Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Deepest cave discovered in the Bob

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 10:07 AM

To get to the entrance of Tears of the Turtle, the deepest known cave in the continental United States, Jason Ballensky and a team of 12 others had to hike 22 miles through the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. To get to the deepest known point of the cave, which is 1,629 feet below the surface, Ballensky and a smaller team had to crawl through a narrow seam in the limestone rock that makes up Turtlehead Mountain, using ropes to make 44 different descents.

Beth Cortright rappelling down Birthday Pit in Tears of the Turtle Cave.
  • Courtesy James Hunter
  • Beth Cortright rappelling down Birthday Pit in Tears of the Turtle Cave.

The hike in took two days and the 1,629-foot descent took five hours, but it was worth the effort for Ballensky. He’s been searching for the bottom since first discovering the cave’s entrance in 2006. On Aug. 7, he made it far enough down to have discovered the deepest limestone cave in the country. (There are three lava tubes in Hawaii that are deeper.) However, the cave keeps going. The team was stopped from further progress by quicksand-like mud.

“It’s the sort of thing where we’re worried about getting stuck in it and not getting out,” Ballensky says.

Though cavers have been aware of the potential for deep caves in the Bob Marshall since the 1970s, wilderness regulations that prohibit motorized and mechanized equipment have impeded substantial exploration. For Ballensky, who is from Miles City and now lives in San Diego, the difficulty of access is central to the area’s appeal.

“You’re only going to find those [unexplored entrances] in a really remote wilderness sort of setting like this,” he says. “There’s first the sort of adventure of finding areas like this in general, of finding some opening that hasn’t been seen by other humans before. And then once you find it, further exploring it.”

Tears of the Turtle is not the first deep cave Ballensky has discovered in the Bob Marshall. In 2007, he found the second—now third—deepest cave in the continental United States, also on Turtlehead Mountain.

Ballensky plans to return to the Bob to find the end of Tears of the Turtle. Doug Warner, president of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto, a caving club, believes there are more deep caves to find. He says they will be hard to discover due to the small size of the entrances and the huge size of the search area, but “there’s more potential” for discovery and exploration.

“With caving,” Warner says, “you absolutely have no idea what’s gonna be around the next turn.”

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