The following is a true story, only the names have been changed, to protect the guilty.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Star Room

The Star Room is a large room in Niagara Cave in southeast Minnesota. It was discovered roughly ten years ago by some hard core cavers. The route to the room is difficult and access to the cave is limited so very few people have ever been there. A week and a half ago I knew nothing about the cave, but got invited along on a dig trip because I have a little bit of a climbing background, they needed people to dig, and I was at the right place at the right time. When I heard about it I jumped at the chance. The plan was to try and finish digging out a passage way that would connect an easily accessible part of the cave to the Star Room with out having to go through the difficult upper route, and later explore several leads radiating out of the room. Two teams would be working from either side of the passageway, making twice as much progress and hopefully breaking through after many years(10) of digging. On the front side of the dig was Dave G, Nick S, Al S, and Brian K. On the back side was Steve S, Yours Truly and our fearless trip leader Javier G.
    When we entered the cave we were a little late and had to move fast to avoid running into the people on the  cave tour. This is a big no-no when exploring commercial caves, we are lucky to be granted access by the owner, so we hustled along and missed many of the cool features along the way. That's alright, I will most likely come back with the family and do the paid tour. At the end of the tour route is where the fun begins for us, we climbed off the main platform, onto a ladder, and into the abyss of thick mud below. This cave periodically floods and leaves a thick coating of mud on everything. Over the "jilloin" years or so of this, there is a lot of mud that builds up, which is also the reason for our dig. Not far from our drop off point is the head of the dig and also the up-and-over route that I was going to attempt. Al was originally supposed to climb over to the Star Room, but let Steve go instead, on account of recent shoulder surgery, and not wanting to re-injure himself. I didn't care either way since I was on the short list to climb over. Javier went first, I was lined up second, I immediately doubted if I would even fit in the crack in the earth Javier was now shimmying up. He was grunting and breathing hard. I used my hands to help prop him up and give something to stand on just to make some upward movement. Once he made it up around 12 feet the slot opened up, he set up a rope for Steve and I to grab onto, and it was my turn. I stood on top of the little trolley that was used for hauling dirt out, and proceeded to wedge my self into the crack that was getting smaller as I went up. It was so tight I could not take a deep breath. I shifted a little to the side and was able to grab the rope and pull myself through the narrow slot and into the bulbous opening at the top. From there I climbed over Javier in an odd sort of "Twister" way and moved to the lead position. Up came the gear (this is what the rope was really for) and then Steve. Shuttling gear through the cave is nearly as difficult as getting your body through it. I thought the worst was over until went through the next tricky spot. The floor rises up at about 45 deg, is made of slippery mud, and is only wide enough to pass through sideways. There isn't even enough room to turn your head side to side with your helmet on. I made it through with a little panic attack I kept to myself (my head got stuck), and was greeted by a very nice "feature" complete with flow-stone, stalactites,and a small rim-stone dam. We all slithered through this spot and set up for a 25 foot ++ climb down a cable ladder. This was the first time I've used one of these, so I was stoked get on it. We set up a belay and wore our harnesses as a back up, Javier was first, me second, and Steve third. Once at the bottom we explored the room a bit before starting the dig. I felt very fortunate to be one of only about 10 people to make it here.
      The fun and excitement of the climb was over, now it was time to dig. Armed only with a crow bar and three buckets we each took turns at the front of the dig. Each time it was my turn, I dug feverishly in the thick clay until I was covered in sweat and completely exhausted. I think Steve and  Javier were doing the same, as each one of us was envisioning pushing through to the other side. This carried on for about four hours, on my last turn I was sure I could make it, I could hear the group on the other side. I ran into a large rock and fell into an exhausted slump just after I got it out. Steve took over and it seemed like only a few minutes, when I heard him yell that he punched through to the other side. Al was there and the two shook hands, I was so fried it was hard to get excited. Moments later the passage was cleared enough that the four of them from the other side now entered the Star Room. Victory was ours. Everyone milled about the room for a while, taking photos, exploring, and planning the next dig on one of the five leads the room has to offer, including the "drain" at the bottom, which is an underground river. I believe this river is the original way the room was accessed and has lots more to be explored.
       The only thing left now was to retrieve the ladder and head out. I was all over this, so was Steve, but if I was going up to get it, I would also follow the whole route out. Now that there is an easier way to the Star Room it is unlikely anyone will ever subject them selves to the harder route. Rarely, in life, do I ever like to take the easy way over the more challenging one. If I would not be the first on this route I might be the last. Steve with his much lighter frame, breezed through the constrictions. I did too, as I was covered in wet slippery mud from the rim-stone dam. My only concern now was slipping into a slot that I could not get out of, gravity was on my side for the most part, but could also work against me if was not careful.
This is the last time we were clean

On the way down

The jump-off point

Just past the first hard part 

I hope the cable ladder does not break!

Steve on the ladder, Javier looking muddy already 

In the Star Room, this didn't go very far but was the only passage that was open to explore.

Just after the break through

The Star Room is quite large, and shaped like a star fish if you use your imagination.

Brian was the last one through, this is his light as he makes his way  through the new opening

Lets eat, after 9++ hours in the cave, an old boot would have tasted good

       It took almost an hour to get out of the cave, we had to remove all "super muddy" clothing and boots before moving past the platform at the end of the tour route. Once out, we parted ways, Steve, Al, Nick, and myself headed for Mexican food, Javier, Brian, and Dave headed for a nearby hotel and prepared for the next day's dig and survey in the Star Room. I had a great time, Thank You; Javier, for the invite, Niagara cave for access, and all the guys in the group for sharing an excellent experience.    

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