When you think of NY, cave diving isn’t something that really jumps to mind. However, there are places to cave dive, and many of them have never been explored. They aren’t the warm, clear waters you find in most Florida caves though. They are dark, cold, and generally very tight. In NY, they are called sumps. When I was learning how to cave dive in Florida, most of the caves were accessible by vehicle right up to the water’s edge. All you had to do was kit up, walk to the water, hop in, and within a few fin-kicks you’re inside a beautiful cave system. In NY, all of the sumps are found well within dry caves. This makes things quite challenging for several reasons. First, to access the cave you need additional training to safely make your way to the sump. This includes ascending and descending on ropes, additional equipment, safety concerns etc. Second to getting you to the sump, you have to figure out how to transport your gear! For this you need a team of cavers willing and able to carry several bags of heavy gear to the sump. The potential reward is high, and well worth the effort. Due to the challenges and conditions, NY hasn’t had many sump divers around. This has created a backlog of sumps that are just waiting to be explored, some with great potential for finding going dry-passage beyond the sump. After my cave dive training in Florida, I was certainly interested in the challenge!
A friend of mine from the Syracuse University Outing Club, Luke, had the first sump lined up for me. The system was explored once in 1991 by John Schweyen, a well known sump diver who has since left the area. According to the report, Schweyen made a short dive, finding a “narrow, tubular passage that went”. Unfortunately Schweyen experienced some regulator issues due to cold water and had to abort the dive attempt. Since that dive in 1991, no divers had been back. There was great potential for a large cave system beyond the sump, so getting a diver in was a high priority.
Before I could consider diving the sump, I needed to get some training on vertical caving. Another friend of mine from SUOC, Nathan, helped train me at the club equipment room.
The second order of business was gaining access to the cave. With the help of several of the local cavers, Luke spent an entire day clearing rocks and debris from the entrance to the cave. When access was secured, the cavers installed several bolts to assist in lowering gear and people down several vertical drops. Luke took some photos and a video of the sump so that I could get a better idea of what to expect.
While the cavers were getting the cave ready, I was busy getting all of my dive gear ready. For sump diving, you only want the bare essentials so that you only have to carry what is necessary. For the dive I planned on using two aluminum 40’s sidemounted. On my left tank I staged several PVC silt screws, to be placed in line-trap prone areas with silt or sandy bottom. I also installed two new brackets on my helmet, with 600 lumen video lights. I was hoping for good visibility for filming! Ha! My helmet also has two low-output backup lights on it, preferable to me in siltout conditions. For a primary I planned on using a 600 lumen light on my hand, with a soft goodman handle. My harness is a Dive Rite Nomad EXP, a great rig for large caves but a bulky and heavy one for sump diving. When I can afford it, a new sump harness is needed. All of my gear had to be packed away in padded bags, with lots of padding around my regulators and tanks.
On dive day I was assisted by Luke, Nathan, Bill, Joe, Ali, and others. This was my first time in a vertical cave, and it wasn’t very beginner friendly. There were several very tight crawls, a 10′ tall chimney about 12″ wide, and two drops requiring ropes and rappelling equipment. I was incredibly fortunate to be amongst some very proficient cavers, who also didn’t mind teaching and helping me down to the sump.
It took all of us about an hour to get the dive gear down to the staging area, a small chamber big enough to hold about 4 people with enough head room to stand up. I changed into my drysuit, assembled my gear, and got ready to dive.
Leaving the staging room, you crawl up about 4 feet, then go sideways through a very narrow slow, and hop down into the sump. In the sump room the bottom is silty, and about 4′ deep. The water was much warmer than I expected, 63 degrees! I tied off my exploration reel before the start of the sump, and again to the bottom of the sump using a silt screw. The dive went very well, but the sump wasn’t able to be pushed as far as we’d hoped. The sump continues in the trajectory of the crack visible on the map, and quickly becomes extremely tight. If you’ve been in the cave, it’s kind of like the low crawl at the start, only filled in with small rocks, and none of your lights work. Visibility was zero from the start, so it was all feeling my way through. I made it about 5′, did some light digging, came back to the surface and ditched my fins. I then tried going in feet first, and made it maybe 6′. For my final attempt I removed one tank, and dragged it behind me as I felt my way backwards with my feet. My other tank was sidemounted. I made it about 10′ in, max depth of 7′. Using my feet as measuring devices, I would approximate the passage is about 10″ tall and maybe 24″ wide. Certainly too tight for me to pass through with the harness on. It may be possible to get someone through using no-mount and a wetsuit, but in my opinion it would require extensive digging to get to that point. For now, this is one sump that won’t be cracked.
Although we didn’t crack the sump, it was a very successful day. The team of cavers (and especially myself) got some valuable experience hauling dive gear through challenging cave passage, and I got my first taste of sump diving. The local cave community has several virgin sumps for me to dive, and I am very much looking forward to the next one. Thank you to all of the cavers who helped, I owe you all big time. Thank you also to Luke for orchestrating all of this, and for some of the photos here on my site. THANK YOU!