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.

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...

"You are in a large room, with a passage to the south, a passage to the west, and a wall of broken rock to the east. There is a large "Y2" on a rock in the room's center.
You are in a jumble of rock, with cracks everywhere.
You're at a low window overlooking a huge pit, which extends up out of sight. A floor is indistinctly visible over 50 feet below."
 (From the "Adventure" caving game, by Will Crowther.)

May 6, 1978
Beyond the Hassle awaited the Baffle. The Baffle is a mass of huge breakdown blocks chocked together over the sump room, and it seemed exceedingly hazardous to push on. But the black space seen by Joe Vandiver was calling us.

Since the earlier visits, I had corresponded with Robert C. Handford, who, as a high school student, had been one of the two young cavers directed by Hugh Shell and Hale Bryant to have a look up a long, steep slope in Half Mile Cave, which broke out into what is now called the Cathedral Room in Blanchard Springs Caverns. Photo, Ozark National Forest.

It's every caver's dream to make a find of such magnitude and beauty, and we were no exception. It's such glory that drove us to return to the wet and rocky miseries of the Hassle water crawl and the breakdown hzards on May 6, 1978. 

We were three: Alexia Cochrane, Robert Handford and I. We were part of a larger group of caver friends assembled to map and explore upstream, who were willing to wait for us while we made a "brief reconaissance".

At the bottom of the entrance pit, Robert realized that he'd been in the cave before, along with Mike Hill. (Referring to an article I wrote in the AACS AActivities, Vol. 3, No. 4, I see that Mike Hill had been first in the cave in March, 1970. He told Handford about it, and they returned together. Handford also had entered Flitterin' Pit but "didn't think twice about it." All of Janus known then was what we later called the December Passage.)

One More Fool Notion
that I'd had was that Alexia could make a free dive "probe" into the sump at the left of the fissure. With a rope belayed about her waist and with mask on, she was able to get into the sump  far enough that only her ankles wer still visible to me. But the silting made the attempt futile as well as foolish.

The Odyssey: Hit or Myth?
As we coiled up the rope, I heard Robert Handford calling to us from the other end of the fissure room. "Tremendous! It's huge! You've got to see this."
We put the sump ducking gear down and climbed up into the breakdown.  Where Joe Vandiver had tried to continue upward, we instead followed Handford's Baffling path under the blocks, slithering  through a half-tube over a narrow crack in the floor, looking down into the fissure room we'd just left. Then, a couple of upward thrutches past truck sized blocks, and we stood in a vast gallery extending in both directions.

The floor was dry breakdown, the ceiling more than 60 feet overhead. In the "upstream" direction the passage diminished a bit in height, but there was a gaping hole in the left wall dropping an estimated 40 feet to a large room or passage. Beyond, the now dryer gallery sloped up into a gypsum flecked extension.

But, I am getting ahead of what really happened. We were supercharged with excitement.
Robert precipitously went downslope in the "downstream" direction to where the new room or passage, the "Cyclops' Cave" became even larger, perhaps 100 feet high and hard to say how wide. The stream reappeared out of the breakdown and channels unknown, then incised a canyon in the floor of the massive, ample breakdown caverns above. The cross section vaguely resembled a "T" or a mushroom.

Still dressed in our wetsuit halves, we sweltered up into three or more wide breakdown rooms, or might they be defined as one huge gallery but with varying sizes. Who knew, or who cared? It was overwhelming. Our guesses were that they were over 150 feet wide. The ceiling height varied according to the slope of the breakdown floor, 5 to 50 or more feet.

I chimneyed into the scallop walled stream canyon for a moment or two, hoping to cool down. It went on in walking height, the clear water riffling around the angular turnings between walls a few feet apart, but our time had run out.

Brent Wilkins in Circe's Canyon. B. Stickney photo
We retraced the trail of our scoop back to our breakout point. I'd prudently marked the crack out of the Baffle with tape. It would have been easy to not to find the one crack among many.

(I see in my AACS AActivites article that we shared a can of Mexican condensed milk. La Lechera. Alexia must have brought it, for at that time, I'd never been to Mexico.)

Robert was bestowed the honor of naming the discovery. In keeping with his return to Janus Pit after an eight year absence, and the scope of the find, he chose "The Odyssey Series".

Our patient, quietly suffering friends were enthralled with our story, but after a three hour wait, were not yet interested in visiting it.
Totally buzzed, we went with them to the January Avenue to do some mapping! My notes say that Alan Emmendorfer freeclimbed  some 25 feet up in the Atlas Dome, first climbed by Robert Taylor. A rope was tied off for future visits. (The area ends in high, chimneyable parallel fissures.)

Both Robert and I were pumped and barely able to contain our enthusiasm. He was back in the Dallas area, and I did a terrible thing. I led a scoop trip in which he could not participate. I hope he has forgiven me. It was cave mania to blame, and it infected all of us.

Meanwhile, Alexia returned with R.C. Schroeder on May 13 and mapped the Hassle through to the Odyssey on a night trip. (It's always night underground.) Kudos to them for this great effort! The crawl was mapped at over 300 feet in length. (But as these things go, I don't think any of us ever saw a finished map. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa. We all have sinned.) 

I succumbed to the Sin of Pride and planned a trip into the Odyssey with various Memphis area cavers on May 14, 1978. But complications arose, and in the end, only three of us went in. Larry Houston, R.C. and I. Our hopes were high for big cave beyond and were exceeded beyond our wildest imaginings.

More coming, when I can manage it. 
  • In our next episode:
  • Circe's Canyon without benefit of moly
  • Fast, fast, fast relief to obstruction
  • Bypass surgery
  • A Pantheistic revelation
  • Aceing the test
  • Taking off every Zig for great Justice
  • All your base level are belong to us.
What do the last two have to do with the subject? Nothing. I like the phrases.

WANTED: photos of the Odyssey Series, and permission to use them;  especially of the larger rooms and of the Pantheon. Leave a registered comment, and I'll email you back. A map??

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