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Sullivan Cave Part 2

Before reading this report, I recommend you read my trip report Sullivan Cave Part 1 This report takes place two years later.

From 2003-2012, my caving club developed a routine of visiting Sullivan Cave off-and-on, but each February was our "BIG trip," where we would push the furthest boundaries of Sullivan. I missed the 2004 trip that finally reached the "Colosseum" due to my mom's failing health. In 2005, Ralph Sawyer, Laura Lexander, and I could not find a fourth person to push past the Colosseum and go into deeper portions of the cave. So we opted for a dry trip into unexplored areas. Little did we know this would be the hardest trip any of us have every done (still to this day).

What follows is Laura Lexander's trip report to the Near Normal News, our newsletter. At the time I was the 'zine's editor. So I was editing articles, not writing them. Laura has given me permission to reprint the entire article. Most pictures were taken by Ralph Sawyer, an award winning cave photographer.

by Laura J. Lexander

On Saturday, February 19, 2005, I joined members of the Near Normal Grotto for a bit of caving in Sullivan Cave in southern Indiana. There were two groups going. My group consisted of Ralph Sawyer, Jeffery Gosnell, and myself. Our intended plan was to go on the wet route, with the goal of reaching the emergence of the Sullivan River. Unfortunately, we were unable to recruit a fourth individual. So we altered our plan. While the other group took the traditional semi-dry passage, we decided to skip the
Backbreaker and attempt to connect the Endless Crevice with the Flood Route. Read on as I hope you enjoy my recollection of the most difficult caving that all three of us have ever done.

We entered the cave around 8:00 a.m., me garbed in my brand new coveralls and Swaygo pack. A short drop into the entrance, around a few twists, and we spilled out into a little room with a pretty waterfall. We preceded the direction of the Backbreaker, and Ralph briefly showed it to me. Then we headed northeast up Endless Crevice to see what was in that direction.
Laura in clean, new coveralls. Jeffery ("Goose") in the gate.

Gated entrance to Sullivan Cave. The only other entrance to this cave requires swimming through an emerging stream in the side of a hill.

Endless Crevice lives up to its name. We had to walk sideways for the most part, but none of it was difficult. We encountered many bats in most of the areas of the cave and had to do some interesting contortions to avoid them.
Laura in Endless Crevice.

Our next detour came when Jeffery wanted to push the Waterfall Crawl. This, too, was not that hard, though there was more crawling involved. We eventually came to a crossroads where Jeffery proceeded ahead of us and encountered a tight spot. He became wedged, and because he could not turn his head around to work his way back, Ralph talked him out slowly: "Okay, lift your left leg. Rotate it right. Good. Stretch it out. Now, lift and turn your right leg. No, too far. That's it! Now see if you can extend it past that ledge." This went on for about fifteen minutes until Jeffery cleared the nearest corner.
Jeffery wedged in Waterfall Crawl

Ralph, ever the photographer, snaps a picture of Jeffery stuck, even as he talks him back out of the passage.

After this energy draining ordeal, Ralph found the way into the tiny room where the waterfall was. There was a 3' x 4' crack in the floor near the wall of the room where the water was rushing out, and I watched Ralph lower himself into the crack. He poked around to make sure that was the end of the trail, and then we crawled back to Endless Crevice. We found what we thought was the second Y. We turned east and crawled a bit until we encountered our first bit of wriggling. I took off my helmet and pack, and we slithered on our bellies. After emerging in a larger tunnel, we came to a point where it was safe to slide down or continue up into another little crawlway. Ralph decided to push through a passage in the lower level, and Jeffery attempted the upper. I stayed in between to keep voice contact for all of us. After a great amount of strenuous pushing, neither option seemed right. Jeffery decided to head back through the belly crawl to see if there could possibly be another route. I waited for Ralph, and before we followed after Jeffery he attempted another passage. This option also did not seem right. So with much chagrin, I climbed back into the slither. Ralph came shortly behind me.

After emerging back in Endless Crevice Jeffery called down to us from above. He had found the way, which was a surprise to Ralph, because, according to the map, we should have been en route to go beneath the Backbreaker. With some studying of the map it appeared this section of passage didn’t follow the stream anyway. So it was possible the correct route was above. Ralph and I headed back to our lunch area and climbed up the crevice to its upper portion. The three of us chimneyed some difficult passage for about 75-125 feet. After reaching the end, I laid my head back against the wall and nearly screamed. Yes, I can act like an actual girl sometimes! On the wall opposite me a small cave salamander wiggled a bit in our light. Cute.

Then we came upon complete and pure torture. Even writing about it now I can feel the icy tendrils of fear grip my heart. The "Side Crawl." 150 feet of inching along through a 12 to 14 inch wide passage on our sides! Ralph led, with me in the middle and Jeffery sweeping. We were able to keep our helmets on, but packs were a no-go. I hooked my Swaygo to my ankle and dragged it behind me. Ralph also hooked his over his foot. Jeffery pushed his ahead of him to avoid risking it hooking on a rock, with no hope of getting it (or his leg) free.

Knowing this spot of hell would eventually end, we pushed on, but with the growing minutes my heart thumped in my chest, and several times I had to fight down panic, something I have never had to do before. For the first time in all my years of caving, I could only think about getting out, being above ground, climbing to the car, falling into a soft bed, soaking in a hot tub, eating a good meal, and etc. In the past, I had always loved being in caves, being able to forget the world above with all its worries and tasks and responsibilities.

Knowing panic would only make things worse was probably the only thing that kept me from freaking out. I flung intermittent questions at Ralph, inquiring as to the space ahead. Was it getting better yet? How about now? What’s it like up there? After 30 minutes of borderline hysterics, the passage opened up enough for us to sit up. We emerged into a much larger area that had a lot of breakdown in it.

At this point, Laura's coveralls were no longer new & clean.

After peering at the map again we decided to continue over the breakdown, fairly certain we had not entered the Bat Room yet. Jeffery noted there was another tight passage before the emergence of the Mud Room. With this knowledge shredding our stamina, we decided to press on. (What else could we do? Go back? Ha ha!)

Eventually we found the Bat Room, and Ralph found another hole in the floor, though this one was only about 1' x 2' around. We continued searching the room, having a difficult time because of the amount of breakdown. Ralph decided to climb down into the level below us to see if that was the way. Unfortunately, it was not.

Growing despair replaced the heat in my body as I thought of the Side Crawl we would have to struggle through again if we could not find the right passage.The whole time we scavenged the Bat Room an underlying despondency wailed in my soul. Jeffery and I helped pull Ralph back up, and we went to try the large hole back in the direction of the Side Crawl.

Then Jeffery spotted another tunnel. Ralph and I let him check it out, and after a few minutes he yelled back with, “I think this is it!” We immediately fell to our hands and knees and crawled after him. After a wee bit of this and a short belly slither the passage opened up enough to become a rather nice walking crevice.

Elation began to replace my misery. We were going to make it now, and we were not going to face another side crawl. We saw carbide survey markers that counted down and down. Then, just as our confidence had joined us anew, the passage fell away into a twelve foot deep chasm with seemingly no way to climb down.

We discussed several options for quite a bit of time. Then Ralph decided he could climb down on tubular webbing. He did this successfully, and his landing in thick, sticky mud pretty much assured us we had found the Mud Room. We were not yet defeated. There was only another 35 to 40 feet to go through a passage called the "Connection Spring," which would dump us out into the Flood Route, a passage Jeffery and Ralph were well familiar with. We would more or less walk out of the cave from there.

Ralph searched the Mud Room with a vengeance. Then he re-searched the south wall at the bottom of the room. He found a small passage and climbed into it a bit. It grew tighter and tighter around him, as the mud gradually rose, and he could no longer squeeze through it. He struggled and shoved mud aside, but still to no avail. Meanwhile, both Jeffery and I felt our hope dwindle with our strength and the heat of our bodies.

We have to go back. So, so close and no possibility of pushing any further. A sort of depressed calmness overcame me, and I gave in to the inevitability of our backward trek. We slumped back through the passage into the Bat Room and sat down for a break to drink water and eat our energy bars. We prepared mentally—as much as was possible—for the Side Crawl, our spirits disheartened. Physically, we had very little reserves left.

4 hours after the previous picture, we were right back at the end of the Side Crawl. Note the bat flying above Laura's head.

Jeffery was concerned about the time, as we had told the others to expect us at 8:00 p.m. Our "rescue time" was 10:00 p.m. It was 6:00, and it had taken us 10 hours to reach this point. Ralph told us we needed to worry only about ourselves and getting back to the surface safely. If we were anxious over the others, then one of us might push too hard, too quickly and chance hurting ourselves.

It was decided to let Ralph lead the way through with Jeffery in the middle with both our packs connected to his ankle (so that I did not have to worry about my pack snagging behind me where there would be no way to reach back and untangle it). Onward we went. For an agonizing hour (Remember, the first time through only took 30 minutes, but we were too tired at this point.), we struggled and inched and rested our way back through that dreaded, unholy passage. I have to admit, though, despite the sheer physical effort it required, I did not find myself panicked at all. I knew this time the tunnel had an end. I think that made all the difference in the world. We talked ourselves back through, sometimes discussing the passage itself, and at one point even telling Twilight Zone tales.

Then Jeffery asked Ralph how it looked ahead, and Ralph announced he was about to stand up. Relief flooded through both Jeffery and me. We even laid still in the tunnel for another few minutes as we talked about how happy we were.

The chimney section immediately following was definitely a challenge because of our complete fatigue. Ralph said this section was even more difficult for him than the Side Crawl, and Jeffery was not sure he would be able to manage it. I told him he could do it, even if he had to move at only one inch every five minutes. We would make it out.

And so we went along, slowly and as carefully as possible. Eventually, we dropped down. We traversed back through Endless Crevice at a steady pace. We frequently checked the map, compass, and flow of the stream for direction. Noting the carbide survey markers on the way also helped.

We rounded the two "roundabouts" with no trouble, but missed our tunnel towards the exit. Heck, it had been fourteen hours since we had been in this section of cave. When I sighted the date 12/14/1972 spray painted onto the wall, Jeffery was sure we had gone the wrong way. He scouted back for our off-to-the-side belly crawl and found it.

Back we went—10:00 having come and gone long ago. When Ralph found the last crawl, I dropped to my butt in a rather ungraceful manner. I was tired! I went first through this last section not truly remembering it, but trusting all our indications that we were on the correct route. I dragged myself along, weary and aching. Eventually, I crawled up and out into that first small room with pretty waterfall. Jeffery and Ralph were still behind me, but I let out a long cry of triumph, and I think I even jumped up and down a few times. Relief washed over me, and I knew were we going to be okay. About five minutes later the other two also emerged into the room just in time to hear other voices yell down to us. A rescue team was assembling on the surface to begin searching for us.

We climbed up and out.When I looked up and saw Troy Simpson above us with the open gate, several sobs wracked my body. Troy climbed down to help boost me up and out, because I was too tired to pull myself up alone.

On the surface, Troy, John Schirle, and Dave Carson greeted us and were extremely happy to see us alive and unhurt. John had called the Indiana Cave Rescue and was in the process of explaining our situation when they heard our shouts.

Laura climbing out of Sullivan Cave, with rescuers looking on.

Jeffery ("Goose") coming out from the nightmare-inducing trip.

We walked up to the cars and changed out of our muddy clothes. Our friends and "rescuers" went and got us McDonald’s, while we drove back to the hotel. Never have Sprite, french fries, and a cheeseburger tasted so delicious. I guess fifteen hours of caving and gut wrenching torture will give a person quite an appetite.

Jeffery had not been sure he would cave again after that night, but by the next morning he was feeling better about it. I know neither of us will ever do that Side Crawl again. Ralph has not ruled it out completely though, assuming someone really wants to go for it! And assuming he can find the Connection Spring from the Flood Route side.

Monday, following the trip, we learned the crawl Ralph was attempting was the correct one, and it does indeed connect. Samuel S. Frushour, who holds the copyright to the Sullivan map, told Ralph the passage is just extremely tight and difficult. While it is disappointing we were unable to push it, we at least know it is possible, and it gives us something to look forward to achieving on our next trip when we do the wet route![Goose's note: On a later trip, I attempted to enter this passage from the other side--at the Flood Route. It turns out, I'm too tall. My shins are too long to make the final turn in the passage. Had we tried it that night, I would have become hopelessly stuck--unable to move forward or back.] And it was a warming gift Mr. Frushour gave us when he said in his email to Ralph, “Getting all the way to the Mud Room is pretty good if you only have a vague idea of how to get there from a poor map copy.”

This experience falls under the category of, “I’ve done it,” and not, “I want to do it.” And for perhaps the first time, I truly understand how a cave can be a complete, separate entity from anything else in the world. They are as unique as each human being. I left something of myself back in Sullivan Cave and took a part of it out with me–of course not in the physical sense! I feel a new found respect that Sullivan and all caves deserve.

Just as an addendum to this story, we all talked later. We had each put on a lot of "bravado" during this trip. At one time or another all three of us had felt panicky and ready to cry--but we never conveyed those feelings.

Laura confessed the only reason she didn't cry was because she didn't want us to think she couldn't keep up with the guys.

BUT the only reason Ralph and I hadn't cried was because neither of us wanted to be "out-caved" by a girl.

Another thing to note is Laura's claims that I was feeling better about caving the next day. The truth is I swore I'd never do it again. However, I had nightmares nearly every night for the next 2 months. I finally called Ralph in April and told him I needed to get back on the horse to put this all behind me.

Ralph & I eventually returned to the Waterfall Passage, dropped down below it, and found even more cave. In fact, we found ourselves directly under the Bat Room, where we could look up through the 1'x2' crack Laura mentions.

Reading your caving TRs makes my stomach churn. I'll be having nightmares about being stuck underground now!

Good on ya for doing it, but I'd rather be out in the open. Way too scary for me!

Very neat photos once again!  Definitely too claustrophobic for me!

I like exploring caves as long as there is no tight crawling or submersion. That stuff you guys are doing is way too hard core for me. Around here most caves are closed to the public due to some bat killing disease though.

Patman said:

Around here most caves are closed to the public due to some bat killing disease though.

 It's called "White Nose Syndrome." It was first seen in Howe's Cave, New York and has since spread throughout most of the east & midwest. There is a 95% mortality rate in bat populations in any cave it spreads to. Scientists don't know why, but the virus causes infected bats to wake up more often in their hibernation cycle. Healthy hibernating bats will wake up and move around roughly every 28 days. Infected bats wake up every 21 days. That doesn't sound like much, but to a creature only weighing 0.5oz (14grams), that extra expenditure of energy causes them to starve to death. A frequent sight at infected caves are masses of dead, emaciated bats at the entrance of the cave in late winter. They fly out to find food, when none is available.

Most public land caves east of the Rockies are now closed due to WNS over the notion that cavers may transmit the disease from one cave to the next. Ask any caver, and they'll tell you the closures are nonsense.

Washing my caving clothes with a concentrated Lysol solution kills the virus. Also, WNS was first discovered in Missouri on a bat that had its leg tagged in Tennessee, proving (as no one has questioned) that bat-to-bat transmission is the primary vector.

They are also beginning to see that public land caves are being heavily vandalized, because the people who love and protect the caves are being kept out of them. While those who don't give a rip about rules and ecology continue to do whatever they feel.

October 25, 2021
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