Quest for the Deepest Cave

NSS Convention 2018

July 30th - August 3rd

Helena, Montana


Quest for the Deepest Cave


How Deep Do You Go?


Cavers worked with the National Speleological Society (NSS) to help pass the
Wilderness Act. The Montana wilderness was unknown to cavers, but its importance
was revealed by Howard McDonald in an article, “Speleological Potential of the Bob
Marshall Wilderness and Adjacent Areas,” featured in a 1962 NSS News article. The
Wilderness Act was signed into law Sept. 3, 1964. Up until then, only a few packer
accounts of caves were known about the wilderness.


The first true cavers to venture into the wilderness were Fred Dicky and John Bridge, in
1966. They began a map of Limestone Cave, at the edge of the “Bob,” and hiked up to
the saddle between Silvertip and Ibex mountains, where they found a pit (Ibex Mountain
Cave) they could not descend without a rope.


A cave was found in the Flathead Alps in the Bob in 1970, but the two cavers exploring
it were stopped by a sheer drop just a short way from the entrance.
Caver Newell Campbell made the first trip to Scapegoat Mountain in the Scapegoat
Wilderness in July 1971, finding many pits on the top of the mountain. Returning in
1972, he entered Green Fork Falls Cave, which appeared promising. In 1973 mapping
was started in Green Fork Falls Cave, and Kathy’s Icebox, revealing a major cave
system.


Campbell rode in on horseback to Ibex Mountain Cave in August 1971 and found it
snow-plugged. Caver Jim Chester and members of the Shining Mountains Grotto club
of Bozeman visited Silvertip Mountain in the Bob and found Silvertip Col Cave in
September 1973.


Also in 1973, a group of California cavers visited Silvertip in July and found Blood Cave.
They returned in August and found several more caves. Mapping was started in Bell,
Bird, Blood and Ann’s caves, with over 8,000 feet surveyed. Several of the California
cavers moved to Texas and began recruiting members for a Silvertip Expedition in the
summer of 1974.


In 1977, Campbell led a trip deep into the wilderness, to Una Mountain, and found
numerous pits.
In the 1980’s, Hans Bodenhamer began working on the south side of Silvertip Mountain,
mapping Moonray and Greenhouse caves. Spin Shaft, with the longest free drop in the
state (225’), was found.
In 2001, Jason Ballensky joined Bodenhamer in mapping the south side of Silvertip.
They continued exploring south, further into the wilderness every summer, finding and
mapping new caves.

The potential for a deep limestone cave existing in the Montana wilderness has lured
cavers to the wilds for 50 years.

By 1978, Utah’s Neff Canyon Cave had been overtaken by California’s Bigfoot Cave
as the deepest in the continental United States, at 1,204’. Other depth records
followed in subsequent years, including Columbine Crawl in Wyoming, at 1,551’
deep, and Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, at 1,604’ deep.
In the early 1970’s, cavers in Montana started exploring Scapegoat and Silvertip
mountains. And they found deep and long caves.


By 1976, Montana caves were becoming significant on U.S.A. Deepest Caves, a list
now maintained online. Rams Horn Cave near White Sulphur Springs came in at
number 23, at 496’ deep. Then two discoveries on Silvertip Mountain in the Bob
Marshall Wilderness—Stairwell and Getout caves—became numbers 24 and 25.a
Cavers in Montana continued exploring and pushed farther into Bob Marshall
Wilderness limestone. They found several promising new caves there at Turtlehead
Mountain.


In 1977 the list’s order changed again. Getout and Stairwell caves had been linked to
the Silvertip System of caves and became the fourth deepest in the country. Also on
Silvertip Mountain, Sunray Cave had been found, pushing to 804’ deep. It became the
ninth deepest in the country. Lost Creek Siphon, in the Absaroka Mountains, with its
ice cold waterfalls, was conquered and became eleventh on the list, at an estimated
730’.

A higher-elevation, nearby cave, Tears of the Turtle, yielded a few hundred feet of
narrow, meandering passageway before hitting a dead end. A climb to an upper
passage ran into another obstacle after a couple of survey trips. Line plots of the cave
suggested a possible connection with Virgil the Turtle’s Great House Cave. Re-
examination of Tears of the Turtle cave disclosed a traverse leading to a long,
miserable, tight, muddy passage that finally dropped into a borehole passage. Tears of
the Turtle never did connect to Virgil. But in 2014 Tears of the Turtle was mapped to a
record depth of 1,629’, making it the deepest cave in the continental United States.

In 2006, Virgil the Turtle’s Great House Cave became the second deepest U.S.
limestone cave, at 1,586’ deep. The cave is a large borehole passage angling down,
with only two rope drops.
However, further exploration of Tears of the Turtle from the surface was becoming
impossible, because travel time to descend the 40+ rope drops and climb back out left
little time for useful work below. In 2016 cavers established a camp on a bank in the

mud at the bottom of the cave. Two teams alternated using the camp and working their
way across a passage of “quick mud” called the Slough of Despond. The cavers will
continue exploration, where new obstacles are waiting in the darkness.

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