Gifford Pinchot National Forest — At around 80 degrees, it’s fairly mild for a mid-August day, but I’m sweating as if it were 110, partially from the layers of winter clothes I’m wearing beneath my waterproof pants and jacket, but also from the panic I’m working hard to suppress.
Salvation and anxiety lie below the surface, down an 11 millimeter rope into the dank, muddy darkness of a cave system where the earth has blistered for hundreds of feet and the temperature hovers just above freezing.
Entering Wolff’s Pit, the uppermost portion of this cave system, requires clipping onto a rope and backing into a small pit, then wiggling — feet first — into a hole in the ground that’s a little wider than a kitchen trash can. Forget about wearing a backpack — it must dangle from a strap between my legs.
I start the descent into the darkness by squeezing my shoulders into my chest and walking my feet down the rock wall inches in front of me. After about 30 feet, I turn sideways, straighten out and try to relax as I drop through a crack that tugs at my chest and shoulder blades. When my boots touch the soft, muddy earth, I free myself of the lifeline and yell “off rope!”
Finally, I find a hole to cram into. I really don’t want to get hit if the next person coming down kicks loose a rock.
An uncharted place
Beneath the moss and ferns of Southwest Washington’s volcano country lies an uncharted rocky landscape, craggy and cavernous from a violent history of an Earth in flux. The U.S. Forest Service counts at least 600 caves in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest while also freely admitting they have no idea how many more are actually out there or what’s inside. Of those that are known, only a fraction have been surveyed and mapped.
Members of the Oregon Grotto, the Portland and Vancouver area chapter of the National Speleological Society, make a hobby out of exploring and charting those dark reaches. In an era where the entire earth’s surface is visible with a quick internet search, these people find exhilaration in a subterranean world where they’re often the first people to step foot — or crawl.
“You feel like an explorer discovering a new world,” said Grotto member Ahrlin Bauman.
Through the decades, they’ve marked hundreds of entrances, but maybe 100 have been named. One of the group’s goals is to find, survey and map as many caves as they can in the area between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.
Last summer the group mapped the Wolff’s Cave, one of the most unique and technically challenging projects they’ve done to date.
I went with them.
At its widest point this hatchet-shaped fissure is only about 4 feet wide and maybe 10 feet long. The walls are gray stone masses, littered with tiny cracks, streaked with water and leaning into one another for support like drunks stumbling out of a bar and into the rain. Chunky boulders and dirt mounds choke the floor. The whole room looks like it could come down any minute.
For a novice vertical caver it’s hard not to feel like a trapped animal. There’s little comfort in knowing that the tightest pinches and longest rappels are still ahead.
I can do this. I’m sure I can do this. Mostly sure. Pretty sure. Why in God’s name did I agree to do this?
There’s really not enough space for the whole party — Garry Petrie, Tom Peterson, Ken and Ruth Stickney and I — all to be in here at once.
Getting into the next room, practically a gymnasium compared to this fissure, requires a hand-rope rappel down a tight and twisting 6-foot chute, reminiscent of climbing through your toilet to enter your basement. I’m nervous.
My instructor, Peterson, who is taller but narrower at the shoulders than I, is apprehensive to go in. This is one of the few places he’s gotten stuck.
The smallest person in our group will have to lead from here.
But first, the surveyors go to work.
An air of secrecy
Permission to write about the survey project required several promises that the cave’s exact location wouldn’t be revealed in this story.
There’s an air of secrecy within the caving community, even among its seasoned members. Guidebooks show what’s inside a cave, but not where it’s located.
“People in the Grotto periodically have trips and once they trust you and know you’re not out there to screw things up they’ll invite you — or you can show up and hopefully they’ll let you go,” Peterson said.
Eventually I was invited to join a couple of trips, but first I had to spend several afternoons climbing up and down a rope suspended from the ceiling of Peterson’s garage with hand, chest and foot ascenders and belay devices. And, perhaps most important, I had to know how to get up or down a rope if any of the aforementioned fail while hundreds of feet underground.
I also had to post photos of myself in caving gear and join specific Facebook groups so I could show the vertical caving community I wasn’t a total amateur.
The uppermost chamber of Wolff’s Cave was first discovered and loosely mapped by cavers in 1970, although Grotto members say it was soon forgotten. About 10 years ago Petrie rediscovered it in some old caving documents.
“It was a copy of a logging allotment … this spot where loggers found a cave, but there was very little description about exactly where it was,” Petrie said. “I’m pretty sure it was vacant for 30 or 40 years — nobody went there.”
On foot, Petrie and the Stickneys bushwhacked through one particular hillside detailed in the notes until they stumbled on the cave’s two entrances: one long large crack and a small hole in the ground about 15 yards away.
Petrie shared the location with some other Grotto members. It wasn’t long before the group began exploring the cave and slowly pushing the boundaries of the unknown.
Over the last five years what started as a rough sketch of one fissure with two unexplored offshoots has now been expanded to a system, several times larger than previously understood. Last summer and part of the fall, the group undertook several multihour expeditions to chart the depths. Using a surveying laser and hand-sketching scale maps, the group measured a system about 1,350 feet long and 220 feet deep, with potentially more territory yet to be discovered.
The known bottom and the geologic wonders therein, is reachable by a mix of long rappels, scrambling through the darkness over large boulders and crawling through oppressive gaps — usually on rope, sometimes not.
“It’s a technical cave and rather scary even for experienced cavers,” said Ruth Stickney. “There’s a lot of rock that’s barely hanging on.”
Moment of truth
I’ve never been claustrophobic, but standing in a 40-foot deep crack in the earth with the darkness closing in, it’s hard to suppress the panic welling up inside me as I watch a person maybe five inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter than I struggle through the chute at my feet.
Do my people know I love them? Should I turn back? I can’t imagine anything worse than getting stuck in a cave in the middle of nowhere.
Enough of that. I’m going in.
The hole is too tight to use the descending device clipped to my belt. So, with my hands above my head, I’ll hang onto the rope and trust gravity to do the work. Worse comes to worst, someone can grab my feet and yank me through.
Southwest Washington’s best-known caves, Ape Cave being a prime example, are lava tubes, the earth’s ancient plumbing that has run dry.
Wolff’s is a unique cave system. It’s part of a landscape formed between 2 million and 45 million years ago. Volcanic blasts rained down on what started as an aquatic environment. Gradually, land rose from the sea and vegetation grew, only to be charred and buried by more violent volcanic activity. Some of the volcanic flows were ash and rocky debris. Others were so hot they welded the ground together — but not entirely. Wolff’s Cave appears to have formed when a massive volcanic rock formation perched on a steep slope buckled, forming one long fissure. House-sized boulders piled up at the bottom of deep, jagged cracks. In some areas massive slabs are wedged high between the walls, precariously hanging in the gaps. The formation appears to be continuously pulling away from itself. Grotto members say that over the years they’ve seen new holes open in various rooms within the cave.
When Petrie decided to survey the cave, the Grotto members rallied.
On the weekends, Karl “Dusty” Goldscheider, a vertical caver with years of experience, made the six-and-a-half hour drive from his Mount Vernon home to rig the cave and support the expeditions.
With about 50 pieces of climbing gear he rigged seven ropes, some up to 150 feet long, throughout the cave. The ropes were anchored in one room down one pitch and redirected into another room. Having the network in place enabled the crew to focus on surveying rather than route building — thus saving hours of time.
“It was important to have somebody that had that type of skill,” Petrie said. “The first few people going in can do some risky stuff. But if you’re going to be going in a lot you have to think about your weakest person.”
Gravity made slipping through the chute easier than I imagined. As soon as I stood up a wave of relaxation washed over me and I immediately felt silly for getting so worked up.
Now the Stickneys, Petrie, Peterson and I are standing in a space about the size of walk-in closet. Walls tower over us on three sides. The way out is to scramble up a roughly 10-foot boulder, then to descend 40 feet into the bottom of the Lower Wolff’s fissure — the deepest reach of what was discovered in 1970.
We drop into a room about 70 feet deep at the lowest point. Across the fissure the floor steeply rises by about 30 feet where debris has fallen through the yawning crack in the ground above. Moss blankets the fissure’s walls wherever the light penetrates. Elsewhere, the granite-colored walls are streaked with mud and stained by minerals.
In the darkest swaths of this room and a handful of other chambers, the walls glitter with dazzling array of what I swear is a sunburst deposit of fool’s gold. It’s an incredible sight. The walls glimmers with every sweep of my headlamp. My companions forgive my naiveté and explain that what I’m seeing is actually a colony of bacteria. I later learn it’s a type of actinomycetea and, along with 13 other types, are common in caves. Water beads on their surfaces, hence the sparkling gold mystique.
Bacteria aside, Wolff’s is not pretty, even by cave standards. It’s a giant stone crack, choked with debris and slick with mud. Speleothems, the beautiful formations that hang from the ceilings and rise up from the floors in limestone caves, are absent in Wolff’s until you get down below 200 feet.
“There’s very little redeeming value until you get down to the bottom,” Petrie said. The appeal for going in? “It’s mostly adventure.”
At opposite ends of the fissure, ropes lead down two different pitches, into a number of other rooms and the known bottom at about 220 feet below the surface.
Before anyone goes down any farther, Petrie stands at the back wall and shoots a laser rangefinder at a point designated on the ground or a wall by one of the Stickneys. Petrie then records the dimensions in a graph paper notebook and sketches to scale what he sees. With Petrie leading the charge, they’ll measure and illustrate every reasonably accessible part of the cave over the course of about five trips and 25 hours underground.
It’s slow-going even by the standards of caving. But Petrie savors the work. Looking back from retirement, had he not spent his career as an engineer, cartography would have been his life’s endeavor.
“It’s a fascination,” he said.
On this trip Peterson and I get out at Wolff’s Fissure while the rest of the crew descends farther. It’ll be October before I join them again, but what I discover on that trip makes the wait worthwhile.
“In all honestly, we don’t know how many caves are out there on the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument or in the Gifford Pinchot,” said Chelsea Muise, recreation program manager at Mount St. Helens. “The Gifford Pinchot probably has the highest concentration of caves in all the state of Washington.”
Federal law requires land management agencies such as the Forest Service to protect caves as natural resources. That includes prohibiting agency employees from giving out exact cave locations, unless it’s one of the three developed cave sites in the Gifford Pinchot, such as the Ape Cave.
Local cavers help the Forest Service install survey markers, and in popular caves, track graffiti and help clean it up, as well as remove the trash people leave behind. They also help survey local bat populations. Understanding the size and location of bat colonies is especially important right now. A fungal disease known as White Nose Syndrome is killing the animals by the thousands across the United States. It was found last year in Washington.
Researchers and management agencies currently have objectives: to better understand how many bats are out there while also limiting the spread of the disease.
“A huge concern for us is keeping that out of the caves,” especially at heavily visited sites such as Ape Cave, Muise said. “That and making sure people are going through the appropriate decontamination protocol so we don’t lose our bat populations.”
The big drop
When October comes, I follow Peterson and Goldscheider into the deepest reaches of Wolff’s Cave. We drop in around 10 a.m., but it will be well after dark before we’re back on the surface. The Stickneys and Petrie go in before us to finish the survey work at the deepest parts of the cave.
We enter in the same way we did in August and make a couple more short rappels to get to the longest pitch, a 130-foot drop into the void. First we must crawl into a rubble-strewn room barely large enough for us to move on hands and knees.
This is the realm of the creepy-crawly.
The rocky floor is steep and slick with mud. Finger-length centipedes wag through the debris. A fat slug lurches along a wall. The oppressive ceiling is dotted with lichen and bacteria colonies. Cave crickets — a kind of cross between a daddy longlegs and a Volkswagen Beetle — cling to the ceiling and dance their long antennae in the air. They’re fascinating creatures, but it’s best not to get your face too close. When spooked, these bugs are known to leap straight at what frightens them.
At a certain depth the creatures are gone and it’s only us, the darkness and a 130-foot hole leading to the most impressive portion of the cave.
The chambers in Wolff’s cave all sound as small as they look. Nothing echoes. Our voices and the sounds of clanking gear hit the walls with a thud. I practically need to look right at the person I’m talking to in order to hear them. But after dropping in Wolff’s Deep everything changes.
I drop feet-first through a tight pinch and into what I immediately understand to be a massive underground chamber. For the first time anywhere in the cave my equipment rattles into the void. Even with my second head lamp powered on, the light is too weak to reveal the ground below or the ceiling above. I feel like I’ve been crawling through an underground tunnel only to find myself dangling through the skylight of an empty cathedral.
With feet to descend, my belay device starts choking on the muddy rope. I have to force the line through the tiny pulleys to move. Rather than gradually sliding, I drop a few feet at a time before coming to an unnervingly bouncy stop without a wall to steady myself. It’s scary, but whatever fear I felt is quickly replaced by the fascination of what lies at the cave floor, 220 feet below the surface.
Finishing the survey
The surveyors had finished their work and were on their way out by the time we touched the bottom.
It took about 25 hours over the course of five days to measure the cave, but they didn’t get it all. There were just too many unexplored voids and depths that were too tight or too dangerous for them to enter. That work will have to be left for the next generation.
“I was very glad when we finished and I probably won’t be back,” said Ruth Stickney.
“There’s very little redeeming value, until you get down to the bottom." Garry Petrie
Petrie estimates it’ll take at least six weeks of work, sitting at his computer combining digital measurements with paper drawings, to accurately represent what’s inside Wolff’s Cave.
His goal is to have the map of Wolff’s Cave finished before the summer so he can display it at the National Speleological Society’s Cartographic Salon during the upcoming national convention in Helena, Mont.
It’ll be a challenging map to build, he said, to accurately, yet artistically, represent “a big crack with a bunch of boulders in it.”
“There’s very little redeeming value, until you get down to the bottom,” he said.
It’s at the bottom where the most amazing features lie.
It took hours to get here, but this is when the trip becomes truly awe inspiring. We’re three of maybe a dozen people to ever enter this space and I am one of a handful who isn’t a Grotto member.
In Wolff’s Deep, the slate-gray walls blush with patches of red, mauve, lime green and brown. Mud ripples up the walls like big sheets of scale armor. Tucked in various cracks and alcoves are soda straws — ivory toned hollow mineral formations between two and six inches long formed by slowly dripping water. Other formations reach resemble tiny white trees denuded of all their foliage. Up and down the walls, other formations grow in fluffy-looking clumps resembling Spanish moss.
At our feet lie the bones of a small animal Goldscheider believes to be a marmot; so too is a tiny and very fragile-looking bat skull and a few bones.
Incredibly, Goldscheider also found a fresh rabbit carcass down here earlier this summer. Cavers say to take nothing but pictures while exploring, but, considering the upcoming survey work and the freshness of the body, Goldscheider made an exception and removed the rabbit from the cave before it decomposed.
I’d love to sit here for hours and marvel at the walls and hunt for formations hidden here and there, but it’s simply too cold. The temperature hovers around 34 degrees, so if you’re not moving, you’re freezing. Besides, there’s still more to see.
Wolff’s Cave is a very geologically actively fissure.
In 2012 the Grotto reached the bottom of the cave at about 220 feet below the surface, which they named Wolff’s Deep. But a few years later, another expedition pushed into that chamber and named it Wolff’s Deeper.
This chamber feels like walking into a secret chapter of natural history.
“This is what I call the forest,” Goldscheider said as we struggle down into the gap. “There’s still soft wood down here — bits of it amongst the carbon.”
I can hardly believe my eyes. Running near the bottom of the walls is a 6-inch deep stripe of a black carbon layer. Below the black stripe is a light brown layer that looks like it might have been soil. Bits of what I’m almost positive are prehistoric charred plant material sticking out of the rock or littered on the ground. When I rub them between my fingers, the burnt pieces break apart into brown woody fibers.
Was this a forest covered and compressed by an untold number volcanic eruptions?
Who’s to say.
I stare at the chunks, lost in the mystery, but my trance is broken and I nearly leap out of my skin when a bat — the only one we see on the entire trip— buzzes just a few feet over my head.
Plotting a course
At 60 years old, Petrie has been exploring and surveying caves for at least half of his adult life. For years he’s been sitting on a backlog of cave sketches and dimensions yet to be combined and added to his pile of finished maps.
“In the past, I was pretty reclusive and wanted to keep all the files to myself,” he said. “Then it was like ‘That’s not helping anybody else,’ and as you get older if you don’t share it nobody is going to come over to your house and get it either. So you gotta share those digital files as much as you can.”
His thoughts on the subject diverge a little from the rest of the caving community. Rather than hoarding the information, he wants to make his maps at a quality high enough to be published in a guidebook. How specific he’ll be with location information is yet to be determined. He understands the desire to protect the resources, but at the same time, he’s thinking about inspiring a future generation of cavers to carry on the expeditions.
“Grottos have to renew their membership over time. You have to take people out there. If you don’t, your organization will die out. You don’t want it to just be a Facebook group,” he said. “You have to trust people … I’d like to get more info out there so people can put the clues together themselves, not just give it to them outright, but at least let them go out there and figure out.”
Dameon Pesanti: 360-735-4541; email@example.com; twitter.com/dameonoemad