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The Chestnut Ridge Cave System

Bobcat Camp 30

Participants: Pete Carter, Ed Kehs Sr., Ed Kehs Jr., Jon Lillestolen, Tommy Shifflett

Report By: Tommy Shifflett

Camp 29, October 7-13, 2007

I had planned to climb a high lead in the Burnsville Turnpike for several years prior to this date; however it took until this time to bring that plan to fruition because of a knee problem I was having and the need to purchase climbing gear for reaching the lead, a lead with potential to bypass the downstream paleo portion of the Turnpike. Most needed and costly would be a rotary hammer drill, a commodity I figured as necessary, because setting hand placed bolts while hanging on ladders in a severely overhung position would be much too exhausting. I settled on a Milwaukee 1" SDS rated, 28V lithium ion powered rotary hammer drill. This is not a drill that is used conventionally in caving or climbing; it is altogether new to the intended use but specs showed it to be potentially well constructed and compact for aid climbing. Once acquired and the knee problem resolved I sent out a notice of a planned trip during the Columbus Day week, just after the BCCS Annual meeting.

For the trip I had early commitment from Ed Kehs Sr. and Jon Lillestolen for the trip but needed one more. Ed’s son, Ed Jr., volunteered to be the fourth man. During this same time several volunteer’s also answered the call but one full week was too long for three of them but not for Pete Carter. Originally, I only wanted a team of four because I was the only one who would be familiar with the cave and more than four was too many for a survey team. Given the possibility of one person dropping out, but more importantly five would have an easier time at getting all the climbing gear to the Turnpike. Pete was a welcomed participant. Having five would turn out to be a good decision.

As stated the objective was to climb the high lead on the left wall at the beginning of the Turnpike in hope of bypassing the downstream breakdown choke in the paleo portion of the Turnpike.  A second high lead just opposite this one would also be climbed but had unanticipated potential. The second and terminal breakdown choke ending the paleo portion of the Turnpike had significant airflow when it was discovered and on two pushing attempts some 20 or so years ago.  This portion of the Burnsville Turnpike is referred to as being paleo because it is the linear strike oriented passage extension which has been abandoned by the present day water flow pirated into Black Canyon.

For 7 days underground one must not put all their eggs in one basket so off day activities were planned as well. I made copies of portions of the map to take along, showing leads that needed checking. A few were near the Thundering Raccoon Room. More were in the Sahara Pipeline. Passage detail needed sketched in the large passage parallel to the Sahara Pipeline. There were also some leads in a side passage at the beginning of Black Canyon. These leads are not all inclusive of remaining leads to be checked but just happened to be ones selected for the Camp 29 trip. As it would later turn out, the team felt the leads at the beginning of Black Canyon to be a bit too far away for an off day.

On Sunday, the day after the BCCS annual pig out, we quickly packed and were ready to go. The day was a typical Indian summer day with leaves turning their flashy yellow, red, purple and tan colors, mottled in appearance by the dappling of bright sunlight that filtered through the canopy. It was a warm day and sweat began to break on our brows, while clothed in our nylon suits we labored up the steep logging trail towards the entrance. Upon reaching the entrance, to my amazement the scene had undergone a subtle change; the log above the entrance was more decayed and beginning to collapse, and nearby logs and trees for resting seemed to be missing. But then my memory may also have changed by the many days since the last time I stood there.

I was the first to attempt entering the cave and found that the entrance had begun to fill with debris and appeared too tight to enter. I used my feet to push debris further into the cave and because the entrance was bone dry, encountered much resistance to moving the accumulation forward, but eventually enough was pushed ahead to squeeze through. Huge piles of leaves were encountered and were required to be pushed downward. Beneath, moist slippery soil on the steep entrance slope revealed itself and brought back memories of past struggles of exiting the cave. Soon all were in and beyond the entrance room ready to tackle Devils Throat and the many obstacles to come. The team didn’t take long to figure out the best way to handle five very full camp packs, the drill pack, and one extra pack with Pete’s camera gear and other sundries he couldn’t fit into his camp pack, was to shuttle the gear through this tight spot and beyond. Hauling Packs  Unless you are willing to hurt yourself you cannot haul a camp pack and an additional pack through Cyanide Canyon alone.  The shuttling effort proved very effective though it took longer to reach camp (6 hours) than past trips handling a single pack per person.  At the very least the team was not trashed physically.  Once at camp everyone selected a camp spot and four of the team went for water while Jon dug a new latrine. It didn’t take long after these duties to cook up a meal and crash.

The next day (Monday) we headed to the Turnpike with climbing gear in hand.  The trip out took 6 hours because no one else knew the way and therefore I had to ensure everyone was caught up at each restriction or side lead.  The stretch from Maret’s Lead through the first quarter of Black Canyon is extremely slippery and dangerous because of height exposure and proved to be a demanding and slower portion of cave to traverse despite the large size of the majority of cave passage.  At the beginning stretch of Black Canyon one must climb high to get past a restriction along the stream. This is called the Toll Gate. The climb is narrow, exposed, and very slippery to keep perched above the stream on the walls. I was ahead and back down to stream level waiting for everyone to come through when I heard a crash and witnessed a pack falling to the stream.  I thought that was all that had happened until I heard that Ed Sr. had fallen.  As Jon would describe it, from his position he literally saw Ed’s soles as his feet had slipped entirely out from under him. Luckily only his shin got banged up, though it swelled considerably.  Later we would bypass this climb.

Once the climb leads were reached, Jon and I began to sort gear for the climb. Ed Sr. and Jr. headed for the end of the Turnpike to check and push the breakdown choke at the end, along the left wall. This area had been seen only one time by Nevin Davis during the second trip to the end. Because Battered Bar has passage headed in this direction it deserved a second look. Pete stayed back with the climbers to photograph the assault on the wall. I would lead the climb while Jon provided the belay. By climbing up and on the second ledge at the narrow fissure lead I was able to set the first bolt some 20 feet off the floor. This would provide a great initial start except that besides the overhang, I would need to climb diagonally to my left as I went up, requiring bolts to be placed with my left hand. With only four bolts set I reached the top of the climb; however the edge was covered in a deep, thick, soupy layer of mud that made topping out difficult. The fourth bolt, used for gaining access was placed in very crappy rock after a thick layer of mud was removed. A flake a couple feet above this would have offered better protection and means to top out but I did not have a sling. All the same I managed to climb up onto the ledge. Later, as Jon cleaned the climb he was able to pull the entire last bolt out with just his hands. Scary as this seems the bolt before this one was set solidly and sure to hold should I have peeled off.

At the top I explored a short ways in. The walking height passage quickly lowered to hands and knees and then to belly crawl but a strong breeze could be felt going in. This was enough evidence to know the lead would continue. After John had come up, the two of us noticed that the other lead was directly across, separated by a short gap of open space. One could literally step across if it were not for the steep, extremely slippery mud slopes on either side. It was decided a traverse would be much easier than climbing from the bottom as the overhang is even more severe than the one climbed, and it would need to be climbed from the bottom as no ledge existed to get a high perch. Jon led the traverse while I belayed. After setting six bolts the traverse was rigged however there was only enough remaining rope to rig part of it. A piece of webbing was used to rig the remaining portion and for this reason was not crossed by the survey team to map on the premise that the webbing didn’t offer the same security as rope. Jon didn’t check out the lead when he was across to the other side because the tall canyon could be seen heading off in blackness. It didn’t need checking to see if it would go. This would later prove to be a mistake. All the same one must admire Jon’s discipline to not scoop at least some of the passage.

The two Ed’s had returned before Jon had finished the traverse. Before they became cold we were ready to survey the left side lead. I took on the duty of keeping book despite my poor near vision requiring reading glasses; Ed Jr. read instruments, Ed. Sr. pulled tape, Jon set stations and read tape, and Pete checked leads and took photographs. The climb itself mapped out as a 32 foot drop from the edge of the lip. After surveying a couple hundred feet of hands and knees and low crawl the passage opened up to walking size, albeit only 4 to 5 feet wide by 6 to 7 feet high. During the survey the air could definitely be felt at our backs while heading into the cave. Was it warm or cold outside? We surmised that it was warm, the air heading towards Aqua and out its entrance. We surveyed nearly 600 feet to where the passage came to a breakdown collapse. It was clear that the passage had intercepted another breakdown filled passage at nearly a right angle. Most of the air was entering this breakdown. Pete took a cursory look and described some locations that could be pushed onward with some soda straw work. Over a hundred feet back from the breakdown, a side lead to the right was also moving some air, though not quite as much. The passage went for about 40 feet to yet another breakdown collapse. Several small openings could be spied through to small continuations but the breakdown was shaky. This finished our survey and the lead with 650 feet total mapped. We were not quite sure where our survey ended up, but felt it had to be close to the breakdown choke in the large side passage. On the way out towards camp Ed Sr.’s woes were added to by a rubbing action of his built in knee pads rubbing against his knees. Back at camp they were oozing pus from the skin having been literally worn off. In addition to this his shin was quite swollen.

The next day (Tuesday) we headed to the Thundering Raccoon Room to check a high lead last looked at from Camp 1. I had marked it as a 15 foot climb but upon approach revealed the first half of it was an easy climb, the last half being more vertical. We were able to scale the climb and a passage that led to a room. This led steeply upwards to another climb. I was able to scale this to yet another room with a deep pit descending vertically from one side. Rocks dropped suggested a pit well beyond 50 feet depth and closer to a hundred. Retreating back to the others I was told the rocks dropped could be heard from a side lead out of the room. The side lead intersected the pit a ways down from the top. We had no rope along and could not drop the pit. We explored and mapped another side lead that led steeply downward and reconnected to known passage. From this side lead I found yet another intersecting side lead with the pit from which I could see the floor but could not climb down. Passage could be seen continuing from the bottom of the pit. In all, we mapped 300 feet of cave on our rest day.

Plans had been made to return to the Turnpike on Wednesday, but we still felt a bit tired and decided another rest day was in order. This time we would go to the Sahara Pipeline. On the approach to a gravel bank down climb in the North Lead Passage, the edge collapsed beneath my feet. This dropped me about four feet vertically with my butt landing first on the gravel bank slope. At first there was no physical injury felt and so we headed on towards the Sahara Pipeline. On the way out and at the top of Polypro Pit Jon and I looked a bit closer at the canyon turning right in the direction of Fourth of July Room. We speculated that this could be a separate passage from the one entered at the bottom of Polypro Pit because from there a solid ceiling seems to separate the much wider portion of the canyon above. Jon climbed up onto a high ledge at the top of the pit and was able to traverse far enough to get a more complete look. Indeed, it appears this may be a separate passage altogether. Some bolts will need to be placed to gain access by means of a steep, slippery sloping ledge.

At the bottom of Polypro Pit we turned left through a narrowing of the passage into a large room. The Sahara Pipeline begins at the far side of the room. On the left a large high side passage traverses parallel and above the Sahara Pipeline. The original surveyors of this lead did not sketch any detail. I wanted to sketch the detail in this passage and check a high lead located in a large overhead room at the end of it. This particular passage has some very fine displays of anthodites and particularly quill anthodites. One high lead can be seen along the right wall but will need aid climbing to reach. It is questionable if it is a genuine lead but this cannot be fully ascertained from below. After detail sketching was complete we (minus Ed who stayed back in the room) climbed towards the high room. Along the way a short tourist trip was taken in the GM Survey trunk passage, which is undoubtedly the easiest walking passage in the entire cave. While there Pete took a photograph of the Mythical Devil's Tower Formation finally documenting its existence. It is nearly a foot tall and somewhat orange crystalline in appearance, definitely a unique formation of unusual form.

Meanwhile Ed Jr. and I climbed up into the large high room above the Sahara Pipeline. The room is characterized by a steep, loose soil and rubble slope ascending more than a hundred feet. I climbed to the high end scouring the sides for the lead shown and described by Mike Artz. It was finally discovered halfway up the left wall but a steep, exposed slope prevented free climbing to it. Climbing toward it as close as I could get, I was able to peer further into it and come to the conclusion the lead ended. I then closed it out as a lead on the paper copy of the map of this area. It was obvious to both Ed and I that the room was much larger than originally sketched. The farthest survey station placed into the room reached only a third of the way. Ed and I didn’t have the full survey kit with us so we estimated the distance away to the far end of the room as being approximately 100 feet from a prominent feature. I re-sketched the room however, placing a station or two on a future trip will more accurately represent the room’s dimensions.

We then headed back to the beginning of the parallel lead and hooked up with Ed Sr. who had occupied his time touring the Sahara Pipeline. We then began looking at side leads in the Sahara Pipeline. The first one shown on the left reconnected back to the room and was just sketched on the map as unsurveyed passage. Without consulting my paper copy of the map we nearly re-surveyed another side lead on the left, at first placing a few stations in it before discovering an existing survey station. I then more consistently consulted the paper copy to verify what we were looking at was indeed surveyed or not. Against the wall at the beginning of the previously surveyed lead and approximately a hundred feet along the Sahara Pipeline is a 12 inch long selenite needle, reminding us of how fragile this passage is. Also noted along the way was the observance of newly growing angel hair from the ceiling, waving back and forth by our moving of air currents as we walked by. These conditions clearly show that this area of the cave should be limited to visitation once mapping is completed. Further ahead and on the right wall we checked an unmapped lead at survey station GK20. This one looked promising and led quickly into a nice size steeply, sloping room. From here the passage looked most promising to the immediate right. However, this went for 4 survey legs to where it ended straight ahead but with a lead to the left going downward. A high, tight lead to the right proved to reconnect back to GK17, a lead shown on the map, of a survey done by a team consisting of Nevin, Lester Good, and others. A lead at the bottom of the room from the initial survey led further downwards to additional passage lower and parallel to the Sahara Pipeline. An unsurveyed section is shown on the map with a dig lead at the north end. There is a good chance the south end may reconnect to the previous surveyed section that Nevin and Lester mapped. The one promising lead from this survey is from a passage checked by Pete and shown on the north (left going in) wall of the room. Pete explored this to a side lead going down to the right and eventually to a pit. He could hear a stream below and rocks thrown down splashed in a pool. Pete estimates a 50 foot rope with bolts will be needed to descend the pit. What is interesting about this lead is that it has a stream going in a direction of existing cave that no other water was found in. Will it sump or could it lead to additional paleo cave beyond the Big Bend limits?

The survey total for the day was approximately 250 feet, not much but an interesting lead was left for a future trip. The short mud wall climb in the Porpoise Passage was re-rigged with a 3/8 inch stainless steel bolt on the way back to camp. For a rest day we arrived back at base camp later than we had hoped. Tomorrow was the big return trip to the Turnpike. Ed’s knees were bothering him even more despite putting tape on them for protection. For the next day (Thursday) Ed decided to stay back at camp. To keep himself busy while the rest of us would be gone, he would re-cut steps to the latrine, build some additional foot steps along travel paths within camp, and rummage through existing debris lying about camp and sort out what was trash versus what could be kept for future camps. The trash would be placed to one specific location while the re-useable items were ferried to the Kitchen Rock.

There was a feeling of trepidation amongst us in returning to the Turnpike despite the curiosity of what the opposite lead might do. We were still tired and this trip would be a long, tiresome haul. I was now experiencing nerve pain along my left hip and buttock, a condition surely brought about by the short fall I had previously taken, irritating my spondylolisthesis. This type of condition becomes a distraction when focus is required in places like Maret’s lead and the Toll Gate. All the same we headed out loaded for bear, hoping the tall canyon would lead to a new section of cave.

We made much better time than the first trip, arriving at the Turnpike in only 4 hours. Soon we were up the rope and the survey began. Jon was on the lead end placing stations and holding the lead end of the tape. In just the second shot he exclaimed he could hear the Turnpike. I hollered back "how can this be, we are going perpendicular to the Turnpike". It turned out Jon was right, the passage came to a drop-off looking right down into the Turnpike and at the stream. Re-looking at the map the Turnpike does indeed take a hard right at this lead; we didn’t have a paper copy of the map of this section to review, otherwise we might have known what to expect. This happenstance did illustrate the possibility of unseen higher leads in this passage.

Disappointed we then decided to tour up the Turnpike so Pete and Jon could experience it. Along the way we checked one or two high side leads by climbing up to them. A couple could not be reached without setting a piece of protection and a short etrier. It appears these potential side leads will be nothing more than wide shelves and meanders but one can never tell. At the very least if survey stations are placed to more accurately define the walls they will most likely reveal the Turnpike is wider than currently shown.

Heading back out of the cave, we then focused on re-looking at the breakdown in the large paleo side lead. We had a hammer and crowbar with us. Jon, Ed Jr. and I began probing breakdown in all directions. Following the footsteps of a past explorer through some extreme squeezes and exposed climbs in the muddy stuff, I thought to myself "who was this guy, he was better than me at pushing breakdown" before realizing I was following my own footsteps from the past; no doubt putting credence to the phrase, when you become older, "your can dos are not the same as your could dos". I also re-pushed the breakdown choke from the bottom re-following my past route to where I turned around because of shifting breakdown blocks. I exited from the jumbled mass convinced I could have done a better job but my memory of my past experience in there overwhelmed my desire to get through. Jon also gave it his all and managed to climb into spaces no one else had gotten to, without success. Jon then organized an effort of removing large breakdown blocks at the top of the choke using the piece of rope from the traverse (which was de-rigged). Several large blocks were rolled down until it appeared to be a futile effort.

Finally, it was time to head out. We took just 3 ½ hours to reach camp. We had mapped only 92 feet. At our arrival Ed climbed back out of his sleeping bag to hear the news and provide details of his days work. Ed had performed an admirable job of cleaning base camp and reorganizing it, cutting new steps and fashioning walkways and steps with stone. The camp is much more organized and clean now of past debris except for one trash pile which can be easily removed by a party of three. Any volunteers?

The next day (Friday) we went back out to Thundering Raccoon Room to drop the pit. We selected the location midway down the pit. The pit depth from this location measured 60 feet which puts it at an estimated depth of 80 feet or more from the top. At the bottom we had intersected known passage and survey, and tied in at survey station GCD26. What we failed to notice was two leads near this location, shown on the paper map we had with us. However, everyone was eager to get back and prepare for an early morning exit. Along the way Jon and I diverted from the group to re-rig the pit at Bypass Dome. The rope no longer bends over the breakdown slab two thirds way up, but now hangs free. The rope here has had to be re-rigged a couple of times in the past due to wear in the rope from rubbing on the breakdown. Remember to take a cowstail, you will now need it to negotiate this drop; the cowstail is only needed for a safety connection (no rebelay). The remaining time everyone sorted group gear to carry out.

Early Saturday morning we arose at 4 AM for the haul out. Remaining gear at sleeping spots such as existing thermarests and ground sheets were taken to the kitchen rock, even including the trowel usually left at the latrine. The Camp Room is spotless except for re-useable gear stashed at the Kitchen Rock, and the stash of trash near Dave Morrow’s old camping spot. Everyone was able to get everything in one camp pack, including some additional trash left from previous camps. The drill pack was the only additional pack. Packs were again shuttled through Cyanide Canyon. Once past this location we broke into two teams shuttling gear at obstacles. This worked well. We exited the cave at noon and were surprised at the six pack of very good locally brewed beer left for us; it was enjoyed immensely. Charlotte and Phil soon arrived during our shedding of muddy clothes and took pictures of the re-assembled team.

While no big borehole was found beyond the second breakdown choke in the Turnpike, the plot shows that the high lead did indeed intersect the paleo passage. Unfortunately, the breakdown choke is more extensive than one would have thought. Fortunately where it intersects is 100 feet beyond and provides a better chance of bypassing it, especially having intersected this passage at near its theoretical ceiling, the best place to typically bypass a breakdown choke. During the time of mapping this lead and re-pushing the old breakdown choke, it was observed that more air goes down the high lead than what goes into the second breakdown choke of the paleo passage. This is also encouraging, indicating less resistance in air flow in the breakdown of the higher lead. Also, the short side lead in the high lead passage terminates over the first breakdown choke, indicating a possible connection with it and where that air is going. Hopefully, the younger generation that participated on this trip will be motivated to return and push these remaining leads described and a number of others remaining.

Quill Anthodites

Crystalline Spines

Maps of explored areas in PDF format

The following is a list of supplies left in the Camp Room and other locations:

Camp Room at Kitchen Rock

Burnsville Turnpike at the Large Side Lead

Top of Polypro Pit