Prince of Wales Island 2023 caving expedition

This past week July 8th thru July 15th, I returned to Prince of Wales Island for a week long caving expedition. I was there for a week last summer as part of a Glacier Grotto/US Forest Service expedition to explore and map unexplored caves on the island. This year we were returning to continue exploration of caves we left going last year, and to start exploring new caves in the area.

I was most excited to return to Fast and Heavy Cave, a cave on El Cap Peak (several hundred feet from the famous El Cap Pit, the deepest pit in the US) that we first entered and started exploring last year. Last year we made it down several drops to ~270 ft deep and turned around at an open pit taking water and sucking air because we ran out of bolts on the last day of the expedition. I had been thinking about that lead for the entire year since then! What lie beyond that pit? More and bigger shafts descending deeper into the mountain? Miles of borehole taking all the water that seeps into the earth on the mountain and reappears thousands of feet below? Now it was time to return and find out!

We had 13 people on the expedition this year—Amelia Fatykhova, Anna Harris, Christian DeCelle, Ellen Whittle, Gooseberry Peter, Hannah Keith, Ian Chechet, Ian Clark, Jared Higgs, John Dunham, Michael Ketzner, Reilly Blackwell, and myself (photo credits to all of them for the pictures on this blog post!). The plan was for 6 of us (me, Christian, Michael, Amelia, Reilly, and John) to hike up to El Cap Peak and camp up there for 4 days, close to the caves up there, to continue exploration of the caves up there that we started last year. We were only hiking up to 2400 ft, but the peak is without real trails and full of dense vegetation, so the approach still took some effort. Christian, Michael and I would return to Fast and Heavy, while Amelia, Reilly and John would return to Jessica’s Razorblade Rodeo, a cave they found and started exploring last year. The others would stay at basecamp next to the ocean and the El Cap guide cabin and spend their days exploring caves on the neighboring Kosciusko Island and lower down on El Cap Peak.

The 6 of us (L to R: Amelia, Michael, Reilly, Christian, Me, John) at the El Cap guide cabin down at the ocean, about to head up El Cap Peak for 4 days

After way too long packing and repacking our bags that morning (as always), we set off for El Cap Peak at 9am. This year we had a cut and flagged trail to follow most of the way up, which was a nice contrast from last year when we were questing through dense brush and up steep gullies with big boulders for most of the way. Christian, Hannah, Ian Clark and Jared did an excellent job of cutting and flagging the trail up there in the weeks leading up to the expedition—huge shoutout to them! Another pleasant difference from last year was that the brush was dry because it had been sunny without rain for several days prior, so we didn’t get soaked from walking through wet vegetation, as we all did last year.

One of the many gorgeous views on the hike up to El Cap Peak

We arrived at our high camp right at noon. 3 hours for that approach is not too bad considering it took us that amount of time or longer last year with daypacks. This year we had camping gear, 4 days worth of food, much more rope and drill batteries and bolts, in addition to all of our caving gear. I had the big 18V Bosch drill, not the lightweight M12s that all the other teams were using, so my pack was especially heavy. The cut and flagged trail (and some of the rope and bolts being stashed most of the way up) really made a huge difference.
Ready to hike up El Cap Peak with 525 ft of 11mm rope, among other things. Heavy!

Despite carrying so much weight up the hill, one thing we stupidly did not pack enough of was day food. We all had plenty of food for breakfast and dinner (me and Christian shared a darren drum full of dinner mix that I made, very loosely based off the Cheve dinner mix recipe), but for some reason when we packed day food we all just grabbed a few fistfuls of snacks, shoved it into our packs, and thought “good enough”. Well, it was not good enough—we were all consistently hungry during the days despite eating huge breakfasts and dinners. I even devolved to bringing a stick of butter into the cave (which we had to add to the dinner mix) and eating that straight off the stick in the cave for the calories. Next time bring more snacks!
One food item we did have that was quite nice was homemade dried salmon. The previous week, Anna caught a bunch of salmon, and Christian dried them in the oven and vacuum sealed them so we could take them into the caves for snacks. Eating chunks of delicious Alaskan salmon in the cave was quite the morale booster. Thanks Anna and Christian!

Some freshly caught Alaskan salmon, courtesy of Anna, that we cooked for dinner one night at basecamp

Cooking dinner at high camp up on El Cap Peak

Our campsite was a set of flat, open shores next to 2 small ponds for water. The ponds were brown, shallow, stagnant, and full of mosquito larvae. Not the ideal water source, but it would get the job done. We had a filter, altho we quickly clogged it trying to filter the sediment-filled water. Christian and I decided to just drink the water straight, as we were annoyed trying to deal with the finicky filter. The others instead treated the water with the backup chemical treatment options they brought, and used a cloth bag to filter out the larger sediment and the mosquito larvae squirming around in the water. Neither of us got sick.

Our scenic camp up on El Cap Peak, with our gross brown water source visible

I didn’t want to haul a tent all the way up there, but rain was a real possibility, if not a certainty (Prince of Wales island is a rainforest after all). So I decided to experiment with some tarpology for my camp setup. I strung a tarp over a flat piece of ground by tying the corners to trees and rocks, and used a contractor trash bag as my ground sheet. This setup did indeed keep me dry when it rained later that week. A shelter setup with weight comparable to those $$$ ultralight backpacking tents, with $10 of parts from the hardware store—not bad!


My “ultralight” shelter setup: a tarp, which I tied to some trees and rocks, and a contractor trash bag as my ground sheet. This kept me plenty dry in the rain. Ultralight backpacking on a budget!

We broke this filter trying to filter water with too much sediment in it
We took our time unpacking and repacking our bags at camp, as we were carrying a mix of gear to be left at camp and to be brought to the caves. By the time we got to Fast and Heavy it was already 4pm. The others down at basecamp wanted us to radio that we were OK every day before 8pm, so we only had a few hours to cave that first day. That day I just rigged down to last year’s low point, while fixing some of the janky exploration rigging from last year (making all rebelays 2 bolts, putting some pitch head anchors in a better spot, etc). This took longer than it should have because the 400 ft rope I was using to rig was in a caver coil that got all tangled up as I tried to uncoil it. I can’t stand caver coils! While I dealt with the horribly tangled rope, Christian and Michael resketched some parts of Fast and Heavy from last year that lacked detail.

Christian near the top of the cave (at A5) adding detail to the sketch, while I took my time rigging

I got to the low point from last year (A12 [the profile lineplot is at the end of this blog post, so you can see where these survey stations are in the cave]), rigged the pit that we turned around at least year, but the drill battery died before I could get a rebelay below the lip, so we turned around there day 1 without getting to the bottom of that pit. From above, it didn’t look that promising—it looked like a breakdown plug. We would have to return tomorrow to see where that pit went, if it went anywhere.
Christian approaching the second rebelay in the Fast and Loose Shaft (between A10 and A11), the nice big drop we dug into last year

Me doing some rerigging near the entrance, at A4. My cave suit is as clean as it will be all week!

The next day I continued rigging while Christian and Michael surveyed (which is how it went the whole trip). I got to the bottom of that short, 30ft pit, which had a breakdown floor with a too tight breakdown filled crawl going off from the bottom (A15). Altho the crawl was too tight as it was, it looked like a super easy, highly promising dig, as I could easily remove small breakdown from the floor to make it passable, and the too tight passage continued out of sight. I immediately jumped in the crawl and started hurling rocks out of it as fast as I could.
Michael rappelling down the first new pit we explored in Fast and Heavy this year (A13)

One thing I noticed when digging out this crawl that was new from last year was strong airflow. The crawlway was sucking quite a bit of air, very noticeable. Last year there was some air at the small pit entry that we turned around, but it was quite faint—you couldn’t feel it, but rather you could see the mist moving in front of your headlamp, probably because it was cold outside. Now there was a genuine wind in the crawl that I could feel chilling my face. I knew this cave was gonna go! There was also some wet sloppy mud in this crawl cementing the rocks together. The mud was quite cold (we used the BRIC4 to measure the cave temperature: 37.8 F, colder than we thought). With the ripping air and the wet mud I had to dig vigorously to stay warm.

 Me covered in mud, in contrast to Michael who is squeaky clean, after digging out the muddy crawl. Somehow this always seems to happen when I cave: I always get covered in slime while everyone else stays clean!

Another interesting thing I found while digging open this crawl was a set of 3 bones, likely from a bird (?), buried in the breakdown. Christian took them out of the cave (with official USFS permission) so they can be identified and dated. I look forward to hearing about what they are and how old they are—I bet they are quite old, given that they were buried in the breakdown several hundred feet deep in the cave [update: the forest service got the bones dated, and they are 3430 years old. And they are raven bones. Cool!].