Five Days in the Western Borehole

by John Middendorf

photo: 1000 feet underground in Lecuguilla (product testing new pack design)

After a routine chat about Zion with my climbing buddy Dave Jones, he casually mentioned an upcoming Lechuguilla Cave trip with possibly a space available. With some begging and a bit of exaggeration about my previous caving experience, I found myself invited for the trip.

I remembered reading about Lechuguilla from the March, 1991 article in National Geographic. It is called "The Jewel of the Underground", with many mysterious and beautiful formations. With little other information except for a few instructions from cavemaster Ron Delano, I got outfitted for the trip underground with a cave pack, white rubber soled boots, an arsenal of headlamps, provisions for five days, and a few other odds and ends.

Not without considerable intrepidation, I drove down to Carlsbad on January 12, 1995 to meet with my teammates at the Cave Resource Foundation in Carlsbad National Park. Our team of twenty underground enthusiasts (trogloxenes), fearlessly led by Dave Jones and Ron Delano, had come from all over the country for this trip, from Maine to Washington state to all points in between. We were grouped in teams of 4 with the purpose of surveying new areas of the cave, which currently consists of 80 plus miles of known passage. Our goal was to discover two miles of new cave.

Already one of the largest caves in the world, it is suspected that the Lechuguilla cave system is much larger what has already been explored and mapped. Not discovered until 1986, the cave's only entrance is in the bottom of a 80 foot sinkhole a few miles from Carlsbad Caverns. Wind howls out of a small hole in the corner of the sinkhole, sometimes over 50 miles per hour, as a result of low barometric pressure on the surface. Calculations involving the volume of the escaping air and air pressure give a general estimate of the cave's size.

Our hopes were to find "breakouts", unknown passages that could lead to greater regions of the cave. Many of the passages that led to the major branches of the cave--The East, The Southwest, and The Western Borehole--had been discovered by members of our team on previous expeditions. With the exception of one 4-man team going to the "Far East", known for its tortuous underground descent to the deepest portion of the cave at 1500 feet beneath the surface, we were all going to the Western Borehole, a huge underground subway chamber that travels in a straight east-west path for nearly 2 miles with only a few discovered side passageways.

Not since jumaring up fixed lines while committing to an extended vertical stint on one of my earlier multi-day big wall climbs had I felt such an overwhelming animalistic fear as our team opened the blowing manhole cover, descended the entrance culvert, and began our first squirmy descent passages in the dark.

After seven and a half hours of boulder hopping, shimmying up and down passages, rappelling and ascending fixed ropes, and crawling through tiny passages on our bellies, we made it to our camp in the Huapache Highway room, a giant underground stadium over 1000 feet below the surface filled with a jumble of breakdown. Except for a few glances here and there of the miraculous underground structures, our beeline descent to this magnificent underground chamber hadn't given me the chance to catch my breath to pause to look too closely many of the sights.

At camp I learned much about the geology of the cave from my teammates Ray Keeler, Peter Jones, and ex-climber-now-caver Jim Erikson. After the limestone bedrock formed millions of years ago, sulfuric acid (H2SO4), a potent acid which dissolves limestone {formed by the mixing of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) created from oil and organic materials beneath the water table and oxygen-rich H2O from above} created a vast and complex system of spongework mazes and chambers. By the nature of this rare process of the cave forming from the bottom up, H2S caves constitute a small group of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world. The cave is covered with mineral formations (speleothems): calcite (CaCO3), which forms into incredible Flowstone, Aragonite bushes, "Soda Straws" and other forms, and snow white Gypsum (CaSO4;2H20).

We spent the first underground "day" exploring gypsum rooms in a northern fork of the Western Borehole along the EVI survey (all passageways are designated with letters starting with A and ending with ZZZ). "Rafts", sharp shards of calcite once formed on the surface of ghost underground lakes, coated the floors, and incredible forms of gypsum crystals and angel hair enveloped the walls.

We inched through tight crawlways and chimneyed up walls of gypsum and surveyed almost 400 feet of new passage, which linked areas around "The Private Room", a delicate area filled with gypsum flowers and aragonite bushes. The main ethic in the cave is conservation. In a cave, a misplaced footstep or a muddy hand-print lasts forever and not only ruins a natural masterpiece, but quite possibly can be damaging to the fragile underground ecosystem. It takes great care to prevent damaging the formations and we often went to great lengths to keep the cave pristine.

We continued on for many hours and finally linked up with another passage that had been flagged with orange and blue tape but, unlike most of the survey markers in the cave, had no information indicating where in the cave we were. Although it had already been a long day, we were tempted to continue into unknown territory, though we knew it could mean committing to many hours of tortuous passageways before we could find a return path to our camp. Wisely, our team leader Peter called it off, and we retraced our steps and after many hours returned to our 1000 foot underground camp.

The next "morning", we shared information with another team led by Dave Jones, with whom we shared the camp. We had all been working hard the past 48 hours and by now the constant temperature (69 degrees F) and humidity (over 90%) had turned us into true troglobites, and it took me a while to get used to the stank of our bodies in the humid environment. Dave, Lyle, Steve, and Mark had been working on a difficult vertical lead in the area known as the South Winds, a branch of the Western Borehole that has several miles of surveyed passage and likely has many more to find. Dave and Lyle had been pushing leads up a 500 foot vertical gypsum tube leading up and out of a room. They had returned the "night" before after a 14 hour push up the first 375 feet, and were gearing up for another push that day. After wishing each other best of luck with finding a breakthrough, our two teams left in different directions, ours with a new task of probing the far western portion of the cave (the area which lies the most surface miles from the entrance).

The farthest western room of Lechuguilla is the Rainbow Room, at about 600 feet under the surface. We made it there after traveling to the far western end of the Western Borehole and then proceeded to make our way up three or four hundred feet of ever steepening chimneys. It beholds several colors, from white "bacon" calcite, to red chunks of remnant sandstone, to dark manganese oxide corrosion. From there, we found and surveyed 400 feet of new passage, much of which continued, but became too small for a human explorer. We chimneyed down and we chimneyed up, much of which through walls covered with a 1/2" clay like layer of the so-called "gorilla shit", the manganese oxide residue that resembles slick mud. I was surprised at how much fun it was complaining about how miserable it was getting covered with the stuff from head to toe.

The third day we found a new side spur near the Long Haul which Peter called the "Velvet Underground". We surveyed and walked though halls covered with great slabs of flowstone that sparkled and resembled plush orange velvet. Jim and I explored some vertical leads: I soloed up a 30 foot boulder problem that ended up leading nowhere and Jim found a chimney covered with flowstone and soloed up it for as far as the light could see. Jim is an exacting caver and moves with the precision of a cat on tight vertical climbing leads; still, I felt a bit of worry as his light became dimmer and dimmer and finally disappeared 100 feet straight above me. A while later, Jim downclimbed back down to us with the information that the chimney got too tight after a while.

We decide to make for the surface. Although we had managed to survey over 1300 feet of new passage over the past 3 days, we still felt a bit discouraged that none of the new passage led to any spectacular larger rooms. Plus we knew that at that moment Dave and his team were on the verge of a big breakout in the South Winds. We wanted to join them but had made pre-arrangement to report back to the Park Service after five days, so we began our two day ascent return to the entrance.

That night we shared the Deep Seas camp with two other teams. They had also found new passage, but no major breakouts. They had come from the South Winds and had heard that Dave and Lyle had indeed found some major passage but didn't know the details. The next morning Ray, Jim and I started to make our way back up the final 900 feet, with Peter and the other teams following shortly behind.

Somehow toward the end, I found myself in the lead position. After 91 hours underground, I experienced the notorious "entrance fever", and when I heard the first whoosh of air being sucked out of the entrance hole, I hurriedly stumbled upward to the final tube, ran up the final overhanging rope ascent to the surface, and yelped for joy, stunned by the vibrant colors and the magnificent smell of fresh air.