Cavers slip through Black Crack; descend into Heaven’s Gate

Aug 26 2013 - 10:21am


John Cox, JR Schenk and Kirsten Bahr (from left) explore the ice-filled Heaven’s Gate Cave in Cache County. Bahr, a Utah State University geology graduate student, is measuring caves in the region as part of her master’s thesis project. 

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
John Cox watches as Kirsten Bahr begins the climb out of Black Crack Cave in Cache County earlier this month. The main branch of the cave is a narrow 190-foot drop.

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Kirsten Bahr makes her way through Black Crack Cave's tight opening.

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
John Cox, JR Schenk and Kirsten Bahr (from left) explore the ice-filled Heaven’s Gate Cave in Cache County. Bahr, a Utah State University geology graduate student, is measuring caves in the region as part of her master’s thesis project. 

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
John Cox watches as Kirsten Bahr begins the climb out of Black Crack Cave in Cache County earlier this month. The main branch of the cave is a narrow 190-foot drop.

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Kirsten Bahr makes her way through Black Crack Cave's tight opening.

(BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

LOGAN -- Kirsten Bahr stands with her back against the cliff wall. Behind her is a triangular crack the size of a car door. Crouching down, she backs slowly into the hole. Five feet back and she is on her knees as the hole shrinks in around her. Bahr backs up another three feet and the floor disappears below her.

From here, it's 190 vertical feet and several minutes before her feet are on the ground again.

This is another day in the office.

The cavers

Before disappearing into the appropriately named Black Crack Cave, Bahr's morning started 30 miles away at the mouth of Logan Canyon. Bahr, a grad student in geology at Utah State University, pulled bags of ropes, harnesses and research gear out of the back of the trunk of her car. By the end of summer, Bahr hopes to visit and measure 30-40 caves around the region.

In a parking lot along the Logan River, Bahr loads her equipment while chatting with her caving partners for the day. Standing a head taller than anyone else around, wearing torn camo shorts and a Logan Fire Department T-shirt, John Cox is a nine-year veteran of Northern Utah caves. While he has covered much of the state, today will be Cox's first time inside Black Crack. Also along for the trip is J.R. Schenk. Shorter than Cox with a touch of grey in his beard, Schenk works for Weber County search and rescue. Over time, a series of work-related training sessions on cave rescue grew into a passion for recreational caving.

Neither Cox or Schenk has a background in the type of research that Bahr is doing. When it comes to studying the caves, she can do most of the work on her own. But when your job involves hanging hundreds of feet in the air over a pitch-black rocky pit miles from the closest road, dirt trail or even radio signal, it's nice to use the buddy system.

With their gear loaded, the three cavers head up Logan Canyon to the trailhead.

With rope and gear slung over their shoulders, Bahr and company hike five miles through the upper reaches of the Tony Grove area. Above 9,000 feet, the hillsides are still green and spotted with wildflowers despite the mid-August heat in the valleys below. The landscape is a mix of loose rock, small jagged peaks, and cliffs that seem to appear out of nowhere. Mixed in are the occasional fir and pine trees that grow small and twisted from the long winters at such high elevations.

The rough and rocky geography is in part the result of the last wave of glaciers.

"When the glaciers came through, it kind of bulldozed this rock and made it kind of wide open and easy to explore," Bahr said.

As the slow-moving walls of ice carved up the mountainsides, they left behind a caver's playground.

Caverns and passages that were previously hidden now had their tops torn open.

Bahr estimates that there are more than 100 caves in this series of basins and hillsides.

Today there are two on her list: Black Crack Cave and Heaven's Gate.

Black Crack

After backing through the entrance tunnel, the Black Crack descent is a nearly perfectly straight drop for more than 15 stories. On the way down the passage alternates from narrow slots, to wide open rooms, and back to small cracks again before finally reaching the living room sized cavern floor.

On the surface of the earth, Cox and Schenk lean into the mouth of the cave, listening, until they hear a faint cry of "Off Rope."

This is the sign to send the next person on his way.

Down below, Bahr crouches back into a three-foot-tall crack in the wall and waits. This hole provides two uses. Bahr is down here to measure the dimensions and structure of the cave, and the crack marks one end of the widest part of the room.

Also, the hole provides some shelter from the rocks that come crashing down from high above as Schenk makes his descent.

By the time the full crew makes it to the bottom, Bahr has finished most of the measurements that she came to take. Cox, who has an endless supply of energy throughout the day, is literally climbing the walls when Bahr announces that if anyone is looking for some fun, she brought acid with her.

The comment is only half a joke.

With gloved hands, Bahr pulls a chunk of rock from the wall and removes a tiny bottle of hydrochloric acid from her bag. As she drops the liquid onto the stone, the cavers gather close and smile at the sight.

The small experiment is used to distinguish the type of rock forming the cave walls. With this last test complete, Bahr confirms that the walls are made of dolomite and begins to climb out of the cave.

Climbing out of a cave isn't like typical rock climbing. Cavers ascend, not by climbing the walls, but by climbing directly up the rope using a complicated system of foot, chest and hand-held devices. The technique is similar to doing squats while balancing on a bouncing rope.

You can try the experience at home. Put on your thickest winter clothes and turn off all the lights. Start on a set of 100 squats. Now, every time you move your legs, have a friend spin you around and shove you into a mud-covered rock wall.

After 180-plus feet of climbing, Schenk is the first one at the cave entrance. But, he isn't out yet. Just shy of the outside world, the rope has fallen into a deep, one-inch wide groove. Caught in a tight spot, Schenk has to stay attached to the rope, but is unable to use that rope as he tries to move by squeezing up the muddy walls. It is only after several failed attempts before he gets past the final roadblock and is crawling out into the sunlight.

Several minutes later, Bahr's headlamp can be seen in the crack below as she also struggles through the final crack and crawls out into the open air. As Cox joins the crew on the surface, smashed sandwiches and crackers emerge from backpacks and over a backcountry dinner, the crew makes plans for cave number two.

Into Heaven

The walk from Black Crack to Heaven's Gate takes only a few minutes, but the difference between the two is night and day. As the names imply, one cave is more awe-inspiring than the other.

While the entrance to Black Crack is little more than a slot in the ground, Heaven's Gate is a gaping 15-foot-wide hole in the ground. In the open basin, the area around the entrance is thickly covered with plants thriving on the moist cave air.

Bahr and Schenk make it to the entrance first. After the slow and technical exit out of Black Crack, the group is running behind schedule. With the fading daylight in mind, Cox took the radio and two cell phones to the highest neighboring peak in search of reception.

Before leaving town that morning, each caver left their destination and planned return time. If they weren't back in Logan by the set hour, then the rescue attempt begins. Northern Utah caves have proven deadly before. Even a relatively minor injury like a broken ankle can require a major rescue operation just to get out of the cave.

With the sun setting and one cave still to go, it becomes clear that Bahr and company won't make it out of the woods in time for the folks back in Logan.

While Bahr and Schenk unload gear in the valley below, Cox hops from ridge to ridge before finally getting a text message out to his wife.

"We won't be home till pretty late. Maybe even midnight. Don't worry unless u wake up in morning and I'm not there."

After making sure all of the emergency contacts have been clued in to the new plan, Cox heads down to Heaven's Gate. By the time he arrives, an anchor point has been constructed around a large white pine growing at the mouth of the cave. Dropping from the pine is 200 feet of rope and attached somewhere down the line -- invisible in the darkness -- is Bahr.

While only half the depth of Black Crack, the cavern itself is much larger; around the size of a high-school gym. Perhaps the most impressive sight as you pass into Heaven's Gate is St. Peter, waiting at the bottom.

In this case, St. Peter is the name given to a large ice formation.

It may be the middle of a record-hot summer, but down here the temperatures never leave the low-30's. St. Peter holds court in the center of the cavern, but the room is filled with plenty of other formations that wouldn't look out of place in the Arctic. The 90-foot-tall walls of the cave are spotted with frozen waterfalls and directly beneath the entrance is a "sno-cone" at least six times taller than any of the cavers.

In the deepest corners of the cave, blocks of ice are piled high. The sight looks like any tray of ice-cubes in your freezer, only each cube is two feet across.

Once Schenk and Cox reach the cave floor, they begin poking around as Bahr takes her measurements. All of the cavers have been here before, but the cave is in a constant state of change. St. Peter has melted down and is smaller than before, but the sound of dripping water also points to the formation of new ice sculptures.

Mixed in with the ice are boulders ranging in size from a shoe to a sofa. Ninety feet above, gaps in the ceiling correspond with each rock piled below.

The combination of loose boulders and wet ice means any movement in the cave is slow and tedious. At one point, Bahr straps herself back onto the rope just to walk to the far wall. By the time she's done with her measurements and each climber begins to ascend, the sun has set and the mouth of Heaven's Gate is dark.

"The mindset that we kind of come in here with," Bahr said, "is that kind of the time you start getting cold, wet and miserable is the time to go home."

The 'Walkabout'

Back on the surface, the cavers fold up their mud-covered clothing and coil the ropes. The caving is done, but the hike out remains. The cliffs that made for beautiful scenery on the hike in, turn into unwelcome surprises after midnight. For three hours, the cavers pick their way through the moonlit wilderness based on ridgelines, long-melted snowmobile trails and the light of a single distant campfire.

What Schenk jokingly calls a "walkabout" turns into a slow and meandering march to find the dusty trail.

It's almost two in the morning by the time they reach the car and turn toward Logan.

Twelve hours earlier, Bahr was sitting on the floor of Black Crack looking at a homemade map of the cave by headlamp. Somewhere between where she sat and the mouth of the cave were a couple of tunnels. According to the map, those tunnels have never been explored. The search for the underground unknown will keep the car full of cavers busy for a long time.

Tomorrow morning, Bahr will sleep in.

The morning after that, she's going back to the caves.

Contact reporter Benjamin Zack at 801-625-4291, Follow him on Twitter at @benjaminzack


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