JEWELL CAVE NATIONAL PARK – About five miles from the entrance to Jewell Cave, explorers recently mapped 1.63 miles of new passages, making the known distance of the subterranean wonder 212.43 miles!
On April 7, a team of five, consisting of Dan Austin, Kelly Mathis, Rene Ohms, Nick Socky, and Adam Weaver entered the cave. They would come out four days later.
They camped at Deep Camp, a relatively new camping spot for cave explorers, about seven hours from daylight.
“I like to say it’s an endless obstacle course to get there,” Austin said.
Although the camp is only five miles from the entrance, the drive to the site is anything but a walk in the park.
On the surface, he says, this trek can only take an hour or two. But in the cave, where you’re walking, dodging, climbing, descending, crawling, “it takes a lot longer,” Austin said.
Deep Camp was located in October 2015, the same day the team discovered the cave’s first known lake, Hourglass Lake.
The team established the camp in December 2016 and is considered “relatively comfortable”, equipped with tarps for sleeping on which protect the cave floor, sleeping bags and mattresses, stoves and cooking utensils.
These stoves are fueled with denatured alcohol that the team takes with them on trips.
This equipment is stored in protective storage containers and allows explorers to minimize their carried items.
Austin said their packs typically weigh between 13 and 15 pounds and consist largely of food for the four days. The water comes from Hourglass Lake, the cave’s only drinking water body.
Explorers must also carry toiletries, and since everything that goes into the cave must exit, this includes ways to dispose of human waste – thus burrito bags and pee bottles being carried in and out.
Other items carried include camp clothes – the clothes they wear while exploring quickly become very dirty, and a sleeping bag liner.
Crews have camped in the cave since the 1990s.
On days two and three of the expedition, the team traveled from Deep Camp about an hour northwest to Moon Junction and explored over 8,642 feet of new off-map passages. Some of the largest passages found were over 35 feet high. Frost and popcorn were discovered in abundance in the new area, and a small lake was also discovered. The cave continues in several directions on this western edge, and more discoveries are likely in the future.
Both days they were away from the camp for about 12 hours.
Austin explained how the cave is mapped.
The explorers carry a laser measuring tool which of course measures the distance from one point to another, but also the inclination. The azimuth is also noted, and this information is noted on graph paper.
Then they will walk the distance of the measurement noting terrain features such as ledges, domes, wall and ceiling details.
The team also explored a few pits, about 20 feet deep, which yielded no significant finds.
But that doesn’t mean the trip was a failure. Some of the largest passages found were over 35 feet high. Frost and popcorn were discovered in abundance in the new area, and a small lake was also discovered.
This new lake may be another part of a known lake, Lower Lake, but the passage has been flooded offering no path to explore. The lake is about two feet deep and 20 feet wide.
So how does a team know if they’re exploring a new passage underground and away from the maps?
Teams will create stations – writing on a moving rock with a Sharpie or paint marker, taking notes.
If a station is discovered while exploring, they will know that the passage has already been recorded.
“It actually happened on this last trip,” Austin said.
The group formed two teams: one going south and the other west. Austin was on Team West.
The passage he was exploring looped south, and at some point his partner reminded him that he had just found a station.
The southern team explored a passage that led to the intersection and proceeded leaving a station at the junction.
One theory among cavers is that Jewell and Wind caves are related, and barometric air volume indications may support this theory; however, Austin warns people to take this with a grain of salt as the southern Black Hills are littered with caves, caverns, crevices and other places where a lot of air can seep in.
The two caves are approximately 18 miles apart.
Austin said that if the two caves are one, he doesn’t believe the connection will be found in our lifetime.
“These 212 miles of passages are contained within approximately four square miles on the surface,” he said. “The possibility of future discovery is huge.”
So what’s it like to sleep in the cave?
He said as soon as you turn off your light it gets dark, so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
How long will their lights last?
“With lighting technology, it doesn’t take a huge amount of battery pages,” he said.
The ultra-efficient Sten LED light he carries will last four days.
He carries a spare battery just in case.
Apart from another caver snoring – the teams wear earplugs – ‘the only time we hear a strange noise is what we think is an earthquake in the distance,’ he said .
It sounded like a rumble in the distance, and he never felt the ground shake.
On average, the close-knit community conducts four-day explorations once every two months. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited recent businesses.
A minimum of three and a maximum of six people make up the parties, and each is certified and trained.
So how tight are the passages?
Some can get very tight. Austin said he could fit in an 8-inch-tall, 20-inch-wide cave.
“Not very comfortable,” he said.
Once back on the surface, the team will enter the new data into a computer program that will create a line graph. This can be exported to a different program to create 3D models.
“We discover new things that can benefit park management or science,” Austin said.