Mystic Cave Tattoo
On October 25, 2008 I was fortunate enough to get to tag along on a trip into Mystic Cave. This would be a trip that left its mark on me in more than one way.
Before we get into the trip, let me give you a little background on Mystic Cave and my part of its history. According to stories found in our own Carbide Flash, Mystic Cave was known as Bat Cave until 1980 when Ken Allgier, Vern Norstrup and others found about ½ mile of virgin cave after much digging. Due to the fact it was a mystery where and how far the cave extended it was given the name Mystic Cave to replace the more generic name. Pretty much from the start it was assumed that since Mystic was very close to Rushmore Cave, it would simply be a matter of time before the connection between the two was found. After all, Mystic had good air movement that had to come from somewhere. This possible connection led the owner of Rushmore Cave, Si Pullen, to do what has become quite taboo. He paid some cavers to explore Mystic, dig where necessary, and find the hidden passage. Despite numerous trips into the cave, as well as numerous trips into the closest leads in Rushmore Cave, the connection was never found. After the initial interest in the early 80’s a map was produced and the cave became known not for its
connection to Rushmore Cave, but for the test that it gives cavers that would like to see the back room or Grand Hall. The difficulty of the trip combined with the lack of formation in the cave meant that the next 25 years passed with only a handful of trips into Mystic. Then a few years ago a small group including Dean Faust, Carter Hall, and Shirlee Hall journeyed into the cave. It took them some digging to open the initial passage and along the way they were greeted with tight crawls, plenty of dust, and even some bad air that resulted in Carter leaving a little of himself in the cave. A few more years passed with no activity in the cave.
This is the part where I come in. Together with three other guys, I am a member of a partnership that purchased Rushmore Cave and with it came Mystic Cave. My caving background at that time included only guided tours in Wind and Jewel Caves. This didn’t change, in fact, until August when Dean and Carter joined me at Rushmore Cave for an off trail trip. We spent between three and four hours that night and I immediately understood the allure of caving. In September I was fortunate enough to go along on a ridge walking trip with Dean and Carter and they were nice enough to introduce me to my first wild caves. We can safely say that my experience level could be classified as novice.
In October I received an e-mail from Carter explaining that, along with Shirlee and Dean, another trip for Mystic was planned and he wanted to know if I would like to go along. My only knowledge of Mystic Cave at this time was the story of Carter throwing up from bad air, accounts of 500 feet of tight belly crawl, and warnings of a passage called the Birth Canal (which I later found out is actually called the Birth Place). My limited caving experience had taught me one thing; the body part that was hardest for me fit through small holes was my brain. With these thoughts running through my head I was fairly sure that a trip into Mystic was going to be too advanced. Luckily, the weekend that the trip was planned to take place coincided with my being out of town. I could respectfully say no and still save face. When I returned from my trip I had an e-mail waiting from Carter. This e-mail was littered with phrases like ‘evil’, ‘ugly’, ‘trauma’, and my favorite ‘unholy’. I was thankful to be out of town. Then the unthinkable happened. Just four days after the first e-mail I received another e-mail. The group was heading into Mystic again and was wondering if I wanted to go along. I didn’t have a trip out of town to fall back on this time and despite the strong words I was intrigued by the trip and wanted to see the Grand Hall.
When we headed in on Saturday morning our group consisted of Dean Faust, Carter Hall, Shirlee Hall, Genae Sundby, and me. Before we went in Dean explained there were really three main obstacles I would have to get around, and the first one was only thirty feet into the cave. This first trouble spot is an S-Turn. It is fairly tight and long legs are a definite disadvantage. I was given the hint to turn from one side to the other to help myself through. I was following Shirlee and by watching her feet I navigated this obstacle without much grunting and sweating. This brought us into a dusty passage that was not too tight but did require a lot of maneuvering over and under the more compact spots. We reached the second obstacle. This was a small window that led from the passage we were in to the passage we needed to be in if wanted to continue into the cave. The window is rock above and below and the opening is tight. Shirlee made it through and coached me to get my body ‘in the notch’ or I could get ‘hung up’. Sure. I felt like I was ‘in the notch’ yet I didn’t seem to be moving and was beginning to wonder about the implications of being ‘hung up’. Then Genae helped me out by pushing on the bottoms of my feet and that was all I needed to squirt through. This deposited me into a small, dusty passage that ended at the Birth Place. This opening is on the upper right side of the passage. To get through I needed to get to my knees, turn my body towards the hole, get my left elbow on small ledge, use leverage to push myself both up and to my left, keep my head to the side, and slide right through. Right. After my third failed attempt it looked like my trip into Mystic was at an end. I was wondering what Genae and Dean would think of me after I forced them to back out to a point I could get past. I was not optimistic. A very excited Carter then appeared above my head. It seems that during the time I was basically stuffed into the passage I acted like a cork. When I would get tired and drop out ‘you could really feel the air whoosh through’. While I understand and appreciate the importance of this news, as I was lying on the floor gasping for breath the point was lost on me somewhat. I then identified the small rock that was impeding my progress and we used a small rock hammer to chip it down slightly and I tried again. This time I managed to get my legs in a position to help me push and finally got my body into the next tight passage.
For the second time in my life I had made it past the Birth Place. I managed the next twenty feet of tight crawl, the 90 degree turn, and thirty more feet of cramped and dusty crawl and made it into a room that allowed all of us to gather. We could even stand up. We stopped here, had a drink, and recovered from the journey. I was feeling pretty good about making it that far and was further encouraged when Carter told me we were past the worst parts. Of course this is when Dean reminded me that we get to do it all again on the way out. Yea. We journeyed on past some more small passage until we came to a spot Carter had nicknamed ‘the fissure of death’. Despite the scary name this was not too hard to negotiate and before you know it we were at the Uglies. The Uglies, as the name would imply, was not a fun crawl. You have rock on all sides that is somewhat sharp and you are crawling over a fissure that leaves you with fewer places to put your hands, knees, cave bag, etc. After the first part of our trip, however, the Uglies didn’t seem so bad. We made it through the tight spots and into a good sized room. I took the opportunity to stand up, pull my pants back on and ready myself for the next challenge. As I was looking around Carter pointed to a passage and told me that the Grand Hall lay just ahead. Entering the Grand Hall was pretty cool. I got to see the natural arch I heard about. I got my picture taken with Genae. We got to see some of the digging tools that had been left there from trips past. We even got to see some of the leads that seem to point directly at Rushmore Cave. All the while the air was good and the mood was high.
We then decided to set off and do what Dean, Carter, and Shirlee had come here to do and that was to find an area called Dry Run. We climbed to a higher portion of the cave and the exploring began. Not by me or Genae, but the exploring began for the others. While Dean and Shirlee were checking out a particularly nasty looking lead the rest of us sat and rested on some rocks. In an effort to keep
our spirits high Carter assured us that, “If you make it through this cave today, you can make through about any wild cave in the Black Hills.” It sounded great, except for the part that started with “if”. There was a letdown after we had seen the Grand Hall and I was feeling my energy level dropping. It seems Genae was also ready to head for the sunshine so we politely asked if we could start the journey back. I know the others wanted to check leads and find more cave but they graciously agreed that it was time to go and we started the trip to the surface.
As I took a deep breath and started to stress about the trip ahead, Dean helped me in two ways. First, he reminded me that the Birth Place would be downhill and I would get gravity assist. Second, he offered a chocolate mint energy gel that tasted like frosting but gave me the energy I needed to get out. We made it to the room we could initially stand in with little or no trouble. The whole way up the first dusty and cramped crawl I was already thinking about the Birth Place. When I finally reached it I told myself ‘gravity assist’ and plowed ahead. In retrospect, taking the time to position myself better may have been wise. I found myself dangling from one passage down to the other with my head a foot or so from the floor. I seemed to be ‘hung up’. Surprisingly, my thoughts were not of doom. I was hanging there wondering which would be the best way to sell my helmet, pads and lights. E-bay could be good, but an ad in the paper might work. After much stress and cussing I starting rotating my hips back and forth and my feet came loose dropping me to the passage floor. I lay there trying to catch my breath and wondered what possessed me to want to do this. In a short time I was at the narrow spot that nearly stopped me on the way into the cave. I looked for ‘the notch’ but it all looked tight to me. I finally picked a spot and headed in. I was basically stuck and was pulling on the cave floor in front of me while I was pushing on the cave wall with legs. I pushed for all I was worth and I slowly felt my sternum scrape through. I am mildly pigeon breasted, which means my chest basically comes to a point at my sternum. This was never a problem until just then. Exhausted and hurting I did my best to keep up with the group in front of me but seemed to drop back. I finally reached the last obstacle of the day, the S-Turn. I pushed, I turned, I pushed, I turned and I was in the final passage and on my way to daylight. As I exited Mystic Cave I felt like Bruce Willis crawling out of the wreckage at the end of a Die Hard movie. I went partway back in to help pass the cave bags out and then we were in the fresh air. My chest hurt from the last compression and I knew I had scraped it pretty good. I lifted my shirt to survey the damage and found not only a large scrape, I also found a deep bruise that seemed to be growing by the moment. I thanked the group for a great trip and after a short ridge walk headed for home. My wife April was excited to see me and find out how my trip was. I answered by taking off my shirt to show her the damage. By this time I had bruise covering about 30% of my chest and an equal amount of my back. I also had the deep scrape on my sternum and bruises on my arms and legs. April asked if it was worth it and at that time I wasn’t sure. That night as I lay in bed, too sore to roll over and sleep, all I could think about was the next trip into Mystic Cave. The next day I wore my Mystic Cave tattoo like a badge of honor. While I was sure I had developed some sort of mental illness, Dean assured it was just my first steps to the dark side.