LaSunder Cave

A quick self-portrait in LaSunder Cave.
A quick self-portrait in LaSunder Cave.

Last weekend, I ran a trip to LaSunder Cave. It’s one of the caves managed by the Colorado Cave Survey (CCS) and has a rather restrictive access policy. There are generally speaking only 10 trips per year (2 for every NSS grotto in Colorado) with at most 5 cavers (trip leader included) per trip. Since I’d been in the cave a couple of years ago with Randy, I was qualified to lead a trip. Initially there were several interested parties, but as often happens, a few people backed out at the last minute. Nevertheless, we had a full trip with only me and Kristin having been to the cave before.

Originally I’d planned to camp out the night before, but I’ve been camping out as near to the phone as possible, awaiting news regarding my Grandma Gribble, who’s been admitted to the hospital. That being the case, I skipped the CCS meeting in Glenwood Springs and woke up at around 5:00 am on Sunday to drive out to the cave. I was planning to meet everyone else at the nearest parking area at 9:00 for a nice early start, but as I was driving towards the parking area I spotted a couple of familiar cars. I pulled over and chatted a bit with Jim, Kristin, and Mike about the night’s camping and the previous day’s meeting, but it quickly became apparent that I was keeping Jim from packing up his crap. I hopped back into the car and proceeded to the parking area where I met the fifth member of our trip, Dennis.

Since I had packed up all of my stuff the night before, I chatted with Dennis for a couple of minutes while we waited for the others to finish breaking camp. A few minutes later we were all assembled,  so I distributed all of the legal papers (hazard disclaimers and trip permits). After collecting a set of signatures, we set off to find the cave.

lasunder-038
A sampling of the fine decorations in LaSunder. Look at the water droplets clinging to the formations.

Unlike some other caves in the area, LaSunder isn’t the easiest cave to find. In fact, when Jess and I visited the cave a couple of years ago with Randy, we’d missed the cave by a fair distance and spent an inordinate amount of time hiking across endless talus slopes in search of the entrance. That, combined with the pungent odor of a detoxing caver and searing summer heat, were almost enough to break our enthusiasm. To add to the legend, several of our friends had taken another recent trip to the cave where they had to add several miles to the hike in order to cross a rapid stream. They too got lost and all reported that the hike was murderous or worse. Taking all of that into consideration, Jess was certain that we’d have a hard time finding the cave and my leadership would be as welcome as Captain Bligh’s.

Thankfully, there was none of that. Although we did need to spend a few minutes scouting out a favorable creek crossing with the expert help of Kristin, we were able to walk almost directly up to the cave entrance. We crossed the creek by scooting across the slick trunk of a fallen tree. I still managed to get my right boot a little wet, by allowing it to dip too close to the creek on one awkward butt-hop, and Mike (who attempted to rock-hop his way across the creek) managed to plunge one foot straight into the creek. The rocks were all just as slippery as the tree. Regardless, the total hike time on the approach was well under 3 hours, and would have been much shorter if the last mile weren’t along heinous loose talus. Of course, short of mastering flight, there really isn’t any way to avoid that part of the hike. We spent a few minutes suiting up for the cave and discussing some rules for safely traversing the cave without damaging all of the beautiful formations.

Because there’s a big pack-rat midden you have to climb over/through near the entrance, several were sporting little dust masks. Jim, on the other hand, was packing a monster respirator. Talking to him with that thing on was a bit like conversing with Cave Vader. Personally, I opted against the dust mask. Previous uses had taught me that I can’t breathe underground with those things. This time I was wearing contacts, but previously, I’d fogged up my glasses so badly that I could neither breathe nor see. I’ll take my chances with the pack rat shit.

Much of the ceiling in LaSunder is forrested with these crystals. Some are a brilliant white while others a light brown. The abundance is just amazing.
Much of the ceiling in LaSunder is forested with these crystals. Some are a brilliant white while others are a light brown. The abundance is just amazing.

We saw one bat on our way through the front passages. Jim identified it as a little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus). Since he’d been proclaiming his sheep dung expertise the entire trip, I was in no position to doubt him. I gave the key to Mike to try his hand at opening the gate, and after swapping out the batteries in my headlamp (much better) I arrived in time to see Kristin performing some interesting cave yoga while attempting to get the lock to open. She asked if I’d worked the gate before, but I hadn’t. After a few more minutes of vain effort, I assumed the position and shoved my hand deep into the abyss. After a bit of struggling, I too just couldn’t get the key to slot into the lock. I could feel where it needed to go, but my arm was just too short.

Jim hopped into the little hole next and gave it a try, but again we struck out. I was beginning to think we wouldn’t be able to get the gate open, so I stripped off the top of my caveralls (like coveralls on steroids) and pulled off my gloves for another attempt. Getting rid of all the extra fabric netted me a bit of extra reach and dexterity. After fumbling for a couple of minutes, I was finally able to get the lock open, but I couldn’t get it off the latch. Next up, Dennis. Finally we gained access to the inner sanctum.

In total we spent a little over 2 hours underground taking pictures and gasping at the splendid decoration within the cave. Since I’d been there before and knew what to expect, I brought the 35mm with some slide film (Fuji Velvia 100) and spent a bunch of time light painting with long exposures. The general idea is to mount the camera in a steady tripod and open the shutter for a long time. While taking the picture, you light up the cave by sweeping a light across the field of view. Since I don’t have an armada of slaves to trigger remote flashes, it’s really the only way to light up a large scene. The on-camera flash is just too weak for anything but moderate macro shooting of a single formation or two. Of course, I also brought along the little point-and-shoot digital camera for some instant gratification pictures.

One of the neatest formations in LaSunder. I call this the bottle brush because it looks rather like a bottle brush.
One of the neatest formations in LaSunder. I call this the bottle brush because it looks rather like a bottle brush.

By the time we got out of the cave, the weather was looking closer to rain, and the temps had dropped somewhat. Still it was quite pleasant. We all had to wait for Jim to enjoy his lunch (exactly 30 minutes) and get changed, but it wasn’t too bad. Mike passed along some whiskey, and that helped pass the time. It rained a bit on the way down, but the talus wasn’t too bad. I did my best surfer impression a few times, but aside from an elevated heart rate, nothing too serious happened on the way back to the trail.

Back on the trail, it was an easy hour and a half hike back to the cars, and with fresh shoes and socks in the car, crossing the creek the fast way was a no-brainer. We all shared a round of PBR and Tecate before piling into our respective cars and heading back to the Front Range. It was a fun trip, and I made it back to Lafayette just in time to watch the Steelers just barely hold off the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

Snow Day! (plus catch-up)

So Dave tells me that you guys don’t want to read long messages about much of anything, especially Twilight. (Except Emily. Thanks, Emily! I know you’re asking yourself why I’m blogging and not finishing Breaking Dawn. Never fear—I’ll get there.) Anyway, let me catch you up on our lives, in reverse chronological order. With as few comments as possible.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The city of Boulder is closed. Roads are closed. It took Dave and me an hour and a half to get home from work at 1:00 p.m. this afternoon. Blizzard!

Dave shoveling.
Dave shoveling.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dave and I went rock climbing in the Flatirons. Almost everyone we know headed to the Flatirons that day—something about a beautiful Saturday at the beginning of spring in Boulder that draws you up there. We climbed part of the first flatiron. One pitch was enough for me, for starters. Dave led wonderfully and it was lovely to be outside and healthy again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I got sick on Tuesday, March 10, and finally stayed home from work to go to the doctor on March 16. She prescribed two inhalers and a Z pack of antibiotics. My voice went wacky and I could sing a whole octave lower than usual. (Cool!) Although I wasn’t healed on my birthday, I was well enough to really enjoy opening presents (thanks, family!) and eating dinner. Dave sweetly agreed to help cook homemade noodles, homemade spaghetti sauce, and homemade chocolate cake with chocolate butter cream icing. Yum!

Dave cuts noodles.
Dave cuts noodles.
Sauce atop noodles.
Sauce atop noodles.
Is that spaghetti sauce in the corners of my mouth?
Is that spaghetti sauce in the corners of my mouth?

Friday, March 13, 2009

We’re playing music from the Leonard Bernstein opera Candide in band, so I went with my friend Jehanne to see the CU Opera performance. It was terrific! What talented people. The orchestra was wonderful and the set was both creative and very functional. The singing was amazing. I had always wanted to eat at Khow Thai, on the hill, which we did beforehand. Yum! I had green curry with tofu.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dave went to Fault Cave with a few other people from our grotto. I stayed home to work on the Parish Visitor.

Graffiti in Fault Cave.
Graffiti in Fault Cave.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Church, followed by a baby shower for our friends Erica and Adam, followed by a book group that Dave and I have both joined with several other couples from church. Our first book was Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, by Donald Spoto. It was terrific and we had a great discussion, so we’re reading another Spoto book for April: The Hidden Jesus: A New Life.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

We went caving down near Colorado Springs, to a cave called Huccacove. Dave and I had been there before—in fact, we attended a cave rescue seminar there. It’s a fun, kind of sporting cave without a lot of decorations. It was a beautiful day outside, although it did snow a bit while we were driving from Cave of the Winds to Huccy’s and then again a little bit when we got out of the cave.

Dave in the cave.
Dave in the cave.
Pretty formations.
Pretty formations.
Cave bacon!
Cave bacon!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

We headed to Ouray again with Gretchen and Andy for our last ice climbing trip of the season. I always miss it when it turns into spring, even though I’m always looking forward to mountain biking. We were afraid it was going to be too warm to climb! It was warm, but the ice was still solid. That made for a wonderful trip!

Dave climbing a hard, thin, mixed route.
Dave climbing a hard, thin, mixed route.
Jess belaying with the river raging (okay, flowing) behind her.
Jess belaying with the river raging (okay, flowing) behind her.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mid-February, but warm enough to go mountain biking! We headed up to Heil Ranch. It was so fun to be back out on the trails, although it didn’t take too long for me to poop out. It was a lovely day in Lyons, but kind of overcast with a chilly breeze on our side of the mountain. Still, the first mountain bike ride of the season puts a grin on my face.

Spanish Cave

Pete and Randy Outside the Entrance to Spanish Cave
Pete and Randy Outside the Entrance to Spanish Cave

The first weekend of August, Pete Bronski and I headed up into the mountains to visit the much ballyhooed Spanish Cave. Rumors of Spanish gold and forced slavery have surround this cave, but over the years, all of these have been shown false. Nevertheless, the cave has earned a reputation for being tremendously dangerous and intensely cold with bone-chilling winds. Given these realities and the need for some technical ropework within the cave, we were both quite happy to be teaming up with a couple of other experienced cavers, Randy Macan and Paul Mozal.

Paul was planning to head up to the campsite the previous evening, and Randy would join us late Friday night after driving all the way from Fort Collins. Pete and I left Boulder at around 8:00 in the morning and we had a relaxing 4-hour drive before we started the hike towards the cave. Not long after hitting the 4WD portion of South Colony Lakes Road, we found the parking pullout. We grabbed a little lunch before hefting on our packs and beginning the hike. The hike began on well marked trails, but we quickly turned off onto a climber’s trail. After losing the trail a couple of times and debating our route, we popped out of the trees and made a bee-line for the limestone.

Finding the entrance to Spanish Cave was pretty easy, but locating the campsite proved much harder. It turns out we were way too high on the mountain, yet we didn’t want to lose altitude because we knew we’d have to hike back up in the morning. This caused us to spend a couple of hours zig-zagging through scree and brush looking for a campsite, but there was nothing to be found. The slope of the mountain was far too steep to yield a comfortable resting spot. We tried yelling for Paul and got a response, but it was from somewhere very far off in the distance. Desperate, we headed lower and sure enough we found a delightful little meadow with a large collection of bones. We tried Paul one more time, and the response was much closer. After hefting our packs once more, we were quickly united with him in a small clearing just far enough into the trees to have been invisible from farther up on the mountain.

Our Shelter on Marble Mountain
Our Shelter on Marble Mountain

At this point, we set up our shelter and broke open the food and beer. I was delighted to learn while packing for this trip that New Belgium had just started putting Fat Tire into cans. This was quite the stroke of good fortune for backpacking. After several hours of eating, drinking, chatting, and relaxing we finally heard from Randy as he was making his way towards the camp under the cover of darkness. A few cell phone calls and a round or two fired into the air and Randy came bounding down the trail into camp. Not long thereafter, we went to sleep.

Pete on Rope in Frank's Nasty Pit

The next morning we all slept in and were a bit lazy. Because the cave was only a few hundred vertical feet above camp, even a long trip wouldn’t require a super early start. After everyone got up, ate breakfast, and double-checked all of the caving gear, we grabbed our packs and headed up to find the upper entrance, Frank’s Nasty Pit. Paul was hiking with the aid of an adventure umbrella for shade. Looking back down the hill as he trailed behind us, it was a bit as though Eliza from My Fair Lady was along on the trip. Paul would end up taking the umbrella along on the trip through the cave and of course it would break. If you think you need a caving umbrella, definitely choose the Go-Lite model. They replaced the broken umbrella with no questions asked! After a few more minutes, we located the upper entrance to the Spanish Cave system. Frank’s Nasty Pit is pretty small, and Paul was a bit worried that I wouldn’t fit into the cave. We had all donned vertical gear in anticipation of the rappel immediately beyond the entrance, but I ended up taking off my harness just in case the entrance proved too tight. That proved to be unnecessary, and putting the harness back on in the tight little room was extra challenging. After a short little drop, we regrouped in the registry room and prepared for the big rappel. This one used about 200 feet of static line with about half of the drop being a free-hanging rappel. At the bottom of the rappel, we stripped off the vertical gear and stowed it into our packs. If all went well, we would emerge from the lower entrance and hike back up to Frank’s Nasty Pit to retrieve the ropes.

The initial cave passage was rather warm. Although it was already the first weekend of August, the lower cave entrance had just recently melted out of the snow. It was a hot day, and a strong wind was traveling in through the upper entrance and exiting via the lower entrance. We knew from our scouting trip the day before that the air leaving Spanish Cave was exceptionally cold, so we expected things to get much colder soon.

Of the 4 of us, Paul was the only one to have made the Spanish Cave through trip; however, he had never traversed the cave in this direction. It turned out that we had a relatively easy trip through the cave, in terms of route finding, but several dangerous moves were required. Most of the caving was difficult, but reasonably secure. We also lucked out in discovering that the ice which typically forms just inside the lower Spanish Cave entrance was essentially non-existent. This made one very dangerous traverse much less risky. On the way out of the cave, I used a small Brunton Weather Station to record the temperature of the cave. The indicator was still dropping when I started to become hypothermic, so I wedged the strat into the ceiling, crawled towards the exit, and left the thermometer behind to equilabrate. About 15 minutes later, with nice warm hands, I crawled back into the cave and retrieved the digital thermometer. About 34 degrees Farenheit! I wasn’t able to get a wind speed reading as the vane had frozen in place, but it was blowing pretty swiftly. I’m certain the wind chill would have dropped the apparent temperature far lower.

It would have been nice to crash back at the campsite and relax, but unfortunately Pete and I both had to be back early on Sunday. Therefore, we packed up camp and again shouldered our heavy packs. We were pretty tired, but we timed the hike about right and reached the Jeep just as things were beginning to get too dark to hike without fetching headlamps from our packs. Despite losing the trail a couple of times and having to negotiate a couple of stream crossings, the hike down was pretty easy and quick. It felt great to put on some dry socks and shoes and eat a few more calories before driving back to Boulder.