Note: From 2003-2012 I made over 2-dozen trips into Sullivan Cave. For many of those trips, I wrote trip reports for the "Near Normal News," the newsletter of my caving club. I thought some in the TS community might enjoy reading the most interesting reports from those trips. I've edited some of the jargon and mundane details that wouldn't be of interest to non-cavers. Feel free to ask me any questions. This report was my first excursion into the section known as "Beyond The Beyond." I have since been in that area four times.
Also note: While the pictures are of the areas described, some were taken on other trips.
Sputtering, I lift my face out of the underground river and take a quick gasp of air before the uneven ceiling forces my head back under. At this point in the cave, the water is a mere two feet deep, but with only six inches of air between the water’s surface and the ceiling, my body is completely submerged. This is the return trip through “1st Bathtub,” and I know what to expect—in another seventy feet, the wide, low passage will open up into a 50’ high room with plenty of space to stand. Putting my fear into check, I take in as much air as my lungs will hold and plunge my face under the 52°F water. My hands and feet dig deep into the sandy bottom and propel me quickly along the fast moving current. In a matter of moments, I am standing in the room, with a new supply of air in my lungs.
It is 10:30 at night in Sullivan Cave, Lawrence County, Indiana. Six cavers from the Near Normal Grotto have been in the section of cave known as “Beyond the Beyond” for nearly five hours. Another hour of deep, wet passage and two hours of dry passage lie between us and the main entrance of the cave.
Six hours earlier:
At 3:40 p.m., two teams of cavers stood over the gated sinkhole entrance of Sullivan Cave. Below our feet is nearly ten miles of mapped passage to explore, but each team has different goals for the evening. Team 1’s plan is to stay in the drier southern parts of the cave for exploration and photography. This is an area of the cave that I am intimately familiar with, having lead many trips in this fantastic labyrinth.
The members of Team 2, of which I am a part, are carrying wetsuits with the intention of reaching the “Coliseum” in the northern section of the cave, an area referred to as “Beyond the Beyond” due to its remoteness. Until this trip, I had never been to this part of the cave.
My buddy, Bill, called “Clear” from the bottom of the sink hole, and I began my descent into Sullivan. The first 10 feet of the pit was steep and mud covered, but the many twisting tree roots provided plenty of footing, and I descended with little effort. The initial entry to the cave is maze-like, leading off into different passages, and it took me a moment to decide which path the others had taken. Forty feet of canyon passage led me down two 6’ drops and into the “Waterfall Room,” a small dome, with a steady waterfall tumbling from the south wall. I took the passage to my right and followed the narrow canyon another 50’ before reaching the intersecting passage above my head. An easy scramble up led me to the “Back Breaker” and the rest of the team.
Once everyone was assembled, we headed south through the Back Breaker, a passage of stoops and crawls that would not allow us to stand straight for a quarter mile (1,300’). At the southern end of the passage, we entered “The T” and head east (left). Four hundred feet from The T, the easterly passage turned north, and the right wall undercut into a low alcove. At the back of this recess we found the narrow, one-foot high hole each of us had to squeeze through in order to enter the massive “Mountain Room.”
By now, our slow-moving group had spent one hour traveling a mere 1,990’ feet from the entrance. Team 2 is carrying more gear than we usually need, and hauling it through the Back Breaker has been exhausting.
The Mountain Room is a breakdown dome, measuring 90’ high and 200’ across. I have seen bigger rooms, but not for some time. I was envying the awe I know the new guy, Nathan, is experiencing on his first cave trip. I vaguely recalled what he is feeling, that transformation in each caver’s life, when caves cease being the dank lairs of snakes and bears and become a massive, wondrous world of spectacular beauty.
From the Mountain Room, our two groups separated. Team 1 continued its southeasterly route, while Team 2 headed north to the “Quarry Room.” Before separating, our team goes over our planned route with the other team one last time and reminds them if we have not returned to the hotel within thirteen hours (6:00 a.m.), they should return with a rescue team.
We descended into the passage known as the “Flood Route.” There is ample evidence this wide passageway floods to the top of the 4-8’ high ceiling during heavy rains. This night it was only ankle deep, with a few deeper pools along its 2,950’ to the Quarry Room. The only challenge we encountered was at the “North Y.” The map told us to continue up stream, but at this point the stream seems to be backing up on itself. Marc and I searched the streambed carefully, until we find a feeder spring gurgling from under a submerged outcropping of rocks. We move a few yards northwest of the spring and discover the current of the Sullivan River.
The Quarry Room is a wide, long breakdown room. Much of the room is covered in slick, greasy mud, even after climbing 20’ above the stream. Team 2 has traveled two hours and 4,940’ since entering Sullivan. Ironically, we are only 500’ northeast of the main entrance, but with no direct route between the two points, we have been forced to take the near-mile long U-turn.
In the Quarry Room, we changed into our wetsuits, covering them with our coveralls to prevent damage. From there we traveled 600’ north from where our dry clothes lay to the climb down the map calls “Bob’s Fall” (No doubt Bob was the first to discover that the final 8’ of the descent entails letting go and “falling” into a 5’ deep pool.). The chill water shocked each of our sluggish bodies awake, causing surprised cries to escape our lips.
Three hundred feet upstream, the breakdown-filled river turned west and lowered considerably. The next 1300’ of passage gave us the option of wading along the knee-deep stream or climbing up a sandy slope onto a dry hands and knees crawl, but our need for the neoprene wetsuits was far from over. Sixteen hundred feet beyond “Bob’s Fall” we encountered “1st Bathtub,” the 70’ long by 15’ wide crawlway that, for half of that distance, provides a mere six inches of air above the stream’s surface.
Bill entered first, leading the group along the left wall. At first, this path seems our best option, but after 25’ on our hands and knees, the ceiling along the left wall lowers rapidly, forcing us into the middle of the river. Here, I realized the error of leaving my helmet on. The extra inch of plastic forced my face that much further into the murky water, and I struggled against a sense of panic tightening in my chest. With four people following close behind, I have no choice, but to push forward, carefully controlling my breaths so as not to inhale a nose full of water.
Beyond 1st Bathtub, the passage opened into the “Bathroom,” a 100’ long breakdown-filled room, which provides us with a much-needed respite from the stream. Here we rested and debated the virtues of pressing onward. Our trip has brought us only 7,400 feet, nearly a mile and a half, over a four-hour period. In the end, the group elected to press forward one more hour and turn back whether or not the Coliseum is reached.
Four hundred feet past the Bathroom, we encountered “2nd Bathtub.” The water level in this 2’ high passage was several inches lower, and keeping my head out of the river presented no problem along the 50’ crawl. At the far end of 2nd Bathtub, the passage zigged from its northwestern course to a northeasterly one.
We climbed over breakdown in the 15’ wide “Safety Room” and then descended again into the 200’ long passage “The Subway.” Take a Chicago subway tunnel, paint it with mud, and fill it with knee-deep water, and you have a perfect picture of The Subway. The climb down was the first evidence that my body is getting tired. I slipped on the steep, 12’ high bank and slid uncontrollably into the stream. I landed hard, but uninjured. The incident made me think more carefully about each step.
Beyond The Subway we reached a four-way intersection. The map showed the Coliseum can be reached either straight ahead or to the left. I temporarily took the lead and pushed straight ahead. The passage became a long series of tight squeezes. As I pushed through each squeeze, I expected the passage to open up, only to discover another tight hole filled with sharp, pointed rocks—something cavers refer to as a “cheese grater.” I grimaced as I hear the material of my coveralls ripping away. The tail end of my coveralls was torn to shreds, and I could only hope the slashes had not reached my wetsuit.
Finally, the passage widened enough for us to stand and stretch. Marc searched the muddy pile of breakdown to our left for the expected entrance to the Coliseum, but returned empty-handed. Rather than expend more energy pushing crawls, we squeezed back out to the four-way intersection and took the left passage.
Finally, after 8,460’ and 5 hours, we found a large room and celebrate our arrival at the Coliseum. In this we were mistaken, and it was not until days after our return home that we all agreed Team 2 only reached “Room Zero.” The Coliseum lay another 150’ beyond where we declared victory.
At 1:40 a.m., nine hours and 3¼ miles after entering Sullivan Cave, Team 2 climbed out the main entrance into the cold, wintry night. The quarter-mile Back Breaker had been even more agonizing on the way out.
We collapsed into our hotel beds around 3:00 a.m, our trip to Buddha Cave set to begin in six hours.