Caving in the Grand Canyon: Silent River Cave

This past Memorial Day Weekend (May 24-28), I went on a caving trip in the Grand Canyon. We had 8 people: Jason Ballensky (who organized the trip), Rachel Saker, Justinn James (JJ), Stan Allison, Hailey Galit, Robin Thomas, Sam Marks, and myself (credit to all of them for many of these pictures!). We backpacked in the afternoon of Friday the 24th after meeting up at midday at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, camped above the cave and caved for 3 days, and hiked out the morning of Tuesday the 28th.

Many people are surprised to hear that the Grand Canyon has caves, since people associate the towering red cliffs of the Grand Canyon with sandstone, not cave-forming limestone. But in fact one of the major cliff-forming rock layers of the Grand Canyon is the Redwall Limestone, which is naturally grey but is stained red by layers of red shale and sandstone above it. The Redwall Limestone is a great cave-forming rock—it is from the Mississipian era, the same geologic era as other cave-forming limestones in the western US such as the Madison Limestone and Pahasapa Limestone.

I met up with Stan Allison in Farmington, 3 hours northwest of Albuquerque, the night before the trip, and we drove together to the Grand Canyon the next morning. We met up with everyone around midday, spent an hour or so packing our bags and picking out group gear to carry, and set off for our campsite above Silent River Cave early that afternoon. The hike in to our campsite above the cave was typical of Grand Canyon caving approaches: beautiful, wild, off-trail, and thus somewhat rough with plenty of steep/loose terrain and bushwhacking. We started descending from the north rim area around 2pm and were quickly rewarded with wonderful views of the canyon when we got to the rim itself, which was a short distance from the road.

Jason and Alex at the rim of the Grand Canyon

Jason and me at our first view of the Grand Canyon on our approach to the cave, at the rim.

The view from the rim of the Grand Canyon. Large red cliffs visible.

The view from the rim. The large red cliffs are Redwall Limestone, which is the great cave-forming rock layer in the Grand Canyon. From here we descended into that thick brush.

It was only 1 mile from the rim to camp, but it took over 3 hours (!!!) since there was not trail and we had many obstacles along the way: bushwhacking through dense vegetation with plenty of thornbushes, carefully negotiating some steep gullies where missteps could send loose rocks tumbling down the gully onto people below, and tricky climbs down small cliff bands where we lowered our packs to make the climbing easier. We got to camp in the late afternoon with plenty of daylight left to set up camp and collect water from the cave. The campsite is not the best: it's a dry wash in smooth, water-polished bedrock, scarce on flat space for sleeping and cooking/hanging out. The drainage floods if it rains a little, so we made sure to check the weather right before leaving and verify that there was no chance of rain before setting up camp there. Our campsite made up for its less-than-ideal topography with its amazing views and surreal location within the depths of the Grand Canyon right above a huge Redwall Limestone cliff, and right above the cave. When hanging out at camp we could see towering red cliffs all around and above us. And the dry wash, despite presenting a flood risk and not having a ton of flat ground, did have the perk that the smooth, water-polished bedrock of the wash was very pleasant to walk around on barefoot.

Several of us standing on a slope next to a snowpatch

There were several small patches of snow in shady nooks on the approach. These provided a nice cold respite from the heat.

Most of us set up our campsites in the wash, set back from the lip a bit. Sam was the boldest and set up her campsite right at the edge of the cliff! Certainly her boldness rewarded her with the best setting and views when going to sleep and waking up in the morning. For my camping setup I brought (at Jason's suggestion) my single-point-suspension portaledge hammock. This portaledge-hammock hybrid allows you to rig a hammock-like sleeping setup from a single point such as one tree (unlike hammock which require 2 rigging points with just the right geometry). The inflatable sleeping pad you embed in the bottom results in a much flatter sleeping surface than a hammock, although it's not quite as flat as a portaledge. Still, it's an order of magnitude lighter and smaller than a traditional rigid-framed portaledge, which means you can feasibly carry it with you when backpacking, even when carrying a bunch of other heavy things like caving gear. The first night I setup my portaledge-hammock in a tree just outside the wash.

A sleeping bag and sleeping pad right at the edge of a cliff. Large impressive red cliffs in the distance.

Sam's camp setup right at the edge of the Redwall Limestone cliff. The rock in the dry wash where we setup camp is grey, not red like most of the other Redwall Limestone, because occasional floods wash away the red stains that come from other rock layers above and color the rest of the Redwall.

From our camp in the dry wash, you access the cave by going into the forest outside the wash a bit, to a large cluster of bushes where we rigged our rope. From there you rappel thru the steep forested slope to the top of the large Redwall Limestone cliff right below our camp. The cave entrance is a huge hole in the cliff shortly below its top that we rappel into. The first night we went into the cave to collect water for that night and the next morning. There are some drips in the ceiling a few minutes into the cave that are the only water source around, as the surface is totally dry. By the time we had gotten our camp setup and collected water from the cave, it was about 7pm, time to make dinner (which for me for every meal was my homemade Dinner Mix loosely based off the Cheve Dinner Mix) then start winding down for the night.

Someone rappelling over a cliff into a large cave entrance in the cliff

Jason rappelling into the entrance of Silent River Cave.

Our plan was to do long trips to leads near the back of the cave (about 3 hours travel time) on our 1st and 3rd caving days, and a short trip to some leads closer to the entrance on the 2nd day of caving. The 1st caving day, Saturday the 25th, Stan Allison took Hailey Galit and me out to a lead he had found and started surveying on his previous trip to Silent River, 2 years ago. It took 3.5 hours to get to the lead, although that was with plenty of stops for routefinding, regrouping, seeing some nice formations in side passages, etc. Later we would make it out to that lead and back much faster. The travel through Silent River Cave was sporty and challenging, in a fun way. There was lots of climbing, stemming, and a little bit of crawling, with plenty of mud and loose rock around to keep you on your toes. Very unlike typical Grand Canyon caving, which is stereotyped as lots of large easy borehole although with heinous off-trail approach hikes. One way that Silent River Cave is like other Grand Canyon caves is that it is very decorated. On the way in to the lead we passed fantastic gypsum needles, and a gypsum rope formation, which I didn't even know was a thing before seeing it here.

A gypsum rock formation that looks like a braided rope

A gypsum rope formation. That white rope-like material not a manmade textile, but gypsum rock.

More wild gypsum formations.

Close up of strangely shaped white rock formations

Some nice aragonite and popcorn decorations in the main passage.

One annoying part of the travel out to the lead is that it required us to get our feet wet when travelling thru a wide canyon with ankle-deep pools. I did not think I was going to get my feet wet on this trip, and so I only brought cotton socks—oops! Caving with wet feet all day was slightly demoralizing, although I did manage to dry my socks out the night after that trip by sleeping with them.

7 cavers sitting on a breakdown pile in large passage

An important intersection where all 8 of us stopped and split up into separate teams on the first day.

Our lead was at the current known end of the E survey, a passage which Stan and his team started exploring on their previous trip to Silent River. After travelling thru E1-33, we stopped at the limit of exploration E33 to get setup for surveying. E1-33 was small walking passage, with minor obstacles such as short crawls, some stemming, and narrow sideways-walking. The passage continued beyond E33 as larger walking passage, although it quickly shrunk to breakdown crawling. After a few stations we popped through the breakdown into a very different character passage and I was delighted to lay my eyes upon what lie beyond the breakdown. Not only did the passage change character to a larger, stand-up walking canyon, but this canyon also had a calcified crystal formation on the floor following the flat streambed, not unlike the Snowy River formation in Fort Stanton Cave that I just blogged about. This Snowy-like formation had a light brown color, not quite the creamy white of Snowy River proper, but it was unmistakably morphologically the same as it had the same cauliflower texture and flat flooded streambed origin as Snowy River.

A light brown calcite coating in the floor of a canyon

The Snowy-River-like formation where we first found it, where it was light brown.

A light brown section of Snowy that abruptly changes to white on one side

Something interesting happened at a (dry) eddy pool in the canyon. In the eddy area, the Snowy formation abruptly changed to pearly white, in contrast to the light brown color in the main portion of the dry streambed. I think this is because the light brown color is caused by dirt, and dirt particles are too heavy/have too much momentum to get sucked into the eddy pool when this passage flows with water.

Now that we were at the floor of the canyon passage that was the E survey, not higher up above breakdown, the travel and survey became much more pleasant. The passage was mostly upright walking, 2-4 ft wide. We eagerly surveyed ahead, following the Snowy River passage in the floor the whole time. To our excitement, the formation got thicker, wider, and more pearly white in color as we continued down our E survey. Several times the path of least resistance in the passage brought us to an upper level above Snowy, but it was never far from us, and the travel stayed relatively easy the whole time.

Snowy going under a low roof

Part of the passage where Snowy goes under a low roof and the path of least resistance goes above Snowy (but not far). Note the series of small rimstone dams in the passage.

Cauliflower texture on the Snowy formation

Here you can see the cauliflower texture of the Snowy formation, very similar to the texture of the actual Snowy River in Fort Stanton.

When it was getting time to turn around to head back to the entrance and to camp, we went a few stations further so we doubled the number of stations in this passage (we went from E33 to E66). This worked out well because E66 was at a pleasant, large room, about 15 ft in diameter, and would be a good spot to unpack and restart the survey when we returned in 2 days. At this room the passage and the Snowy formation visibly continued off into the unknown. We surveyed 583 ft that day in a trip that was a little under 13 hours.

We got back to camp a little after 9pm and told everyone about our exciting find and good amount of survey footage. They were all happy to hear that our lead was going quite well, as the other teams didn't have any huge finds. Rachel and JJ were still in the middle of their aid climb, and Jason and Sam's pit leads at the back of the cave didn't go very far.

A caver lead climbing high up in a tall pit

Rachel in the middle of the aid climb that she and JJ worked on that weekend.

That night, Sam had the excellent idea of using my portaledge hammock to bivvy on the rim of the cliff right below camp, instead of in an unassuming tree set back from the edge in the forest. How epic would it be to fall asleep in a portaledge hammock rigged to our rope going over the Redwall Limestone, and to wake up hanging on a sheer cliff with nothing but the walls of the Grand Canyon around me in all directions? It would be a bit of an ordeal getting set up to bivvy at the rim, especially at this late hour of the night, as the portaledge hammock is pretty awkward to get into without a good ledge to stand on and use to move yourself into position. Even when it's rigged right above flat ground, it's still a bit awkward to get into the hammock and into your sleeping bag. Still, I knew that a few minutes of awkward struggling getting into the hammock while hanging from a rope on a sheer vertical cliff would be worth it for such a legendary bivvy. Once I got hammock rigged to the right spot on the rope just below the rim, I used my ascenders to carefully and awkwardly down-ascend into the hammock. Once I was comfortably sitting in it, I switched from being attached to the rope via my ascenders to being attached to a knot in the rope via my cowstails, which gave me more slack and room to toss and turn. With some difficulty I got myself wrapped up in my sleeping bag and went off to bed. I slept with my vertical gear (harness and such) on, and didn't even bother taking my shoes off (I just loosened the laces) because I didn't feel like doing the awkward free-hanging situp in the hammock to fully grab them and take them off.

When I got into my hammock and fell asleep, it was pitch black out, which made waking up the next morning all the more dramatic and surreal. I was dangling in a little fabric cocoon by a few thin straps that held the hammock to the rope, with a sheer vertical wall of the Grand Canyon pressed up against one side of me, a magnificent view of more of the canyon meandering off into the distance on the other side of me, and a long way to the ground beneath me. I basked in the glory of my bivvy for as long as I could, watching the sun-shade line creep down lower on the walls above me as the sun rose higher in the sky, until I couldn't wait any longer to get up because I had to pee. Getting out of the hammock onto the rope was much easier than the other direction the night before. I carefully packed up my hammock while dangling on the rope, making sure not to drop my sleeping bag which wasn't really attached to anything as I got out of it, then climbed up over the rim and walked over to surface camp, eager to tell everyone how marvelous my night on the rim was.

A hammock hanging at the top of a sheer cliff that is the top of the Grand Canyon

My bivvy at the top of the Redwall Limestone. The large entrance to Silent River Cave is below.

The next day at camp I realized that while hiking my hammock setup thru the brush to the rope we had rigged off a tree, I had popped my Thermarest inflatable sleeping pad. I thought I had the sleeping pad wrapped up and well protected by the hammock when I dragged it thru the brush, but I guess not well protected enough. Thankfully I brought some Gorilla tape with me in case this happened, and I was able to patch it. Tape, especially sturdy impermeable tape like duct tape or Gorilla tape, is a great emergency repair material to bring with you when backpacking, and I always do.

That next day was slated to be an easier, shorter day of caving, in between our planned longer days of caving at leads near the back of the cave. I personally was eager to return to our E survey, but also didn't mind a shorter day as the previous day did have quite a bit of commuting. I went with Jason, Hailey, and Robin to check out some high leads within half an hour or so of the entrance. The first objective was to ascend the rope on an aid climb that Tommy Cleckner did on a previous trip, check if it goes, and pull the rope down if not. Jason was pretty sure it didn't go but wanted a second look before pulling the rope down. When I got up there, I did get a little further than Tommy did by trenching out the dirt floor of a too-tight squeeze, but the small amount of passage ended in breakdown shortly after, so I decided to pull the rope. I set up a pull-down rappel, came down, and started pulling the rope. It pulled down partway only to get stuck after the other end was out of reach! Both me and Jason bounced on it with our combined bodyweight and we could not get it to move any further. I could see what was stuck above us: it seems that the other end of the rope got twisted and tangled around the end we were pulling. After some time spend struggling with the rope to no avail, we declared that retrieving the rope was a lost cause and decided that someone would have to come back with aid climbing gear to climb partway up to the tangle in order to untangle it and retrieve the rope. Not a great start to the day so far: we were down one rope.

After that, the 4 of us went to some other high leads around the cave that looked free-climbable. We were looking to see where the air in the cave went. At the entrance the cave sucks air and it's very strong, although the air disappears shortly into the cave. We wanted to check out a few possible leads at a complex junction area just past where the air disappears, in hopes of finding the air and thus hopefully much more passage. Me and Jason chimneyed up into the ceiling of the passage in a few interesting-looking spots, but could not find any free-climbable way into new passage. I also checked a tight hole in the breakdown in the floor of the passage at one spot, but this didn't go very far. We then exited the cave, feeling mildly defeated after losing one rope and failing to get anywhere while poking around in the ceiling and floor.

That night everyone got out of the cave fairly early (a little after 4pm for my team), with plenty of daylight left (except Rachel and JJ, who had a longer day working on their aid climb). When we got out, Sam surprised us all with some fun little luxuries she packed in for us to enjoy during our one shorter day with liesure time on the surface. She brought in fun colored ties for everyone to wear, and nice chocolates, and a little boxed wine. It was time for a fancy party! We all donned a tie, looking somewhat silly with our one formal article of clothing on top of our dirty cave clothes or slightly-less-dirty camp clothes. I actually brought a collared shirt for my camp shirt (because I like linen in the heat) which went well with the tie.

A bunch of us at camp with ties on

Us hanging out at camp with our fancy ties.

We spent the rest of our daylight on that liesurely evening hanging out at camp and getting up to various shenanigans such as acro yoga. Sam already knew some, and Stan and Jason tried it for the first time. It was fun to do that in such a unique location, although it was a little bit of a challenge being stable in the wash which wasn't perfectly flat nor even.

Alex and Stan doing acro yoga. Alex basing, Stan flying, in the bird pose

I taught Stan this basic acro yoga pose.

Alex and Sam doing acro yoga. Alex basing, Sam flying, in the throne post

Sam and I in the throne pose.

That night, Sam wanted to try out sleeping in the portaledge hammock in a crazy setting just like I did the night before. She took it even further by bivvying not on the edge of the cliff below camp, but dangling from the freehanging rope that drops you into the entrance! After Rachel and JJ got back to camp (so she wouldn't be hogging the rope), Sam set up the hammock portaledge on that freehanging rope. It must have been even more awkward getting into the hammock on a freehanging rope, instead of on a rope with a cliff face on your side like I did the previous night, but she said it was super worth it for the epic bivvy. She woke up to not only the towering red cliffs of the Grand Canyon surrounding her, but also the large impressive cave entrance.

Sam in a portaledge-hammock hanging from a rope in the large entrance to Silent River Cave

Sam in her bivvy in the cave entrance the next morning.

Although I don't think the portaledge-hammock was really necessary to have enough flat(-ish) sleeping spots for everyone, I'm glad I brought it because Sam and I were both really psyched to use it to setup some epic bivvies.

The third and final day of caving, after our relaxing second day, we were all eager for a longer and harder trip. Stan and I were particularly psyched to return to the E survey where we turned around at a good-sized room with the Snowy River formation continuing off into the unknown. Stan, Sam, and I returned to E66, the nice room where we turned around day 1. This time we managed to keep our feet dry by doing some wide, somewhat exposed stemming high above the pools in the bottom of the main canyon passage of the cave. This was a nice morale boost: no need to wear wet socks the whole day. We also made it out there noticeably faster than before. I think our travel time to the lead was 1.5-2 hours, instead of the 3 hours it took each way day 1.

We got set up to survey at this nice room and were delighted to find the passage continuing as even nicer, larger canyon passage, with the Snowy formation still following us the whole way. Just like day 1, we did occasionally have to take high routes above Snowy, but never too far from it, and this time the high bypasses were generally larger, easier srambling above large breakdown instead of crawling in smaller breakdown spaces. The passage had some nice colorful speleothems on the walls, and the Snowy formation got even thicker, wider, and more white. Eventually we ran into pools of water on Snowy, and spots where it got very deep, up to 10 ft of white calcite coating below the paleo flood line. The pools of water were an especially nice find because we didn't pack much water for our day of surveying; I only had half a liter on me and I think the others packed the same.

Tall canyon passage with the Snowy formation covering the bottom half

One of the deeper parts of the Snowy formation. There's a pool of water at the bottom of the depression there, not quite visible.

With the Snowy formation getting more prominent and our shots getting longer in the larger, straighter passage (at one spot we had a 60 ft and 70 ft shot back-to-back), it seemed that this passage was never gonna end! We even passed a few (small, not super promising) side leads on our way. However, our first inclination that something was going to change about this passage came when I saw a bug in the passage lying on a formation. Bugs shouldn't be able to make it this far into the cave. I thought maybe this one got lost and died, as it wasn't moving. Then I saw another bug flying around and I new we had to be getting close to an entrance. This hypothetical entrance would have to be a new entrance, as we knew we weren't heading towards the main entrance. Eventually I started seeing packrat midden (debris they bring in such as leaves, sticks, and bones) on the floor and on ledges in the passage and I knew that this new entrance had to be close. Stan even heard 2 scenic tour helicopters flying around, thru the cave walls, another sign that we had to be close to the surface. He later decided to name this passage "Whirly Bird Passage" after these helicopters.

The passage abruptly changed from large walking passage to a small crawl at E112. There it also got super warm and there were spider webs around. We were all eagerly awaiting popping out of a hole in the Redwall and looking out at the Grand Canyon! But unfortunately, as I went thru a squeeze then turned a corner in the now-low-crawling passage, it ended in dirt fill. It was 3 ft wide, 2 ft high passage that very abruptly ended in a dirt mound (possibly moved around by packrats? They often fill cave entrances shut with debris they bring in). There was not even a too-tight continuation to the passage, and no air. I turned off my light to see if there was any faint daylight poking through, but there was none. After surveying the last few shots to the end (E115), I quickly backed out of the crawl as I was getting quite hot in there. Slightly defeated, we all agreed this was a good time to turn around. The side leads we found would have to wait for another trip.

The 3 of us travelled back to the entrance very efficiently. We made it back from E115 in under 2 hours of travel time, not counting a long break at the intersection near Rachel and JJ's aid climb where we waited for them to be done with their aid climb so we could pick up some aid gear from them to haul out. The 49 stations/1076 ft of new survey that day took only 15 minutes or so to travel due to its large and comfortable nature. And by this point we were well-practiced with traveling thru this passage so the rest of the travel went quickly.

We surveyed 1076 ft that day in a trip that was a little under 13 hours—same length of time as our first day where we only surveyed 583 ft. The nicer passage with easier travel, longer shots, as well as our faster travel time to and from the lead all contributed to us getting much more survey footage this day in the same length trip. The new survey in the Whirly Bird Passage this weekend totalled 1659 ft. There are still a few side leads in the Whirly Bird Passage, so we will surely be back. After Jason entered in the survey data, we saw that the survey put the potential new entrance somewhat close to a cliff lead in the Redwall we could see across camp, although not exactly on it. It could be that this potential new entrance is in fact the cliff lead we could see across camp and the survey is slightly off (much of the data is old, from the compass-and-tape survey era), or the potential new entrance could be somewhere else we can't see from camp. We'll be exploring the area to find it for sure. The dirt plug we found at E115 could probably be dug out, and it would probably be easier from the other side where we would presumably have more space and wouldn't be filling up the low crawling passage with dirt. It would be nice to have a faster way to get to the leads in the E survey, although if accessing this other entrance requires lots of bushwhacking far from camp then it might not save much effort.

That night I just slept on the ground in the wash instead of in my hammock, to save time the next morning when packing up camp to hike out, and because there was enough (barely, but enough) flat space for everyone in the wash. That next morning, Tuesday, we got up at 5am with the aim to start the hike out at 6am, in order to get it done before it got too hot and to give everyone time to drive home that afternoon. Jason, for example, had a long drive back to San Diego and wanted to get it done that Tuesday night. I took a while packing up my camp and didn't get going until 6:30am, but I caught up with everyone ahead of me before we got back to the cars. In fact I was still the first back at the cars (although that certainly would have been Jason had he not gone back to help out someone who was struggling with the hike by taking their pack). The hike out was actually faster than the hike in for me, at slightly under 2 hours rather than 3, despite the fact that it was steeply uphill rather than downhill. This is because steep, loose, vegetated terrain provides more of a challenge going down than going up, and that extra difficulty was greater than the extra difficutly associated with going uphill on the way out.

2 hikers in steep, vegetated, off-trail terrain

Rachel (front) and Hailey on the hike out. Classic Grand Canyon off-trail hiking: steep, loose, and densely vegetated.

I got quite scraped up from all the thorny New Mexico Locust on the way out. Because I wasn't with a group at all times during the hike and was largely just going my own pace, taking my own path between the obvious features, I did not always take the most efficient path. When I wasn't sure the best way to get from point A to point B I generally just went in a straight line, which was often thru dense clusters of thornbushes. At one point, a small bush I was using as a handhold on a steep slope ripped out, and I fell backwards into a bunch of thornbushes. That wasn't too fun. By the time I was back at the cars, my arms and back were aggressively scraped up. That week at UNM people kept asking me what I was up to the past few days when they saw my arms. Of course I was eager to tell them all about the Grand Canyon when they asked.

An arm and back with many scrapes all over

The state of my arms and back after the bushwhacky hike out.

There was a small lake where we parked the cars. Apparently, every other time Jason had been here, the lake had been dry, but now it had water. At first I was a little hesitant to swim in it due to the muddy, opaque water, and due to the bugs flying all around it, but Stan went in first and told me the water was nice so I jumped in. And the water was indeed nice. It was pleasantly cold and very refreshing. I was able to get most of the dirt and sweat off me although the water in the lake definitely deposited some more mud on me in places. Still, it resulted in me being cleaner and less smelly for the long drive home which was nice.

All 8 of us got lunch at a restaurant in Jacob Lake just outside the park, then went our separate ways to drive home to places as far away as San Diego and Wyoming. After stopping in Farmington at Stan and Gosia's house for dinner, I drove the rest of the way home by myself and made it to Albuquerque just before midnight that night.

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