After a year of hard work and a lot of time in the cave, this was our 10th trip into Elk River for 2013. The cave has been extended both upstream and downstream and the spaces on the map have been gradually filled in. We capped off the year with Dave and Sandy carrying in some very large tanks and four of us sleeping at the far end of the cave, just above sump 5. Camping in there had been discussed a number of times but I never felt we were going to gain much by doing it while we could still reach the end and back in a single day. Then our last trip was a very efficient quick march to the end to add 120m of new line in sump 7. This took 17 hours underground and I began to think that a nap after a push dive wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
As I knew I’d be weighed down with the camera, my plan for the weekend involved minimising the camping gear I had to carry, including the tools, flashlights and tents which I got at TentsAndCampGear.com. I spent money on a very nice inflatable mat that rolls up to the size of a 600ml bottle, and saved money on a pink polyester sleeping bag from the children’s section of Big W. Combined with a heavy duty tarp I was fairly confident of a comfortable night if I arrived with dry gear. My sleeping bag fit into one dry tube and the mat, dry thermals and beanie into another. I filled the rest of the caving bag with the tarp, dehydrated dinner, a bunch of chocolate and my spork. The most entertaining part of the trip through the cave was trying to get the very buoyant caving bags underwater at each sump. I found that once my was under the roof I could hug it and push off the roof with my feet. I did have the advantage of being in a wetsuit with a negatively buoyant camera, definitely an advantage over the guys in drysuits.
We had six divers for the weekend, with Jason Mallinson visiting from the UK for the CDAA 40th Anniversary. Jason carried in a 7L and went for a little splash into sump 7 without laying more line. Jason and Tim then headed out while Dave, Sandy, Steve and I settled in for a night in the mud. The rift passage you can see below is where the support divers wait for the push divers to return. On previous occasions it seemed both larger and drier than it was last weekend. I relocated to the upper section for a little more legroom but a lot more mud – quite comfortable with the separation layer of the tarp. I had hoped to leave my sleeping bag cached in the rift in case of emergencies on future trips but the mud made this impossible and we carried out the majority of the camping gear the next day. The small ecosystem of condensing breath dripping straight back down again throughout the night didn’t help either.
Overall it was a valuable experience and we definitely picked up a few hints for next time. The best part of the whole thing was reaching the end of the cave and knowing I didn’t have to turn straight around again. The worst part of the whole thing was the 6am wake up call when I knew I was going to have to get out of my sleeping bag and back into a wet and muddy wetsuit. The rehydrated meals also leave something to be desired! If we can work out how to keep the sleeping bags clean and dry, camping will make the push diving much easier. If not, we may be better doing staging trips with large tanks and then unencumbered push trips. The ultimate solution would be finding an entrance a lot closer to the current known end of the cave…but with 100m of rock depth for a lot of the distance, I don’t much like the chances.
There may be slightly less hard ways, but I don’t think we’re magically going to find an easy way to gallivant to the end of the cave. When we do get there it’s going to feel like an accomplishment….fingers crossed for giant decorated chambers and secret treasure.