Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

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Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Extremeophile » May 16, 2012 5:07 pm

A team of 10 cavers recently completed an 8 day expedition in the west branch of Lechuguilla. Cavers were Derek Bristol (leader, CO), Dave Lambert (CO), Roger Harris (CO), Adam Weaver (SD), John Lyles (NM), James Hunter (NM), Jen Foote (NM), Brian Kendrick (NM), Shawn Thomas (CA) and Abby Tobin (AZ).

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The team prepares to go in the cave

We had a number of objectives in the Far West and surveyed leads in Promised Land, Zanzibar, Northern Exposure, Keel Hall, Long Haul, Mirage Room and Sanctuary. We also completed detailed re-sketches of Rainbow Room, Keel Hall, Long Haul, Oasis and Huapache Highway. In addition to these survey teams we had a climbing team of James Hunter and myself. Our primary climbing objective was a dome in Emerald City called the Kansas Twister. John Lyles discovered Emerald City in Nov, 2007 and it is only 20 minutes travel north of Leaning Tower and the Western Borehole. James Hunter climbed a 125' talus slope and a 50' section of the west wall of Kansas Twister in 2007 and 2008. A natural bridge is located about 90' above the base of the climb, and the team of Art Fortini, Simeon Warner, Andy Armstrong and Daniel Chailloux was successful in using a sligshot and fishing reel to get a line over this bridge and pull a climbing rope over in 2010. The concept of using the slingshot was pioneered by John Lyles but earlier attempts resulted in repeated failure of the thin monofilament. The 2010 team found the rock quality above this bridge to be extremely poor and climbed no higher, but left a 2-bolt anchor and rope rigged.

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Derek ascending the fixed rope at the base of KT

James and Derek alternated leads above the lower natural bridge. The first 40' was indeed very poor quality rock and many gear placements had to be fabricated. Above this, 30' of loose free-climbing led to an alcove and ledge along the west wall of the dome where an anchor was established. The second day began with a successful rope toss over an upper natural bridge and a static rope was secured. Above this bridge more loose free climbing led to a very steep and exposed ledge covered with corosion residue (FMD). A single bolt was placed and a tension traverse led to another steep free-climbing slope up to a large alcove with a lead in the back. At this point we were 220' above the base of the climb, but it split into two parallel domes and continued higher. The lead in the back of the alcove allowed a bypass of the next 40' of dome climbing. The rest of the day was spent removing previous anchors and re-rigging the lower portion of the dome to reduce exposure to loose rock and extend the rope we had. We previously expected the dome to be little more than 200' high, and the 460' of 11mm static rope was starting to look inadequate. On the third day we continued climbing up the eastern branch of the dome over a couple roof sections using a mix of aid and free moves. CR got worse as we ascended into the back reef. We reached the top of the east branch of the dome where an exposed ledge led east and a horizontal passage headed a short distance to the west, where it intersected the west branch of the dome. The west branch continued to go up. We were approximately 335' from the base of the climb at this ledge. On the 4th and 5th days we climbed the next 75' of steep aid climbing up very poor quality rock. Many hook placements were needed to ascend this portion of the climb. As James led the final pitch, he found that a number of crawls and mid-sized horizontal passages branched out from the top of the dome. Brian Kendrick and Roger Harris were following behind the climbing team surveying the dome and we combined efforts to survey the passages at the top. We only had a couple hours until we needed to return to camp but wanted to learn whether it was worth sending survey teams out on the last work day of the expedition.

We surveyed into a good sized room heading even further up and to the west, but the main trend ended in breakdown.

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Roger Harris, Brian Kendrick, Derek Bristol and James Hunter - 10 minutes before the breakthrough

We decided to take a couple final shots into a tight crawl that had a talus cone coming out the bottom. A survey station flag placed at the entry to this crawl was seen moving in what was obviously good airflow. With James on point we surveyed around the right side of the talus through a constriction that was only 1' high. When James got through this tight spot we could hear the echo of his voice in what was clearly a large void. We all came through and stared up into blackness. It took several attempts to get a Disto reading off the ceiling, but finally it registered - 232'. It was getting late and we had 600' of rope to descend to get back to camp so we ended the survey there.

Two teams went back to the area we're now calling Oz. At the top of the large breakdown collapse area is a massive borehole. The passage (not counting the collapse area) is 600-700' long and averages 124' wide by 104' high. In terms of volume we believe this is larger than Keel Hall or Huapache Highway, and may be the largest room/passage in the cave. A formation filled dome over 100' overhead was named the Wizard.

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Derek and Adam surveying below the Wizard

James pioneered a route past an exposed CR covered ledge we called the Cowardly Lion Traverse. A large walking passage at the base of the collapse was surveyed by the second team while the first team carefully sketched the large borehole.

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Looking back towards the collapse and Wizard. Cavers are barely visible in the distance and circled in red.

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Derek sketches while Adam reads instruments in the Oz borehole.

The passage splits up at the NE end with leads going high and low. We continued to the NE in large passage for several hundred feet until encountering a spectacular formation area. Pools and lily pads, a 15' soda straw, flowstone and many other speleothems were here, but also large leads heading north that await a future trip.

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An unnamed formation area in Oz.

The other survey team reached a dome/pit and couldn't proceed without vertical gear and rope, so they joined us and headed off to survey a walking lead to the SE. This passage also was blocked by a dome/pit after several hundred feet of survey. The dome has a strong flow of cold/dry air that reportedly feels just like the area near the entrance airlock.

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The main passage turned to the SE and continued for over 1,000'. At 1 am, after running out of camera batteries, helmet light batteries, food, water, survey pages and all available flagging tape, we called it quits. We marked the final lead, which was 18' high by 105' wide, took a photo, and headed for camp.

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James Hunter, John Lyles, Derek Bristol and Adam Weaver at the best lead

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The team at 4am after surveying 4,000' in Oz

This new borehole passage is more than 700' above the Western Borehole, and over 800' above the Deep Seas camp. The highest survey station we set was at an elevation of only -81' below the entrance. This is exactly level with the entrance airlock door. The climb we did was 410' from the base of the climb to the top of the rigging and 535' high from the base of the talus slope. This is likely the deepest dome/pit in Lechuguilla, and possibly all of the western continental U.S. One of the teams surveyed 3,026' (2,729' new) on the last day, which is the longest single-day survey since the Far East was discovered in 1989.

I don't want to predict what this area will do, but it is geographically very far above anything else and many large leads remain. I expect we'll be surveying this for the many years.

Thanks to Stan Allison and the NPS staff for their support of this expedition. Thanks to everyone on the team for an safe, fun and amazing cave trip.

Derek Bristol
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby MUD » May 16, 2012 5:29 pm

:clap: Excellent report Derek! Congratulations to all team members for your hard work. Keep pushin!

:cavingrocks:
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby tncaver » May 16, 2012 6:53 pm

Agreed. Great job by the crew(s) in Lech! Thank goodness for hardcore cavers and Lechuguilla Cave to test their abilities. Hopefully Derek will be correct and surveying will continue for years to come. Awesome! Lech is the greatest cave I will never get to see in the US and I'm glad we have
such a world class cave in this country. :kewl:
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Scott McCrea » May 16, 2012 7:13 pm

Wow, a trip report! And, an epic one even. That picture looking back towards the Wizard with the red circles is amazingly misleading. It looks like average size passage. Impressive find! Impressive numbers! And, impressive potential!
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Aaron Addison » May 16, 2012 8:50 pm

Awesome work and trip report Derek. Congrats to all on the trip and wonderful example of hard work and systematic exploration paying off.

AA
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby chh » May 16, 2012 9:08 pm

Wow. That trip report reads like a wet dream. AWESOME!
Your words of caution are no match for my disaster style!
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby boreholio » May 16, 2012 10:13 pm

Congratulations! What a terrific pay off for your teamwork!
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby SuckinOnSodaStraws » May 16, 2012 10:53 pm

chh wrote:Wow. That trip report reads like a wet dream. AWESOME!


No kidding. That's the coolest post I've read in months... Nice job lighting large rooms for pics... :cavingrocks:
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby LukeM » May 17, 2012 8:22 am

Agreed. That is a mighty inspirational report. I wouldn't be surprised at all if I find myself vividly dreaming of virgin borehole tonight. :woohoo:

Great job guys!
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby ian1210 » May 17, 2012 9:31 am

Thanks for the trip report guys. I hope to someday be able to cave with y'all out there! In the meantime, I'll keep pushing Montana harder and harder, meeting more amazing cavers, and drooling every time I get to read one of these trip reports.
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Crockett » May 17, 2012 9:40 am

It's always that innocuous little hole off to the side with the survey flag flapping. Great report Mr. Bristol. Please feel free to continue until you find another entrance, one that makes it easier for me. I hope to hear more about this from you at the Convention next month.
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Extremeophile » May 17, 2012 9:57 am

Crockett wrote:It's always that innocuous little hole off to the side with the survey flag flapping. Great report Mr. Bristol. Please feel free to continue until you find another entrance, one that makes it easier for me. I hope to hear more about this from you at the Convention next month.

Hi Mike. I won't be at Convention, but you can hear all the details and see many more photos from Andy and John during the U.S. Exploration session.

Thanks again for hosting me at Gap Cave and congratulations on being elected to the BOG.

Derek
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby Dave Bunnell » May 17, 2012 10:59 am

Awesome work folks. I always thought there might be significant passage high above the Western Branch. There are two other great domes there that may access that high level, the one above Neverland and the one above the Mother Lode Room. Maybe with continued exploration you will find yourselves looking down one of them...
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby roger_haley » May 17, 2012 11:16 am

WOW, WOW, WOW!!! Bout time there was a major breakout! Way to go!
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Re: Lechuguilla Cave Discoveries

Postby nathanroser » May 17, 2012 11:23 am

Simply amazing, and the cave's only been explored since 1986. Any little hole in Lech could go anywhere.
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