We had an interesting weekend in Elk River with the longest trip underground to date. After multiple set up trips to replace empty tanks with full ones we headed in to use them. The trip was complicated by large floods that swept through Buchan two weeks ago. I wasn’t sure what effect the raised water level might have had on the cave, or the gear cached throughout. The first victim of high water levels was the first aid kit, laid out on a beach before sump 4. We found most of the items from the kit floating in the water just before sump 4 and were able to rescue them all. The bag itself had made further progress and was wrapped around a rock a few hundred metres later.
One tarpaulin and some of the foam matting at the camping spot had also succumbed to the water. The tarp was hooked up on a rock on its way to sump 5. By this point I was a little concerned about our tanks at the beginning of sump 5. On arrival it became apparent that most of the tanks had been washed into the streamway below. Luckily they hadn’t travelled very far with the steels sinking immediately and the carbon fibre tanks bobbing around at the start of the sump. The foam wrapping stored with the tanks was also floating in the entrance pool.
More importantly, the fins that had been perched high up the rift were gone. We sent Sandy on a treasure hunt recovery dive into sumps 5 and 6. She surfaced half an hour later with four fins and the kettle. Good haul! Meanwhile Steve, Dave and I rigged the large tanks for diving. I assisted with the gearing up process and waved the others goodbye around 5pm. By 6pm I was back at camp and an hour after that I was warm and dry. Wrapped up in thermals and a sleeping bag, I fully intended to read the 200 pages of book I had photographed on my Lumix. After ten or so pages I passed out and woke up three hours later. Caves are quiet, dark and peaceful – a great place to catch up on your sleep.
As I napped in the dark, the other guys had proceeded through sumps 5, 6, 7 and then 8. They carried the push tanks down to the start of sump 9. When Steve last pushed sump 9, he surfaced to see both a dry lead and possible continuing underwater passage of sump 10. This time around Dave stayed in the water while Steve and Sandy investigated the dry lead. Unfortunately both options ultimately clogged with mud. The water flow in the area suggests there may be a better underwater option further back in sump 9. The collapsed and muddy end of the dry lead currently holds the prize for furthest reach of the known cave.
The push team returned to cave early the next morning. After a few hours asleep, some hot food and an unpleasant struggle back into wet wetsuits, we clipped on the caving bags and started the long haul to the surface. We surfaced onto the starlit potholes around 6pm Sunday, 32 hours after our descent on Saturday morning.