Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Action Adventure Team goes Spelunking

The Action Adventure Team suited up last weekend and headed out for one of our yearly events, the descent into and exploration of Lake Cave.


I have taken you into Lake Cave before link,  but this is the first time that my kayak partner has come along. She is very excited. Or perhaps freaked out. I should probably inquire as to which. But first, lets get on the road and drive up to the cave.

Usually at this time of year the area up on Mt Saint Helens where we are bound is under a few feet of snow. In fact, this is close to the week for the annual June Lake Snow Shoe trip. But even when we were down in the wet lowlands it was apparent that this was a hot dry year up on the mountain. When we got up there, no snow. None. Zilch. It wasn't even particularly damp. And the temperature was a ways above freezing. Is this really the winter in Washington?

Then entrance is a collapsed ceiling

Now Lake Cave isn't your usual cavern. It is a lava tube created by one of the many past eruptions of St. Helens. It forms when a flow of lava (a river really) is running down the hillside and the outside of the flow hardens. You get this tube of hard rock with molten rock still in the middle. Then the lava stops, or gets diverted, and the molten lava runs out of the tube leaving a nice long straight round hole in the ground. Eventually a part of the tube collapses make an entrance to the surface, and that is what the Action Adventure Team is going to climb down through. Usually we would use our pitons and climbing ropes for such a treacherous descent. But today we have decided to use the handy ladder that someone put there a few decades ago.

Lake Cave is one of many lava tube caves up on Mt. Saint Helens. The big, famous and public complex is called Ape Caves. That tube runs for a couple of miles and has a Ranger shack out front and probably a couple of thousand people a day climbing around in it during the summer. Now, at this time of the year, they close the road and you have to hike a mile to the entrance. Or perhaps snowshoe. So it isn't crowded. But still we had about 6 car loads of young people pulling up and parking at the lot that we were using for staging for our adventure. They had on jackets. We had on climbing helmets and such. They looked at us askance. We smiled.

See, Lake Cave is sort of a secret. It is legal to go out to it and all, and it is really pretty easy to find. It even has signs in it warning about bringing in white nose disease and killing the bats. But it isn't on the maps anymore. It is being allowed to disappear into obscurity by the rangers and such. Perhaps because of budget cuts. Perhaps to prevent tagging.

Water Droplets on Lichen. Look like silver

Glazed Rock or Molten Silver. Take your pick

That glazed stuff covered with red dirt.

On this trip I want to mention some of the new things that we saw. Yes, new things. We go every year and nothing changes and yet we still see new things. Well, one thing changes, the weather. What? Weather inside a cave? Yes. The temperature is pretty much the same year round inside (around 45 to 50) but the moisture is very different. It is always pretty damp in there, but when there is a lot of snow up topside, there is a lot of water dripping off the walls and ceiling and then running down the middle of the tube. Last year the river down the center was maybe an inch deep and then the last 50 feet of the tunnel was blocked by the lake of Lake Cave. This year was realitvely dry. No river down the center, no lake at the end. Still some drips and drops from the ceiling, but not the kind of “gee I wish I had a raincoat” kind of dripping.

So the other new things that we saw were things that have been there for thousands of years and I was just now seeing them. Most of it has to do with molten rock. Since this is a lava tube, there is a lot of evidence of molten rock. Lots of places where there were drips of lava that have hardened. The funny thing is that even those these things are thousands of years old, they still have a very recent look about them. They look like molasses or something gooey hardened overnight. Not a thousand years ago.

Here are pictures of some of the things I saw:

I especially like this one. See that hunk of rock there? It has fallen off that place above it and is not stuck in the molten layer beneath it. But that even happened when this area was molten. That was thousands of years ago. I checked the internets and they say that Ape Cave was formed around the year 80. Since I think that Lake Cave is a lower part of Ape Cave, I think that they were formed at the same time. So like 2 thousand years.  That rock has been sitting there like that for 2 thousand years. I should have taken it. I mean, the next guy won't appreciate it as much as I do. Especially if the next guy doesn't come along for another 10 thousand years.

About a mile down the tube (Not a mile underground, just a mile walk from the entrance) there is a little place where there is an intersection with another smaller tube. This side tube is harder to climb through and a bit more claustrophobic. But I have never been up it, so I pulled myself up on the side ledge and my partner and I headed in to see what was what. This side tunnel was around 5 to 6 foot high and about 2 to 3 feet wide. At just about head level it was bigger. Maybe 6 foot wide. And there was evidence of..... campers? What the hell? There was what must have been a campfire 'cause there was old burned wood. And also all around there were little round holes going straight up. Hey, these are tree casts. You can see the texture of the bark in the rock. This was ground level and when the lava came through it surrounded and covered the trees and left these castings. Up on the surface there is a place you can crawl through these old castings made from long gone trees. But these castings are way underground. And hey, that is where the burned wood is coming from. I found a log, must have been laying on the ground when the lava came. It was mostly covered in rock, but it had been exposed somewhat and now there was a round clump of charcoal that was coming out of the rock. How cool is that?

Looking Straight Up. See the castings of the tree bark?

Tree Casting. This one is horizontal
Looking down the tight side channel

Charcoal embedded in the rock

We were all getting a bit cold and tired at this point so we decided to take a rest and eat our lunches. I had a sandwhich (my partner makes the best sandwhiches) and then I pulled out my old carbide lamp helmet rig. This is an authentic antique carbide lamp like one that might have been used 60 years ago by spelunkers or miners of that time. Back then the batteries just were not good enough to provide for light for any good length of time. I remember my old boyscout flashlight back in the 60s. With 2 C batteries you could get 1 to 2 hours of light out of them. Not good enough for a many hour cave exploration. So people would use Carbide.

According to Wikipedia: Calcium Carbide is produced industrially in a electric arc furnace from a mixture of lime and coke at approximately 2000C. This method has not changed since its invention in 1888.

CaO + 3C goes to CaC2 + CO

Then, acceding to me, when you add water to it (very carefully) you get: CaC2+H20 makes C2H2 + Ca(OH)2. Which is acetylene gas and something with calcium in it. Perhaps Calcium Hydroxide.
So this is how you use Calcium Carbide. It comes in little rocks (about the size of cheerios) and you put it into the bottom of a special brass lamp container.

Carbide Rocks

Rocks in the bottom. Water in the top.

The top of the container you fill with water. I use tap water, but you could use bottled if you really want to. I might avoid Perrier. Anyway, you screw the top into the bottom. Now, there is a clever adjustment device on the top that lets the water drip ever so slowly into the bottom. So water ( H2O) will mix (in a hopefully controlled fashion) with the Calcium Carbide ( CaC2 ) and out will come the Acetylene (C2H2 ) gas and smelly stuff. The gas rises up through the top of the container (which we will henceforth refer to as a lamp) and is directed out this little pin hole in the front of the lamp and can there be lit and generate light. The jet of gas is very fine and cute and can shoot out around half an inch (much more than that and the entire thing gets too hot).

If you set everything up properly a single filling of the lamp can generate light for about 2 hours. Then you have to dump out the sludge and reload. Not sure how you are supposed to dump out the sludge and reload if you are assuming that you don't have any other light mechanism. The other part of this lamp is a little flint and steal wheel on the reflector mirror. This is to allow you to light the lamp without the use of other fire. I don't find that the wheel works all that great.

I made this one using just Carbide light (60 second exposure)

Long exposure of the gang working down the tunnel

Just to take you one more aside down my own personal software stack tunnel. What do you think happens if there is a fire in a Calcium Carbide warehouse and you haven't told anyone what you store there and the Fire Department shows up and sprays thousands of gallons of water onto everything?


The point of all of this was to try out my lamp and hardhat combination in the darkness of a cave. The experiment went pretty well. I walked down the passage and could see OK. The beam of the lamp was not as bright, or at least more diffused, than my electric head lamp, but the light was also an interesting yellowish color. The main problem I had was that the filled brass lamp is pretty heavy and mounting to the plastic hardhat I got at the store produced a front weighted hat that didn't want to stay on very well. It kept sliding down over my eyes. And you don't want to be reaching up into the flame to adjust it. Need a neck strap. (note to future self).

And so we ended our little jaunt. A few hours underground, a few new tidbits of knowledge. Hey, and I still haven't told you where the cave is ….......
The Action Adventure Team: Underground Squad