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 cold, dank, muddy darkness of a cave system hundreds of feet deep.
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. My backpack 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 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. The U.S. Forest Service counts at least 600 caves in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest but freely admits it has no idea how many there are. Only a fraction have been surveyed and mapped.
Laina McNichols watches and waits as Karl “Dusty” Goldscheider takes one last look around before descending down a rope and into Wolff’s Pit, one of two entrances into the Wolff’s Cave system. Members of the Oregon Grotto, the Portland and Vancouver area chapter of the National Speleological Society, make a hobby out of exploring and charting these dark reaches. They 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.
One of the group’s goals is to find, survey and map as many caves as it can in the area between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Last summer the group mapped Wolff’s Cave, a unique and technically challenging project.
At its widest point this 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 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.
There’s really not enough space for the whole party — Garry Petrie, Tom Peterson, Ken and Ruth Stickney, and me — all to be in here at once.
Getting into the next, larger room requires a hand-rope rappel down a tight and twisting 6-foot chute, reminiscent of climbing through a toilet to enter your basement. I’m nervous. My instructor, Peterson, who is taller but narrower at the shoulders than I am, is apprehensive to go in. This is one of the few places he’s gotten stuck.
The smallest person in our group must lead from here.
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.
“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,” 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. 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 in 1970. It was forgotten until Petrie rediscovered it in some old caving documents about 10 years ago.
“I’m pretty sure it was vacant for 30 or 40 years, “ Petrie said.
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 multi-hour expeditions to chart the depths. Using a surveying laser and hand-sketching scale maps, the group has measured a system about 1,350 feet long and 220 feet deep, with potentially more undiscovered territory.
The known bottom and geologic wonders therein are reachable by a mix of long rappels, scrambling through the darkness over large boulders and crawling through oppressive gaps.
“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.”
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 am 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.
Wolff’s is 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.
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 rooms within the cave.
When Petrie decided to survey the cave, the Grotto members rallied. On the weekends, Karl “Dusty” Goldscheider, a veteran caver from Mount Vernon, Washington, rigged the cave to 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 — 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. The walls glimmer with every sweep of my headlamp. My companions forgive my naiveté and explain that I’m seeing just a colony of common cave bacteria.
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 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.
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.
“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 to protect caves as natural resources. That includes prohibiting 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 Caves to the south of Mount St. Helens.
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, including Washington.
“A huge concern for us is keeping that out of the caves,” Muise said.
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.
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. When spooked, these bugs leap straight at what frightens them.
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,” Ruth Stickney said.
Garry 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. 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.”
It’s at the bottom where the most amazing features lie. We’re three of maybe a dozen people to ever enter this space.
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 cracks and alcoves are “soda straws” — ivory toned hollow mineral formations between two and six inches long formed by slowly dripping water. Other formations resemble tiny white trees denuded of all their foliage and other fluffy-looking formations look like 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.
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.
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. He wants to make his maps at a quality high enough to be published in a guidebook. He understands the desire to protect the resources, but at the same time, he’s thinking about inspiring a future generation of cavers.
“Grottos have to renew their membership over time. You have to take people out there. If you don’t, your organization will die out,” 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.”