Reprinted from The Underground News Volume 15, Number 2, Sept. 1988
NIELSONS: A Caving Adventure
By Ken Stahley
With Contributions By:
Mike Beer (NSS 16938)
Rodney D. Horrocks (NSS 251107)
& Jim Nicholls (NSS 15216)
The cave was originally "discovered" by Jim Nicholas and me in the fall of 1986. I was told about a large opening, that looked to be very deep, by a friend of mine from Logan, Utah. He had come across the pit opening several times while hunting for elk in northern Utah, and had drawn me a map of the location of the hole with respect to the surrounding features.
On the weekend of August 23, 1986 Jim Nicholls and I set out to locate and drop the pit. Jim carried 300 feet of PMI Flex and I carried Jim's 85 feet of Bluewater II and my 200 feet of Bluewater II. We started up the trail according to the map that my friend had drawn. After about 2 hours we came to the landmark where we were supposed to leave the trail. For lack of a better name, we called it Left-hand Canyon. Another half hour of hiking brought us to the second landmark, the "rock in the middle of the meadow", we needed in order to locate the pit. We set our packs down in a clearing and began a ground search in the surrounding heavy timber. I set out to the right, Jim set out to the left. We had only walked about a hundred yards and had been separated only 5 minutes when I heard a loud rebel yell coming from my left. As I ran toward Jim's enthusiastic bellowing I thought to myself "That's about the easiest cave I've ever searched for and found." I made my way over to Jim and saw him perched near the edge of a clearing that had no forest floor. I looked upon what may be the largest pit entrance that either of us will ever find.
The opening trends east-west and is about 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. It is well hidden among a large stand of evergreen trees with trunks at least 3 feet in diameter. The trees are obviously remnants of the original forest that once covered the whole mountainside. About 25 feet down from the lip on the north side of the pit was a large ledge. Below that, nothing but darkness. We tossed in some rocks to time their fall, but the rocks kept hitting walls on the way down so we could not get an accurate fall time.
We had not expected to find the cave so easily but we had come prepared to drop the pit just in case. Now it was time to gear up and go down. We tied off the 300-foot rope to one of the huge trees, tied a knot in the end of the rope, then let the rope down the pit. Jim and I had previously decided that since I had found the initial information on the pit I would be the first one down the awesome throat of the cave.
I rigged up and weaved the rope through my rack. Jim said "Happy caving" as I backed over the edge. I was about 2 feet over the lip when the stitching in my seat harness began to tear. I quickly clenched my fingers around the rope as Jim was reaching out to grab me. I muscled my way back to the top of the lip with Jim's help. Strangely enough I was not shaken at all. We assessed the damage and discovered that nearly all the stitching on the front loop of the harness had ripped out. I made a makeshift harness out of along piece of 1-inch webbing and knots, and again backed over the edge of the pit.
This time everything held together and so I continued my descent. As I cleared the second lip at 25 feet I looked over my shoulder down a long, vertical, slightly twisting pit about 10 feet in diameter. Of course, I kept yelling up the pit to Jim to keep him apprised of my progress. Continuing down slowly all I could think about was "This is the neatest pit I've ever been down. It just goes and goes!" Finally, after some time, I came to a small, sloping ledge just big enough to stand on. I stopped there to get my bearings. As I looked back up the tube I could barely see the tops of the large fir trees that overhung the pit entrance. Looking down over the small ledge into the pit I could just make out the white smear of a residual snowbank. I whipped the rope back and forth to try to put the snowbank into perspective and was very surprised to see the knot at the end of the rope dangling in mid-air. Another first for me! I could not determine how far above the snow the rope was dangling, but the snowbank looked flat and easy to land on if the rope had reached to the snow.
Fortunately I'd had the forethought to wear my ascending gear while rappelling this particular pit. Whatever the reason, I was certainly glad I already had it on. I yelled up the pit to tell Jim what I was doing and then I began changing over to my ascending gear while still on the small ledge, then climbed out of the pit.
Back on the surface I told Jim what I had seen. We decided to pull the rope up and tie the 85-foot Bluewater II onto the 300-foot rope. We tied the ropes together then Jim geared up and dropped the pit. After a few minutes I heard a faint but wild yell followed by an even fainter cry of "Off rope." Then, silence for the next 45 minutes. Just as I was beginning to get a little worried, I saw the rope move and soon heard the reassuring call from below, "On rope, climbing." It took Jim quite a while to climb out of the cave and it was getting to be mid-afternoon when he reached the surface.
We pulled up the rope and made a rough measurement as we coiled it to determine how much had been in the pit. It was at least 350 Meet from the lip of the entrance to the bottom of the snowdrift (which really turned out to be a large, steep sided, snow cone about 40 feet high) at the bottom. "Wow, MAJOR PIT."
While we were packing our gear for the trip back down to the car, Jim described the bottom of the pit in detail. He told me of a very large room, maybe as much as an acre in area. The 45 minutes that I was anxiously waiting for Jim, he spent circumnavigating the wall of the room over large breakdown. One lead was visible at the intersection of the breakdown and the wall. The ceiling appeared to be at least 50 feet high in most places.
Now, the bad news. As soon as Jim had gotten off rope at the bottom of the pit, he looked up at a fairly large boulder in the center of the room and saw a small jar sitting on top of a well placed rock cairn. The pit was not virgin, a disappointment. The jar contained a piece of paper in a zip-lock bag and a small pencil. The paper had two entries on it. Jim copied down the names of the persons on the register, then added our names to the register. The dates on the register of the previous visits were March 1985 and March 1986. It was time to go. We ascended the pit, coiled the rope, and began our hike back to the car.
On the drive home we stopped in Logan and looked up the names from the register in the local telephone directory. Two of the names were listed, but when we tried to call we received no answer. Not ones to give up easily we wrote down the location of one and traveled to the street address. Nobody was home. Just as we were about to leave a note pinned to the door, a car pulled into the driveway. We introduced ourselves and our business (spelunking). We learned from the man in the car that he and two friends were rock climbers and had heard about the pit from a local hunter. Being bored by the run-of-the- local climbing they decided that they would go drop the pit. He and his friends had tied three, 11millimeter dynamic ropes together to make their initial descent using Figure eights. He described the room pretty well and even mentioned the side lead. The climber also mentioned that their climb out was at least an epic feat. Jim and I were worried that our discovery had already been discovered and was therefore of no consequence. However, the climber assured us that he was not a caver and had no real interest in returning to the pit or of telling anyone else about it.
On the way home Jim and I decided we had to go back for two reasons. I had to officially get to the bottom of the pit and we had to see if the side lead went anywhere.
The second trip to "Nielson's Well" was on October 27, 1986. 1 had decided to name the cave after my friend because he is the one that told us about the pit and gave us such good directions.
As we parked the car and were getting our packs ready, my friend who told me about the cave and a friend of his pulled up with their horse trailer. They were going elk spotting for the hunt the following weekend. I introduced Jim to them. We talked a few minutes then naively set off up the trail in a heavy, wet snowstorm. Soon after we got on the trail the two horsemen overtook us. The hike to the cave this time was much more arduous because the farther up the trail we hiked the deeper the snow became. About 2 hours later, we met the horsemen returning to the truck, beaten by the snow. We were alone on the trail. Jim and I continued on. We hiked about 4 hours to get to the cave. We were tramping up in an early fall snowstorm. None of the Aspen trees had yet dropped their leaves. The hardwood and softwood trees would occasionally let lose a barrage of wet snow upon us without warning. It was like having a snowball fight with God. When we arrived at the pit about 12 to 18 inches of fresh snow covered everything.
With the heavy snowstorm and the sun setting early this time of year we knew we had limited time at the cave. The light would fade before sunset, and we did not want to be stranded in the mountains in the wet snow.
We quickly rigged the rope and dropped the pit. We had taken Jim's 300-foot and his 85-foot ropes again, so we would have to cross a knot both during the rappel and during the ascent. I had obtained a different and better sewn harness system so I was not pensive about dropping the pit, even after thinking about it for 2 months. While I was on rappel one of the large fir trees that overhung the pit entrance decided to dump its accumulation of snow. I heard a "whooshing" noise above me. I looked up. A white mass of snow was coming down the pit at me. Not knowing the weight or the ferocity of a "snow dump" I quickly wrapped the rope around my back to jam my rack, and then I just hung on. It turned out to be no big deal though, because the snow had broken up during its fall. The only damage was snow on my camera and down my neck. We both reached the bottom with no problems crossing the knot.
When we reached the bottom we made a tour of the Big Room. I spent considerable time trying to push the small side lead. It was taking air! My first attempt to squirm into the lead was fruitless. I backed out and took off my helmet, then tried again. I made about six feet of progress. I backed out again and this time removed my wool shirt and wool pants, since they were snagging on the walls of the crack I was trying to enter. I was able to squeeze, twist, and turn my way about 15 feet down the tight, vertical crawl until I came to a split in the passage. The passage on the left dropped about 10 feet to damp, pebble covered floor and appeared to continue on underneath me. The passage on the right continued as a vertical crawl. I knew it was the passage to push because it was taking such a strong breeze. I decided to return to the Big Room though because of time limitations and because I did not think caving in my wool "longies" was appropriate when I needed them to be dry for the hike out.
While I was checking the side lead, Jim had explored the Big Room and brewed some hot apple cider on the stove he had brought with him. After drinking the hot cider we made a quick circumnavigation of the room and then ascended out. The ascent out of the pit was uneventful with no problems incurred while crossing the knot. We didn't begin the hike out to the car until well after dark. Our dim head lamps gave us ample light to find our way down the trail. The sparkling blanket of snow spread our beams of light well out in front of us. We were famished, tired and hungry, and our food supply was depleted, with only a half loaf of French bread remaining. We sat down in the new-fallen snow to rest and devoured the bread before continuing our labored hike to the car. When we arrived at the car it was well after 10:00 P.M. We were cold, wet, tired, and still hungry, yet we retained our excitement for the cave.
Since winter had closed in on the high country, we didn't visit Nielson's Well again that season. The next visit to the cave would be a reconnaissance trip by myself to determine if the pit was accessible by another route and if the snow had melted enough to even get to the cave.
I started on a cool afternoon in March 1987, and hiked up the ridge where the cave is located instead of hiking up the canyon bottom as we usually did. The new route would take me 2000 feet vertically in just about a 2 mile hike. I made it to within 2 hundred yards of the cave (but didn't know it) before the snow was too deep to flounder through. I returned to the car knowing that the new route took less time even though it was much steeper. I had made it to the general area of the cave and back to the car in under 3 hours with only a day pack.
Jim and I made the next trip to Nielson's Well in mid April 1987. I showed him the new route. It was a more aesthetic route and shorter than the old route. By aesthetic, I mean the new route follows a knife edge ridge up to a quartzite band which forms a cliff. From there the route proceeds into stunted aspens and finally onto grass covered ridges. The vistas along the route are breathtaking, as well as revealing, because many outcrops and layers of limestone are visible.
We arrived at the usual roadway turnoff. We had a nice hike up the hill and when we reached the area I had been to earlier I decided the cave must be farther up the ridge. We hiked up the ridge as far as we could until we were in waist deep snow. Our clothes were soaking wet and we were getting cold. We stopped on a large outcrop of rock to eat lunch and dry out in the sun while we evaluated our surroundings.
Jim finally convinced me that we were too far up the ridge and suggested we go back down. It took about a half-hour to negotiate the steep slopes in the deep snow until we got back down to where the snow was only about a foot deep. Jim walked me right to the cave. It was at this moment that I realized I had been within only two hundred yards lateral to the entrance on my previous trip. We noticed immediately that one of the large fir trees near the entrance had fallen during the winter and had knocked over one of our anchor trees, a smaller spruce. However, the horizontal log of the large fir would now make a very good anchor for future pit drops.
We returned to the car uneventfully.
Jim made the next trip to the cave by himself to haul water in preparation for a future overnight camping trip during which we hoped to survey the Big Room and the pit. We had to haul water since there were no springs or streams within miles of the entrance. During this trip Jim began a cache of water with hopes of adding equipment to it later.
Jim made the sixth trip to the cave alone on May 9, 1987, again to haul water and other associated camping equipment in preparation for the "big push". He had decided that caching the basic necessities like fuel, extra food, and a tarpaulin would help back up any future explorations with a cushion. If a large system was to be discovered we would need all the help we could get from extra supplies and people.
Jim and I had by now decided that we should involve another person in our cave exploration of Nielson's Well for safety reasons. It would be much safer if someone was on the surface while the minimum of two cavers were in the cave. We discussed the matter at length and decided that for secrecy reasons we should choose someone unfamiliar with the area who was not concerned with Utah/NSS Grotto politics.
We chose a friend of mine, Mike Beer, living in Pocatello, Idaho. Mike is a former member of the Shining Mountains Grotto located in Bozeman, Montana at the same time I was a member there. We had done a few caves together in Montana. Mike's biggest accomplishment as seen from the rest of the caving community was his discovery of Columbine Crawl, currently the deepest known cave in the United States.
I called Mike and questioned him on his cave politics as far as "secret" caves were concerned. After several other questions with favorable answers I told Mike what we had done so far in Nielson's Well and invited him on our next trip down. He was enthusiastic to say the least.
Plans were made to drop the pit on May 16, 1987. Mike drove from Pocatello on Friday night and stayed at my house. Early on Saturday morning Jim drove up from Salt lake City to meet us. We loaded gear in my car and took off for the mountains. I had recently purchased a 600 foot piece of PMI rope and was ready to use it for the first time. It would be nice to drop the pit without having to cross a knot, but the hike up with the entire 600 feet of rope coiled on my back was excruciating. With all our other gear, such as vertical gear, camping equipment, food, extra clothing, and water, our packs weighed in at about 75 pounds.
Halfway to the cave I finally gave up and accepted help from Mike in carrying one of the three 200-foot coils we had created from the long piece. (I didn't want to cut the rope into the necessary length to do the pit because we had high hopes of needing the entire 600 feet somewhere else in the cave.) We finally got to the cave after a long, hot hike in the sun. We quickly set up camp, and Jim and I rigged up to drop the pit with Mike remaining on the surface as safety.
We rigged the pit with two ropes, one was the 600-foot PMI and the other was a 300-foot PMI Flex tied to an 85-foot piece of Bluewater II. The reason for the two ropes was to facilitate the survey of the pit since there was a slight corkscrew to the pit and it could not be directly plumbed.
Jim had brought a set of voice activated FM radios in hopes that we could communicate with the surface for calling out climbing terms such as "Off rope" and for emergency use if necessary. Jim felt that to protect the location of the entrance, FM radios were a must. They would eliminate any chance of nearby hunters or hikers hearing our excited calls up and down the pit. We had also seen a large number of bats flying around the entrance at night and suspected that they lived in the cave somewhere. Not wanting to disturb them, but needing to communicate between the surface and the Big Room, the radios seemed to be the perfect solution (Ed. Note: Yelling up the pit is nearly impossible anyway).
I dropped the pit first on this trip and was wearing one of the radios while Mike was wearing the second radio on the surface. The radio communication worked quite well for about the first 200 feet but then began to break up at the small ledge. When I rappelled into the Big Room I completely lost radio contact and had to resort to the "Yell at the top of your lungs" form of communication.
Jim dropped the pit after me on the two lengths of Bluewater II we had tied together for survey purposes. He was descending just fine until he reached the double water knots holding the two ropes together. He had crossed knots successfully before so was not expecting any trouble, but this time he set his Jumar between his rack and the knot. As soon as the Jumar was attached to the rope it jammed between the rack and the water knot because the rack continued to act as if in the normal rappel mode.
He swore a few times, then started to fiddle around with the whole mess trying to undo the jam, all to no avail. After about 5 minutes with no success he asked me if I could come up and help him. I thought I might have to go up to help him so I had already donned my ascending gear and attached myself to the PMI rope.
I climbed my PMI rope up to the level where Jim was hanging from his ropes, about 60 feet above the floor and about 20 feet above the top of the snow cone. I set my Jumar and looked the situation over. We agreed that I should get Jim's prussik ropes from his pack. Meanwhile, Jim was holding onto the rappel rack which he had wrapped with the rope to prevent any further slippage. Together we managed to get the prussik knots onto the rope, one knot connected to one of his feet and the other to his seat harness. He then "climbed" the rope a few inches to take slack off the rack and Jumar. After the slack was off he had to hang from his seat harness and raise his legs into a crouch so that enough of the rope was available to loosen the jammed rack and Jumar.
After the Jumar was free he set it above the prussiks and then hung from the Jumar while he removed the rack from above the knot and re-attached it below the knot. He wrapped the rack twice to hold his position on the rope and then removed the two prussiks and the Jumar. Finally, he was able to rappel down to the floor and get off rope. I was still on rope with my ascending gear, but I wanted to descend. I was sure I could get my rack attached to the rope and rappel but since I was only about 60 feet up I decided just to "reverse" rope walk. Although it works, reverse rope walking is very time consuming.
On reaching the bottom, Jim and I immediately began to survey the Big Room, moving counterclockwise from the "Register Rock" (station 00). The first survey consisted of 14 stations. Jim took readings on the compass and 'cline while I ran the tape, an easy task for my first survey job. We surveyed about two thirds of the Big Room, but were unable to finish the other third because the snow cone was impossible to negotiate without ice climbing gear. However, we did make one shot of 100 feet on the south wall of the Big Room.
During the survey Jim and I discovered a lead we hadn't seen before. It was on the "south" wall at the intersection of the breakdown and the wall, and it was BLOWING AIR. Not only was it blowing air but right at the entrance of the lead were two skulls. One skull appeared to be that of a large rodent because of the long, curved, chisel-like teeth. The second skull was associated with a nearly complete spine and appeared to be some sort of cat remains. We didn't disturb any of the bones. We were getting cold though, so before pushing the lead we finished the circumferential survey of the Big Room (except for the ice/snow area). We ascended out into a thunderstorm which was bearing down on our camp.
We made it back to camp and started cooking before the rain began. We ate in the rain, which continued to fall throughout the night. The tarp we were using as a shelter began to leak. But, because we were so tired we really didn't care. We just covered our sleeping bags with whatever we could find, or shifted our positions to avoid the drops, and fell asleep. It rained hard all thru Saturday night but cleared by morning.
On Sunday morning, all ate breakfast independently according to what each person wanted, i.e. there was no community dining. After breakfast Mike and I rigged up and dropped the pit. Mike was quite excited, as he had never done a pit like this one, so deep and with an exit through the ceiling of a big room. Since it was Mike's first time in the cave we took a tourist trip around the room, culminating at the entrance to the "Bone Lead". We had decided that Mike and I would push the Bone Lead for about 100 feet to see if it was passable. The entrance was quite a squeeze to prevent crushing any of the bones, but once past the squeeze, the passage opened up into low walking and some crawlway passage. About 50 to 70 feet from the Bone Lead entrance, the passage split. We followed the air down the virgin crawl until I noticed a strange looking "rock" buried in the loose dirt on the floor. The rock turned out to be the cap of another, much larger skull; this one also appeared to be that of a cat of some type. Mike and I built a rock cairn around the semi-buried skull to protect it from accidental crushing. Only another 10 feet down the passage was a belly crawl directing downward at a lateral angle with a slight curve in it. I went in headfirst knowing that to back out would be very difficult. I crawled down about 15 feet when the crawl opened up at the brink of a large diameter pit. Beautiful! The cave keeps going!
The pit looked to be about 20 feet across. I tossed in a few rocks to estimate the depth, and they kept hitting the far wall so I couldn't get very good timing on them. I conservatively estimated the depth of the second pit at 35 -50 feet. However, it looked much deeper.
I reported to Mike what I had found and he responded to me that he was hearing my voice come back to him through a different lead. He crawled down that lead which went directly to the pit. He was unable to negotiate it all the way to the pit though because of a dirt fill. We explored a little bit more of the Bone Lead but came up with nothing more. We didn't try too hard because we didn't want to scoop Jim; besides, the air was coming up the pit and we didn't have a rope to get down it. Mike and I backtracked out of the Bone Lead and climbed to the surface where we told Jim what we had found.
We took the time to enlarge our cache of gear. We stowed it in five-gallon buckets and buried them some distance from the cave entrance. It was time to go. Jim had been breaking camp while we were in the cave. It didn't take long for Mike and me to get packed and we were all back on the trail down to the car. We had a very productive trip to the Well. We had hoped that it could turn into something major and this particular trip indicated fully that the potential was there!
Our hike back to the car began in a heavy downpour. The grass was wet and slippery and the muddy hillsides were impossible to walk on. We stumbled, slipped or fell. Even worse, Mike and I didn't have rain gear. A 2-hour hike through chesthigh brush left us soaked to the bones and shivering. It's a good thing that cars have heaters in them!
On June 27, 1987 Jim and I made a water and gear-hauling trip to Nielson's Well while attempting to find a new and easier route to the cave. Logistics problems were killing us and we needed to find an easier way to the cave.
By studying the topographical maps, we had found a marked road that came within 2 1/2 miles of the cave, but at an elevation 200 feet higher. According to the map we should be able to leave the car at the new drop-off point, walk to the cave down one valley and up the next, deposit our gear and water, then walk down the ridge the way we had been doing previously to get to a second car left behind earlier.
The plan worked exactly as expected except that the temperature in the mountains that day was at least in the eighties. I became severely dehydrated and overheated and had to make many more rest stops than normal. The hike out was one of the most miserable hikes I've ever made. Ironically, we were hauling water to the cave for storage and so I drank only from the two quarts I had planned to use for hiking purposes and didn't violate the 6 quarts extra I was carrying for the cache. When I reached the second car, which was parked by the river, I stripped naked and sat down in the icy waters of the river which didn't feel icy at all to my overheated body. After about 5 minutes, I felt cool enough to get out and get ready for the drive home. Had it not been for fear of contracting gjardia, I could have drunk the entire river dry.
Finally, time for the big push! Attendees were to be Mike Beer of Pocatello, Idaho; Rod Horrocks of Provo, Utah; Jim Nicholls of Salt Lake City, Utah; and me, from Layton, Utah.
I had taken Rod on a vertical evaluation at Boomerang Cave to determine if he was capable of negotiating Nielson's Well. Although he lacked his own gear and was a little "rusty", I deemed his skills to be adequate for a drop into Nielson's and, more importantly, an ascent out of Nielson's Well. Rod Horrocks had been interviewed by Jim and me satisfactorily and was brought into the project because of his experience in paleontology. We wanted an expert to catalog and retrieve the bones in the Bone Lead.
Rod was supposed to meet at Jim's no later than 5:45 A.M. on July 3, 1987. They were supposed to meet at my house in Layton no later than 6:30 A.M. and we were all supposed to meet Mike in Logan between 7:30 and 7:=15 A.M. Our original plan included 2 trips into the cave on Friday, 2 trips on Saturday, and 1 on Sunday. We were going to complete the survey on the Big Room, survey the Bone Lead, remove the bones from the Bone Lead (with a permit), survey up the main pit, and finally drop and survey the second pit. What happened in actuality bears little resemblance to the plan.
Rod called Jim and said he would be a little late. It turned out to be only 5 minutes. However, Rod was not yet packed and Jim had to help him get his pack together. During packing Jim noticed that Rod didn't have nearly enough food for a 3-day outing, and so had to steal some food from his own kitchen while his wife, Alyson, sat by laughing at the two of them. Jim called me and said they would be late. I said, "Make it here by 6:45 A.M., if at all possible." They arrived at about 7:10 A.M. and we hurriedly packed and got on the road by 7:20. We got to Logan at 8:20 but Mike wasn't at the meeting place. We waited an hour, then drove up to the turnoff to the cave that Mike knew about. He wasn't there either. We waited there for an hour, then drove to Logan to call him in Pocatello to see if something had come up. I let his phone ring 15 times; no answer. I called my wife, Linda, to see if Mike had called after we had left that morning to say he would be late. Mike had not called there. So, we decided we would go caving without Mike.
We drove to the new turnoff to the cave. After several miles of rough dirt road, we spotted Mike's white Trans Am parked in the brush at the top of the hill. I checked it out but there was no gear inside. Mike must have started off hiking. But when?
We parked our car and started hiking to the cave at 1:00 P.M. We had already missed the planned morning trip into the cave. We arrived at the cave at 3:00 P.M. and began setting up our "second camp". At 4:00 P.M. Mike arrived at the campsite. He had taken a long circuitous route to the cave since he had never been in from the new route before. He said that he had been about 15 minutes late to the pickup point, that since I had been so vocal about being punctual, we probably had left him, so he decided to hike to the cave on his own. What enthusiasm!
After setting up camp, we had supper and discussed the upcoming weekend. We decided since it was well after 6:00 P.M. and the weekend was expected to be so hot, Jim and I would go back to the car and bring back three more gallons of water each while Mike and Rod would make a surface survey of the many small sinks in the surrounding area. Jim and I left at 6:30 P.M. and returned at 9:30 P.M. just as Mike and Rod were finishing up the survey. At 11:00 P.M. we all went to bed.
On July 4, 1987 I was awake at 6:00 A.M. but didn't get up until 7:00 A.M. Jim was up right after me but Mike and Rod stayed in the sack somewhat longer. Everyone wasted as much time as possible and finally Mike dropped the pit at 12:00 noon, Rod followed, and Jim went down last. I stayed on the surface as a safety person. It was about 1:00 P.M. and we would have our first radio check at 4:00 P.M.
Mike had brought 400 feet of small-gauge wire to act as a transmission wire down the pit so that Jim's FM voice-activated radios would give us communication with the surface. The transmission wire worked well and I could talk to the radio in the cave at any location within the Big Room.
At the 4:00 P.M. radio check, the men in the cave reported that they were cold. The Bone Lead survey was nearly complete down to the brink of the second pit. The skulls and various other bones had been collected. Mike, Jim, and Rod decided to come out. They ascended the pit with Jim coming out last. He surfaced about 6:00 P.M.
That evening, in camp at supper, Jim and I decided that we would go in again that night to finish surveying the Big Room and to set a good survey point at the top of the snow cone. I dropped the pit at 8:30 P.M. and de-rigged at the bottom. Just about that time Mike radioed that Jim had fallen asleep during my rappel (it wasn't all that long of a rappel) and had decided upon awakening at my call of "Off rope" that it would be safer if he didn't make the trip again that night. Disappointed, I put all my gear back on and ascended out. During my ascent I stopped for a rest about 10 feet below the 2-foot ledge (The Resting Ledge). I looked to my right and could see a crack with a few cobbles choked in it. My light shined into it at least 20 feet into what looked like a narrow room. However, it was inaccessible without the use of bolts. I continued my ascent out of the cave. We all went to bed that night at 11:00 P.M. thinking that Jim and I would enter in the morning to finish the Big Room survey.
I awoke in the middle of the night with a severe headache that kept me awake for at least 3 hours. I was finally able to get back to sleep about 5:00 A.M. and slept until 7:00 A.M. When I got up my head was still pounding and I was nauseous. I prepared to go in the cave and was ready by 8:30 A.M. but I could not make myself walk down to the cave entrance, another trip cancelled.
Jim had to drop the pit by himself to retrieve the survey gear that had been left in the cave overnight. After his ascent we packed up our belongings, broke camp, and headed back to the cars. Jim and I hiked out through the bottom of the canyon since it was all down hill and I was ill, and it was the same distance as going back to the cars. Rod drove my car down off the hill to pick us up at the highway. We had a discouraging and disrupted cave trip (Ed. Note: Of the three trips planned for the weekend, we were only able to complete the one).
On July 12, 1987 Jim Nicholls and I made another trip to Nielson's Well. After the rigors and disappointment of the weekend before we were still "up" for more of the cave. We had previously decided that no more trips would be made until August because of schedule conflicts; however, Jim and I discovered that we had at least one more weekend that coincided during July. So, on July 9 we decided that we could do a one week turnaround to the cave.
We started earlier than usual by leaving my house at 6:30 A.M. and arriving at the trailhead while the air was still cool. Unfortunately, both of us had left our wrist watches at home so we had no way to tell the time. The hike to the cave was uneventful except that we had to wear our rain pants to keep from getting soaked from the heavy dew while walking through the tall grass.
When we arrived at the cave we unloaded our packs, then went to the equipment cache to retrieve rope pads and webbing. We rigged my 600-foot PMI, then rigged Jim's 300-foot PMI Flex and 85-foot Bluewater II which we tied together with two water knots. We planned to complete the survey of the Big Room and to survey the pit as we ascended out on 2 separate ropes.
Jim rappelled first and I followed. When I reached the bottom Jim was donning his ice-climbing equipment which he had stored in the cave the previous weekend. As soon as he was geared up he climbed the snow cone starting on the left side. He set survey points about every 20 feet as well as in front of any prospective leads that might need surveying later. We made eight shots in all with all of them emanating from station 00 in a fanlike shape.
At the top of the snow cone, on the left, was a small lead that we had seen every time we ascended the pit. At the top and center of the snow cone was a small lead trending upwards that we hadn't seen before. Near the top of the snow cone and to the right was another lead we had seen while ascending on previous trips. We had never checked out any of these leads because the footing would be too dangerous for anything except ice-climbing equipment. During his survey however, Jim found a route down the right side of the snow cone. This route was composed of very loose alluvium, mostly soil and small pebbles. He descended without his crampons and returned to station 00 to sketch.
While he was sketching I climbed up the mud slope to the unchecked leads. The lead on the right continued back about 30 feet then pinched out at the bottom of a breakdown filled crack. The lead on the left turned out to be only a frost pocket as Jim had indicated it appeared to be. The lead at the center required a scramble up about 8 feet, then a wriggle through a small opening into a larger room. The room was a doline with a ceiling extending up at least 100 feet. The diameter of the doline looked to be about 12 feet. On the other side of the doline the crack through which I had crawled continued for about 10 feet before ending in a boulder choke. The lead was blowing air while the pit was taking air upward. Also, the crawl back into the Big Room was taking air. One more lead possibility exists in the doline. It is a lead about 15 feet off the floor on the north side. It will require bolts or a better climber then I am to explore the lead.
I returned to the Big Room where Jim was still sketching the survey. It wasn't long though before he was finished and we began to rig up to survey out the pit. The only trouble was that we didn't know how to take compass readings accurately with the survey shot in the vertical position. We decided just to plumb the pit using the tape measure. I started up my rope first with the tape case hooked to my waist with a biner. Jim followed me with the zero end of the tape 'binered to his seat harness. It took at least an hour to ascend the pit, with me going up 100 feet to the end of the tape, then waiting for Jim to come up beside me to be shown the unmarked "survey" location. We iterated this three times for a plumb depth of 248 feet, plus another 44 feet at an angle, plus another distance from the start point of the ascent down to station 00. The total vertical distance of the pit according to our plumb was 315 feet. We were disappointed because we thought we had at least a 350-foot drop.
When we exited the cave we quickly unrigged everything, packed our packs, reburied the webbing and rope pads in the equipment cache, and ate some supper before hiking out to the car. With wet ropes, little food all day, lots of vertical work, and 80-pound packs, our progress to the car was extremely slow. We estimated our arrival at the car to be about 10:00 P. M.
I drove as fast as I felt was comfortable and safe so that we could get to a telephone in Logan to contact my wife since we were at least 6 hours overdue. I didn't want the search and rescue group called out because of lousy timing on the part of Jim and me and the lack of having a timepiece.
More secrets of Nielson's Well would have to be revealed another day.
The eleventh trip to Nielson's Well was a solo by Jim Nicholls. His main objective was to carry large amounts of dried foods such as ramen, Granola bars, and dried split peas for storage in the cache near the cave. His trip was uneventful.
I made a sightseeing trip to the cave with my wife, Linda, and my 15-month old daughter, Katie. Linda carried our lunch and extra jackets. I carried Katie in our child backpack. The hike was pleasant and now Linda feels she could help a rescue crew to the location if necessary.
Jim Nicholls, Rod Horrocks, and I set out about 7:30 A.M. on Saturday, October 31, 1987 to push the second pit. As usual we drove to the parking area and began the long, slow hike to the cave. Jim and I carried the lion's share of the gear since Rod's pack is a small, external frame style and could not accommodate the necessary share of the gear for a trip to Nielson's. We estimated our loads at about 70 pounds while Rod's was estimated at about 50 pounds. We arrived at our camp area at about noon, set up camp, all ate heartily of carbohydrates and hot soups. We changed into our cave clothes, walked to the cave and rigged the rope.
I was the first person on rappel. Rod was to feed the transmission wire for the FM radios down the pit while I was rappelling so I could keep the wire from hanging up on anything. I rappelled about 20 feet past the first ledge and saw the wire, but could not reach it. I told Rod to pull it up part way and try again. After several tries without successfully getting the wire to me, Jim went to help Rod.
While they were trying to get the wire over the ledge to me I was hanging on "locked" rappel in a 300-foot pit. I don't like to hang above "nothing" so I started to get grouchy and yelled at them to get their act together. Finally, the wire reached me but the weight at the end of it broke free. I stuck the free end of the wire in my mouth and rappelled down the pit. I stopped at the resting ledge. As I backed over the ledge to continue the rappel, the wire snagged on something and broke. I rappelled to the bottom of the snow cone and called "Off rope" over the radio. The radio still worked even with a broken wire. I looked at my watch. It was 2:30 P.M.
Next down the rope was Rod. He had borrowed some gear from Jim and wasn't familiar with it, so his rigging time was slow. He made it to the bottom of the pit uneventfully. Jim rappelled down last.
However, just as he was beginning to rappel we lost radio contact, forcing him to come down silently.
We were already an hour behind our desired schedule so we hurried up to the Bone Lead and scrambled to the brink of the second pit. Jim and I rigged the second pit from a large boulder about 30 feet back up the Bone Lead. We used two pieces of webbing around the boulder with two 'biners hooked onto a loop in the rappel rope made by a figure eight knot.
Jim was chosen to drop the virgin pit first. While he was rigging his gear I carried the rope down the Bone Lead belly crawl to the brink of the pit. The rope was coiled in a five-gallon bucket but somehow had become tangled while it was feeding out. Rod was unable to free the tangle and so we spent at least 20 minutes untangling the whole mess. There was no lack of harsh words among a couple of us (Ed. Note: I sure wasn't one of the two). We had been in the cave almost 3 hours and hadn't even made it to the bottom of the second pit. Things were happening too slowly.
After our heated argument Jim rigged up and dropped over the lip of the second pit. The lip consists of a fault crack with projections jutting into it. The projections caused difficulty in backing into the pit. Jim finally was rappelling however; going slowly, he described to us what he could.
Rod rigged up next and rappelled down the pit. He also had trouble getting past the projections in the fault crack. Finally, it was my turn to have difficulty with the fault crack, but I rappelled to the bottom successfully.
At the bottom of the second pit were large, automobile-sized breakdown boulders. The smaller breakdown fill was extremely loose and breakdown slides occurred frequently when walking on it. The south wall at the bottom of the pit had a thin wall with a square window in it that looked into another room. The room was a doline whose ceiling connected with the ceiling of the pit we had just dropped. We were trying to decide what to call the twin doline room and jokingly mentioned "Zoobie Well" as a name. Rod of course is a Zoobie. Square Window and Twin Domes, as well as others, are still being considered.
Jim climbed down through the breakdown while Rod and I climbed upward to check out other leads. My lead ended in a breakdown filled passage. I suspected it was originally a passage into the Big Room above before being filled in with breakdown material. Rod's lead petered out also. Jim found a short pit at the bottom of the breakdown. It was difficult enough that we rigged it for a rappel. The drop was 15 feet at the most so I did an arm-wrap rappel while Jim and Rod did 'biner-wrap rappels. At the bottom of the 15 foot pit was a passage that led into the room that we could see through the "Square Window". There were no leads off the second doline.
Back at the bottom of the 15-foot pit was a fault crack that I could look down and see a continuation of at least another 30 feet, approximately 20 feet down a scramble. At the bottom of the scramble I could see a room opening up. Its floor was covered with washed pebbles. The entrance to the passage was through the fault crack. It looked too narrow to negotiate but I thought I would try it any way. I didn't get very far. The crack was too narrow and I was quickly defeated in my efforts to push the passage.
While waiting to exit the room, Jim noticed at least one bat on the wall. Unfortunately, we had discovered him too late and he was beginning to stir. From then on we tried to be quieter but soon we saw the bat flying around the room.
We had explored everything we could find so we started the survey trip out to the Bone Lead where the last survey point from the July 4th trip was located. I climbed first while carrying the tape. At the lip of the pit at the bottom of the fault crack, I saw a football sized rock rolling down the crack directly at my face. Somehow, I was quick enough to block it with my hand. I struggled up through the crack past the protrusions and freed myself from the rope. I sent one end of the tape measure down the pit. The pit measured 69 feet deep. Rod was next up the rope and again, because of unfamiliarity with the borrowed gear, he took quite a long time. Jim followed Rod while Rod protected Jim from the falling rocks that continued to dislodge from the fault crack at the top of the pit. When the three of us were at the top of the pit, I began to unrig the rope while Jim and Rod finished the survey. We packed our gear and made a quick retreat through the Bone Lead to the Big Room.
I was getting quite cold so I moved ahead of Jim and Rod. As soon as we arrived at the rope I clipped on and began to ascend. I hadn't eaten while in the cave although I had food with me. While ascending I began working too hard, then overheated and became weak and nauseous. I had to stop and cool down at the resting ledge for about 10 minutes. Twice, while I was climbing, the untethered transmission wire became tangled in my Jumar and Gibbs ascenders rendering them useless until I freed the snarls. The climb out took me 40 minutes, twice as long as usual.
Rod Horrocks, sitting on Register Rock in the Big Room. He is adding his name to the discovers original register. Notice the expedition-weight Capalene that Rod is wearing, the 36-39 degree temperatures in the cave make this a requirement.
Rod ascended after me. During his ascent I went back to the camp and boiled some water and drank lots of hot chocolate and ate some food. Then I went back to the cave to assist Rod at the pit's brink. His exit from the Big Room took an hour, at least 15 minutes of which was due to re-rigging unfamiliar gear. Rod also hauled out a five gallon bucket full of survey equipment, rope pads, and other gear.
Jim exited the cave last without any problems but still taking 30 minutes. He was off rope at 3:15 A.M. on Sunday morning. We were all just plain tired out. After more food and hot drinks back at our camp, we crashed about 4:00 A.M. in Jim's tent. It rained the rest of the night having started just as Jim was getting out of the cave. It was still raining when I awoke about 8:00 A.M.
When we finally all got up about 9:00 A.M., the rain had stopped. Once again, we cooked up lots of food and drink and stuffed ourselves. We broke camp and after a tiring, three hour hike we made it to the car.
We had finally dropped the second pit but we were strongly disappointed because the cave didn't appear to continue, at least not without some hard digging and chipping (Ed. Note: This lead, called Blasted Crack by Jim, is a good lead, however, it is probably impossible to enlarge it enough for human passage).
Jim and I made a reverse haul trip to Nielson's Well on Sunday, November 8, 1987. Since we knew there were bats in the cave we had to assume that at least some of them were hibernating there. We decided no more trips would be made until bat hibernation was over. In light of that, Jim and I traveled to the cave to retrieve the four remaining buckets of gear and food as well as other odds and ends that we had stored near the campsite. Nielson's Well would remain our secret for one more season.
Jim and I planned our last trip to Nielson's Well for May 14, 1988. We were going to finish up the survey in some previously missed areas, plumb the ceiling, and try to push the lead that was taking air.
I purchased 30(? feet of 30 gauge, insulated copper wire and made a reeling mechanism for easier handling of the transmission wire. I had also bought 300 feet of 2 pound fishing line and a helium filled, Mylar balloon.
As usual, we left my house about 7:00 A.M. and made it to the parking area about 9:30 A.M. However, we encountered some snow drifts on the road and had to put chains on the front tires of the Jeep to get to the parking area. With 80 pound packs, we wanted to drive as close as possible to the trailhead!
Three hours later, after hiking up snow-filled Left Hand Canyon, Jim and I were gearing up for the drop. We had rigged the rope and the transmission wire and made a radio check. Everything was "GO". Jim dropped first onto the snow covered first ledge of the pit. He set the third rope pad and went over the edge into the tube. ICE! Everywhere, on all sides of the pit, ice had formed about 2 inches thick. There were no foot holds. There were, however, numerous icicles that broke at the slightest touch and shattered against the walls of the pit as they plummeted down through space. Jim slid down the ice (on rappel) for about 80 feet until he finally encountered rock walls. Finally, just before reaching the Resting Ledge, he encountered a small waterfall. It was water that had collected from the melting snow and ice above and had converged in a crevice to create a fall about 6-12 inches wide. It was running steadily and Jim was immediately drenched. Jim said he could hear another waterfall somewhere in the Big Room below, probably near the base of the snow cone where a large scallop is present as witnessed on previous trips.
We discussed the situation using the radios and decided to quit the cave. We had always had a dry rappel before and even though we were prepared for several hours inside the cold cave, we were not prepared for any amount of time in the cave while wet. To make things even more dangerous was the warm day and the ice in the tube. It could all come crashing down at any second, taking us or the rope with it!
Jim set a Jumar and attached his ascending gear to the rope. While doing so, his Gibb slipped from his hand and slid down the rope. He replaced his lost Gibb with a prussik and slowly climbed out. The ice was much more difficult to climb up than it was to rappel down. Jim finally climbed over the brink and unrigged his gear. I tried to reel up the transmission wire but it promptly broke and fell back into the pit. Jim had told me earlier that it was tangled up with the rope at the resting ledge. Thirty gauge wire is just too small for use in Nielson's Well. When we pulled the rope up out of the pit, Jim's lost Gibb and most of the transmission wire were tangled around the knot in the end of the rope.
We packed our gear and started the hike back to the car. The hike was uneventful except that the snow in the ravine had softened in the hot sun. We were now sinking in up to our knees about every fifth step instead of every 15-20 steps as was occurring in the morning.
This fifteenth trip was supposed to culminate our secret exploration of Nielson's Well. We failed in our attempt to accomplish our goals, but there is always next time!
Jim, his wife Alyson, and their son Heath, all made the hike to Nielson's Well on Saturday, July 16, 1988. Of course, 11-month old Heath made the trip on his dad's shoulders.
Jim had lost his carbide light on the previous trip and thought he might have left it at the brink of the pit while packing his gear. Their family hike proved fruitless in terms of finding the carbide light so they returned to their van. Nevertheless, the day was a pleasant family outing.
Jim later found his carbide light at the bottom of his backpack.
Once again, we were going to try to get to Nielson's Well to finish the survey. It was August 27, 1988 at 7:30 A.M. when Jim Nicholls and I left my house headed for Logan to meet Mike Beer. Mike met us as scheduled and we all headed for the cave. Upon arriving at the parking area, we divided the gear into equal weights for carrying. We also divided the 600 foot PMI rope into three coils of equal weight.
We started up the trail, tied together by the segments of rope, and Mylar, helium-filled balloons wagging in the breeze. Making good time, we arrived at the cave about 1:00 P.M. We set up camp, such as it was, and prepared to go in the cave. By the time we had hung the transmission wire (this time, vinylinsulated, 22 gauge) in the cave, rigged the rope, and checked out the radios, it was 4:00 P.M.
Mike was first down the pit. He made a slow rappel to prevent the wire from tangling with the rope. Jim followed Mike, breaking the transmission wire, but leaving enough in the Big Room to provide good radio contact. They began to survey the remaining portions of the Big Room; the Alcove, Horrocks' Balcony, the lead at the top of the snow cone, and the doline at the top of the snow cone.
At the 6:30 P.M. radio check they had already completed the survey of the alcove and the lead at the top of the snow cone. The next radio check was to be at 9:30 P.M. While I was waiting on the surface, I bolted an aluminum cave name tag to the west wall of the entrance pit. Later, I walked to the rim of the canyon to watch the sun set, then I returned to camp to take a nap. At 8:30 P.M. I heard a sharp whistle. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and horned to the cave. Jim was just climbing over the brink of the pit. He told me they had finished all of the survey. Instead of waiting until the 9:30 radio check, he had decided to climb out and tell me so that I could enter the cave to take photos and to try to push the lead that takes air.
I quickly donned my gear and made a fast rappel to the bottom. I knew Mike was probably getting cold. I hurriedly unpacked my camera so we could start shooting. I took several time exposure shots and several single exposure shots of the Big Room and of the blowing lead and the sucking lead.
After taking the photos, I plumbed the ceiling using the two helium-filled Mylar balloons. Together, they lifted a 6-pound test fishing line 82 feet from the lowest point in the Big Room to the ceiling.
With the photos and the ceiling plumb completed, it was time to try to push the lead that takes air. My first approach proved futile because I entered facing the wrong wall. I backed out and turned around. The second attempt, with my helmet off, was successful. I was able to easily make it to the point of my forward progress of the push I made on Trip 2. My progress after that was virgin cave. I rounded a tight comer and entered a slot about 20 inches wide and 30 inches high. After 10 feet it pinched to a low crawl about 8 inches high and 18 inches wide, filled with rubble. Interestingly, the rubble was made up of broken speleothems such as stalactites, flowstone and cave bacon. I moved some of the rubble and squeezed through into a small room about 12 feet high and 20 inches wide. The air was moving into the passage with enough speed to feel it easily.
As I progressed through the room, the passage abruptly ended. At first look, I thought all the air was going up through ceiling cracks. Wanting to be thorough, I chimnied up to the top of the room. There I saw that the passage continued, tighter than before. For 10 minutes I pushed, exhaled, moved rock, and thought "skinny". Finally, I squeezed through the constriction into a passage about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high. The end of the 15-foot long passage opened up into a room about 8 feet in diameter with a floor below me about 10 feet and a ceiling above me about 6 feet. I didn't enter the room, though, because a bat was trying desperately to enter the passage I was in and my presence had it very confused. I had the passage blocked with my body and the bat was trapped. Also, I was in an extremely tight passage and knew that if I got into trouble, Mike, who is quite a bit larger than I, could not come in to help me. I struggled backwards through the tight, virgin crawl into the Big Room. I decided to name this lead the Bat Trap.
Mike was getting cold after nearly 8 hours in the cave and he wanted to head to the surface. He ascended first. I took a couple of photos of him while he climbed. I ascended after him, carrying a duffel bag full of survey gear and camera equipment, and of course, my balloons.
I climbed out of the cave just after midnight, into a brightly moonlit forest. I was sweating profusely from the long, hard climb. I removed my gear, drank lots of water, and after a while, cooled down. Finally around 1:00 A.M. we all crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off to sleep.
I awoke at 7:30 A.M. and Jim and Mike woke about 8:00 A.M. We unrigged, coiled the rope and wire, packed our backpacks, then ate cold breakfast. We started our hike back to the car at 10:10 A.M. After 2 1/2 hours of hiking, we were loading our packs into the car.
At Last! We had finished the exploration and survey of Nielson's Well. We had accomplished all of our major goals which were: find the cave; explore and survey the Big Room, the Bone Lead and the Twin Domes (the name we finally settled on). Other goals which we completed were to push several of the leads, devise a communication system from the surface to the Big Room, legally recover the animal bones, and keep the location and work secret from other cavers until our work was completed the way we wanted it done.
We realize that there are at least four leads which may or may not continue the cave. One is at the bottom of the Twin Domes and will require extensive chipping to widen the crack. Blasting is too dangerous because of the loose breakdown surrounding the area. The second lead is the Bat Trap which probably continues, at least for the miniature caver (Ed. Note: Good air movement in this one). The third is a possible lead 15 feet off the floor of the 70 foot high doline. This doline can be entered from the top of the snow cone. The fourth and final lead, is a narrow slot that could be bolted to ten feet below, the Resting Ledge in the entrance shaft.
Nielson's Well is an extremely dangerous cave for several reasons. First, because the entrance pit is so deep, a caver must be intimately familiar with his gear (borrowed gear just does not suffice). Second, The cave itself is extremely cold. Hypothermia is a major concern and only wool or polypropylene clothes should be worn in the cave. Third, the hike to the cave is very difficult, especially when one must carry all his own water; dehydration is inescapable. Compounding the danger is that dehydration advances hypothermia. Fourth, the cave itself is constantly producing rock fall within the Big Room. Every time I have been in the cave, I have heard rocks falling somewhere within the Big Room, sometimes only a few feet away. Finally, if a person should become injured or unable to exit the cave on his own power, any rescue attempt most probably would become a body recovery. Hypothermia would most likely be the cause of death. The reason would be due to the logistics and the long time it would take to notify authorities, organize a rescue, and return to the cave.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Nielson's Well has been a challenge, often discouraging and painful, but sometimes very rewarding both in growth of one's caving abilities and in one's philosophy. I don't anticipate entering the cave again. I've completed what I set out to do. I'm satisfied with my accomplishment. Now I feel that a safer cave is more to my liking. As for Jim, Mike, and Rod, I can only guess what their intentions are, but I think as long as Nielson's Well is there, they will probably be going there, too.
SAFETY & TECHNIQUE
By Jim Nicholls
Nielson's Well is, at the time of this publication, the deepest, single vertical shaft in Utah. It is, for all I know, the deepest single-drop vertical pit in the western United States.
It's realm should not be taken lightly or with too much confidence. Every time I have visited the cave, I have met a different set of problems and conditions. I have returned more a dozen times during the past 12 months because I experience a humbled awe no other cave in Utah can match.
The cave environment is typically alpine. It is a hypothermia high risk cave with no easy way back to the surface, if you become overwhelmed. Any rescue attempt in retrieving a victim would require all the resources of the cave search and rescue organizations in the Intermountain West.
The main shaft has appeared stable so far and does not present any risk of large rock fall or collapse. The cross section of the shaft is large and can best be described as "TAG Like" in its proportions. The two main ledges are a nuisance and rob the pit of its potential of being a free drop all the way from the surface, the last hundred feet or so are the "best". The final drop heightens the spelunker's senses to an acute condition. (What happened to the walls? Where did they go?") The "snow cone" is a common feature in other alpine caves of the area and while providing a needed smear of color at one end of the large breakdown-filled Big Room, it also creates a host of problems for which most vertical cavers might not be prepared.
I do not believe any checklist of basic or luxury items should be published to ensure a safe and comfortable time at Nielson's Well. What anyone who reads this should realize is that there is no margin for incompetency or inexperience in this cave.
There is no easy method of communication from the top of the pit to the bottom. The first trip was very spooky. I was not able to communicate with Ken Stahley except by shouting at the top of my voice. If slightly incapacitated or hypothermic, I might not have been able to let him know of my condition. I doubt that whistle signals would make the situation any safer. Any sound wave traveling up the pit will encounter all kinds of interference along the way. We have never been able to successfully shout back and forth and understand what the other was trying to say.
As far as I am able to tell, after spelunking in the Intermountain West for 4 years, bats found to be hibernating in an alpine cave environment are unique. Bats have been encountered in this pit. Is it essential for their well being to shun the use of personal twoway radios or should it be left to one's personal preference? No matter what the personal cost of a communication system, the flying mammal's welfare is more important. Not being a zoologist, familiar with bat population studies in Utah, I would recommend that their privacy be honored and respected. A moratorium on visitation to the pit should be observed by all cavers between of October through June.
Voice activated two-way radios have proven to be an asset in maintaining clear and instant communications between the surface and the far side of the Big Room, at the bottom of the shaft. I can recommend two simple and inexpensive modifications that will enhance and protect the communications system.
When the conditions in the cave are very wet and humid it would be wise to keep the radios inside ziplock plastic bags. If the units become wet, their performance may be degraded. The use of duct tape and several rubber bands will help in the sealing of the bags. Be sure to tape the voice activation switch "open" to ensure that it will remain on during the descent. A transmission wire is a small gage wire that allows the radio signal to travel unimpeded up the shaft to the surface. The wire can become entangled the your rope while descending. Some ingenuity is required to devise a smoothly operating reel that enables the caver to take the transmission wire down the shaft as he rappels.
Ken Stahley, Mike Beer and I have tried various techniques of "laying" a transmission wire down the shaft. Each time was a marginal success. What may be needed is for the first descending caver to rappel to the first ledge. There, the wire should be lowered to him. The first descending caver should carefully attach it to his shoulder or helmet and gingerly drop the pit. Once at the bottom of "snow cone" and out away from the rope, the caver should take the transmission wire to the nearest wall and secure it. If it can be installed in such manner, then subsequent cavers could safely rappel and ascend without becoming entangled in the transmission wire.
The cave air temperature is similar to another Utah cave, Jim Peck's Ice Cave. It ranges from 35 degrees F to 39 degrees F. It is colder than Little Brush Creek Cave. Anyone not wearing the maximum weight in wool or polypropylene or even Capalene underwear will not enjoy themselves in Nielson's Well. Large areas of ceiling drips and small waterfalls have been encountered sometimes and then not found again other times. You will get wet and should be prepared not to get chilled. A metal-lined thermos bottle filled with hot cocoa or tea, a hardy lunch, a small piece of ensulite or foam, a large trash can liner, a carbide lamp or numerous candles and a ballaclava should all be considered "basic" items to help the last person waiting at the register rock keep from drifting off into never-never land while other cavers ascend.
Your personal vertical gear should be capable of operating soaking wet, covered with slime, and occasionally frozen. The delights of the snow cone may provide an interesting backdrop for photos, but it also creates some problems. Depending on the type of rope used, the ascending caver has to fight a portion of slack rope when starting the climb. All static ropes stretch to some degree. During the beginning, cavers will "march in place" to walk out the slack. In doing so, the caver will stomp up and down in a mud-hole. The bottom edge of the snow cone is similar in consistency to chocolate mousse. Consequently, the rope becomes very slimy. As the ascending caver achieves some progress up the cone, the mud on his boots and ascenders is carried up also. The first caver up the rope has the least difficult time, but what is left behind makes the remaining cavers' climbs a real chore.
Jumars have to be "thumbed along" until you break free of the "ice-slime" and reach the free vertical portion of the rope. After the free ascending position is achieved, the rest of the ascent is easy. I strongly urge anyone who does not own a sewn harness and sewn accessory straps not attempt this cave. Under conditions just described, hand-tied knots may come loose and pose a real danger to the user and all those involved. A well made, store-bought harness or well designed, hand-stitched harness, tested for conditions similar those found in Nielson's Well, should be considered a "basic item."
At least two rope pads are necessary to properly rig the pit. The first lip at the surface requires a 4foot long pad. The edge is almost a 90-degree change of direction with several sharp parallel ridges. The second recommended pad should be located 30 feet down at the second ledge. That location demands rope protection because of the 15-degree change in direction the pit makes. From there, the rope unavoidably follows the shaft wall. While dangling 300 feet below the second lip, the actions of climbing are transferred up the rope. The bobbing and jerking motions cause the rope to move back and forth across the second ledge. The rope will be subjected to constant sawing action against the dolomite if a pad is not used at this location.
Any attempt at a rebelay to avoid using rope pads at the second ledge would demand a level of technical rock climbing skill that no caver in Utah possesses. Any attempt at a rebelay at the second ledge would expose the caver to a risk few cavers should have to endure. Sturdy rope pads that can be secured to the pit walls are an absolute must for this and any pit.
If you do not possess the proper equipment or have not achieved the required experience of deep vertical caving, please do not attempt to test your skill at Nielson's Well. Vertical caves similar to Nielson's Well are common in the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia (TAG) region of the eastern United States. While caving in Tennessee, I was fortunate to have successfully dropped many of them repeatedly. I offer these recommendations to the Utah caving community hoping they are not considered too "genteel."
Rodney D. Horrocks
After obtaining a paleontology permit, Jim Nicholls, Ken Stahley and I took a reconnaissance and collecting trip on July 4, 1987, to Nielson's Well. On an earlier trip, while surveying in the Big Room, Ken and Jim had discovered a lead that was blowing air. They didn't enter it due to time constraints, but it was duly noted in their survey. During a later trip to the cave Mike Beer and Ken entered the lead and discovered that the lead contained several skulls of small mammals. The lead is located where a breakdown pile intersects the cave wall. The lead has since come to be known as the Bone Lead. Realizing the importance of the find, Ken and Jim contacted the only paleontologist-caver they knew that had vertical experience. I was more than glad to help them out, and not long after, found myself at the bottom of a shaft more than 300 feet deep inspecting the find.
From the start I realized that the find would represent a puzzle. Located on the west side of the Big Room, the Bone Lead is at the top of a steep and unstable pile of breakdown about 30 feet high. At the entrance to the lead, is a pile of dirt that appears to have originated somewhere inside the lead. It has the distinction of being the only dirt found thus far in the entire cave. Inside the lead the same soil deposit is found throughout the maze of incompletely explored small crawls. The deposit continues until the second pit, Twin Domes, is encountered. The paleontological remains are found in the dirt crawls and at the bottom of the 70 foot deep Twin Domes.
Mixed in with the breakdown in the Big Room are numerous decaying logs. Jim had reported to me that he had seen what appeared to be charred logs on ledges 40 feet above the floor of the Big Room. He postulated that the room might once have filled with water, floating logs onto the ledges. Unlike most large breakdown rooms, this room has breakdown around its edges and a debris filled bowl in the center. These facts must be considered when attempting to come up with an origin for the bones in the Bone Lead.
Upon inspecting the deposits, I noticed that many of the skulls had post-cranial material associated with them. In the Bone Lead, the post cranial bones tended to be slightly disturbed and scattered, however, not to the point of making correlation with the skulls difficult. At the bottom of Twin Wells, I found the entire skeleton of a porcupine laid out in exactly the position it probably had died in. I also found a couple more rather well articulated porcupine skeletons.
Most of the skeletons turned out to be-porcupine. However, one partial badger skeleton was found. One of the most unusual finds was a complete wolverine skull with no associated bones. The wolverine skull was found slightly buried in the sediment, with full lower jaws and all the teeth still intact, certainly an enigma! In relatively recent times, the wolverine has become extinct in Utah, a fact that adds interest to its discovery in Nielson's Well.
My first guess was that wood rats were responsible for the bones being taken into the cave. This could also explain the dirt. However, I found none of the customary gnaw marks on the bones to substantiate this theory. More importantly, the skeletons wouldn't have been articulated if brought in by rats.
My next theory was that a connection, such as a sinkhole to the surface, had somehow introduced the bones into the cave. After searching, I was able to find some small chimneys in the ceiling of the Bone Lead, thus adding credence to this theory. However, no significant chimneys were found in the two trips taken to explore the Bone Lead Maze.
My next theory looked at water as the medium of transportation for the carcasses. However, saying that the animals must have fallen into a water filled room and then floated up and into a very small and insignificant side passage, seems unlikely. Although I did not see any paleontological remains in other parts of the cave, with a more thorough search we would undoubtedly come up with some. So there might be something with this theory.
My next theory took the form of a now blocked horizontal connection with the surface that leads into the dirt crawls of the Bone Lead. This would have allowed animals to enter the cave under their own power. Such an entrance would have to have been on the side of the mountain some distance away (since the current entrance shaft is now on top of the mountain). This is still a possibility, because the Bone Lead maze area might have some digs that could lead to more cave. At this point, it is obvious to me, that in order to narrow the field of theories down to just one, more field work must be completed.
After carefully mapping and photographing the find, I collected the skulls and associated bones and placed them in Zip-Lock baggies with an identification number that correlated with my map. The baggies were then packed into a 5 gallon plastic bucket filled with styrofoam peanuts. By tieing a sling around the bucket, and the bucket to a Jumar, I was able to ascend out of the entrance pit with the bucket hanging below me (Ed. Note: Unfortunately, the end of the rope got caught on the bucket and I pulled the rope up with me as I ascended. By the time I reached the top I was carrying, unknown to me, the entire rope up the pit. I remember wondering why the bucket seemed to get heavier and heavier as I climbed! By the time I neared the lip of the sinkhole, I was using nearly all my energy just to move up a few inches at a time).
Once back at the BYU Earth Science Museum, with mammal skulls and post-cranial bones in hand, I cleaned, numbered, and then cataloged each bone into the Cave Vertebrate Collection. Identification down to genus was accomplished at that time. However, what has been done thus far is strictly a preliminary study (Ed. Note: By contacting the curator of the BYU Earth Science Museum, the bones can be viewed).
FM RADIO COMMUNICATION
IN NIELSON'S WELL
Mike Beer (NSS# 16938)
Nielson's Well is a shaft cave (315 feet deep) with a large room (approximately 120 feet wide x 170 feet long x 80 feet high) at the bottom. These characteristics make verbal or whistle communication difficult, particularly with people in the large room. The sound tends to fill the room, rather than be directed up or down the shaft.
At the point I became involved with the exploration of Nielson's Well, one of the other cavers (Jim Nicholls) had decided to try to use a set of FM radio headsets that he had purchased for surface work. When he used them on the entrance rappel, they worked well for about the first 200 feet. However they then faded abruptly and were useless in the Big Room.
I had an experience in Papoose Cave in Northern Idaho where FM radio communication had been possible in and near a short pit during a mock rescue. The mock rescue organizers said that the FM radios worked in the cave because of the presence of a field telephone wire. On the next trip to Nielson's Well, I took a spool of 28 gauge, insulated magnet wire, and lowered the end down alongside of the first rappeller. The end of the wire was left hanging into the Big Room by about 20 feet or so.
The results the wire produced were much better than those experienced in the mock rescue. Not only did radio communication remain clear while on rappel, but it was possible to communicate from anywhere on the floor of the Big Room to the surface. There were some areas in the Big Room that had minor fading, but moving a few feet would get out of the fade area. This provided excellent communication for rope management, and quite a psychological boost for the people waiting to ascend since they could easily converse with the surface crew.
This experience made me wonder about the differences and similarities between the two times that I have used FM radio in a cave. I believe that I may understand what is happening, and would appreciate hearing from other people about good (and bad) experiences in other caves to help refine my understanding. What follows is somewhat speculative since I have made no quantitative measurements, but it provides an operating model that will serve for at least this discussion.
The Physical Setup of Nielson's Well
The Nielson's Well entrance is a large surface opening of the cave's shaft. It is approximately 30 by 50 feet in area. The first 100 feet of the shaft are nearly this dimension, with the next 100 feet tapering gently to about 8 feet in diameter until the shaft intersects the ceiling of the Big Room at about the 200-foot level. The shaft enters the Big Room at one end. The radios were consumer-grade headset versions with voice-activated keying, operating at about 50 Megahertz (MHz). The input sensitivity of the front end is not known to me. They were identical in outward appearance to the ones that had been used in Papoose Cave.
Nielson's Well as a Wave Guide
The 50 MHz operation places the radio's wavelength at about 20 feet in free space. This is a small enough wavelength, relative to the size of the opening of Nielson's Well, for the shaft to act a waveguide, until the shaft diameter becomes less than one wavelength (assuming TE and TM propagation in a fundamental mode).
I believe that this explains why the radios could not work at all without the wire in the narrow portion of the shaft. The walls of the cave are wet and may have sufficient conductivity to provide a lousy wave guide that does not attenuate too much. The 200 feet to the fade out point in the shaft is about 10 wavelengths, and if the situation were extremely attenuative, communication would be difficult this far down the shaft. The diameter reducing to less than a wavelength at 200 feet would cause the radio wave to be reflected back up the shaft. These type of reflections often occur at less than one wavelength.
Nielson's Well as a Transmission Line
Dangling the wire down the shaft changes the situation quite a lot. I believe that wire in the shaft causes the shaft and wire to act as a transmission line. 50 MHz is not far from the frequency of broadcast television. Cable companies' coaxial cable and TV antenna leads work quite well at transmission line dimensions much smaller than the 8 foot diameter of Nielson's Well shaft. Calculating a characteristic impedance for such a transmission line is difficult due to the uncertainties in material and dimension.
Transmission lines must be properly terminated to get much energy down them. In retrospect, we probably provided this termination by dangling the wire in the shaft and into the Big Room. I assume that the signal couples from radio to wire through a combination of near field antenna and transmission line radiative loss, setting up a standing wave on the wire. I also suspect that the room acts as a cavity resonator driven by the portion of the wire hanging out of the ceiling. The room's dimensions are quite a bit larger than a wavelength, and I suspect that some sort of standing wave could form between the walls and ceiling. Presence of a standing wave would also explain the fade areas that seemed to occur locally in the Big Room.
Choice of Wire
While virtually any wire will work for this type of transmission line, there are several things that should be considered
In no case should the wire be of enough strength that it cannot be broken if a caver should become tangled in it or endangered by it in any way.
The initial experiments done in Nielson's Well used solid copper, insulated wire (magnet wire). This wire is prone to kinking and nicking. The kinks and nicks provided weak points at which the wire would break when snagged during retrieval or by a rappeller. We finally settled on 22-gauge stranded wire covered with a plastic insulation. This wire provided several advantages. The heavier insulation reduces chances of nicking the conductor. The multiple strands reduce the possibility of kinking or nicking and failing all of the strands simultaneously. This made a more robust conductor. Plastic wire insulation makes a larger diameter wire and is usually brightly colored. Both color and increased diameter make the wire easier to see, reducing the chances of its being accidentally snagged by cavers. A color selection also allows color changes at each splice, so it is possible to determine how far along the wire the caver is while rappelling or ascending
Deploying and Removing the Wire
In Nielson's Well, the wire was strung down a pit. This creates the problem of having the wire and rope in close proximity. To avoid tangling them we lowered the wire down the pit with the first rappeller. A small lead weight (a couple ounces) kept the end of the wire from recoiling. The weight would be lowered so that it was about 10 feet below the rappeller. Any tangles that developed could easily be cleared since there would be very little wire below the rappeller and the rappeller would be descending into any tangle, rather than trying to straighten out a mess overhead. It is also a good idea to have the next rappeller down the wire tuck the wire behind ledges or into cracks to further separate the rope and wire.
There is also a problem of removing the wire from the pit. The last climber should clear the wire from any ledges or cracks where it has been tucked. If the wire hangs cleanly in the pit, removing the wire as the last climber ascends is a good idea, this time keeping the end of the wire about 10 feet above the climber. It is best to have a spool of large enough diameter so that one revolution of the spool retrieves at least a foot of wire (4 inches minimum spool diameter). Smaller spools than this are quite tedious to rewind.
Possible Application to Other Situations
It is possible to communicate with FM radio in caves. Based on the discussion above, it is possible to give guidelines that will either prove or disprove the discussion's assumptions.
If one has a choice of frequencies, choose the highest one possible. This shortens the wavelength, allowing use of simple reflections or wave guide phenomena. Don't expect long distances with this technique, since reflections and wave guides are usually quite lousy.
The transmission line principle seems to work well for pits, particularly those with large rooms at the bottom. It is a good idea to get the end of the wire out into a large room away from the walls, to form a standing wave in the room. It would be an interesting experiment to vary the amount of wire dangling into the room and its position in the room in an attempt to "tune" to the room's dimensions or to move a fade area.
Accurately predicting the performance of FM radio inside caves is at this time more art than science. I encourage others to try it. In situations such as deep pits or large rooms, it can provide a convenient and echo-free means of communication. Where other wires already have been strung through an area, it can provide another communication channel for minimal investment of effort.