• 2007 December – Santa Cruz Caving



    Or “So, Rick, you think you’re not claustrophobic???”

     Backstory – Why Go Caving? A living cave can be a wonderland of beautiful formations formed over thousands to millions of years by the interaction of water chemistry and rock. Formations include soda straw stalactites, columns, moonmilk, shields, totems, helictites, rimstone dams – innumerable and very cool. There are also animals – bats, spiders, salamanders – another long list that includes transient visitors like bats that come to the cave for only parts of their lives and permanent residents that have evolved to take advantage of the darkness, steady temperature – and to eat the transients or their leavings. Living caves can be very delicate – when people enter, enlarge openings, divert water flows on the surface, pump too much water or otherwise disturb the balance, the cave can die – meaning it dries up and formations stop growing. The best example of a living cave that Carol and I have had a chance to visit is Kartchner Caverns in Arizona. The discoverers of the cave, in their deal with the state to reveal the location, insisted that the state use the best possible methods of keeping the cave alive and preserved. What this means in practical terms is that people are not allowed in without escort, because of the few unthinking, uncaring people that can’t resist taking “souvenirs” that took thousands or  millions of years to grow, leaving trash (cans, plastic, cigarette butts, food, excrement, you name it), breaking formations and generally vandalizing the place. The cave also gets the protection of double hermetically sealed doors between which visitors get misted to raise their humidity (a flood of dry people would tend to dry out the cave, and boom, it’s dead). There’s no flash photography and no wandering off. The end result is that you can still see where the discoverers crawled through the mud doing the original explorations, and gorgeous formations are still there for everyone to see and enjoy.

    A dead cave is the underground equivalent of what your local park would look like after someone cut down all the trees leaving the stumps, diverted all the water, trashed all the buildings, littered the place with cans, bottles, butts, tires, food, sofas – you get the idea. Or, as in Carlsbad Caverns, you descend deep into the cavern to find – a hot dog stand – literally. And the formations have been lit with major floodlights, thus drying them and guaranteeing their death. All in the name of good ol’ American commerce – and because you never know when you’re going to need a hot dog and a Coke during your caving experience.

    Most people confronted with the aspect of crawling through tight spaces in the water, mud and dark while deep underground would probably like the payoff that a living cave would bring. This is certainly the raison d’etre for why I would choose to do such a thing…

    The Trip: It was a beautiful December morning, and Carol and I joined Stan along with Andrew, Jessica, Helen, Ryan, Krista, Shad and Steph at UC Santa Cruz and headed off across the rolling hills toward our first cave. 


     After about 20 minutes of hiking, we were at the first cave. There’s a ladder down into the ground, and in we all went. Clearly, this is not a living, pristine cave – it’s a party cave for the UCSC students and, I suppose, whomever else shows up and climbs down. What I see is a hole in the ground with plenty of trash and with every interesting formation broken, beaten and worn smooth by the passage of people. There were some neat moths that Stan said would glow in the dark and I saw a 2-3 inch millipede, and black widow spider.

    OK, maybe the next cave will be even better. Off we went hiking through the woods down a creekbed. The sun was low, the trees were mossy and wet, making the hiking fun and pleasant. Stan stopped at another little hole in the ground and Andrew climbed in for a look – at about one person deep, the hole stops – ha ha.


    Then we came to the next hole. As a few of the group entered ahead of Carol and me, I was kind of wondering about the peculiar structure that had been constructed over the entrance – why was it shaped like that? I went in headfirst, stopping so Carol could get a shot of me going down. Once I was in, there was room to turn upright and I greeted Carol soon after she entered. Down, down, down. 

     Um, this is really tight, and getting tighter. On the left is the last picture I took in the cave – I went down through this hole and the one you can see below it, and then I saw the next obstacle, which looked like my chest would not fit through (Carol went through it afterward and said she had to put her arms up over her head to slide through – yikes!) and about then the willies hit – I did not want to be there anymore. I turned around and climbed past the two people behind me and then saw the greatest thing ever. I’m not a big tree person – I know we need trees, I appreciate what they do for us, I live in a woodframe home, I breathe the oxygen they release, I love the animals that live in and around them – but, after an hour or so in the trees, I’m ready  to be out in the open where I can see around me. In this case, as I crawled out of the ground, those trees were the most beautiful, welcoming thing in the world.

    After a time, Carol emerged also, asked if I was OK – well sure, I’m not in the tight little hole in the ground anymore – and I found out the rest of the group would take about 3 hours to complete the cave and would come out somewhere else – a through hike. So we got our pack, hiked back to the car, got cleaned up and put on clean clothes and went down to the Santa Cruz wharf for our consolation prize of calamari, spinach salads, a view of the ocean and a brilliant Hefeweizen beer.

    We wandered around the wharf and over on the beach. We get comments from our Midwestern and Northern friends and family that “you don’t really have winter there” – well, let me tell you, we suffer too – normally, the women beach volleyball players at Santa Cruz would be wearing bikinis; today they were wearing shirts. Now if that doesn’t harsh your mellow and make winter real, I don’t know what would. And Carol was a little chilly posing for me.


    Aftermath: I don’t like to admit that there are too many things that I won’t do – setting aside stupid, meaningless, life-threatening activities – but for the rest of the day I wondered if I could have gone on. The cave was dead, so I didn’t have the rewards of a living cave to look forward to, maybe that would have helped. But last night as I was falling off to sleep, I thought about how I felt looking at that last little hole under my feet, and I physically shivered – in the safety of my bed – so maybe speleological expeditions into the tightest places aren’t my glass of Pinot Noir – but I’m sure I’ll try it again in the future – in a living cave…

    P.S. Why was the entrance shaped like that? – because if you don’t fit through that hole, you’re not fitting through the cave…


  • Thunderbolt Peak

    I had been planning to do this trip to bag my 9th Fourteener with mi amigo BOB, but that didn’t work out this time. I had already contacted my nephew Mat about going on the trip with BOB and me, so Mat and I went off on our own. Mat had also signed up to go to Utah with Carol and me afterward for some canyoneering, hiking and sightseeing. Mat had never been to southern Utah, so we knew he was in for a treat…

    0914 Friday Packing and Traveling to Mono Lake I HATE PACKING!!! Continue reading  Post ID 1330

  • Middle Palisade

    Fired up by our recent successful Mount Willamson trip, Carol and I headed back to the Eastern Sierras with the goal of summiting another 14’er as part of our goal of climbing all of California’s 14’ers. On our primary hit list for this trip are Mount Muir, Mount Russell and Middle Palisade.

    After arranging with neighbor Rick S. to serve Her Highness while we were away (Thanks, Rick!) and spending a few days packing the truck and making food, we were off. Continue reading  Post ID 1330

  • Mount Williamson

    Mountaineering /n./ – slow walking uphill while not feeling very well…

    Carol and I have been wanting to climb Mount Williamson for some time as part of our goal of climbing all of California’s 14’ers. Mount Williamson is the most remote of all the California 14’ers, using the same approach up Shepherd Pass as for Mount Tyndall, but with the additional pleasure of hiking across the Williamson Bowl to approach the climb.

    Carol and I had an attempt together last June 2006 that didn’t work out. I subsequently tried again in July – and that didn’t work out. It’s demoralizing to do the work to climb Shepherd Pass whilst acclimatizing to altitude and then not peak. Sigh…

    07/09, Monday – Day One. Finish packing truck, head off for eastern Sierras via Lee Vining. Dinner at Bodie Mike’s BBQ where I was served the smallest 1/2 barbequed chicken I’ve ever seen – it might actually have been 1/2 of a blackbird. Spent the night in the desert south of Mono Lake.

    07/10, Tuesday – Day Two. Breakfast at Nicely’s then off to the Mono Lake visitor center. Rangers there tell us we can’t get a permit for Shepherd Pass because of all the fires in the Owens Valley. Great. We head off to Bishop. At the ranger station there, sure, no problem, the fires haven’t affected the Shepherd Pass trailhead. OK, we get a permit for the next day then decide to head for high ground in the White mountains for a day of acclimation. Up, up, up out of Big Pine. We wind up at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest for the afternoon, go on a small hike, are entertained in the parking lot by the local rodents – chippies, squirrels, etc. For the night, we went to the Grandview CG – I say “Grandview? We’re sitting in a bowl and can’t see anything but other campsites!” so we head back up and wind up parking off the road in a lovely spot – above 9,000 feet so that’s good.

    07/11, Wednesday – Day Three. Wake up early; it’s overcast and raining. Rain in the White Mountains in the summer – such a novelty that we stay in bed and just enjoy the rain. Back down to Bishop, breakfast at Jack’s (we got the surly waitress this time) and then on to the ranger station to get our permit changed. No problem. Now what? Off to McGee Creek for lunch and a hike. Then went to Upper Gray’s Meadow to camp for the night. Wow, there is fire damage right down to the edge of the campground. I have no idea how you fight a fire in that terrain.

    07/12, Thursday – Day Four. Up at 5:15 (yeah, Ay freakin’ Em.), finish packing, we’re at the Shepherd Pass trailhead and hiking by 6:30. Hmm, it appears that the packs are heavier than we’re used to and we’re not really in mountaineering shape. Long day ahead. We’re in Anvil Camp and essentially crashed by 4 PM. No one wants to be outside ’cause there are plenty of skeeters and who carries repellent?

    07/13, Friday – Day Five. Up early and off to Shepherd Pass. We scurry to get above the trees and out of skeeterville then take a break to dry out and have breakfast. Camped at the top of Shepherd Pass by 11 AM. There’s no shade and the sun is blasting so we throw our sleeping quilt over the top of the tent to improve it’s shade-throwing capabilities. Works pretty well, but I still feel sun-sick by the end of the day.

    07/14, Saturday – Day Six. Peak Day. Up and hiking early. Climb up to the edge of the Williamson Bowl and yikes! It’s a long talus descent into the bowl and then lots of up and down on talus to cross the bowl. I’m starting to wonder if the peak is going to happen. I do NOT want to have done all that work to get up here and then not peak. Finally we’re at the right lake, watering up and then beginning to climb upward. I make a little route finding mistake and we have to traverse quite a way to the left, then we’re in the big chute on the West Face.

    Now it’s just climbing the talus / scree slope until we get to the 3rd Class chimney. It doesn’t sound that bad in the guidebook, but someone passes us carrying a rope. Uh-oh. We continue on; Carol is starting to have a really hard time – she’s climbing without an Achilles’ tendon in her left leg (Kaiser, our brain-dead HMO finally admits this) and this is an unwanted increase in the DOD. We’re finally at the chimney, another group is ahead of giving blow by blow instructions to each other and setting a rope. I climb it just to scout for Carol; it’s easy. Up the chimney, onto the peak plateau and then find our way to the top.

    The usual – hugs and kisses, pictures, sign the peak register, eat and rest a while. Then it’s time to head down – all day we’ve been watching the West as a front is moving thru. We get windblown and sprinkled on on the way back to base camp. Finally at camp, eat, drink, hit the sack and anticipate getting out tomorrow.

    07/15, Sunday – Day Seven. Up early, camp broken and hiking by 6:30 am. All I can think about is the food and (hopefully) cold beer waiting for me at the trailhead. Hey, everyone has to find their own motivation, OK? Down, down, down; one last picture of the Shepherd Pass trailhead and we’re at the truck. My carefully wrapped cooler still has ice! Cold beer, a Nadine level dose of Vitamin I, cold juice, cold drinks, it’s a party. After a little sittin’ around time, off to Bishop to find more food. We park at Millpond and watch the lightning and rain hammer the Palisade crest – beautiful – especially since we’re snug in our truck. Off to Mono Lake to camp for the night.

    07/16, Monday – Day Eight. Up early, breakfast in the desert, head for home. We’re sad to be leaving for home, but we’ll be back soon…

    Pictures here. I’m so bummed about my pictures – my camera was set at ISO 800 for the whole trip so all my pictures are grainy and look really bad…

    Random Stuff:

    • Food – I discovered I could tolerate protein shakes – protein powder, milk powder and water – and practically lived on this the whole time in-country. As the end of the trip neared, I found I could not chew and swallow food – I think the problem is that the taste / smell of bars, etc are nauseating and make me gag then worse. It turns out I can drink a protein shake while not breathing or tasting so it’s down the hatch before I can react.
    • As we were struggling up the last 1,000 feet of Williamson, a group came by that was day hiking the peak from the Shepherd Pass trailhead. Back at base camp, someone said they peaked Tyndall on the way down. More power to them – a vanishingly rare combination of genetics, luck and willpower.
    • A Lazuli Bunting pair brightened our day as we were making the last creek crossings on the way out. Beautiful.
    • It dawned on me why being near Mono Lake is so rejuvenating – no power boats, jet skis or any other such crap – peace, quiet and beauty.