I’m going to have to interrupt my recounting of our Indonesia adventures (Part 1 and Part 2 so far) to bring you up to date on this weekend in Elk River. We had an epic 17 hour trip underground to achieve the stated mission of extending the line in sump 9.
My last trip into Elk was back in June, when I extended invitations to a couple of interstate visitors only to be rained out by over 200mm of water the week before. The rising waters through the early parts of the cave caused us the rethink the trip at sump 1. Not wanting to repeat that disappointment I suggested postponing future push trips until the worst of winter was over.
In July Andreas, Steve and Ken did a maintenance trip into the cave. They portered four 7L tanks to the beginning of sump 5 and relaid the lines in the early sumps with thicker rope. Their excellent work set us up for the push trip this weekend. Steve and I were scheduled to push dive so I didn’t take the camera. I have to say that travelling through Elk with nothing in my hands was a novel experience and we definitely moved a lot faster without it. I apologise for the lack of images, but it’s safe to say that I couldn’t have achieved the push dive with camera in hand.
We entered the cave at 9am after an early start and got the first 8 bags of dive gear down to the water relatively quickly with some great help from VSA members Peter Freeman, Jason Goldstein, Michelle Doolan and David Rueda. Steve Fordyce, Dave and Sandy and I were the advance party heading to the end, followed up by Tim Muscat and Ken Murrey who were intending to improve a handline and then have a look at the upstream sumps.
After sump 4 Dave and Sandy dropped their dive gear and Steve and I left a pair of 3Ls behind. At sump 5 we reunited with the cache of 7L tanks and rearranged rigging and regs to suit. Steve and I both dived through the short-ish sumps 5 and 6 breathing off a 3L tank to save the contents of the 7Ls for sump 7. With Dave and Sandy waiting patiently back at the rift before sump 5 we descended through the silt into the clear water of sump 7.
Progressing along the line that Steve laid earlier in the year, there were clouds of silt from our upstream activities that had been carried along the floor by the flow. Swimming over the top of them mixed the silt into the narrow layer of clear water in the top of the tunnel and I’m not sure that Steve saw very much at the start of the dive. A bit further in the water was back to crystal clear except for a milky layer from 1.8m to the surface in each of the two air bells, probably caused by recent rain. From there we kept swimming to find Steve’s spool tied off on the wall of a large chamber.
Steve had previously tried to surface in the chamber only to find a tiny air space at the top. While he untied the spool I scouted the way on down on the floor and we set off again. Under the lip and into the relatively flat ongoing tunnel with a rocky bottom, we started ascending again into another large and tall chamber with a white silt mound of a floor. This set the tone for the dive as we alternated between lowish tunnels and large chambers. The white silt was pervasive, coming off the roof and very easily disturbed on the floor. The bits of rock that stuck out were crumbly and made for crappy tie-offs, causing a silt explosion with every attempt. Silt stakes were hard to get in in some places, and the up and down nature of the dive made buoyancy control in our modified sump rigs a bit challenging. The passage varies between 13m and 20m, with some of the big chambers looking to go up to 5m or shallower.
130m of line later and with increasing awareness of the giant silt storm behind us, we turned the dive and headed for home. The vis was less than zero and I wedged the compass against my mask to try and survey the line we had laid. When we got back to the previously laid line the vis improved slightly and I could read my compass and computer at a distance of about 10cm. By this point I was also starting to shiver in my semi-dry – a custom made combo 7mm body and 5mm arms and legs to allow for flexibility while dry caving was not cutting it for an hour in 16 degree water.
Back at the rift passage on the homeward side of sump 5 Steve cranked up his new stove and the four of us had a very nice hot drink. This put off the inevitable need to carry out four empty 7Ls when we had only carried in two. Steve put in an epic effort with a pair of 7s in his pack and we progressed slowly home with a caravan of gear. I was very glad to see Uncle’s Aven on the homeward side of sump 1, and even happier to see the Milky Way and a million stars when we surfaced onto the Potholes Reserve.
I had some new gear for this trip that I very much enjoyed using – the highlight was definitely my trog suit from DKG Drysuits. Changing out of my wetsuit and into dry thermals and dry trogsuit rather than wet cotton overalls to exit the cave was bliss. This was also the first trip into Elk for my Scurion headtorch and new helmet which worked brilliantly for the 17 hour duration underground. My Seatec semi-dry definitely passed the dry caving test…now I just need a wetsuit heating vest for the long dive at the end of the dry cave.
Thanks to the team for everyone’s efforts. It’s taking more and more time and energy to get to the end of Elk River. We’re going to have to think up some clever tricks to keep extending the line, especially as the cave is showing no signs of coming up into dry passage any time soon. I’m looking forward to figuring it out.