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June 13, 2004

VOLCANO HOLE


Field notes: I. C. CONOLLEY

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

Five hundred feet... is this for real? Are we going down there? Do we have the rope to do it? Well, we'll have to join two ropes - join the three hundred foot rope to the two hundred foot rope We have to pass the knot, so Ivor, do you know how to pass the knot?

Left to right - Bellinger, Conolley, Stirling, Stewart, Hyde, Peterson, Bolt We had practiced passing a knot recently. And Ivor was stranded on the ropes for over a half an hour contemplating the knot and passing it. Safety is critical, always. He figures, yes, I can pass the knot, but wants more practice time to speed up the process. Half an hour is too much time, so I decide that if we have to pass the knot, I would stay up and work a belay. But then I study Jamaica Underground and it shows that there is an initial drop of some 30 metres before the major drop. I show it to Stef. He is non-committal, but come the day he rigs to that first descent and then re-rigs at that first descent with the five hundred foot joining rope for the rest of the way down.

But backing up a bit. We leave Last Resort for Linton Park early. We've got to get to the hole early enough that we can do our climbing and get out in good time. There was no overnighting near the site.

We get to Linton Park. Adam Hyde, an experienced Jamaican Caver, is joining us. He is not there yet. We go scouting for someone who knows the way to the Hole. The first person we meet says he knows it, but Stef knows he doesn't from the description of the hole he gives. We move on, Stef and I, down the road, driving slowly and looking at the terrain. Eventually we reach what seems to be the end of the road, or at least a fork that reveals such rough roads that we know that that meant walking time. There is a shop there and a Church nearby. We go over to the shop and start our search for a guide. The lady shopkeeper tells us that the best person to ask should be around shortly. He will be going to church. We will get a chance to talk with him. We wait, but observed the area in the meantime. There is a guy around who from his discussion with the lady seems to know the bushes quite well, and possibly he might be of help in a pinch. Eventually, the right person comes along. He is dressed for Church and we hail him. Yes. He tells us he knows of such a hole, and yes the mist rises from it, but it is a dangerous and deep hole, but he sees we are serious. We want to know the hole. He recollects people having gone into it years ago. But the conversation continues and he is going to church, so though he would like to help us and take us to the hole, the timing is obviously off. But he shouts to the same fellow we had been observing. He describes the area and asks him if he knows where he is talking about. The chap says yes. He knows where. He hands us over to him and we, well really Stef, negotiates a price with him to take us to the hole. There is no need for him to stay, Stef tells him. Just show us the hole. That's the job.

Okay, all is fine and we drive back to get the troops. We get back there and there is word that Adam is on the way and the wait is not long. Then we roll down the road to our guide. It is a long hike to the Sinkhole and cave that is Volcano Hole. There are Corry, Mark, Adam, Melissa, Lilly, Rona, Stefan, and myself, Ivor. Miss Lilly is a stocky woman that I know to be always in good physical shape as she works on her farm digging yams with the other field hands and keeping up with them. But the hills are steep and I notice a slowing. But undaunted, she carries on. Soon we are pass the worst parts and are close to the hole. There is a fairly steep hike and we are there. The hole is frighteningly deep, but Jamaica Underground described it well. There was that ledge that we could use to do a second rigging from, to get to the bottom.

Stef starts the rigging. We use a hundred foot rope to get us to this ledge. Tying off is easy, as there are many sturdy trees in the area. Stef checks off and is the first down. He finds a spot, and although steep, is able to establish a second rigging area. The rest of us pile down. As of now, I am planning to set up a belay and operate it to assist others down, as bypassing a knot in the rope will provide a challenge. Stefan is on his way down, quite prepared to bypass the knot. It seems like an eternity as he moves down. We hear rocks clinking down and do not realise that this is going to be a feature of this descent. The rocks will be a problem.

Then we hear the call from Stef. He has completed the descent and did not find it necessary to pass the knot. Adam is down next. And Melissa, Mark and myself await the completion of his descent and debate who will go down. I had planned to be on belay, but Mark suggests that I go down as I had done belay the week before and did not have the opportunity of climbing. We felt then that time would not have permitted all of us to descend as we worked one man on the rope at a time. More people down would mean longer in the hole; it would take time not only going down, but coming up too. I go next. When I am there, Stef wants everybody down in spite of the time situation. Melissa emerges, and then Mark. Then there is a further descent that necessitates use of the rope. This we do and land on a sandy bed of loose sand and then sand-stone. With Stef, Mark, and myself at this lower level, we begin a full search for the river. I find a crevice and try to climb in, but it leads nowhere. Mark has found another opening, and so has Stef, but they also lead nowhere. I double back and see a drop. I climb a ways down and realize that it continues. But it seemed to me a rope was needed. I shout to the others. Stef arrives first and finds a way down without a rope. I stay above. Mark noses around, but does not actually find the same path as Stef, and with him part way down, Stef communicates with him on what he is seeing. We are hearing the river but not seeing it. Stef says that the sound is loud but the rocks are in the way. Of course you realize that time is rushing by. We have a team on the surface comprising Corry, Lilly and Rona and happily a group of disciplined and curious spectators from the district who had followed us out to see the event. The Walkie-Talkie tells us to come up now as it is getting late. We are undaunted, but are still not successful in finding the river. It is not a happy situation to come all this way and not find everything. It is a strenuous exercise and who knows when we will be back here. But no luck. Stef hears the river but cannot get to it. He turns and emerges. We shout to Adam who has been helping Melissa to make her ascent, but no, she has not actually made it up yet.

We are out not using the rope as she is on it. When she is off rope, Stef is already 3/4 of the way up the hill, trying to scramble up without the help of the rope, but now faced with rocks he cannot get around. He would have to turn back down. Mark and myself, by now on rope - using it for balance and climbing hand over hand, figure out a plan to get him on rope without the further waste of time of his coming back down a hill he has already and with great difficulty 3/4 climbed. We, Mark and myself, are on rope together, something we have never done before - but this is technically a scramble - but lets say one you could not manage without a rope. We climb and simultaneously swing the rope in the direction if Stef. And get to him. He gets on rope and we are all climbing out of the lower level;. We are out and now Adam gets on rope, and is on his way. Dusk is approaching. Snacks were carried and we break out the food. We had, none of us, anticipated such a long time in the hole. But we had sufficient water; and biscuits and sardines really hit the spot. Adam was way up on the rope and moving well. It would be Mark next, Stef and then I would be last.

After Mark got up, it was dark. Stefan could not, or hardly, see any light at the surface. When I started the climb, I only knew the opening was there, but could not see it and so could not tell what progress I was making as I climbed. It was a lonely climb, but there was peace in the solitude, and the walls of the sinkhole offered the usual interesting features with niches and folds.

But yes, the rocks. That was the greatest danger of the climb. Others experienced it, and I was not an exception. Nobody, but yourself, was dislodging rocks on your own head. The vibration on the rope seemed to have been shaking loose small to medium-sized stones as one got closer to the second rigging. It was dangerous. The advantage, of course, was one could hear the rock and prepare for impact. I was not hit, but they whizzed by pretty close. When I got to the top, that is, where the rocks were shifting out from, it was a relief. At this stage, one had footing and the going was quicker and easier. By now, only Mark was left at the second rigging. We both would be responsible for pulling up the rope from the deeper shaft. Well, that turned out to be Mark. I re-rigged and passed him to move on all the way up. Yes it was night. "Water", Mark said. "Water." I had none. But as I got up to the first rigging, I made sure to secure a bottle for him. He got the ropes organized, and as he cleared the surface, I stretched out a bottle to him. Yes. He needed that.

It was quite late now and the crew was anxious to move on. We rolled the ropes and were on our way. The walk seemed eternal, punctuated by comments by some of those district people saying things like, "you should have gone the other way". These were comments to those leading. Needless to say, this was unsettling as one felt the journey was sufficiently long as is.

But it turned out that whatever the considerations of the suggestions were, we were in fact on the trail that we had taken to come in. We got out to the cars at minutes to 12:00, midnight. After drinks, we were out of the area by midnight. Having left The Last Resort at about 7:00 am, it was a long day.

The hole was amazing, the climb exhilarating, and the air down there was fresh. We averaged 35 minutes upward climbing time each, with Mark and Stefan being the quickest.

There were bats, but not many. However, what struck me most was the geology. There was loose sand and there is solid sand - really rock that only looked like sand. Then there was what I called crusty sand which had an encrusted top but which broke as you stepped on it.

The hole is best described as having three levels. The first of about 30 meters, the second possibly 100, and the third another 30 metres. This last one leads one into a series of passageways of varying sizes. There is also a fourth level taking one closer to the river. This would measure about 5 metres deep, and possible to climb without a rope – well Stef did it.

So that’s it. The climb up seemed unending, but the hike out for me was a forever exercise.

We jumped into our vehicles and headed home. At least another two hours.

A day well spent.

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