Who is Don Cuevas?

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My blog name has nothing to do with my history of underground activity. It's a quirk of geographic coincidence.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Interlude: With a Little Help From My Friends 1

I've entered a quiet period in my passion for writing my caving memoirs. I need to do some thinking about how to proceed along the best route ahead.

Fortunately, with a little help from my friends, I can post some additional observations on past events. First up is this edited email from Rodney Tennyson, an old friend from back in the 70's.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Janus Pit, Part 4. Scooping

"You are at one end of a vast hall stretching forward out of sight to
the west.  There are openings to either side.  Nearby, a wide stone
staircase leads downward."

From Adventure, the caving game, by Will Crowther and successors.

Janus Pit, Part 4
May 14, 1978 
In our previous episode, 3 cavers, Larry Houston, R.C. Schroeder and myself were poised to make a lustful scooping trip into the newly discovered Odyssey Series of Janus. Robert Handford, who’d actually made the breakthrough the previous weekend, was in Austin, TX and could not join us. Our intentions were honorable, but our lust for virgin cave took over our feeble consciences and we were captives.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Janus Pit Part 3: The Early History Retold

I have received extensive comments from Robert Handford and from Mike Hill. Mike was the first person to descend Janus Pit.
Because of their significant role in the discovery and exploration of the cave and of Flitterin' Pit, I have given them their own collaborative space here. I have exercised the Editor's privilege where I felt it aided the flow of the story. —Don Cuevas, aka Mike Warshauer

Robert writes:

"Discovery of the Odyssey series in Janus Cave ranks up there at the top among the greatest of my caving adventures, only just below some significant discoveries I participated in during my early Blanchard days. I was living in Austin, TX at the time and had never met Michael before that weekend trip. I left Austin on Friday and drove all afternoon and into the night to Stone County. All that I knew was that somehow and somewhere near Janus, I needed to meet Mike at a specified hour on Saturday morning. I just pulled off the dusty road not far from the cave and slept in the back of my stationwagon. The next morning...there came Mike and others kicking up the dust in a pick-up truck and when they spotted an obvious caver, they hit the brakes and we met.

Michael is right that I had been to Janus before - in May, 1970, to be exact, with my old friend Mike Hill. Mike and I descended the pit and walked downstream to the "baffle" crawl. We probably went upstream a bit, too, but I don't recall how far.* On the same day, Mike Hill took me to Flitterin' Pit, which is one of the most impressive open air pits in Arkansas. It even reminds me of some TAG pits. So, years later when I hooked up with Michael Warshauer and arrived at Janus, I told him about my earlier descent of Janus and Flitterin', both of which (had been) nameless, I think.

After entering Janus, Michael, Alexia and I went downstream to the crawl and I recall that Michael referred to it as the "ear washer". As Michael and Alexia probed the sump, I decided to poke around in the breakdown overhead. The resulting discovery was almost immediate and simple. The most difficult part was to curl the body to go over, down and back up a curious chock of rock in the breakdown that Michael named the "curling iron". Get the picture? The black void that I encountered just above the curling iron echoed with my screams. I hadn't seen virgin Arkansas cave in quite a few years, or at least a chamber with the "Blanchard-size" dimensions that I was staring at.

The 600 mile distance from Austin to Janus plus family and job obligations prevented me from returning to area quickly enough to help with the exploration. So, I couldn't expect Michael to not return to Janus to continue the push into virgin cave. Of course, I was a bit sad but also realistic. Heck, I wouldn't have waited either for more than a week if I had been in the same position. I will never forget that my very first caving trip with Michael Warshauer was a most auspicious beginning to my return to Arkansas caving and the beginning of a wonderful friendship that has spanned 4 decades."

Robert also wrote: 
"Here's a comment passed on to me by Mike Hill, the first person to descend Janus."

Mike Hill:
"My first trip (ca. 1970) was a run down there to recon the pits and to make sure my guides knew what they were talking about. I had made dry runs there before. I had no caving gear and had met the guys who were going with me at the local auto parts store.  On the way out the door, I picked up a partial roll of 5/16 braided nylon and told the owner I'd pay him for it if I used it.

We arrived at what is now called Janus pit and I was somewhat disappointed, as I could see "bottom" about 40 feet below. There appeared to be a crevice at one side, so I thought I might as well check it out.  I had three guys with me, all non-cavers, who agreed to pull me back up if went down. One of them handed me a long 6-cell flashlight on a strap and I unrolled the nylon rope and doubled it, tied it off on an old log and body rappelled to the "bottom". Once there, I tossed a rock into the dark hole behind me, but never heard it hit bottom. Not unusual, if a shaft is full of dead leaves. My gut told me to stay on line, but I didn't have enough line. I told the guys above to untie and give me some more rope. When it slacked, I rigged a makeshift seat sling and began to back down into the crevice. When my full weight was on the line, I swung out backwards and aimed the six-cell downward!  I need not explain to veteran Janus Pit Cavers what my rear end was doing the next few seconds.  I still cringe at the thought of hanging over that precipice on a glorified hay string!

Lacking experienced caving buddies and proper vertical equipment, I returned later equipped with the old Blanchard hand winch and 300 feet of 3/8" steel cable on the drum. All went well on both drops, except in Flitterin I began to spin so wildly that I had to close my eyes to keep from getting motion sickness. I only knew I was on bottom when my knee brushed the big block of limestone in the middle of the room.  All you experienced vertical guys can laugh at this but I did manage to scoop you on being first in! I returned later with Robert Handford in May, 1970. I  believe, and you guys who did the grunt work can write the rest of the story." 

Don Cuevas writes: 
You have to give credit to early explorers who usually lacked the sophisticated vertical and horizontal caving eqipment that we had later.
But in our own earlier exlplorations, even with the then state of the art ascenders, etc, we didn't really know how to use them effectively and efficiently.
So it was, after, a long, soaking wet and muddy trip upstream, I watched incredulously as Lon Odell took out two new Gibb's ascenders from their packaging, and starting tying on foot slings! It was a long, cold wait for the rest of us, even huddled out of the cold cave breeze in our plastic trashbags.

Names and Places
There were many names given to the features of Janus Pit, especially the rich array of odd names of the Baffle or Hassle breakdown and water crawl. The Baffle was named after legendary and quasi-mythical caver, Merle Baffle. The Hassle is self explanatory. The "Bathos", a seldom used and forgotten name, applies to the fissure sump below the "curling iron".

For me, naming rooms, passages and features according to a theme (usually one of Greek and Roman mythology), drove the dream and the spirit of exploration.

The "Curling Iron" is a name I forgot until Robert mentioned it. It's a rock obstacle, I guess. The Earwasher is almost a generic term for a low airspace in a water crawl. There was actually a "dry" bypass to the earwasher, but at times of normal water levels, it was easier to plunk an ear down and slide through. On one visit with higher water, I was insanely compelled to pass the earwasher, requiring a deep breath and an act of faith. As soon as I immersed, I had doubts. But the whole thing is maybe 2 feet long, and really not a big deal.

Several of the most onerous obstacles were obviated by discoveries of much easier routes. The main one was Rodney Tennyson's and others' discovery of Miriam's Bypass,  where a short squeeze over a chocked rock (later hammered off) opened a hands and knees crawl, opening into the large, mud floored room below the Cyclop's Cave, and totally bypassed the worst (or best) impediments of the Hassle/Baffle.

*I recall the Joe Vandiver opened the upstream, January Avenue, about New Year's Day, 1976, by moving rocks out of the way in a short but contorted breakdown crawlway near the base of the pit.

We'll return to the later exploration in the next post.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Janus Pit, Part 2. Beyond the Hassle, the Baffle

Janus Pit, Part 2
Earlier...July, 1976
About 200 feet into the Hassle, Joe pulled out a rock below water level revealing a miniscule crack, and we squirmed through into a 15 foot high fissure with solid walls and a ceiling comprised of huge, jammed boulders. To the left, the stream sank in a muddy sump.

To the right, an easy climb went up into randomly chocked blocks. Joe squeezed up between them and said he could see a large black space...then...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interlude: Tenting Tonight On The Old Camp Ground

When we began seriously exploring the Stone County and environs cave areas, we were living in Springfield, MO. At the time, it was a 4 hour drive away. When we could, we'd camp out somewhere near the cave.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Two Faces. One Cave: Janus Pit. Part 1

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.  
Around you is a forest.  A small stream flows out of the building and 
down a gully.”— From the early computer game, Adventure, by Will Crowther and successors.

Two Faces. One Cave

Thanksgiving Holiday, 1974

You are standing on a hillside in Stone County, Arkansas. Around you is a forest. A small, wet weather streambed goes down hill to end in a dark, vertical shaft.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What the well dressed caver wore and bore

I want to pause here and discuss the basic non-vertical caving equipment of that era. The only caving equipment supplier we had was mail order from Bob & Bob. The rest we scrounged together on our own from Army surplus stores and outdoors and climbers' supply shops.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

El Pozole de Cuetzalan Is Not A Cave

This has nothing at all to do with caving in Arkansas, but my food and restaurant blog, My Mexican Kitchen, now has a post entitled Our First Time.... in Mexico.

It's about our 1980 trip, the two of us and Alexia Cochrane, jammed into a Datsun King Cab pickup and sought caving adventures. We had plenty of those in a short time. But it was also when Doña Cuevas and I got our first taste of real Mexican food.

So, there's brief caving descriptions, "cultural" notes, and short food notes. You are invited to taste a sample.

 Don Cuevas

Pozole Blanco

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In a cavern, in a valley, excavating for a mine

Alien formation. Courtesy of Teddy Marsdan
“You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
Dead end

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
Dead end”...
From the early computer game, Adventure, by Will Crowther and successors.

Ennis Cave, Stone County, Arkansas.

In July, 1966, I had the pleasure of participating in an extended trip south from Columbia, Missouri, through the Current River area of the state and an incursion to the fabled Ennis Cave. We were led by our amiable friend, Earl Neller.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Adventure Begins

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.  
Around you is a forest.  A small stream flows out of the building and 
down a gully.”— From the early computer game, Adventure, by Will Crowther and successors.

From 1957 to 1995, I was a caver. (“Caver” is the preferred word for someone who explores caves for sport or recreation. “Spelunker” is a jocular term and is less accepted.) Now I look back with fond memories of some of the great adventures in which we participated, while increasingly convinced that we must have been insane.

I picked up the bug as a freshman in high school, when I read “The Caves Beyond”, by Lawrence and Brucker. I was amazed at the intricacies of the nucleus cavern of what was later to become The Longest Cave. It’s an understatement to say that I was totally naïve as to what was really involved in caving. When you read the following, you may wonder why any sane person would engage in such an activity. As compelled as I was by the sport, I also now wonder at our sanity.

The naïve 17 year old freshman caver had a dreamy sort of concept, something like wandering about in labyrinthine* tunnels and grand chambers, with an occasional crawlway or a bit of a pitch to liven things up. Give us a squeeze, love. Through the Keyhole. It's fun! Oh, maybe there was some dirt involved. It would be like playing in the dirt when you were a kid. That’s it.

When our family moved to Missouri from Connecticut, I was in heaven, so I first thought.

The first Missouri cave I visited was down in a sinkhole in Jefferson County, a climbable descent that led to a mudbank flanked stream passage with a small maze of crawl ways networking above the banks. For some strange reason, we always visited this cave at night, and once emerged, soaking wet on a New Year’s Day at 1:00 a.m. Our sodden, muddy clothes froze as we shed them, and we hurried to change into dry ones. Great group fun! It built warm feelings of camaraderie.

On an overnight trip to Gasconade County, I was introduced to the Central Missouri caves’ characteristic red clay banks, some of the slipperiest, most viscous, clinging and staining muck imaginable. There was also some stream passage with waist-deep water, underlain by boot-sucking red clay. The reward for these exercises in discomfort was a room decorated with petal-like spathite speleothems (cave formations). The truth is that I gave up in tired disgust before reaching the prize.

As experiences grew, I was privileged to visit Missouri’s longest, Carroll Cave. It is a huge tunnel of several miles in aggregate length, but characteristically, lined with the worst red clay banks imaginable as well as seemingly interminably dreary river passage. There is a fiercely disgusting sucking sound ones’ boots make as they attempt to negotiate the exhausting banks of clay. 

The rewards are some very fine areas of speleothems and a brief view of a thundering waterfall, part of a separate drainage system. There’s also potential hypothermia, exhaustion, mud and leg cramps.

Back then, Arkansas was across the frontier. It was "The Land of Opportunity". The roads were not as well developed as those in Missouri, and little was known about the caves, other than “Half Mile Cave”, later to be developed as Blanchard Springs Cavers, and especially, Fitton, or “Beauty” Cave, located in the rugged mesa topped mountains in the drainage of the Buffalo River Country.

My first visit to Fitton Cave, about 1963, ws what we called a "bop" or "tourist" trip, involving no original exploration, yet it pushed risk taking through sketchy maneuvers to a new level of imprudency. A group of friends from Missouri U. at Columbia and I made a slippery, bald-tired, rusting wreck of a drive two days, to the area around Harrison, Arkansas. There I also discovered the joys of cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets and continued my education in all night cafes. Signature dish: Southern Comfort: Country Sausage Gravy.

Our group was heavly laden with basic underground camping gear, some of it in laundry bags and my buddy Ed’s gear in a folding suit carrier. Our rations included glass jars of peanut butter and grape jelly.

The unsavory maneuvers included chimneying up and down in sinuous, increasingly deeper canyons, with tension growing as we negotiated our way across the lacy ledges that rimmed the rooftop of the Round Room, a large central dome-pit about 80 feet high. Beyond that we haltingly advanced by means of incredibly thin chert ledges, supported in some cases by spindly stalks of remnant rock.

Some of my companions must have thought they were immortal, but I didn’t hew to that belief. I was terrified.
Then came an 80 foot descent, interrupted by intermittent paralysis, by chimneying and leaping from one sloping ledge to another, until we at least reached the level, more or less, of the floor of the Round Room.

But the risky business was not over. A series of broad and often awkward “Jumps” over an incised stream canyon were necessary to reach our snug encampment under the overhanging walls of the Round Room. Not bad going upstream, but exceedingly awkward and requiring agile leaps of faith when going in the downstream direction. A total of 21 Jumps; a few, benign and easy, many challenging, a couple totally and absurdly difficult. (Stand on sand and gravelly edge, reach forward in ceiling channel as far as possible across the gap; kick leg high while propelling ones' body forward, and slightly upward. I took the Chicken Route and walked through the stream 12 feet below, rather than make a few of the leaps.

That was just the entrance route to miles of far larger, grander, more complex series of passages and large rooms. There were many rewarding areas to see and to photograph. Although often stretched beyond my limits, and terrified at intervals, I had a great time. From that visit, I knew then that some Arkansas caves were special, and there it was that I wanted to concentrate my explorations.

Later, there was Ennis Cave. That story coming soon.

*I was quickly enamored of the word, "Labyrinthine" and so it is, to this day. "Labyrinthine". Roll that exquisite word about in your mouth.

NOTE: Comments are now open. Owner moderation and Word Verification are ON in order to limit Spam, Vienna Sausages, and especially, Potted Meat Food Product. (Cavers will understand this.)