August 22, 2017

Adam Haydock in the Chandelier Ballroom, Lechuguilla cave, New Mexico.
Within the depths of the Carlsbad desert is a cave that is has been at the forefront of cave exploration by attracting some of the best cartographers and scientists on the planet that inspire to understand the karst morphology of this 138 mile system.

Line Plot of Lechuguilla
 Lechuguilla has held some of the most fascinating cave discoveries in modem times and is the most decorated and sought after cave systems in the world.  

Mark Wenner, on rope in Boulder Falls, Lechuguilla.
Access to this cave is quite difficult as the park service has a proposal process and a strict and regulated guideline structure that can be quite competitive in nature. If you are able to have a proposal approved than all of the work and effort is worth every step once you enter the 68 degeee cave system.
Mark Wenner passing the traverse around lake Le Barge, Lechuguilla.
Another interesting aspect of Lechuguilla is that there have been ongoing studies of chemolithoautotrophic organisms that survive on the minerals that exist, inside of the cave.  There have also been some studies that have produced the discovery of endemic bacteria organisms that are immune to some antibiotics. 
Mark Wenner in the Lake LeBarge borehole, Lechuguilla.
It is understood by researchers that the profusion of gypsum and sulfur might hold clues to that sulfuric acid dissolution supported the speleogenesis of Lechuguilla. Furthermore, this cave is thought to have been developed from the ground up as the Sulfuric Acid came from a Hydrogen sulfide mixture deeper in the rock.

Flowstone near the EF survey, Lechuguilla.
The history of Lechuguilla dates back to around 1914 when mining claims were digging into the entrance pit for bat guano.  The passage led for a few hundred feet and ended.  In the early 1980s, a group of Colorado cavers were given access to dig into the breakdown and discovered that the cave opened up. Borehole was discovered, and lots of it which had early explorers chasing down extensive passages without properly surveying where they went.

Getting ready to go into Lechuguilla, PHOTO BY; Mark Wenner

This led to some controversy as to what has been checked and what has not been checked.
Mark Wenner and Pat Kambesis in the Lake LeBarge borehole, Lechuguilla.

When the discovery of the rooms full of crystal formations happened, including the chandelier ballroom, this was one of the most significant discoveries in American caving history which led to the regulation of lech trips approved by organizations and the evolution of access within Lechuguilla today.
John Prouty Calibrating the Disto X2 in Lechuguilla.
I flew into El Paso on a Saturday and had to rent a car in order to get out to Carlsbad and drive back the following Thursday night so I can get to work in time on Friday. 

John, jennifer, and Johanna calibrating distos in Lechuguilla
The extra expense of a rental and the fact that I am scraping my time off to make this trip work was well worth the effort as we are about to spend almost a week in the Chandelier Ballroom and Maze section of Lechuguilla. 

Forstwork, Lechuguilla
I get to the park and meet Erin Lynch, Johanna Kovarik, Jennifer Foote, and John Prouty in the administration office. We exchange living quarters and discuss where we will be sleeping for the night so we can try to get an early morning start into the cave.

Aragonite in Lechuguilla
The following day we collect ourselves after a massive breakfast and meet Erin in the Admin building to go over the proposal and go over a presentation on the regulations of survey and expectations of each participant within the team collective. After signing a bunch of documents, mark felt like he was closing on a house and I was ready to get into the cave!

Gypsum Forst work Formations in Lechuguilla.
Johanna, Jennifer, and John led the first team to the Big Sky camp and headed in an hour before we made it to the 80ft entrance drop of Lechuguilla. The cave is clocked in with a temperature of 68 degrees and 100 percent humidity which gave this cave a really hot atmosphere, especially for someone like me who sweats like I have an allergy to water.

Johanna Kovarik in the Chandelier Maze, Lechuguilla.
Before left the admin building, we all weighed our packs to see what we had in tow and I weighed in at 44 lbs with 4 days of food, a gallon of water, sleeping materials and camera equipment. I put the Petzl transport to the test with hard cased dry boxes inside and that pack performed really well. 

Jennifer Foote in the upper mouses delight Breccia gypsum matrix, Lechuguilla.
We hike into the sunny desert hills and made our way over to the entrance of Lechuguilla.  This is an 80ft entrance pit with a small nuisance drop that will take you to the heavily gated and fortified entrance of Lechuguilla. 

Unknown mummified bat, Lechuguilla.
Once the door is open the wind picks up and goes from a clam condition to a gale force wind!  at times this wind pattern has locked people in at the entrance where they were not able to open the door.   We get down into the cave and the walking passage with a bit of climbing was encountered until we got to a series of flow stone, slopped drops.  

Adam Haydock in the Chandelier Ballroom, Lechuguilla cave, New Mexico.
These drops took us to the 140ft boulder falls pit which is mostly free air and a decently sized room. with a flow stone wall.  Continuing down this passage took us to Glacier bay which was a really big room some interesting fluted holes in the ground that went through the massive gypsum mound.

Mark wenner and Pat Kambesis in a new section of the mouses delight in Lechuguilla.
The gypsum bedding was still brown so it didn't really feel like we were on anything other than typical cave passage and so far, the cave reminded me of a TAG multi drop cave.  Once we got down into the voids, we followed a series of traverses that slowed our pace down a bit.  We worked our way through the fissures and came back into walking passage that took us to the EF survey.

Blowfish formation, Chandelier Maze, Lechuguilla.
I went ahead and wanted to get set up in Lake LeBarge but as I was going down the walking passage, I noticed the cave changing form.  It went from a fun TAG multi drop like cave and transformed into a crystallized and glittering crystal mystique. Walking down the passage reviled selenite crystals with signs of a wind pattern as they were bent in a talonesque outward directional pattern.  

Jennifer Foote in the breccia matrix of the mouses delight maze. Lechuguiilla.
Continuing down the walking passage the walls started to get white like snow and some of the flowstone formations were colorful with reds and orange like colors. Eventually I made it to the drop series which were slopping declines on rope that took me to an opening and eventually to a series of pools where the last rap was over a flowstone and the shore of Lake LeBarge.Lake LeBarge is a pristine and a crystal clear pond of water and the only way around the pond is a tiny traverse around the ledge. 

Jennifer Foote in the labyrinth of the mouses delight above the Chandelier Maze, Lechuguilla.
This turns into a solid flowstone passage and tall Aragonite bushes on the rocks that lay in the foregrounds. I got some shots here so I wouldn't have to get any shots on the way back and I wanted to get a few shots of Pat Kambesis and Mark Wenner coming down the drops. This room opened up into a white gypsum coated corridor that appeared to be around 40ft in height and 40ft in length. We took a break here and headed down the corridor until we got to a section where two passages broke off left and right.  We headed down the right hand passage and found ourselves in passages completely encapsulated in white gypsum crystal.  It looked as if a massive snow tunnel that was dug out!  We didn't have to use a lot of power in our lights which was a big plus for us.

The Lalique, Mouses Delight, Lechuguilla.
We continued to work though a lot of passages and some tight squeezes which was slow going and really hot!!  I was sweating out liters of water per hour so the waterhole in the Big Sky was a much needed resource. Finally we popped into some walking passage and made our way into this large room. 
John Prouty lighting up the big Sky Passage in Lechuguilla.
Down into the corners of this room, the Gypsum Chandeliers hung like imaginary and mystical ghost like figurines. This was one of the most amazing moments I have ever encountered in a cave. Some of these spires must have been at least 15ft in length! We continued on into some more white rooms with Aragonite bushes and gypsum hair hanging fro the walls. We passed a traverse and a few more room which led us to a steep climb on rope and into the main passage of the big sky section. 

Mark Wenner taking inventory near a dike in a new passage in Lechuguilla.
One last climb and a hike up the gypsum hill took us to camp.  Woohoo we made it!  We unloaded our heavy packs and layed everything out for the night which was a relief to get everything out of the pack and prepare for our five day stay in the cave. The following days consisted of a re-survey project in the Chandelier Maze and upper Mouses Delight passages. 

Ancient unknown Bat in a gypsum bed near the mouses delight passages, Lechuguilla.

Johanna in the Chandelier maze, Lechuguilla.
The base floor is the Chandelier Ballroom with the Chandeliers, the Chandelier Maze is a network of phreatic passage similar in dimension as the underwater caves of Florida would look but the rock appears to be a matrix of gypsum breccia with marbled gypsum and even more crystal embedded into the rock. There is gypsum coating on the ground that has the appearance of snow drifts, but these gypsum drifts are in 70 degree temperatures with a 100 percent humidity reading!  I can see why the re-survey is happening and why Survey and Sketching is so important for elaborate systems after walking through this maze of gypsum passage. 

Johanna Kovarik in the Chandelier Ballroom, Lechuguilla cave, New Mexico.
There are leads going in all kinds of directions so if the leads were not checked off properly, than that can create blunders in the map and leave out potential opportunities to find a passage that has not been checked yet and push into another discovery. We continued to climb up into the upper levels of the Maze which is where the Mouses Delight is located.  

Pat Kambesis in the Pearlsium Gulf, Big Sky, Lechuguilla
Here the passages are similar in phreatic confusion but the rock changes more into corrosion residue and oxidized minerals that were left behind. Dark Red, Yellow, and orange, colors blotch the rock faces with large veins of gypsum crystal and spar crystal within the crack openings of the rock. It was one of the most surreal places I have ever seen!. We spent the next three days re-surveying these passages and tied in loops to close blunders and re-sketch passage.  On the third day we were able to find some new passages with some interesting Aragonite bushes and mummified bat remains.
Adam Haydock in the Chandelier Maze passage, Lechuguilla.
  I was taking inventory and setting point with stations while working with the instruments and the Disto X2.  I am glad I got the chance to learn about the various options within the DistoX and how to navigate the device more than just use the instruments.

Adam Haydock in Glacier Bay, Lechuguilla.
We ran LRUDS for Splay shots and worked with very little margin of error to ensure we documented our bearings and route. I was also able to snap some photos along the way.  The survey was detailed and, to me,  it appeared to be a success for everyone involved.  Yet the Maze and mouse's delight kept going in so many different directions that it was confusing and time consuming to be in the core of the Lechuguilla puzzle.  
Pat Kambesis in a new section of the Mouses Delight with a frostwork tree, Lechuguilla, New Mexico.

On our last day We spent some time photographing the lower ballroom and my camera lens started to fog internally!  I had to work really fast just to get any kind of shot from the bottom which was a huge disappointment for me but I worked with the best of what I had.
Mark Wenner in the Chandelier Ballroom, Lechuguilla cave, New Mexico.
We worked our way out of the cave and I staged myself ahead of Pat and Mark to get some shots coming out of the cave, which worked out perfectly. After 5 days underground we surfaced and we could smell all of the plants and the desert air which as a big relief.

Pat Kambesis climbing out of Boulder Falls, Lechuguilla.
I want to thank Pat Kambesis for inviting me on this once in a lifetime opportunity and for helping me understand the life of a lech caver and the way to survey and sketch to lech standards which should be taken into consideration for all surveys. I have a deeper understand for the purpose of survey and sketching now and can see where some people use it for various reasons other than to properly document a caves elaborate passages.

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