By Stephen Eginoire
There’s a part of me that hesitates once I have a good look over the edge. The cliff is dizzying, standing about 600 feet tall. Like the prow of a giant ship, the smooth wall curves downward and away. I sweep off a few loose rocks perched near the lip of the precipice, they fall for many seconds and explode on the slope far below. Watching a falling object while exposed to big heights can be gut wrenching and thus inspires another safety check. Harness: double-backed. D-ring: locked. Descender: locked and loaded. End of rope: secured to piñon pine. Confidence: moderate. Our intended destination is a huge, gaping black hole located directly in the middle of the cliff. It’s safe to assume no one has ever entered it, and that’s about enough convincing our small research team needs.
Rock of the Ages
“Like any stage of the hydrologic process, we have our own peculiarities, our organs making us nothing more than water pools or springs of bizarre shape, filled with pulsing tubes and chambers.” – Craig Childs
The Redwall is one of the Grand Canyon’s defining layers. A majestic sweep of painted stone, the Redwall is as continuous throughout the length of the canyon as it is difficult to negotiate. All travel routes in or out of the Grand Canyon hinge on one thing: a way through the Redwall. As awe-inspiring as this 350-million-year-old former seabed is to gaze upon, it seems fitting that within this layer of pure limestone, a prehistoric frontier older than the Grand Canyon itself is being realized.
This story begins long before the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon into existence, when the Redwall was deep within the earth. Subjected to an unfathomable amount of pressure, water and gas pushing upward permeated the soluble limestone bedrock like a drop of liquid on a sugar cube. This acidic solution of water and gas swirled out laterally following faults and joints, dissolving anything in its path, leaving behind a vast complex of interconnected tubes and chambers. Scientists call it chemistry. For others, it’s magic.
Meanwhile, from above, another hidden process works its magic. Lured downward by gravity, rainwater and snowmelt percolate through a porous exterior of sinkholes located on the surface. Bound for unknown aquifers deep inside the earth, this intake of fresh water is responsible for the development of subterranean rivers capable of traveling for miles on end within this immense sheet of limestone bedrock.
On the surface, in what is now northwestern Arizona, the ravenous Colorado River was on its way to devouring through a billion and a half years of geologic history. Layer by layer, underlying strata was exposed by the river and promptly downcut. Fueled by runoff from snow and rain, the Colorado River and its tributaries proved merciless, their unrelenting fury swiftly incising a canyon 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep.
“The desert, being an unwanted place, might well be the last stand of life against unlife.” – John Steinbeck
In the Grand Canyon today, the Redwall is a towering cross-section of vertical rock. Along this exposure of downcut earth are perforations, caves that have been sliced open. And the same underground rivers continue to flow, only now they gush into the open canyon like a severed artery.
The resurgence of water from these limestone caves is a sight to behold, often cascading into a sprawling, riparian oasis. These cave springs occur throughout the canyon, supporting the most biologically diverse ecosystems found in the park. The significance of these dramatic hydrologic features is made even more obvious by the fact that the entire park receives its water supply from such a source, a gushing fountain appropriately known as Roaring Springs. In light of climate change and other pressing issues, such as groundwater contamination, it’s no surprise that park resource managers are looking to better understand how this subterranean plumbing system works.
And perhaps no one knows the monumental task of conducting such a study quite like former Grand Canyon hydrologist and cave resource manager, Ben Tobin. Tobin is your quintessential boots-on-the-ground field scientist. You might even say that he enjoys bushwhacking in and out of the canyon during the hottest summer months collecting data. “Sciencing,” he likes to call it.
Tobin and his small team of research assistants have been monitoring 35 cave springs, focusing primarily on the park’s sole water source, Roaring Springs. In a nutshell, they are trying to shed light on a few basic unknowns such as identifying specifically which surface intakes are related to which springs, and how quickly the water moves through the underground system. To do this, Tobin and his team literally dump food-grade fluorescent dye into dozens of sinkholes located high on the North Rim, and then wait to see where and when the dye becomes detectable in the springs far below. It’s an age-honored method known as a “dye trace.” And, having no idea where the dye is going to come out, they must cast as broad a net as possible.
Monitoring 35 springs in the Grand Canyon is not for the faint of heart. Once dye is injected into the water in question, each dye receptor must be collected from the mouth of each cave spring once a month for analyzing. Just one round of collection for all 35 springs requires 25 hours of driving, 180 miles of hiking and 65,000 feet of vertical relief. With only five to eight researchers on hand each month, the logistics are enough to make even the most veteran Grand Canyon field scientist shudder in dread.
Not surprisingly, the results of this comprehensive dye trace project shed light on just how complicated this hydrologic landscape really is. For instance, two separate dye tests crossed underground emerging in separate springs in separate canyons but did not mix. A successful trace of Roaring Springs from intake to resurgence revealed that the water follows a straight-line distance of 23 miles, descending over 6,000-feet vertically. This is by far the deepest die-trace ever completed in the United States, and one of the longest. And whatever is going on in there, it happens fast. Once a source intake for Roaring Springs was identified, Tobin and his team began observing storm responses in the spring in just two days, confirming just how quickly water moves through the system. But this is only one of hundreds of freshwater springs flowing and feeding into the Colorado River, most of which are from sources unknown.
When Ben Tobin informed resource managers that a 20-year study would be required to fully understand the inner workings of this drainage basin, he was met with disbelief. The unfortunate reality of scientific research in our national parks, especially in this political era, is the challenge of getting work approved and funded. Even though water-related science should be a top priority in an increasingly drought-prone climate, funding for Tobin and his research is stretched thin. Unable to continue his work, Tobin eventually left the Grand Canyon to pursue other research with the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky. At the time of this story, the park is still without a cave and hydrology resource manager. This should certainly raise some eyebrows, considering the amount of water the cave system contributes to the Colorado River.
Measurements of water discharge are taken at two sites on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: one at the upstream end, at Lee’s Ferry, and the other at the downstream end, at Diamond Creek. Pulling out all the data from snow runoff, monsoon peaks and dam releases, the gauge is consistently 10 to 20-percent higher at Diamond Creek. This means 10 to 20-percent of the Colorado River as it leaves the Grand Canyon is sourced from cave springs emerging from the Redwall limestone.
“If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind.” – John Krakauer
Located high on the Redwall are caves different than those linear veins of life-giving water. They are a maze of fault-bound joints and fissures, dissolved from acidic groundwater penetrating the limestone bedrock from below. Unlike the telltale sprawl of lush vegetation sprouting from a cave spring, the portal to this subterranean realm could be a silent black hole lurking in the middle of a 600-foot cliff. What might be viewed as a random detail, or even a shadow, could be the entrance to a labyrinth so vast and remote, that again, it is no surprise that park resource managers are keen to know the true extent and contents of such caves.
However, understanding what can’t be directly observed presents obvious challenges. Caves, by nature, are completely hidden from view. They can’t be identified through satellite imagery or mapped from the air. GPS does not work in caves. The only way to know if a cave exists is to physically go there. And the only way to know the true footprint of a cave system is to map it … by hand. Only through a comprehensive survey donning primitive tools such as notebooks, pencils and measuring devices can we realize a cave system and the details found within.
A thoughtful blend of science and art, a cave survey is no easy task. It can take years, or decades, before a survey is considered finished. To plot a course through a cave’s passage, labeled survey stations are set up by line of sight, for which data can be linked. A station is more or less a piece of flagging that identifies a certain point within the cave. The distance, compass bearing and vertical angle are measured from point to point to generate a lineplot of where the cave is going. On a piece of grid paper, the cave passage surrounding the lineplot is sketched by pencil to scale, using different map symbols to identify key features such as walls, boulders and formations. Representing a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane can take years of practice to do well. Each individual sketch page is scanned into a computer and drafted onto the overall map of the cave. It is this “master map” that reveals the true blueprint of a cave, placing all of the passages contained within into visual context. In the field of cave science, a cave survey provides the foundation from which all future studies are conducted.
Meet 40-year-old software engineer and father of two from the San Diego suburbs, Jason Ballensky. Domestic as he may sound, Ballensky is a modern-day Grand Canyon pioneer. The austere nature of the Grand Canyon compares quite well to his unfiltered personality, making him ideally suited to cover countless miles over the roughest terrain the canyon has to offer. And when it comes to finding caves, Ballensky is as dedicated as they come. He and his team of cave specialists operate through a self-funded research permit issued by the park. Their goal is simple: find caves and map them.
With the notion that something truly grand likely exists within the Redwall, Ballensky dedicated himself to finding it. By identifying areas with the highest potential for cave development, he systematically worked through each location, until he found what he was looking for. The discovery was Leandra’s Cave, its survey revealing more than 9 miles of large-scale subterranean passages. It was a huge find, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. Approaching Leandra’s Cave, Ballensky and team had no idea they were hiking directly over the top of an even bigger hole. And it wasn’t until Ballensky stood on the opposite side of the canyon did he catch a glimpse of the giant opening. On that same day in October 2008, Ballensky rappelled from the rim of the Redwall, landing him where no other human had ever set foot, at a place now known as Double Bopper Cave.
Currently, Double Bopper’s total length measures over 40 miles, its true extent still unknown. The cave includes five known portals in two separate canyons, remnants of former passages splayed open by water down-cutting through the Redwall on either side of the cave. It is possible to travel from one side of the mesa to the other, underground. Inside, rare, glass-like crystals called gypsum flowers spiral out and away from walls with a mind of their own. They occur in such abundance that those studying the cave are often left in a state of disbelief. The mummified remains of ringtail cat, wood rat, raccoon, fox and thousands of bats are also a common sight throughout Double Bopper’s maze of passages. These perfectly preserved mammals represent a timeline in the natural history of the Grand Canyon.
Double Bopper offers us a window into an intact world that pre-dates human existence, and even the Grand Canyon itself. Better understanding this remarkable discovery and the secrets it may hold begins with producing an accurate map of the cave and a thorough inventory of its contents. To this end, Ballensky and his team have dedicated one week of every year mapping Double Bopper since its discovery. Backpacking to the cave’s remote location and mapping virgin, uncharted terrain in the Grand Canyon is, for some, the ultimate experience.
Wilderness within Wilderness
“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map.” – Aldo Leopold
Caves are one of the few places left on Earth where wilderness exists in pure form. Uninfluenced by human progress, caves are hidden worlds that will remain so long after our time on this planet has expired. There’s an argument out there that some places are better left untouched, to be as they are. What is it about human curiosity that draws us to these blank spots on the map, to explore the unknown even if it means leaving traces of our passing? The thrill of being first? Contributing to a greater understanding of the world in which we live? Probably a little bit of both. It is true that caves are extremely sensitive to human visitation, especially those found in the Grand Canyon. One boot print in virgin terrain, and forever that place is changed. It is part of our human nature to be curious, to pursue communal knowledge, and to look for answers. And in the Grand Canyon’s case, there are few places where a timeline is so perfectly intact and observable. Where an abundance of fresh, clean water flows freely from stone, giving life to the canyon’s inhabitants and to all those who depend on it downstream.
“Most climbers aren't in fact deranged, they're just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition.” – John Krakauer
There is always a moment that happens right before you take a risk. It’s a powerful combination of fear and focus that culminates after examining the circumstances and deciding to move forward. The world, except for the one you are in, washes away like sand from stone. It’s a glimpse of the ultimate that can’t be denied.
As I sit back in my harness, slowly feeding the rope through my descender, I certainly can’t deny how much space is between me and the ground below. I’ve done this a hundred times, and rappelling off the edge of Redwall is always scary. Descending, my eyes are fixated on the rope that is neatly stacked in a bag clipped to my harness. I watch the pile get smaller and smaller the farther down I go. There’s only enough to get me about 300 vertical feet down a cliff twice that length, so I sure as hell don’t want to get too close the end of the rope. At a good stopping point, I construct an anchor. It is here that I deploy a different, thinner rope to tackle the overhanging terrain below. In sight is a humongous recess, as big as I’ve ever seen; a promising entry point into a potential virgin cave. My heart beats faster. The thinner rope moves rapidly through my descender, and before long I see flecks of aluminum sparkling on the rope as it carves through the descender’s bobbins. I can feel the burn of friction heat generating through my leather gloves. In fact, I am death-gripping the brake, which means if I let go, even for a second … . Gripped by the fear of potentially losing control of the rappel, I tie myself off, dangling in open space. The recess below bellows perpetual darkness, silently begging me to be the first human to cast eyes into its lair. Or is it my ego that’s begging? I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way, giving into that voice. Exploring caves is special, but so is life back on the surface. Fastening my ascending devices to the rope, and unthreading my descender, I radio my team, “I’m coming back up.”
Stephen Eginoire is the publisher and managing editor of The Gulch. His work explores the complexity of place, especially those seldom visited and hard to reach.