Sellecks Cave, NY

This page is an archive of blog posts. For chronological reading, start from the bottom and work your way to the top! (oldest to newest).

 

 

2016 Sellecks Exploration Update

2016 was an eventful year for the exploration of the Sellecks Cave system in NY. The northeast experienced one of the longest droughts in recent years, giving me some of the best conditions I’ve experienced in the system.

Picking up from a successful dive on June 26th, we returned July 17th for another push. We had scouted another sump the day prior, in the upstream end of McFails. After such a long an exhausting trip we were excited for the relatively simple approach to the sump in Sellecks. In the days leading up to the trip I had inspected my neck seal and realized there was a small tear from the last sump diving trip. I had trimmed back my neck seal, hoping I would be able to get away with a slightly less snug fit. Unfortunately I was quite wrong, and as soon as I entered the sump I knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Water began seeping down into my drysuit, an uncomfortable feeling in the 47 degree water. I continued on towards the first air chamber some ~250′ away, but soon turned. Visibility was less than 2′, and I was already getting chilled. Not a good way to start a 2+hr dive.

My summer was filled with open water diving in the Great Lakes, and it wouldn’t be until November 6th when I returned for another go. When we dropped into the cave we weren’t met with the usual sound of flowing water, in fact the upstream sump wasn’t flowing in the slightest. Looking at the stream that crosses the cave floor was disappointing, noting that the water level had dropped almost a foot. Gearing up was an issue in the shallows, but after some creative maneuvering I was off. Visibility was poor as usual, maybe 3′ at best. I passed through sump one and two without issue, and made the 500′ traverse through the air chamber to the start of sump three. I entered sump 3 and a couple hundred feet later arrived at an intersection of two tunnels. On my June dive I had veered left, and my EOL was about 250′ in that direction. I tied in a fresh reel and went right. I soon surfaced in a new air chamber, having officially passed sump 3. I had confirmed my suspicion that I had actually passed sump 3 on the last dive, but staying on the bottom of the passage I hadn’t realized there was a large air chamber 15′ above me. I took some survey notes and continued to the other end of this air chamber. The floor disappeared and I was soon turning right, into a new passage that we’ll call sump 5. Dimensions were about 2′ tall and 5′ wide. Visibility was around 5′ with a gravel bottom. I grabbed a silt stake for a tie-off, cut the reel and turned around. I continued back along my line through the air chamber and back towards my June line. I continued into the now-confirmed sump 4 towards my EOL. Unfortunately the visibility in this section was much worse than last dive, and after inadvertently pulling a silt-stake free I decided to turn the dive. I returned through the 4 sumps and exited the water after removing all of my equipment while in the entrance restriction. Somehow it was 100x easier to do this blindly, while underwater instead of kneeling in 3″ of water.

On November 20th we travelled through a blizzard to arrive at a snow-covered parking lot for the property. The hike in was chilly, tromping through almost a foot of snow all the way to the cave entrance. THIS is northeast sump diving. Getting underground never felt so good! Luckily for us the water level had risen a few inches, so gearing up would be much easier. I entered the first sump and immediately felt that familiar sensation of water slowly trickling down my neck. This was a leak likely caused by a fold in my neck seal, something surprisingly hard to fix with my dry-gloves on. Since the leak was slow I continued onwards. I passed through sumps 1,2,3 without issue. I entered sump 5 and tied into the EOL. I continued through bedding plane passage, and soon arrived at an intersection with another fissure-like passage. I took a right and was quickly walled-out. Continuing the other direction I swam another ~100′ before surfacing in another air chamber. This fissure-like passage was even bigger than the chamber after sump 3, so I was pretty excited. I swam to the end and sump 6 started to the left side. I made a placement and entered the new sump, squeezing through a 1.5′ restriction right at the start. I continued for about 20′ until I had exhausted my level of enthusiasm for this passage. I was now almost an hour into the system with a leaky drysuit in 46 degree crappy visibility water. Having no suitable location on the mud bottom to tie off, I reeled out in the now completely-zero vis. After tidying up the EOL at the start of sump 6, I continued my traverse to the EOL in sump 4. As you may recall from the last dive here in June, I had a mess of a reel waiting for me when I got there. Sure enough there it was, a tangled mess that would make any first-time cave student look good. I groaned at the thought of having to deal with it, requiring me to cut the line and remove this hazard in zero vis, feeling my way around the loose line with thick drysuit gloves on. No thanks, I decided. That’s a task I’ll have to deal with next year. I left the line as-is, and surveyed everything on the way out. I removed my gear in-water and exited to a freezing group of sherpas. 2 hours later I was out of the cave, wet and with a long and snowy hike back to the truck. Everything was forzen by the time I made it. Luckily we had chinese buffet in our future, so it was all good.

Next year should be a good time, I’ve got two EOL’s to work on in two different sumps. We’re also working on digging out the downstream sump entrance enough so I can make some dives there as well. I’m going to incorporate the new Mnemo survey device into the plan for next year, a device which should make surveying the cave much simpler with thick dry-gloves on.

 

 

Return to Sellecks

Seven months had gone by since we had a chance to continue the exploration of the Sellecks cave system. Over the winter I spent a couple of months in Florida cave country, learning how to survey underwater caves and building my cave diving skills and experience. Suffice to say, I was more than a little excited to get back to my little NY project.

During my last dive in November I wasn’t able to push the line in sump three, but did discover a new air chamber in sump one. The biggest limiting factor to exploration has been limited visibilty, typically less than 3′-5′ on the way into the system, and always zero on the way out. As sump three continues it get bigger and bigger, not ideal in such low visibility. We’ve been watching the weather closely over the past month, hoping for a few weeks with no rain. We were hoping that with a decrease in rainfall we would see significant improvements in conditions… we were correct.

For our dive on 6/26/2016, we certainly didn’t have a shortage of sherpas! Assisting with the dive was Nathan Roser, Steve Millett, Thomas Holder, Marlene Holder, Dan Gilroy and Owen Gilroy. We started out in 90 degree heat, hiking the fifteen minutes through the woods to the cave entrance. Steve rigged the drop and the team began moving all of the gear into the cave. For this dive I brought LP95’s, along with two bags full of gear. For exposure protection I am using a DUI CF200 compressed neoprene drysuit. This suit is amazing. It keeps me warm, dry and safe with its phenomenal abrasion resistant neoprene.

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Getting to the sump was uneventful, and it was really nice to finally be deep underground, out of the heat. While everyone made their way down into the cave, I prepped all of the dive equipment and suited up. Since the water is 47 degrees, I need to wear some pretty thick dry-gloves. Dexterity is a major issue, so I required some assistance gearing up.

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Due to the drought conditions there was no visible flow in the stream that connects the upstream sump to the downstream sump. In fact, there was no visible stream at all! This made my entrance into the water very difficult, because the pool of water I usually float myself in to gear up was no more than a puddle now. In fact, I was a little worried that the water would be too low for me to get through the entrance restriction without a lot of effort. I taught my sherpas the signal for “stuck!” (crossed legs) and took off. Luckily it was easier than expected. On the way through sump one, I surveyed the line to make a map of the system in the future. The line was in great shape, buried in a few places but completely intact. I surveyed 226′ of sump one, and surfaced into the first air chamber. I did a rough survey of the air chamber, and continued into sump two. Sump two is much shorter, only 117′ in length. The second air chamber is extensive, roughly 500′ and perfectly straight. Due to the difficulty of surveying while traversing this passage, I took an azimuth and estimated the distance (approximately 500′). In the future I will return with another sump diver to do a proper survey of the air chambers, but for now this was sufficient.

Finally, the start of sump three. I began by fixing a potential line trap towards the entrance, and surveying on the way in. I surveyed 103′ of passage in a straight line to the end of my exploration from last year. The visibility in sump three was unreal. I had experienced ~5′ on the way through the first two sumps, and now I was blessed with almost 20′ of visibility in some sections. I stowed my survey gear and tied in a new reel. I continued on for approximately 100′ before coming to a junction. There was a large passage going right, and another going left. Based on the progression of the cave so far, I elected to go left. Soon I arrived at another passage, shooting off to the side. Straight ahead looked like it may surface into another air chamber, with fissure-like passage. I decided to shoot to the right, into a tunnel approximately 3.5′ tall and 6′ wide. Absolutely PERFECT dimensions. The visibility decreased slightly with a visible halocline, what looked like some sort of tannic intrusion. I continued onwards until running out of line another ~100′ into the tunnel.

Remember how I mentioned those dry-gloves and decrease dexterity? Well, let me remind you… dry gloves SUCK for line work! While trying to get the looped end off of the reel drum, I accidentally knotted the line, preventing the line from coming off the reel and also from the reel being able to function as a reel. Since I had stopped moving and was now turned around, visibility was zero. The only thing I could see was a glow from my light. I felt around on the bottom and the sides of the passage for a place to tie off. None. I considered a silt-stake, but the silt was far too shallow. I drop-weight would have been ideal, but I didn’t have one. I decided to wrap the line around the reel, then stow the reel at my last tie-off. Soon enough I was there, and I parted ways with my reel (to be recovered next time). Cutting the line to tie off is a last-option in my opinion, since a loose end of line in zero visibility with no dexterity is a horrible recipe for disaster.

My exit from the sump was uneventful, as were the next two air chambers and sumps. I paused in the first air chamber to take some photos, and poke around a bit.

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On my way back through sump one, I took my jump from last year into another air chamber. When I surfaced I could hear voices!! Sure enough, I shouted and had a brief conversation with the sherpas on the other side of the walls. This is significant, we’ll map out the location and it might be worth digging out the connection. Not that it will add any dry passage for cavers, but it would be cool all in the same.

All in all, an extremely successful dive. Time to plot out the survey data and start preparing for a return trip, ideally in the next few weeks.

Here is a video from the dive:

 

 

 

Sellecks Cave Exploration: New Air Chamber

After a few months hiatus from diving in Sellecks, the stars were finally beginning to align for another attempt. From the start of this exploration we’ve been plagued by rain, reducing visibility to an arm’s length or less. On Sunday 11/15 we returned, hoping for clear a clear sky and an even more clear sump.

As usual, the team was made up of members from the Syracuse University Outing Club (SUOC). We’ve nicknamed ourselves the SUOC Sumpeaters, and have had a great first season. For the trip I was assisted by Nathan, Joey, Asif, Nick and Stephen. None of this could be at all possible without their assistance, and I am truly grateful to have such awesome friends. We met up at the SUOC equipment room and made quick time of getting everything packed up (once I got everyone off the couch, that is).

Arriving at Sellecks, we unloaded gear and made our way to the cave entrance. The walk takes about 15 minutes, and certainly isn’t very comfortable for those carrying my tanks. Upon arrival at the entrance, Nick and Asif rigged the drop and we began our descent.

The first look at the entrance to sump one was dismal. The water level was down as compared to last time, but the water visibility looked even worse. Regardless, I geared up and hoped that within the nearly thousand feet of sumps and air chambers before the start of sump 3, it would get better.


Sump one was uneventful, although I noticed my line (placed 5 months ago) had been buried in a few inches of sand/silt/gravel in some places. Ensuring the line was continuous, I passed the first sump after 6 minutes. I quickly traversed the air chamber and got ready for the next sump.

Sump two was uneventful, but unfortunately did not have improving visibility as I had hoped. I passed through within a few minutes and started making my way to the start of sump three. The second air chamber is about 500′ long, and very skinny. Last time it took me 20 minutes to traverse the air chamber, constantly changing my body orientation to fit through the canyon. This time around I decided to take my fins off, which save a LOT of time and effort.

As I entered sump three, I immediately noticed my line had been pulled into the skinny side of a restriction (a line trap). I evaluated my options, and decided to press on, knowing that I could still easily hold the line with my hand as I went to the side. After 140′ I reached the end of line from my previous dive here, which ends in a large passage (unknown dimensions, you can’t see the walls or ceiling). I noticed a lot of breakdown in the area, which was about all I could see with the ~3′ visibility. Disappointed with the poor conditions, I turned back and was soon back in the second air chamber.

On my way back through I took my time, checking the walls for additional leads. In sump one I was able to find a couple, but one in particular caught my eye since the flow had changed direction nearby. I made a jump, and immediately came to a restriction. I was only 6′ deep, and looking up I could see going passage on the other side. I made my way through the restriction, and surfaced into a beautiful air chamber, unknown and unexplored. The dimensions were about 30′ long, by 8’+ tall. Leaving my spool and line in place, I returned to my main exploration line and continued my way out the sump.

Upon surfacing, I noticed we were missing a few sherpas. Curious as to their whereabouts, I asked Nick. Jokingly he said “they went to get pizza!”. I laughed, and started getting my gear packed up. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later comes Nathan, rappelling down into the cave with a PIZZA in hand!! Even better- Stephen was behind him, with drinks! We all laughed, enjoyed some pizza, and exited the cave.

 

PS, want to know how the SUOC Sumpeater Sherpas stay warm while the diver is in the water?

 

2015 Sellecks Exploration: Sumps One, Two, Three

On June 28th, myself and a team of sherpas returned to Sellecks with some different gear in an effort to push past the 1991 exploration efforts of John Schweyen. During my first dive in Sellecks sump one I utilized a wetsuit and sidemounted 40’s, and reached the limit of comfort and safety at about the entrance of sump two. During my return I elected to use a drysuit, as well as sidemounted LP95 tanks, greatly increasing the volume of air and potential for exploration distance. In the end, efforts were successful and I was able to add 140′ of distance to the previously unexplored sump three. This trip was made possible by the help of sherpas Nathan, Joey, Mitch, Joe, Asif and Luke.

Write-up below, video can be seen at:

Unfortunately for us, there was a large amount of rainfall leading up to the dive. I decided that we should attempt some exploration regardless, since conditions beyond sump one were unknown and may not have been diminished too much from the increased runoff. Conditions of the cave were much wetter than our previous visit, and upon arrival at the entrance to sump one we found the water level to be much higher and with a much stronger flow.

When I was diving sump one the first time I encountered generously sized passages with the exception of the entrance restriction. In order to permit entry with the MUCH larger volume tanks we first needed to dig out the entrance by removing several very large rocks. Joey and I made quick work of this task, and I set about preparing my dive gear.

Preparing the dive gear in a cave environment is not easy. All gear being brought into the cave is carefully padded and packed away, and every effort must be made to keep it as clean as possible during preparations for the dive. Sellecks has a great slope conducive to gearing up, but it is all mud. It isn’t easy trying to don a drysuit on a muddy slope! Care must also be taken to prepare in a timely manner, as not to upset the sherpas who are already beginning to shiver… I messed up a bit in this regard when after rigging my tanks, putting them on my harness, getting all of my dive gear on and wading into the entrance pool I realized…. my fins were in the back of my truck!! Luckily for us, caveman Nathan made quick work of climbing out of the entrance, running through the woods to my truck, retrieving the fins, running back through the woods, rappelling back into the entrance and making it to the sump all within a half hour. After donning my fins and going through some last minute gear checks, it was time to begin the dive…

I followed my line from my last dive in sump one to the first air chamber and then to the start of sump two. Conditions were not as good as my previous dive here, with visibility at around 1′-3′ versus 3′-5′ as experienced last time. I decided to continued, and tied in my exploration reel to the end of my line. John Schweyen’s 1991 was still present through sump two, and in a very short time I was through to the second air chamber. Air chamber is a vertical fissure averaging around 10′ tall and about 3′ wide. Depth of water was approximately 6′ to as shallow as a 2′-3′. Unlike the first air chamber, this on is VERY LONG, and took me about 20 minutes of very awkward maneuvering to traverse. John Schweyewn’s line ends far before the entrance to sump three, where he stopped his exploration. I made a placement of the line beside his, and continued into virgin territory. The entrance to sump three was not very obvious, but was quite large once found. The sump made several turns and elevation changes, and I believe I passed at least one intersecting tunnel. Unfortunately the visibility was very poor here, and the dimensions of the sump were quite large. Usually this is welcomed news, but when you cannot see of feel the walls of the sump it becomes very dangerous to blindly explore virgin passage, not knowing if you are setting a potentially fatal line trap. I continued along the wall I was nearest, and ran out of line on my reel. I decided to tie in a second reel, and continued on. After a short distance I believe I came to another fissure, and followed it upwards. The main tunnel continued onwards, with apparently large dimensions. At a fairly shallow depth (meaning I was probably near an air chamber) I decided to turn the dive. I was out of silt stakes and making line placements was getting progressively more difficult with very little to tie off on. The thrill of exploring never before dove passage should never outweigh your safety, and I was proud of myself for turning the dive when I did. Being conservative in my diving means I will be able to continue to return to this amazing place. I measured distance on the way out, counting the 10′ knots on my exploration line. In total I was able to lay 140′ of line into sump three. The return trip took a while, resulting in a total dive time of an 86 minutes. In the end I was quite cold, but content with the results of the dive.

Our trip out was muddy, tiring, and uneventful. We returned to town and celebrated with pizza and some well deserved beer,

 

 

2015 Sellecks Exploration, Sump One

After my brief introduction to sump diving in the Bradt Sink sump, it was time to start working on another lead. Discussing with several of the area dry cavers, we decided on the Sellecks system as a great candidate. Sellecks has been dove twice before, both times by area cave diving legend John Schweyen. Schweyen dove the system in 1991, passing through two sumps and stopping his exploration at the start of the third sump, some 700′ from the entrance restriction. According to his dive reports, the water was very cold but the cave had some large passages (for NY sumps). Since Schweyen had already dove it, I had a much better idea of what to expect and could plan accordingly. Like Schweyen, I elected to bring sidemounted aluminum 40’s and a wetsuit (mostly out of necessity, since my drysuit was “vacationing” in Florida). I also prepared several more silt stakes in anticipation of the large, line-trap prone passages. Since the system has flooded many times since last dive in 1991, I was hoping that Schwyen’s line would no longer be present. The line would likely be severed, slack, or otherwise all over the place presenting a significant entanglement hazard.

Early on June 7th, I arrived at the Syracuse University Outing Club (SUOC) equipment room to meet up with several of the sherpas who would be assisting my gear and myself to the sump. Present for the trip was Nathan Roser, Joey O’Reilly and Kalia Zell. This was to be Kalia’s first caving trip, having very recently been trained in vertical caving techniques. We arrived a bit late to the cave, meeting up with caver Mitch Berger. We geared up in the parking lot, and began the long hike to the cave entrance.

The entrance to the cave is a large sinkhole, with a giant fissure at the bottom of it. Descending into the cave system requires rope work, since the sink hole is very steep and ends with a 25′ tall vertical drop through the fissure. My dive gear and tanks were distributed amongst 4 bags ranging from about 30 to 40 pounds. Since the entrance wasn’t completely vertical, we had to wear the bags on our backs during the descent into the system.

As everyone descended into the cave I had my first opportunity to view the entrance to the sump. The entrance was an awkward and tight restriction, but the water looked relatively clear. Flow was very minimal, and the water was COLD. I tied in my guideline and much to my surprise saw the remains of Schweyen’s guideline on the rocks outside the restriction. This was not a good sign, since the line inside the sump was likely to be a formidable entanglement hazard.

After securing my guideline, I began assembling and checking all of my gear. As mentioned earlier, I would be using sidemounted aluminum 40’s. I generally use the rule of 1/6ths when solo cave diving, permitting me to use 1/6th of my gas on the way in, and 1/6th on the way out, leaving 2/3rds of my gas supply for an emergency. This level of conservatism would also allow for me to safely reach the entrance of the sump even after having a catastrophic failure of one of my tanks (very highly unlikely). For my harness I used my Dive Rite Nomad, and for exposure a two-piece 5mm wetsuit I have owned since I was about 13. Although the 47 degree water was on the cold side for a wetsuit, a wetsuit offers much better abrasion and puncture protection than the drysuit I am currently using.

After completing my equipment checks and calculating my gas reserves, I entered the sump. Entry is a bit awkward, I had to kneel in a shallow stream to put my fins on, and then flop forwards towards deeper water as I ducked to miss the overhanging rock and enter the sump. The “refreshing” water began to enter my wetsuit, I grabbed my reel and began the dive.

My first impressions of the sump were very good. Visibility was better than expected, at around 3-5′. The passage was about 5′ wide and often times the height was unknown. I was in a fissure, much like the entrance room. After about 50 feet I found the frayed end of Schweyen’s dive line, likely severed during flooding events of the past 20 years. The line led into the sump, and I began following, running my own line as well. Along the way I placed several silt-stakes in places likely to cause a line trap and hinder my exit in the low visibility return. After about 150′ and 8 minutes of swimming, I surfaced into the first air chamber. The feeling of excitement grew as I looked around the passage, previously only ever seen by Schweyen. The air chamber was long, about 75′. It was also about 5′ wide, and very tall. I would estimate the average height around 20′, with one section appearing to be around 45′ tall. Water was dripping down the walls in several places, and the air chamber was warmer than the cold air I was in. I swam on the surface of the shallow air chamber water to the other end, where sump two begins. I had just hit my gas limit of 1/6ths, so I would not be diving sump two just yet.

I tied off my line at the beginning of sump two, and began my return trip. On the way out, Mitch grabbed some cool shots of me coming through the sump.

After the dive it was time to pack up the gear and prepare for the climb out of the cave. Getting out took more time than getting in, but we still had everyone out of the cave within a couple of hours of the end of the dive. On the surface I shared footage with the team, who became among the first to ever see beyond the sump. We finished with pizza and a celebratory beer, and departed for Syracuse to clean all of our gear.

Moving forward, I am planning a return trip the sump in the very near future. With my line already in place, passing sump one will be very quick and require much less gas. On the return trip I will be utilizing larger volume tanks, and my drysuit. The goal on the next trip will be passing sump one, two and making an attempt to crack sump three.

Check out the video footage here:

Thank you again to everyone who helped with the sump dive, especially the sherpas!