avoid describing the stumbling around in the dark, in the bush, on cliff-sides, with our self-appointed guides, in search of the trail, and the long hike out once we had found it.
Initial work on the survey by Guy indicates a total vertical of about 140 metres, but the final number awaits completion of the map that will be based on our visit.
Two things must be noted before I close this account:
Guy is very impressive in a cave, along with being a great surveyor and mapper.
That bird was, in my opinion, perhaps more than what it seemed to be. I might have brought this all on myself by entirely neglecting payment of white rum during the expedition, but nevertheless, I will not kowtow to a duppy, no matter how dread. That said, I'll make a point of packing a good supply of rum next expedition.
More notes for Volcano Hole will be found at Volcano - June 13/04, and Volcano - Feb 13/07. (We try to visit it on the 13th of the month whenever possible ;-)
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