Jason Richards- September 2013 (published in the Canadian Caver)
In the beginning…of September, Christina Richards and I found out about a little gathering on Vancouver Island called Weymerfest. We had been talking via email with Martin Davis in Tahsis about a small cave with a sump that needed another look. The timing seemed good, and we were very interested in seeing some of the island’s limestone caving, having quickly tired of the lava tubing scene in Washington, where we currently reside. We tried to gather as much information about Whistling cave as we could, particularly any information or survey gathered from the previous diver, a British gentleman named Dave Ryall.
As is usually the case with old cave data, the original data had been lost, and the only information left was rumor of what had happened on the previous dive. The story went that only Dave had made the dive in September of 2009, being carried in by a couple of local cavers. He laid new line and surveyed the first twenty meter sump, and may or may not have surveyed some of the dry passage beyond, being stopped by a two to three meter climb which he was uncomfortable making in his dive gear. He apparently made the climb without gear and was able to report back that an additional sump was found approximately 100 meters beyond the first, and appeared to be very deep. Not much more information filtered back beyond that.
With assurances from Martin that we would be able to get some help hauling equipment the short way to and from the first sump, Christina and I packed up the truck with entirely too much equipment, in hopes of making a significant push dive in the second sump, after possibly bolting up a climb in the dry passage between. On the last day of October, we began moving gear into the cave. With the help of Tich Morris, Dave Wall, Dennis Mitchell, Martin Davis, Alisa Vanderberg, and Peter Clark, we hauled a significant amount of dive gear to the first sump- enough for two divers. The gear list included two sets of steel 45 cubic foot tanks, an extra 30 cubic foot tank for use as a stage in the second sump if needed, drysuits, bolting and vertical gear, and of course, weight.
Crossing to the sump requires negotiating a sketchy climb across a 10 meter drop canyon into a very small hole in the opposite wall. Without gear, the climb is relatively easy, but laden with tank bags and other gear, it was just tricky enough to cause some of our sherpas to turn back on the haul in. We decided, since we knew we would have fewer sherpas on the way out, to set some bolts and establish a short traverse line for safety across the crevice. On the 1st, Chrissy and I made a relaxing trip into the cave to set bolts and establish our traverse, and haul the last load of lead to the sump. It was a relaxing trip, once we were relieved of the lead, and set us up for a very comfortable trip into the cave for the dive push the next day.
On the 2nd of September, Chrissy and I left camp on our own for Whistling cave, intending to put our drysuits on at the entrance and make a slow, deliberate (not sweaty) movement to the sump. Being from Tennessee, 4 degree water was about 8 degrees colder than we were used to, and we were not sure if we would have any problems. We reached the sump in about 15 minutes, and began donning our equipment for the dive. Everything went more smoothly than we could have hoped for, and soon we were in the clear blue water of sump one, marveling at the beautiful intrusion dikes in the sump and the crystal blue clarity of the water. I enjoyed as much of the perfect visibility as I could while I peered into my survey book adding data. Too soon Chrissy was swimming upwards towards the mirror of the surface, and we reached the dry passage between the sumps. We dropped our dive gear, securing tank valves and dive computers, and pulled out the dry survey instruments from their Darren drums. We quickly ran into the first climb, and agreed that as a single diver, it would have been dicey to haul gear over the slightly overhung ledge up to the upper passage. With Chrissy and I working together, I easily scaled the short climb, fixed a short rope that we had hauled through the sump, and continued surveying upstream.
We came across two more climbs- a 1.5 meter and a 2.1 meter, but none were exposed like the first, so no ropes were required. Finally, we made the last couple of shots to the second sump, which actually consisted of two adjacent vertical pipes down into the water. It did look deep, and promising, and we were both excited at the prospect of this turning into a very promising second dive. On the way back to get our gear I boosted Chrissy up into some upper passage leads that she wanted to check. We had felt some air in the passage- strange for a passage between sumps, but indicative of a sump bypass or upper entrance. She crawled around for fifteen or twenty minutes and found most of the passage to be highly decorated and sizeable hands and knees crawl. The passage that appeared to continue was blocked by two pits that would have required some tricky maneuvering in her drysuit. She decided that it wouldn’t be wise to climb around and risk putting a hole in her drysuit and returned to the main passage. After helping her down, we traveled back down through the climbs to the first sump to retrieve gear and haul it forward.
This would normally be the time where divers argue/rationalize about which diver should be the one to seize the glory and go forth into the next sump. Fortunately for me, Chrissy had already committed to being the Sherpa for the second sump, allowing me to go forward. With less than half the amount of gear to bring forward to the second sump, we made it in two quick trips, and soon I was floating in the first pool, preparing to push virgin cave. Being very careful entering the water pays off in the long run, and the water was crystal clear as I sunk to the bottom of the pit, a mere 2.7 meters to the bottom. From there, I could see that the second pit of the two pit series was a sucker hole- it was almost completely pinched at the bottom by a gravel slope, and would not have been passable from the top. Fortunately, a small passage continued on at the base of the two shafts, turning a rounded corner to the left. Looking at things underwater through a scuba mask creates the illusion that everything in the water is larger than it really is, and unfortunately this goes for passage as well. The cobble floored passage ahead of me looked passable- and in fact it was, for about a body length. This was where I was beginning to have to wedge myself between the cobble floor and the solid ceiling. Fortunately, there was just enough flow to keep the passage ahead of me clear- showing me a narrow passage continuing downward over the cobbles. I began excavating cobble with my hands and arms, attempting to make a groove large enough for my body in the bulky drysuit. I was able to move about another body length forward with this technique, chest dragging cobbles with me as I moved forward, back dragging along the ceiling. I soon realized that I was not going to be able to move enough cobble with my arms with this technique, and decided to make the last ditch effort, kicking cobbles downward with my feet in hopes of pushing a trench long enough to get into larger passage. I wriggled back up out of my body trench into the room below the pits and removed my fins, turning around and placing my feet back into the trench. I pushed my way back down the trench until I was able to frog kick cobbles downward with my feet and lower legs. Though all this cobble movement had brought the visibility down to about a foot, I was soon aware that cobble seemed to be falling down the trench from above me, as the slope was close to the angle of repose. Just as I was reaching the point where I would have to excavate my way back out of the cave, the rocks below my feet began packing up, no longer going down where ever all the rest had gone. Obviously I had filled up whatever small passage was below me, and now the passage above me decided that it wanted to do the same thing. I put my hand out to my reel, sitting on the side of the passage adjacent to my trench, pulled off a stretch of line and balled it into the cobble. It wouldn’t stay after any flow, but would allow me to get a survey shot from the dig front. Line placed, I began scraping/digging my way back to the room below the pits. With the survey book out, I collected the few shots of data and made my way back up to Chrissy, waiting in the air passage above the domes, hoping I would return quickly, and snapping blurry pictures. I related my dive, we deliberated, and then packed up the tanks to head back to the first sump.
Having been in the cave for more than 10 hours already, we were ready to get on our way. We sat at the beach of the first sump, plugged in our electric suit heaters, and Chrissy broke out the hot tea she swam through the sump in her thermos. Thoroughly heated and in a better state of mind, we backed into the water, collecting up our in-water haul bags, and almost reluctantly made the beautiful swim back out of the first sump in perfect visibility. We both knew this would be the last time we saw this place, and it was nice to remember the beauty of the short cave on the swim out. Once out of the water, we bagged up all the tanks, and prepared the gear for hauling the next day, and made our way out of the cave, not so slowly this time, carrying our weight so we wouldn’t have to carry it the next day.
We arrived at the surface with the sun still up- a surprise after 12 hours in the cave, and slogged our way back down to the truck.After arriving back at camp, we related our story to the rest of the Wymerfest caving crew, and rounded up our sherpas for the haul out the following day. Aleah Johnson, Chris Ross, Justin Saukarookoff, and Tich headed back down to the cave to haul the tanks out on the 3rd of September. The strong crew shuttled bags in sections of the cave and we managed to clear all of the equipment from the cave in less than three hours.
Chrissy and I would like to thank all the VICEG participants for their help with this project, and Martin Davis in particular for providing us enough information to break our way into Vancouver Island sump diving and be able to produce some hopefully useful data.