Trip Shots: Cliff Dwellings

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IMG_0808 It’s a short uphill hike to the lower cliff dwellings of the Tonto National Monument located just outside Theodore Roosevelt Lake in Arizona.

Built in the 14th Century, the site is one of the last cliff dwellings of the Salado people in the Southwest. Sheltered in large cave overhang, the lower dwellings contain about a dozen rooms made of quartzite rocks bonded with adobe laster and accented with sycamore wood and saguaro cactus ribs.

Tonto National Monument also has an upper cliff dwellings site that is available only through guided tours with a reservation.

More  on the dwellings and their former residents can be found here.

Trip shot: Where there is spirit writing

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Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Tucked into the gorges outside of Billings, past an antenna farm on the top of a flat hill and down a winding road lurk three caves with a past the predates recorded history.

Beginning somewhere around 250 B.C., inhabitants of what would later become southern Montana drew rudimentary scenes of daily life on the natural shelters’ walls. The pictures eventually faded but would sometimes return when conditions — humidity and such — were right, and tribes thousands of years later would conclude they were messages from beyond — ghost writings.

Today, the Pictograph Cave complex (known in the Crow language as Alahpalaaxawaalaatuua for “place of spirit writings”) is a state park, and for a nominal fee ($6 per carload of out-of staters or $0 per carload of Big Sky Country residents) visitors can take a short hike to the caverns and take in the prehistoric artwork. The best pieces are at the flagship Pictograph Cave, nestled into the eagle sandstone cliffs. The park service includes a guide showing the location of the images superimposed on a photo of the wall. I also found it helpful to use a set of binoculars (I just happened to have a set in my backpack) to observe from a respectable distance.

There is something that appears to be a warrior with a round shield, and there are animals. More recent art (estimated between 1480 and 1650 A.D.) in red pigments stands out year round and depict items like flintlock rifles. Some 100 images have been documented, and on the average day only about 10 are visible. With the right circumstances, 30 or 40 appear, according to park officials.

Also in the complex are Ghost Cave and the aptly named Middle Cave (between the other two caves).



Video: Ice caves of Mount Hood

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With cold weather already here, we thought this 7-minute video would inspire a little winter exploration. Produced by Uncage the Soul Video, the piece was shot Mount Hood’s Sandy Glacier caves and documents the decay over the past decade.

“It is one of the most challenging environments to film in. Not only does its remote location mean hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment high up on the slopes of Mt Hood, but once inside the cave, the wet, cold, dark, and dirty conditions create a myriad of complications. There was a staggering amount of structural collapse and rockfall that was observed and managing risk while filming was a top priority,” producers wrote in their notes on the video.

Other videos by the group can be found here:

Closed cave

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Valley leading to Dutton's Cave. Cave pictured at right. (c) J.S. Reinitz

Valley leading to Dutton’s Cave. Cave pictured at right. (c) J.S. Reinitz

Tucked away in a wooded valley hidden between vast cornfields sits Dutton’s Cave. Its short, wide mouth yawns open at the base of a high rock cliff, and a small spring trickles into a creek just before the entrance.

The path to Dutton's Cave is blocked at the foot bridge. The cave was closed in 2010 because of concerns over white-nose syndrome. (c) J.S. Reinitz

The path to Dutton’s Cave is blocked at the foot bridge. The cave was closed in 2010 because of concerns over white-nose syndrome. (c) J.S. Reinitz

I explored the cave about a decade go, finding a large cavern just inside and a tall cathedral room a bit further back.

These days, Dutton’s Cave is off limits. Conservation officials closed it in 2010 because of concerns over spreading white-nose syndrome, a fungus-based condition that can wake hibernating bats to fatal results. The fear is that people will unwittingly carrying the fungus from one cave to another on the bottom of their shoes.

During a recent trip, I found the cave blocked at a bridge just short of the entrance.

New photos up

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We just posted a collection of photos from our trip through South Dakota. It includes shots from the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. Above is a shot of Rushmore from a small cave along the Presidential Trail.

For more photos of the trip, try our gallery.

Photo: Eldora Cave

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Entrance to Eldora Cave in Eldora , Iowa. (C) J.S. Reinitz

Mammoth Cave hits 400 miles

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imageMAMMOTH CAVE, Ky. — Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave in the world, just got mammoth-er.

Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead and Cave Research Foundation President Charles Fox announced Mammoth Cave now totals 400 miles long, which is up 10 miles from its previously recorded length. The revelation came Friday (Feb. 15, 2013) at the Mammoth Cave Science Symposium.

“The expansion of the Mammoth Cave system in the last few years has been a matter of incremental additions to many parts of the cave rather than a single major discovery that pushed the cave past 400 miles,” Fox said in a prepared statement. “In recent years we have resurveyed sections of the cave so that we can produce more detailed maps that meet modern mapping standards, as well as exploring and mapping previously unexplored passages. We have been able to reach this milestone because of the cooperative work of the Cave Research Foundation, the National Park Service, and also the Central Kentucky Karst Coalition working in a section of Mammoth Cave that lies outside the Park boundary.”

The National Park Service manages Mammoth Cave and 52,830 acres above it in south central Kentucky. Members of the Cave Research Foundation volunteer to explore, survey, and map the cave under a general agreement with the Park. Discovery and mapping of the cave allows that Park to better manage and protect its geological and biological underground resources.

Missing snowboarders found

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Two snowboarders at Mount Rainier National Park became lost during a snowstorm over the weekend and survived by spending the night in a snow cave. Snow caves are easy to make and practicing is good fun on a cold winter day. Park officials also recommend carrying essential gear when exploring the backcountry. Below is the National Park Service account of the ordeal:

Missing Snowboarders Found

Date: November 13, 2012

At approximately 1100 hours this morning, searchers at Mount Rainier National Park found the two snowboarders who have been missing since Sunday, November 11th. Derek Tyndall, 21, and Thomas Dale, 20, had spent Sunday snowboarding in the area above Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park before they became lost in white-out winter snow conditions while descending from Camp Muir.

Monday’s search efforts focused on an area believed to be where the two snowboarders had spent Sunday evening. On late Monday afternoon searchers had a visual of what they believed were the missing snowboarders. Because of difficult terrain and low visibility, they were not able to make contact with these individuals before nightfall.

Today the park deployed a stronger search response over a greater area of the park, with volunteers from Tacoma, Olympic, and Seattle Mountain Rescue Teams; as well as four dog teams from the Washington Search and Rescue Task Force.

Derek and Thomas were found by one of the search groups in the Upper Stevens Creek drainage. Currently Mr. Tyndall and Mr. Dale are being rewarmed, as an appropriate way to extricate them is being determined.

Searchers utilized a combination of snowshoes and skis in the difficult conditions they found on the Mountain. Stefan Lofgren, the Incident Commander on this search said, “We are relieved to have found Derek and Thomas! The health and safety of not only our two lost subjects but all of our searchers had been and will continue to be our greatest concern today considering the high avalanche danger and the deep and laborious snow conditions.”

Mount Rainier is a beautiful and alluring place to visit in the winter; however it is a dynamic and extreme environment that become hazardous if you are not prepared. When planning a trip to Mount Rainier’s backcountry in the winter, consider these important tips:

Before you leave home check and heed local weather forecasts, realizing weather can change for the worse in a very short period of time. Know your experience and ability to survive in an alpine environment and don’t exceed. Always carry survival gear with you, including the 10 essentials. Bring extra clothing and food in case you have to spend the night out. Always leave word with someone on the specifics of where you’re going and when you expect to be home. It is always safest to not travel alone. While electronic locators and communication can be helpful, they cannot be always relied upon while in the Mount Rainier backcountry. Remember you need to be responsible for your own safety.


Search for missing snowboarders will continue tomorrow

Date: November 12, 2012

Searchers at Mount Rainier National Park were not able to locate two missing snowboarders today before night and poor weather drove them off the mountain.

Derek Tyndall, 21, and Thomas Dale, 20, called 9-1-1 at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11 to report that they had become lost in a winter storm while descending from Camp Muir. They had winter gear, smart phones, and a compass, but no overnight gear. The two checked in by cell phone this morning and reported that they had made a snow cave for the night and were cold but in good condition. The weather overnight was severe, with high winds and 20 inches of fresh snow at Paradise. Based on landmarks the two were able to describe in the fog, and information from their cell phone before the battery died, searcher focused on an area around McClure Rock at about 7500 feet elevation. A total of 28 people participated in the search, including 18 members of Tacoma and Olympic Mountain Rescue and two search dogs from Kitsap County. A contract helicopter was on standby but the weather never cooperated enough for it to reach the search location.

About 3:00 this afternoon, one of the search teams made brief visual contact, from a distance of about half a mile, with two individuals who matched Tyndall and Dale’s description and seemed to be in good condition on the lower Paradise Glacier. Due to the steep terrain, it took several hours for the search teams to circle around to the location, and deep, fresh snow slowed progress to half a mile per hour with searchers trading off to break trail. Attempts to locate or contact the individuals proved unsuccessful. The search was called off for the day about 7 p.m. as night, weather, low visibility, increasing avalanche danger, and dangerous terrain made continued efforts dangerous and unproductive.

Cave video

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Our video of Spook Cave float has been up on YouTube for a few weeks, so I thought it was about time I posted it here. I filmed it with my Pentax camera and threw some haunting music behind it.

We start with the water wheel that turns from the stream that comes from the cave. The mill used to power the cave’s lights, but it’s now on the modern grid. Listen carefully for the guide pointing out the cave’s features as well as two sleeping bats.

Book on caves

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For Fathers Day, my kids got me a book that I’ve had my eye on for awhile — Iowa Underground: A Guide to the State’s Subterranean Treasures. I first encountered it a number of years ago on Google books, and then it appeared on the shelves of a local big-box bookstore.

Written by Greg Brick, a Minnesota geology professor, the tome highlights several caves on public lands, complete with history, gear recommendations and directions. It has a few of my favorite haunts, a lot of locations I knew about but have yet to explore and even a few new caverns.

In the spirit of Fathers Day, I plan to use the book to inspire my kids to go off on adventures.

Published by Trail Books, 223 pages. (6.17.12)

Oz, Munchkin Land discovered

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I went to Carlsbad Caverns as a teenager and was totally blown away by the size of the caves. The place even has elevators. Explorers are still finding new branches in the complex, and below is the National Park Service release about a recent discovery:

Large Room and Deepest Pit Found in Lechuguilla Cave Date: June 2, 2012

In early May, a team of cave explorers, led by Derek Bristol of Colorado, climbed over 410 feet into a high dome in Lechuguilla Cave, which is a system that is part of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Upon reaching the top, lead climber James Hunter discovered a maze of previously unknown passages, pits and large rooms, which they called collectively, Oz. One large room measured 600 feet long, 100- 150 feet wide, and 75-150 feet tall was called Munchkin Land. Lechuguilla Cave is known worldwide for its large rooms, unusual minerals, massive and fragile cave formations and importance in scientific study.

Since mapping began in 1986, explorers have surveyed over 134.6 miles of cave passages in Lechuguilla Cave. Because of its delicate environment and scientific importance, only about 100 people, usually vetted explorers and scientists, are permitted to enter the cave every year. Ten cavers from Colorado, South Dakota, New Mexico, California and Arizona participated in the eight-day underground expedition that made these discoveries, the greatest amount of distance added to the survey in one day since 1989, according to the National Park Service.

Using laser distance meters, Bristol’s team measured the distance from floor to the final rope anchor of the dome they climbed as 510 feet, making it the deepest pit known in the park. Stan Allison, Carlsbad Caverns National Park cave technician, explained, “to understand the sheer size of this space, imagine that a 51-story tower could fit inside.”

Called the Kansas Twister, the dome was discovered in 2007 as having the potential for further exploration, but a team in 2010 failed to climb beyond 80 feet because the rock walls were too unstable.
For comparison, the Kansas Twister is about half the height of the Chrysler Building in New York City or the John Hancock Building in Chicago. Or for those who have visited the Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern, the Kansas Twister is about twice the height of the Spirit Room Dome, 255 feet high.

Most of this newly found section of Lechuguilla Cave is in a layer of rock called the Yates Formation, which is made up of deep red, orange, and yellow colored rock but has fewer stalactites and stalagmites. Other exploration teams will continue mapping this year, but the next trip to “Oz” will be in 2013.

Geologists or microbiologists may seek permits to study or sample in the uniquely pristine environment.

While recreational tours of Lechuguilla Cave are not allowed, a variety of cave tours, for a range of abilities, and educational programs are available to the public. For more information, visit the park’s website at: www.nps.gov/cave. (6.12.12)


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At the entrance to Wye Cave (circa 2001) demonstrating the first rule of cave exploration: Dress like you are going to have a vat of mud dumped on you. ((c) J.S.Reinitz)

In junior high, one of the works we read was an account of Floyd Collins’ journey into Sand Cave. For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Collins was a spelunking pioneer in Kentucky and is credited with discovering holes around the Mammoth Cave area. In 1925, he followed some mist coming from the ground and apparently stumbled across a large cavern, but in the way out, his leg became pinned.

He was the subject of a large rescue effort that involved tunneling down parallel to the cave over a number of days.

In English class, we took turns reading pages aloud, stumbling over the big words while learning about cave exploration. This was where I first heard about the wedging needed to work through the narrow passages, sliding into tight holes headfirst with arms at the side, not really crawling so much as inching along propelled only by toes, mostly in complete darkness and not really knowing what’s ahead. And if the tunnel is a dead end, having to back out the same way because there is no room to turn around.

It was a feeling I soon became familiar with while squeezing into caves around the Midwest.

So it was with interest and a great deal of sympathy that I read about an Illinois man who became trapped in one of the caves at the recently re-opened Maquoketa Caves State Park this weekend. He was exploring the Wye Cave, which is one of the more elaborate tunnels in the park. Sure, the park has a few lighted caves, complete with steps and paved walkways and handrails. But for a genuine get-muddy, scrape-across-rock, bump-your-head, feel-the-earth-closing-in-around-you experience, the Wye Cave is the place to go.

On our last trip there, years ago, Wye wasn’t listed on the photocopied map handed out at the park. It’s located away from the main valley that houses the majority of caverns, and it starts with a short climb straight down that empties into a large cavern. Poking around turns up a tunnel at the back that goes deeper into the ground. There are a few good squeezes, and a few smaller rooms before it forks. Both the left and right branches didn’t seem to go too far, but by that point, I wasn’t too eager to go much further.

Getting back to this weekend, rescue crews pulled the Illinois man out after about a day underground. Floyd Collins wasn’t so fortunate back in 1925. Tunnelers reached him a few days to late.

Below is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources release on this weekend’s rescue.

Illinois Man Freed at Maquoketa State ParkPosted: 05/19/2012

MAQUOKETA – An Illinois man was rescued from a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park after being stuck for more than 20 hours.The 20-year-old man, of Port Byron, Ill., was freed from the cave at approximately 3:30 p.m. Saturday after being stuck in a narrow passage of the cave since approximately 6:45 p.m. Friday night.

A companion, a 20-year-old woman, also of Port Byron, Ill., had also been stuck, but she was freed at approximately 11:40 p.m. Friday. She was treated at the scene and released.

Rescue workers from a number of different agencies throughout northeast Iowa worked continuously to free the man, including chiseling rock to widen the passage. He was given oxygen and IV’s while in the cave to prevent dehydration.

He was taken by ambulance to Jackson County Regional Health Center.

Other park visitors discovered two people lodged in Wye Cave Friday night around 8 p.m. They became stuck while crawling through a narrow part of the cave.

The state park, four miles northwest of Maquoketa in Jackson County, features a variety of caves on its premises. Park goers are allowed to explore them, based on their ability and comfort level. Wye (pronounced Y) cave is about mid-distance between the popular Dance Hall Cave and the park campground.


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