Lechuquilla 1994 by Pete Hollinqs
After attending the NSS convention I spent a little over a month in the UK before returning to the States to take part in an expedition into Lechuguilla Cave. The expedition was organised by the Lechuguilla Exploration and Research Network (LEARN). However, access to the cave is controlled by the National Park Service who reserve the right to assign two people to each expedition. I was one of these.
I flew from London to El Paso and then caught a greyhound bus up to White's City, the tourist trap at the gates of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The only problem was that the visitors centre and the huts where we were staying were another 6 miles away, however the huts themselves were fairly luxurious, almost on a par with the MCG.
On the first official day of the expedition (Saturday) we were scheduled for an 5am meeting with the Cave Specialist from the Park Service. For the next two hours we were informed of the various do's and don'ts (including the infamous rule that all solid wastes must be removed from the cave), split into teams and assigned areas of the cave to examine. While some people were going on 5 day trips to the far reaches of the caves, most of us were to be underground for only 3 days. The rest of the morning was spent packing and repacking rucksacks and by 2pm I was following my three team mates up the well—worn footpath to the cave entrance.
By now I was fairly nervous, the stories of high temperatures, 95% humidity and arduous 5 day caving trips were preying on my mind. The 35—40lb rucksack was not helping much either. The first sight of this famous cave is not overly impressive, the moderately sized sinkhole being invisible until you are almost on top of it. A 60 ft pitch drops you into the bottom of the sinkhole and then a further l0 ft drop brings you to the culvert. This is the point where the gate has been installed, both to keep out unwanted cavers and to stop the cave drying out. The draught when you open the lid is amazing and has been measured at 60 mph, it was probably about half that when we entered the cave. From the bottom of the ladder in the culvert it is only 20 minutes to the top of Boulder Falls, a 15Oft pitch, named because of the loose boulders on the walls. We were unlucky enough to witness this when one of our team dislodged some material at the top of the pitch which only just missed the person on the rope at the time.
We left some food and water at Packs Peak, one of the few safe spots at the bottom of the pitch, and headed off towards the Near East, our designated area. Initially most of the caving was in large walking passage, although the fact that you are always climbing up and down over breakdown and boulder hopping makes life difficult, especially when your pack is constantly putting you off balance. We passed through Glacier Bay, where the giant gypsum blocks look like ice, on to Windy City and into Sugarlands. From there you enter the Rift, an initially awkward passage that opens out into a series of easy rope traverses.
At the end of the Rift are found the junctions to most of the major branches of the cave. Our route took us down Apricot Pit. This is made up of four pitches in a rift that slopes between 60 degs and 85 degs and in places is only 18 inches wide, which makes descent awkward. The last rope drops you into the High Tide room with a short climb taking you into the Low Tide room. It was here that someone had left a burrito bag (remember that rule about removal of solid wastes?) which the Park had asked us to remove, however we decided to leave that until our last day. Up until now the cave had been really impressive with large passages and numerous small formations, however they paled into insignificance compared to what I was about to see before we got to our camp at the Rusticles. Both the Emperor's Throne Room and Nirvana were stunning. The latter is a beautifully decorated area, the walls covered in what the Americans call popcorn, there are numerous straws over 2m long, complex helectites, stunning lakes and the aragonite bushes for which the cave is famous.
The next two days were spent examining a number of leads, unfortunately none of them opened out into big passage and few of them were virgin, however we managed to survey 5OOft of passage. Apricot Pit proved to be even worse on the way out than on the way down, it is the first time I've ever crawled up a pitch on my hands and knees, this being the easiest way to do it. Boulder Falls wasn't too bad although it would have been easier if I hadn't initially climbed the wrong rope, a push rope left by a previous expedition. Back on the surface the desert smelt wonderful, which is more than I could say for the four of us.
At the meeting on Tuesday morning the various teams discussed their finds and people started making plans to return to the cave on Wednesday. This time I joined a group heading to the Chandelier Graveyard off the Western Borehole, they'd just come back from there and reported plenty of leads into virgin passage, with the potential of a big breakthrough.
As Tuesday was a rest day some of us headed into Carlsbad Caverns. The showcave section of this 25 mile cave is extremely well developed with tarmacked trails throughout, not to mention the underground cafeteria. The lighting of the cave is so good it is sometimes hard to believe that you are actually underground. During the trip someone pointed out the cord that runs down from the roof of the Big Room some 300ft above. This had initially been floated into place using helium balloons, allowing a rope to be hauled up. The first man up must have had nerves of steel!!
On Wednesday the three of us joined the procession back to the cave. We yomped through the now familiar route to the top of the Great White Way. This consists of three easy drops sloping at around 70 degs and comes out into Deep Secrets, a huge room with car sized blocks covering the floor. Boulder hopping along well flagged trails (all the trails in Lech are well marked to help preserve the cave in its pristine condition and to prevent people getting lost) through the Deep Seas room, over the Fortress of Chaos and into camp. As it had only taken 3 hours to get to camp and we were all feeling fairly fresh we headed off to do some surveying. It took about 45 minutes to get to the bottom of the rope leading to the Chandelier Graveyard, the route taking us past the beautiful Lake Louise, through the ABC's room and into the Western Borehole. We replaced the rope, which was showing signs of wear, and then checked a couple of leads, picking up 300 ft of survey before heading back to camp.
This time we were planning to stay in the cave for 4 days, the extra day was to give us time to thoroughly examine our area and survey 1300ft of passage but with no major breakthroughs. The Graveyard is a spectacular place, everywhere being covered with white gypsum crystals that look just like snow, and just like snow they manage to get into your clothes but with more painful results. The area gets its name from the collapsed chandeliers that litter the area, these are similar to those seen in photos of the Chandelier Ballroom but somewhat smaller. Surveying virgin cave in this area was not only painful, the sharp crystals being very tough on bodies only covered by shorts and t—shirts, but also tough on the conscience. Someone pointed out that in 2 days of surveying I had probably destroyed more gypsum crystal than can be found in the UK!!
Everyone had to be out of the cave by 4pm Saturday so we spent the evening swapping stories and finding out what other teams had found during the week. In total some 9000 ft of passage had been surveyed making Lechuguilla 76 miles long and the third longest cave in the US.
The caving itself is not
particularly demanding, however the heat, humidity and heavy packs required for the 3
or 4 day trips can really grind you down. But believe me it is well worth the effort!!
Lechuguilla: Hints and Tips by Pete Hollings
I thought it might be a good idea to put down in writing what equipment I used and what I would do differently if I was to do it all again. Prior to the expedition I was lucky enough to meet a U.S. caver who gave me a lot of helpful advice about what to take into the cave. With a few modifications I followed his advice and enjoyed a reasonably comfortable trip.
My basic caving gear consisted of lycra shorts, with a pair of ordinary shorts over the top to cut down on abrasion, and a short sleeved Helly Hansen top. The close fitting clothes served to keep the grit out while the polypropylene top wicked away sweat keeping me vaguely dry. To provide some protection I wore neoprene knee and elbow pads which worked fine. I also took a long sleeved Helly Hansen top for sitting around camp in the evenings, some people also took some kind of trousers but if I got cold I just sat in my sleeping bag. My boots were of the soft material type, the only important thing here is that they have a non-marking sole, a National Park Service requirement. Gloves are an almost essential piece of equipment as the cave is pretty sharp.
My standard srt frog rig was fine for the vertical elements of the cave, while a couple of spare karabiners and a 30ft length of webbing came in useful for checking a couple of leads. I used a Petzl Zoom for light, backed up with a 2AA cell Maglite, I was able to get through a three day trip with only two of the Duracell flat batteries, but used around six sets of the 2AA batteries on my second trip.
Because most trips into Lechuguilla last three or four days it is necessary to take in equipment for an underground camp. LEARN recommend a 2500-3000 cu in pack, for me this equated to a 45 litre rucksack into which I could just about fit everything. However the people going on five day trips to the Far East were taking bags that were probably closer to 60 litres. It's worth taking a fairly comfortable pack as the campsites are all a minimum of three hours away and your pack will probably weigh around 40lbs. The only thing I would do differently is to use a pack with no side pockets as these tend to catch on anything and everything.
I used a fleece sleeping bag liner which proved more than adequate underground. It is also essential to take some form of sleeping mat. While some people used Thermarest mats I took a cheap, three quarter length, closed cell, foam mat which provided just enough comfort. It also had the advantage that it would fit inside my bag which is important as anything tied onto the outside is likely to get ripped off. In hindsight something else that I would take in is an inflatable pillow, this sounds like a luxury but it doesn't take up much space and getting a good night's sleep makes a lot of difference. I didn't take a stove and in general it is fairly safe to assume that someone else in your group will have one. The Park Service prefers the bottled gas stoves as these are thought to pollute the cave the least. The other thing you will need is a 6' x 6' plastic sheet to put under your sleeping mat to catch any food you may drop.
Food is perhaps one of the more important elements of an enjoyable Lechuguilla trip, at the end of the day I often found that I didn't really want to eat, so having stuff that would taste good was vital. Nearly everyone takes in dehydrated food for their main meal (although for some adventurous souls this includes taking in pancake mix !). If you have a chance I'd recommend buying the American made meals, as I spent most evenings drooling over my companion's meals which smelt and tasted a lot better than mine. Saying that, I used a combination of Raven and Peak (Cotswold Camping's home label) which while not great did not have any of the unpleasant effects I'd been warned about. Of the two, the Peak meals were generally the tastier, although in both cases the portions were a little small. For lunch I ate cereal bars and Heinz microwave meals, the latter proved excellent offering a quick, pre-cooked and surprisingly edible snack. Breakfast usually consisted of more cereal bars with small snack size tins of fruit. All my meals had the advantage of being consumed straight from the packet, so I didn't have to take in a bowl, cutting down on weight and washing up. I also took dried fruit and Dextrosol sweets, which proved great as snacks while surveying. I'd been advised to take in "sports drinks" to add to my water to help replace salts lost through sweating. The high cost of these drinks in the UK meant that I didn't bother and paid the price with cramps in my legs towards the end of both trips, however these were eased when I added some borrowed Gatorade powder. I'd recommend buying some of this in the U.S.
I started off each trip into Lechuguilla with four one litre water bottles, one of these I drank from on the walk in and then left at the entrance, another I left at the bottom of Boulder Falls for the trip out. The other two were taken to the camp where one became a pee bottle. This meant that I only had a single litre of water for what was often an eight hour day away from camp, which was probably not enough (something you are continually warned about in Lechuguilla is the risk of dehydration and one of my companions made his trip out a lot harder than he needed to when he ran out of water). The technique of drinking a couple of litres before setting out probably helped offset dehydration but it also meant that my pee bottle was usually full to the brim by lunch! One solution to this would be to take in small collapsible bottles, which wouldn't take up much space in already overloaded packs but would allow for more water at camp (often sited a fair way from the nearest water supply) as well as allowing for extra pee bottles. As an aside because urine is sterile it is only necessary to bleach the pee bottle out before using it again as a water bottle. While I'm discussing bodily functions a brief mention of "burrito" bags is probably in order. The officially recommended version is to use double ziploc bags and then wrap the whole thing in foil to keep the smell in. I dispensed with the foil and put the bags into a small BDH drum, the thought of the bags leaking being too unpleasant to even consider. It is also suggested that adding baking soda to the "burrito" helps cut down the smell. I tried this, but they still stank so I'm not sure it was really worth it.
I wear glasses and made sure I took a spare pair into the cave. I'd been advised to wear contacts as people had had trouble with glasses steaming up due to the high humidity, however I had no problem with this and wore my specs throughout. I have also heard of people having trouble with contacts due to the fact that the cave is very dry and dusty. Make sure you take spare bulbs for your lights, the Americans use such a varied mix of lights that you can't rely on their bulbs fitting your light. A few wet wipes are also useful, allowing you to feel vaguely clean at the end of the day, it is only when you get out and realize that everyone is standing upwind of you that you appreciate how little good they actually did. The other thing that is worth taking is some duct tape, this can be wrapped around water bottles giving them a little extra protection and comes in very useful for a whole range of minor repairs.
I took a cheap "point and press" camera with a built in flash into the cave as well as a second flash with a slave unit. I managed to get some pretty good pictures with this, but saying that it is almost impossible not to take good pictures in Lechuguilla. I used 400ASA Kodacolour Gold II print film, which worked fine.
EDITORS NOTE, 2011: Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and National Park Service management-related trips.
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.