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Black Hills Cavers Set New Record

FEBRUARY 15, 2006

Jewel CaveCuster, South Dakota - Jewel Cave just got longer. Explorers recently pushed the known length of the cave to 135 miles and ten feet after four-days spent underground. A National Park Service cave specialist from New Mexico joined three local Black Hills cavers at Jewel Cave National Monument in southwestern South Dakota in this most recent push to define the limits of this largely unexplored cave. The payoff is an untouched wonderland of calcite rafts, thin mineral deposits that look like water lilies; gypsum flowers with long streamers and hairs created by wind and water; walls lined with crystals; and deep inside the cave a mummified Townsends long-eared bat, hanging forever still and dark from a roof filled with fossils from the even more distant past.

“You get to see places no one has ever gone before,” said Larry Shaffer, a computer specialist and cave volunteer from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. “When you get there, it’s like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon.”

Planning to explore caves is detailed and comprehensive. If a caver forgets flashlight batteries or other necessities, they’re out of luck. Cavers pack light, taking only critical equipment like head lamps and food, protein bars and special equipment. Though the cave is a constant 49 degrees F, cavers wear T-shirts and light clothing to increase mobility and fight the high humidity and heat of exertion.

Explorers take from six to eight hours to travel the distance from the cave entrance to the main camp deep inside the cave. Water is stored along the way in plastic and nylon caches that catch drips from the cave roof. The main camp stores 20 gallons of water, enough to hold four people for four days. Explorers then travel another three hours from the camp to the unexplored areas, work for six to eight hours, and then make their way back to camp.

“We do all of our cooking and cleaning and eating over tarps so we don’t leave anything there,” caver Andy Armstrong said, “including human waste or garbage.”
“I think I really like the part that’s beyond the End,” said Andy Armstrong, a cave management intern whose wife, Bonny, is a seasonal cave guide with Jewel Cave National Monument. “The End was the name of the last place people explored and so when we got beyond the End we found lots more, like a passage 30 feet wide and 50 feet high that went on and on.”

Caving is not for everyone. Monument superintendent Todd Suess [Cease] said the cave weeds out people not suited to the rigors of cave exploration in the first few miles underground. “It took us an hour and forty minutes to get through the Miseries,” said Stan Allison, a cave specialist from Carlsbad, New Mexico. “It’s a thousand feet of belly crawling…it’s such a long way.”

To get to the end of the eastern-most part of Jewel Cave is tough even for hardened cavers. There are also wide high galleries where jeweled walls reflect the light of headlamps and the going is easy.

The importance of the explorations is to get to know the cave in intimate detail so that measures can be taken to protect the delicate interior from activities above ground, Suess said. Other landowners spraying herbicides could affect water in the caves, or introduce harmful chemicals, or activities like drilling could change the ecological balance deep underground.

And because technology cannot yet see underground, cavers use a combination of old fashioned grit and high tech computers and lasers to measure every inch.
Scientists are studying the DNA of microorganisms and chemical reactions with water in this cave that has only one natural entrance in the Paha Sapa [PAH-ha SAH-pah] limestone formation.

Suess said Jewel Cave is a little secret tucked away behind the splendors of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, Wind Cave, Black Hills National Forest, and Custer State Park. Cavers are welcome to explore and over 90,000 visitors took the cave tour in 2005. Only a handful has been past the Miseries and fewer still beyond the End.

“In my lifetime we won’t find the end of this cave and it feels pretty good to be here,” Armstrong said.

Exploration will continue as scientists and Park managers work to understand this lost world far below the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

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