Saturday, March 08, 2008

[trip] Shovel Eater Cave - Rushin' Rift

After heading down to Germany Valley late Friday night, through some of the thickest fog I've ever driven in, finding the field house dark and quiet upon arriving at 1:30AM, and getting a good night's sleep in my hammock underneath a torrential downpour, I met up with a large group of GVKS folks at The Gateway at 8AM Saturday morning. I was put on Bob Alderson's team with John Harman and Cullen Hencke, and our goal was to investigate a fascinating lead off of HHA, which was dubbed the Rushin' Rift upon its discovery on October 27, 2007. Mark Minton described it as:

Under one wall the canyon dropped down a deep, narrow pit which we named Rushin' Rift. A strange humming sound could be heard in the distance, unlike anything we had heard in a cave before. Air? Water? The Devil's machinery?

We arrived at the SEC entrance around 10:15AM and headed into the entrance series. After the third rappel, we ducked down under the water to a drippy, muddy room containing the new "Buckeye Bypass" (as we decided to call it). A short, uncomfortable, diagonal rappel to a rebelay drops you down to a series of traverses in a passage that looked vaguely familiar to me... the bypass seemingly teleports one all the way down and past Harper Canyon - wow! We were to HHA in no time at all, and were staring down into a complex intersection of narrow canyon passages off to the side of the "main" passage. Sure enough, when everyone was quiet, we could hear "The Devil's machinery" from the deep slot.

John and Bob cleaned the rock surface and set three bolts; a single bolt at the top for a traverse line down under the "lip" of the canyon, with two bolts for a free-hanging "Y" rig. We later taped this drop at 49.1 feet from the upper bolt. The rappel down is tight, with shoulders against the wall for most of the way, and should not be done while wearing a pack (oops!).

The lower canyon has a flat floor, is seldomly wider than 24 inches, and doesn't offer many (er, any?) opportunities to stand up. It is dry, with no sign of even a past stream, and with highly abrasive popcorn lining the walls and obscuring paleo-flow evidence. Upstream goes only 10 feet to a formation-obscured hole in the floor which was just a couple feet deep. Downstream the canyon twists in very tight meanders and appears to loop back on itself; when Bob pushed downstream I could hear him closely from the upstream hole. With extreme effort, Bob pushed downstream and had much difficulty returning. I followed and tried to "shave" popcorn from some of the squeezes for him to get back through. I did not attempt to push as far as he did, but I would guess that neither of us pushed farther than 40 feet from the rope.

In the lower canyon, we could definitely hear "The Devil's machinery", which sounded distinctly like a waterfall. I personally didn't think that it sounded louder after pushing in the downstream direction, but others in the party stated that they did. Having no luck pushing this tight, lower canyon, we decided instead to investigate the upper levels of the canyon. While Bob and I taped the drop, John and Cullen headed up and scouted it out.

The upper canyon, which is reached by traversing down to the Y-hang and going behind it, consists of an oval-shaped phreatic tube with a narrow canyon incised in its floor. It is bounded from above by a low-angle fault or fracture, which has been filled in with a band of calcite crystal. This calcite band has been solutionally sculpted in places to reveal a beautiful, "organic"-looking, flowing crystal ceiling. The upper passage follows the strike of this fault plane. It is very dry, showing small bits of gypsum in places, and is more comfortable to move in than the lower passage, though it is still relatively small passage. We were still able to hear the sound of water, off far in the distance somewhere but didn't seem to be any closer to it.

While Bob, John, and Cullen surveyed out of the upper canyon (from a point where the ceiling became quite low, marked by a cairn of calcite crystal), which yielded only around 50 feet of easy survey, I pushed in the upstream(?) direction, which seemed to correspond to what appeared to be downstream in the lower canyon. Confused yet? I pushed forward through alternating low-and-tight to narrow-and-tight to just-plain-tight tube with canyon or just canyon without floor (no actual exposure however), for what was probably 250 feet. At times I felt faint airflow coming up from the lower canyon, but it was never "blowing", even though I was in relatively constricted passage. After thoroughly shredding my cave suit on the dry, rough passage, it seemed to head down dip of the fault plane, going downhill (though I still believe upstream direction) approximately 10 feet. At this point, I could not hear the others, nor could I hear the sound of water at all. The passage isn't suitable for large cavers, but it does continue. I set a cairn here and turned back in time to run lead tape (read: get in the way) of the survey team.

We took a quick tourist trip to see Hellhole Hall, the Acoustic Persistence Chamber, and peer through the window at The Rubicon (WOW!). We were all stumped as to the origin of the sandstone cobbles in this wide, flat passage, and felt a sense of déjà vu as if this part of SEC belonged in some other Germany Valley cave...

The trip out was uneventful, and much shorter than my previous trip to this area thanks to the Buckeye Bypass. Even using the buckets to catch the dripping water, we still got a bit damp on the Bypass climb due to the large amount of rain this weekend, and also on the redirect climb above it. We exited the cave at 8:25PM, after a short 9.5 hour trip, to frigid 19 degree weather with a high wind; our cave suits froze on the walk to the vehicles, and several later teams reported that the locks on their cars had frozen solid!

I suppose that the lower canyon shouldn't be considered "dead", but it can probably go to the back burner unless no other route to the elusive "Devil's machinery" can be found. The upper canyon goes, but also requires "squeezefreaks" to map it, and doesn't appear to head closer to the sound. We surveyed approximately 50 feet, plus a 49 foot drop, but didn't solve the mystery of the Rushin' Rift. Thanks to my teammates for putting up with my sniffling and general slowness as I battled an annoying cold this weekend.

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