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 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.

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