Disaster Point: An Ominous Caving Experience

by Nora on September 18, 2007

A little over a year ago, I came out to Alberta for a visit. During that time, Kelly & I made a getaway to the mountains near Jasper. We hiked, climbed, and caved.

Being my first caving experience, we decided to start by aiming high with Disaster Point: a very technical cave involving multiple rappels into a hole in the ground. Without rope, you can’t even get close to the entrance, and you would certainly have a “disaster” on your hands if you were in the cave and lost your rope. (Okay, so maybe not the best cave to have chosen as a first for me, but there you have it).

Last year, standing nervously outside Disaster Point’s entrance.

So, as a newbie caver, I absolutely froze when I suddenly realized I was over 30 metres underground, I was cold, and I was looking up at an icy hole as my route back to the outside world. Before bottoming the cave, we got the heck out.

Fast forward to September of 2007: once again at Disaster Point’s doorstep.
First, let me tell you how we got there.

Kelly & I and our friend Luc have been out climbing a few times this summer, and in so doing have shared many ideas for big backcountry trips we’d like to take. Caves came into the conversation a few times, and more specifically a cave called Arctomys frequented our thoughts.

Arctomys, located near Mount Robson (the highest in the Canadian Rockies) in BC, is North America’s deepest cave. Although not hugely technical, it commands an elite caving crowd, due in part to its remoteness; it is located over 16kms from the nearest road. It has seen only a handful of people ever explore the cave, much less reach the bottom.

So what a great trip this would make, we thought. We could do a real backcountry trip, set up base camp near the cave, and spend a week exploring the cave, the nearby mountains, fish on our rest days, and enjoy the serenity of being away from it all.

And although Arctomys cave isn’t as technical a cave as others, it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t have proper communication with your teammates. Which brings me to the trip we took this past weekend.

Originally our sights were set on Cadomin cave, a well-known cave near Hinton. However, caves are very precarious environments, and even somebody’s breath changing the air patterns in a cavern can kill any creatures that might be in there hibernating (eg: spiders, bats). And being a huge bat hibernaculum, the province bars access to Cadomin from September through May.

We, of course, only discovered this when we arrived at the cave, ready to go!
Ah well. On to Plan B, which was Disaster Point.

Left: Topping out while doing some rope training/playing.
Right: Enjoying the fall colours in the mountains.

It was great to get back inside the cave, and to face the fears that overcame me last year. I am happy to say that this time it was a success, and we were able to bottom the cave. But not without challenges, I might add.
The first rappel was straight down a chute approx 30 metres. We slid down next to a huge icicle , and at its narrowest the chute was only about 1-2 metres in diameter. From there we swung ourselves onto a balcony where we could (ahem) admire the scenery, and scope out the next rappel.
Straight down again, the second rappel was much shorter, and landed us on another small balcony. We stayed on rope though, and continued down through three very small squeezes (think “birth canal”), and eventually sumped out (a caving term for hit the bottom as far as we could go, but not necessarily as far as the cave goes – due to water, mud, or rocks) over 60 metres from the very top.


 

Left: Getting gear together on the second balcony.
Right: Told ya it was a tight squeeze!
Having made it to the bottom though, was not the end. Now we had to get out! (Similarly in mountaineering, reaching the peak isn’t necessarily the time to celebrate – the way down is often more dangerous than the way up).
After waiting for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time for Luc to reach the top of the first rope so the next person could ascend, Kelly & I were getting nervous. We had lost almost all audial contact with Luc, save for hearing the occasional muffled sign of frustration. He wasn’t responding to any of our calls, which indicated to us that he likely couldn’t hear us. Having only the bottom of the rope to hang on to (our lifeline in this situation), all we could do was wait, and not think about the cold, our fading headlamps, or the worst case scenarios that kept creeping into my mind.
Finally and thankfully, we heard the faint and delicious words “Off Rope” coming from above, signifying that Luc had made it to his destination and the next person could start ascending. That was my cue.
Ascending at the best of times is no easy task. Armed with any number of different systems, you are relegated to hauling yourself up the rope, sometimes in thin air, and sometimes using the features of the rock around you to help (or hinder) the process.
After making it back up through the tight squeezes, I was able to communicate with Luc but was losing contact with Kelly who was still waiting at the bottom. I figured I was on easy street, and wondered what took Luc so long to ascend. Of course, I was about to find out.
Topping out is almost always tricky business when climbing (either underground or otherwise). Sometimes you have to haul yourself over tricky obstacles, and oftentimes the anchoring system isn’t the most user-friendly for getting over the edge with ascending devices. In this particular situation, there was absolutely no slack in the rope, since it twisted down and around all those tight squeezes.
To spell out the situation, I found myself at the top of the ascent, but unable to actually get over the ledge since the rope was stuck. Luc fought the same battle, and eventually won through brute strength. Brute strength isn’t one of my more well-known traits, so it was not an option for me.
Of course I’m here to tell the story, so you can tell we survived the episode. It involved a lot of teamwork, keeping a calm head in an upsetting situation, and working through the problem. More specifically, we systematically created backups to attach me to fixed objects, then I disconnected from the rope I was hanging on, and climbed over the ledge.
In retrospect and in the debrief, we determined that the entire situation could have been avoided with more communication and a different action plan. However, it was a great exercise in training for Arctomys, and we are a much stronger caving team for it.
The remainder of the ascent was relatively uneventful, and the moment of sheer joy and love of life in reaching the top is something I’ve never experienced before. It was a sense of accomplishment and a rush that coursed through my body and lasted for hours.
So having survived a cave as ominous sounding as Disaster Point, we’re ready for the big time! The Arctomys mission is a mere two weeks away. Stay posted!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luc F September 19, 2007 at 4:17 am

Nice report!

Brute strength is also not one of my “forte”. I still wonder how I pulled that hercules mantel from hell!

LucF

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2 Jasper Warden Service July 7, 2008 at 12:53 pm

A good bite of information that you might not have realized is that Caving in a National Park is a restricted activity and requires a permit. There is no cost for this permit. This allows parks to keep tabs on the cave use. Bonus to getting the permit is you can get good information on the crux of the climb and gear you might need to tackle it safely. The other bonus is if you don’t report back parks knows where to look for you and you know a rescue party will be coming.

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3 Greg Warchol April 4, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Some more cave information that you might not know about, but will be glade you did, contact them. They also know about local caving clubs and cavers you can get involved with.

A bit of cave rescue training before you have any problems will go a long way, and might even help you prevent them in the first place. But since you never know when cave rescue training might be useful, you should get some sooner than later. Plus you get to meet all kinds of great cave people that you can go caving with all over the world!

http://www.cancaver.ca/bccr/
You should take the weeklong seminar or one of the shorter ones. You’ll be glade you did!
http://www.cancaver.ca/bccr/BCCRtrain.htm
Another good training option,
NCRC
http://www.caves.org/ncrc/national/
NSS
http://www.caves.org/
2009 NSS convention
http://www.ics2009.us/nssconv.html
International congress
http://www.ics2009.us/

Re: Arctomys cave.
It is my understanding that the cave is very cold ~1C, very wet, vertical cave and if you become immobile in this cave you stand a good chance of dieing! It unfortunately has already happen in this cave once. The rescue/body recovery was very expensive! There are also many exposed spots in the cave were one could fall if you slipped.
And don’t forget about the Grisly bears in the area and trail to the entrance.

I would not attempt this cave unless you have a few years of hard caving Experience under your belt and really understand what is needed to explore this cave in as safe a manner as possible. This cave will always have some level of risk.

Remember a little knowledge is potentially dangerous.

Cave Safe and Cave Softly!
Greg Warchol

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4 Brent May 5, 2009 at 3:22 am

Good pictures. I was part of an group that explored these caves back in the 1990’s. We got all the official stuff from the Park. I remember having to repell down that chute. I even have pictures of it.

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5 Caver1101 March 3, 2010 at 8:09 pm

What are the directions to get to this cave? I’ve done many caves in Alberta and can’t seem to find any references to this on?

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6 theprofessionalhobo March 4, 2010 at 8:58 pm

@Caver1101 – I couldn’t direct you to this cave if I tried…sorry! But I think it’s well described in a great book on caves in the Rockies (you can get it at MEC and other outdoors stores)…I don’t remember the name, but it has a black cover….hope this helps!

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7 Marie (aka bigtravelnut) June 25, 2013 at 10:38 pm

That is so NOT for me!

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8 theprofessionalhobo June 26, 2013 at 8:57 am

Ha ha Marie! It’s a VERY unforgiving place, that’s for sure! But what an experience. It tested my strength and knowledge and abilities. And I survived, so it was a success story all in all!

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