above, frost shattered rock in the, Dezaiko Range, Canada
Galen Rowel and his wife Barbara died in a plane crash 10 years ago last Saturday. It was a tragic accident, their inspiration is missed.
One of the reasons I began carrying a camera into some of the most remote caves on the planet was a quote from the beginning of Rowell's Art of Adventure book
"Raw experience is empty, just as empty as the forecastle of a whaler, as in the chamber of a counting house; it is not what one does, but in a manifold sense, what one realizes that keeps existence from being vain and trivial. Mankind moves about in worlds not realized... It is the artist, the knower, the sayer, who realizes human experience, who takes the raw lump of ore we find in nature, smelts it, refines it, assays it, and stamps it into coins that can pass from hand to hand and make every man who touches them the richer" -Lewis Mumford
As a young photographer and more importantly as a young explorer I looked to Galen Rowell for inspiration. His early struggles to be a mountaineering photographer at a time when the no one understood what that was resonated with my struggles to photograph the underground world. It wasn't his long string of "firsts" that spoke to me, it was his ability to bring the experience of going somewhere new back into the larger world that I found so inspirational.
The man ended up defining the entire genera of adventure photography. Why do we climb mountains, why do we go in caves? Why do we push ourselves when we don't -strictly speaking- need to? Because there is something valuable in that experience not just for the explorer but for everyone.
above, the bottom of the Close to the Edge entrance shaft
With that in mind here are a few pictures from my first big expedition with Neeld Messler and Jim Hewett to Close to the Edge cave in the Dezaiko Range, Canada.
Close to the Edge is an enormous pit, 255 meters deep near the summit of an un-named peak east of Prince George, BC. In 1994 Neeld Messler organized a small expedition to rappel to the bottom of the main shaft, then descend another one and enlarge a constriction that moved huge amounts of air. Air moving through a constriction is usually a sign of more passage on the other side.
By small I mean Neeld and I drove up from Boulder in his subaru hatchback with about 1/2 a mile of rope, freeze dried food, digging utensils and everything else we would need for the trip tied to the roof. Neeld's plan was to rig the 255 meter entrance drop and another 32 meter shaft to get us down to the constriction. Then we'd dig or drill the constriction just enough to allow passage and see what was on the other side. Jim was going to meet us at the cave entrance but when we arrived, no Jim.
Undeterred, we spent 3 days moving what seemed like a small mountain of equipment from the road up to a flat spot near the cave entrance. There was no trail and it was a steep 800 meter climb up the mountain. After 3 exhausting days of hauling and rigging the pit we drove into Prince George to pick up some last minute food and make a couple phone calls before we tackled the cave.
above, gear heads up the mountain
It was a good thing that we headed in too. Jim's car had broken down in Idaho and he'd gotten on a bus to Prince George. Some supernatural force must look out for lunatics. We met him at the bus station that morning. Other good new, a group of Canadian cavers agreed to come out and help resupply our camp and Tom Miller was driving up to help us push the cave.
The entrance to Close to the Edge is one of the most intimidating entrances in North American caving. It is a 20 meter wide, 30 meter tall slot in a cliff wall. On one side is a 10 meter wide, frost shattered ledge that is home to rope gnawing rats. Below the ledge is 255 meters of air. At the time the whole thing was overhung by a commercial freezer sized hunk of ice. In order to combat the rats we installed a re-belay point below the ledge and then attached our rope to two separate anchors. The theory was the rats couldn't reach the re-belayed rope and would not chew through the two ropes leading to the separate anchors.
above, Jim Hewitt crosses a rebelay with 255 meters of air below him.
Neeld was the first one into the abyss. He encountered a major ledge at -155 meters and installed another re-belay. I came down next, followed by Jim. Just enough day light made its way down the shaft that I could see the cold wet walls and make out Jim's headlamp as he crossed the second re-belay and came down the shaft. Neeld and I were talking about how great it was to finally be exploring when the the whole cave started shaking. There was a roar like a jet engine. Neeld and I took cover under a boulder on while a rain of ice chunks slush and water blanketed the floor of the pit. I looked up the pit and couldn't see Jim's headlamp. Very quickly the following thoughts went through my head "the rope is cut, Jim is dead, we are SCREWED." It weemed my friend was gone and without a rope we'd soon die of hypothermia at the bottom of the cave. Then as the air cleared a little I saw the rope still hanging there and yelled out "Jim, are you ok?"
Through the darkness came his voice "It wasn't my fault, I didn't do it!" Jim had just crossed the second re-belay when that huge chuck of ice broke off the cave wall 155 meters above him. It struck the ledge that he had just crossed which saved his life but extinguished his head lamp and left him wondering if he was alive or dead.
The next obstacle was a head width crack at the bottom of the next drop that seemed to link up with more cave below. Neeld enlarged the crack using a Hilti hammer drill and kinopak. It went from a fist sized crack to a head sized crack.
above, Neeld Messler squeezes through the 'enlarged' crack
After that first day of exploration we headed back to the surface to rendezvous with the Canadians and Tom Miller. The Canadians brought us more stove fuel and a 6 pack of malt liquor but declined our offer to go caving. Tom on the other hand joined us for the push through the crack.
The following day 4 of us set out to see how deep the cave goes. Without any looming ice fall the entrance drop seemed almost routine and soon Neeld was squeezing his body through the constriction. When I say we "enlarged" the crack, we made it just wide enough that a person could fit through. It was still tight, and moreover was a 45 degree downward angled crack that opened in to a pit. We'd need a rope going through the crack to pull ourselves back up but also to hook onto at the top of the pit.
Above, the crack was really tight
It took Neeld 20 minutes to squeeze through but once he was down he shouted that the cave kept going! That is the thing about cave exploration, the only way to tell if a passage goes is to actually go there. Jim went down next and then it was my turn.
The crack was so tight that it held my head in on direction with my face pointed up the shaft at where I had come from. There was no way to move my head from side to side as I inched my way downward. Toward the bottom, just as my feet were getting free of the constriction but my body and head were still in it, a rock came loose from the top of the crack and rolled down toward me. I couldn't move my head to get out of the way, all I could do is watch it as it fell. The rock hit me square in the nose. However, in the near freezing temperature of the cave I hardly felt it. It wasn't until I caught up with Neeld and Jim and saw their reaction to me that I realized I had blood all over my face from a broken nose.
Well broken nose and all we pushed the cave on that trip until we ran out of rope. Heading out of the cave that evening I was exulted and exhausted. Jim and I climbed the big pit tandem and I remember falling fast asleep on rope as I waited for him to cross a re-belay.
On a subsequent trip we pushed the cave to -430 meters. By then I was done in physically and mentally. I remember checking out another constriction and thinking thinking about how deep we were and how utterly beyond help. "Please make this be the end" kept running through my mind.
above, Jim near the end of the cave
For us it was the end. We were out of rope, food and time. We had made CTTE the 2nd deepest cave in Canada (at the time) and we were exhausted. It was all we could do to de rig our ropes and make our way down to the valley. I was so exhausted that when I got back to Boulder I slept for 36 hours straight.
In 2001 a group of cavers would find a passage we had missed and push the cave 42 meters deeper.
So what did I learn that was valuable? Personally I learned how far I could push myself in an alpine cave. 10 years later covering the 2004 Krubera expedition in Abkasia the alpine cave experience I got in Canada would be invaluable. I also learned that I could trust Neeld and Jim with my life. Anything larger? You tell me. My personal belief is that exploration -actually doing something no one has been before- is an important part of our society.
above, Stephen Alvarez, Jim Hewett and Neeld Messler near Close to the Edge 1994
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