Friday, December 27, 2013

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend, Texas

We went on a little adventure over the extended Thanksgiving weekend a few weeks ago. Friends invited Andrea and me to go canoeing on the Rio Grande, in Big Bend in the western part of Texas.

The drive from Austin to Terlingua is about eight hours. Andrea, Jean, Kristina, and I enjoyed the luxury of being able to take most of Wednesday off and to get out of town early. We piled a bunch of gear and ourselves into a 4Runner and made it to our destination in time for dinner and drinks at the fun Starlight Theatre. Our other old and new friends arrived long after we had cuddled ourselves into our down sleeping bags in the parking lot of the Far Flung Outdoor Center at sub-freezing temperatures.

View of Big Bend Ranch State Park from the Rio Grande
We rented canoes, which seemed like a significant reduction of hassle compared to dragging individual boats from Austin to Big Bend, and had Far Flung shuttle us in our cars to the put in at La Cuesta in Big Bend Ranch State Park. I was amazed by how much stuff fits into these boats -- amongst other things, we traveled with two camping tables, plenty stoves and cooking gear, a (national park-mandated) fire pan and portable "waste containment system" (toilet), and of course many coolers full of food and beer.

The border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend is pretty much represented by the Rio Grande, providing for a US and a Mexico bank of the river. It was enjoyable to spend a few days oscillating back and forth between the two countries without being subject to scrutiny by immigration officers at every occasion. The only person we met on (and off) the river during our 4-day trip was a lone law enforcement ranger in his canoe, just after we entered Big Bend National Park and before getting into the canyon. The majority of animal sightings on our ~30 mile trip were cattle and horses on the Mexican side.

Rock Slide rapids, Santa Elena Canyon, as seen from the Mexican side of the slide
The most exciting part of the trip surely were the Rock Slide rapids, not too far from the beginning of Santa Elena Canyon. A huge number of impressively sized boulders are piled up against the Mexican canyon wall, and several of them strewn across the water channel provided for the most challenging rapids on this trip.

Andrea and I managed to pin our boat against a boulder sticking out of the water right before the Rock Slide. Luckily, nobody got hurt and we managed to get the boat off the rock easy enough. And the trouble of packing all of our stuff into waterproof bags and containers paid off. Our two most experienced paddlers ended up running all of our six canoes through the Rock Slide, with some of us being bowmen and others (including me) scrambling through the dry part of the slide on foot.

Our camp for the last night, across from Arch Canyon
The canyon with its steep limestone walls is truly beautiful. In fact, everything of Big Bend we saw on our trip makes me want to go back. Maybe for some hiking for a change? We certainly didn't starve on this trip, either, having organized dinner responsibilities into a different group of four for each of our camping nights. And the company turned out to be most excellent, despite the fact that some of us hadn't really known each other before this trek.

Jean compiled a little video of our trip from her GoPro footage:

Navigating the Rio Grande by canoe was a whole lot of fun. I'm glad I got to go and experience this with my friends. Before I commit to another canoeing trip I probably should spend some time improving my sternman skills, though. ;-)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bye, Bye, Fun-Employment!

Fall is upon us in Austin, and it has been a year since I began my temporary retirement. (Technically, that year has been over for a few weeks now. I'm just now catching up with the blog.) This means that it is time for me to start earning money again. I decided to do my own thing and work as a freelance consultant for IT security for a while. Check out Secuilibrium's website!

But this also means that it is time to reflect a little bit on the past year.

View from the Chimney Rock Trail in Capitol Reef National Park
If you have been following my blog, you know that -- beyond any doubt -- I have had a splendid time! Now that I'm back, people keep asking me: Which of my adventures was the best? This is a tough one. There wasn't one that wasn't fun. Nepal was a fantastic way to start things off, and an environment I had never before experienced. Caving in China was a blast. And so was hanging out with old and new friends in various parts of Mexico and Europe. Burning Man was an incredible experience. And all the little side trips just added to the amazement.

I hadn't read as many books in a long time as in the evenings up in little tea houses in the Khumbu, thanks to my Kindle. Sitting out rainy days in Puebla and hiking around in the karst gave me a lot of time to ponder ideas about what to do next and scribble into my little notebook. And I got reminded of the awesomeness that are inspiration-instilling podcasts while driving around the western US in my little pickup truck. Somewhere I read the other day that traveling and driving are some of the best activities to foster new ideas. I can readily agree with that.

I know many people who claim that they wouldn't know what to do with their time if it wasn't for their work. I'm not one of them. If I had the money to retire for good right now, there would be tons of caving and other projects to pursue -- there are still a bunch that I never got to in the past year. But since that's not an option, I am actually quite excited to get back to work and put a somewhat different spin on information security than what used to be my main bread and butter. Many ideas have been spooking around in my head, and there are a number of topics I want to look into. Hopefully, working as a freelancer will give me opportunities to do this!

The beard's back to normal. (Photo: Logan McNatt)
I also thought about pursuing a completely different career. Importing caving gear from Europe, working as a rope access technician, ... But in the end, it turns out that I love technology, and am still passionate about all things information security.

Having been back in Austin for a few weeks now without plans or a budget to travel extensively in the foreseeable future has its plus-sides, too. More time to hang out with my friends, be involved in the local caving and security communities, catch up with old contacts, ... Thanksgiving is around the corner and will see a road trip to Big Bend National Park.

Another fun thing is catching up with a year's worth of my favorite online comic strips. If you are curious about what makes me smile on workday mornings, here they are:
xkcd: Exploits of a Mom
I would like to thank all of you who have supported me over the past year instead of calling me crazy, those that have had encouraging words for my endeavor to start my own consulting business, and everybody who is sharing their advice with me. It's good to have friends in the world!

This blog will probably see less frequent entries in the future, but I'll keep it up for occasional posts about outdoor exploits and such...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

West -- a Roadtrip

After Burning Man I spent a couple of weeks driving the Tacoma around the Western US, visiting friends and parks. What a beautiful country!

Obviously, that was before certain parts of congress embarrassed all of us and shut down the government, including our National Parks. ;-) But while the parks were mostly open during my trip, once I left Nevada and got into Utah they were pretty wet and sometimes flooded. I ended up in the weather systems that would eventually make it to Colorado and cause lots of rain and flooding everywhere, resulting in a canceled canyoneering trip that I had been looking forward to for a while, and somewhat limited hiking options whenever there were canyons involved...

Navajo Arch at Arches National Park
My destinations included:

Batgirl at the Colorado National Monument, with some weather in the background...
This was the last big trip of my year off. It's time to earn some money again. Stay tuned for a blog post with conclusions and what's gonna be next, to follow some time in the next weeks... :-)

Redwoods in Northern California

Friday, September 27, 2013

Burning Man

A shark-themed art car. :-)
The first time I heard of Burning Man and wanted to go must have been in Germany, sometime after college, a dozen or so years ago. This year, I finally made it. For those of you who have never heard of it, Burning Man is somewhat hard to describe. Maybe sort of a community-driven, creative, alternative, fire and art festival? For about a week, folks of all age and background descend into a self-erected city made out of temporary tent and shade-structures in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man's core principles include self-reliance, inclusion, and anti-materialism, and participants come here in order to live out their hippie, counterculture, or whatever other ideals.

A participant-driven zoetrope with a monkey and a serpent, in a not-too-heavy dust storm on the playa.
Deciding to go this year was a no-brainer: I had the time, and several good friends of mine were already planning on going. Surviving a week in the desert, being part of a theme camp and its activities, and having fun with costumes and the like take a decent amount of preparation in the months and weeks before the event. The remaining two weeks after our Europe trip I was busy getting bits and pieces together; building a swamp cooler out of a bucket, pond pump and computer fan; making costume pieces; etc. Since -- for once -- I had the time, I decided to drive the truck to Nevada and spend some weeks afterward on a road trip.

Helium-filled balloons on a string in the wind over the playa. Also very impressive at night, since they each were paired with an LED light. Another art installation in the background.
And what a good time it was! Roaming the desert on bike or foot; with friends or alone, making new friends; looking at art and crazy costumes… A lot of art installations on the playa are climbable; a lot of them involve fire or other things glowing at night; and a lot of them are made of wood so that they can be burnt in the end. Not to speak of all the art cars, also known as mutant vehicles -- the amount of effort and skills that must be going into building all these things seems endless. My schedule, as almost everybody else's, shifted more and more toward a nocturnal one as the week progressed.

The Temple of Times is burning.
I also watched a talk about the geology of the Black Rock Desert, went to a champagne brunch, and explored many camps' activities and events. Seeing the Man, Temple, and other art burn on the playa was fascinating. I stayed with a smallish theme camp organized by friends of mine. Our camp's contribution to the general craziness included a bat-themed merry-go-round and chill space, and a margarita party. The options to do stuff out on the playa were without limits.

I'm glad I went, and I plan on going back.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Caving in Slovenia, and Other Europe Fun

View from the summit of Viševnik
A week of congressing in the Czech Republic was followed by a caving expedition in the heart of Slovenia. More time spent in the Alps after our earlier trip to Austria, but this time our friend Matt had invited Andrea and myself to join him on Viševnik mountain. While living in Slovenia for two years, he had spent time developing the area into one of his caving club's project locations.

Camping was comfortable. We set up in a clearing about 200 meters away from our parking spots on a service road in the Triglav National Park. From there, it was another short (but steep) hike to our main cave: Evklidova piščal (Euclid's flute) is a fairly technical cave, currently somewhat over 400 meters deep and -- due to some additions as a result of our expedition -- a little over 2 kilometers long.

Garmin and Matic setting up the survey gear in Evklidova piščal -- a DistoX connected by Bluetooth to a PDA for sketching. None of those old-fashioned instruments and paper that most of the Texas cavers still use. ;-)
Caving in Evklidova piščal was, well, not quite as comfortable. I went on one survey and exploration trip in the cave with Matic and Garmin, two of the Slovenian cavers who had joined our contingent of about eight American cavers for the week. Lots of constrictions and fairly tight meanders required a fair amount of squeezing and climbing in all sorts of directions (upward, downward, sideways), only every now and then interrupted by relatively benign rope work. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted, had ripped a huge hole into the butt of my PCV suit, and felt like an unprepared and too-big-for-the-cave novice caver, compared to my new Slovenian friends who I'm sure I slowed down significantly. Hadn't had this kind of experience for a while! ;-)

Other days on the mountain involved ridge-walking (looking for caves) on a plateau that features both tons of exposed limestone and a lot of mountain pines; registering locations of karst features and potential caves by means of GPS; and surveying a number of smaller caves. One of the biggest results of the expedition was the discovery of a new cave that was pushed to a little over 300 meters depth and keeps going. Very exciting!
Panorama of the plateau that we spent our time on in the quest for new caves.
After a week on the mountain, we took a break for two days of "tourist caving" in some of Slovenia's best-known and famous caves and karst. This included walking through some huge caves and limestone bridges in the Rakov Škocjan park, visiting the famous Škocjanske jame show cave, and rappelling down (and climbing out of) the impressive entrance shaft of Kačna jama (Snake Cave).

Tiny caver marked for scale in the Kačna jama entrance pit.
This concluded Andrea's and my participation in the Slovenia expedition. Together with friends from Austin, we headed from there to Berlin to visit with some friends of mine for three days, bike around the city, and eventually make our way back to Austin.

Andrea emerging from a yet-to-be-named cave on the Viševnik plateau.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ice Cave Touristing in Austria

Before attending (and presenting at) the International Congress of Speleology in Brno (Czech Republic) at the end of July, Andrea and I went on a pre-congress excursion to some of the most fantastic ice caves in Austria. (Ice caves, roughly speaking, being caves formed in rock -- typically limestone -- and having perennial ice formations in them.) For a week, Austrian speleologists took us (and a number of other cavers from around the world) on a tour of these marvels in the Austrian Alps.

Beautiful rillenkarst in the Austrian Alps...
We spent most of our time in and around the Dachstein massif of the Northern Calcareous Alps. A good number of the caves we visited were commercially operated show caves, where we either pretty much stuck to the tourist trails and snuck in in between regular guided tours, or in some cases went into the cave after it had closed for the day and veered off trail to follow our guides through non-commercial parts of the cave. These included Dachstein-Mammuthöhle, Dachstein-Rieseneishöhle, and Eisriesenwelt.

Ice crystals in Dachstein-Mammuthöhle.
Our most involved trips went to Schwarzmooskogelhöhle and Eiskogelhöhle. Hiking to the Schneevulkanhalle (snow volcano hall) of Schwarzmooskogelhöhle took us through some beautiful scenery in the Alps, while the hike to Eiskogelhöhle was more straightforward, but required a number of skills inside the cave. Most of our caving trips involved wearing crampons to be able to move around on ice floors.

Rappelling into Hall of the Circe in Eiskogelhöhle.
A bonus caving trip not on the original itinerary took us to Kraushöhle, which did not contain any ice, but stands out as a cave formed by hypogene development. (Meaning, dissolution driven by water from below, rather than water cutting downward into the rock. [PDF]). And our last day took us to one of the eastern-most ice caves in Austria for a quick visit before heading to Brno.

A frozen waterfall has formed a huge ice stalagmite on the floor.
The excursion was extremely well organized and offered a good deal of education on ice caves in general and the genesis and other geological aspects of the particular caves we visited. We made new friends, and learned to enjoy Austrian schnapps -- in particular Zirbenschnaps, made from pine cones. Good times!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Two Months in (Mostly) Texas…

More rain showers and cloudy weather than expected gave me plenty of excuses to procrastinate cleaning my expedition gear after getting home from Mexico. No big deal, since I hadn't planned on using it much in May and June anyway. It was time to try and get some of the projects done at home that had been piling up on my to-do list for years. 

The outdoor guard kittens that come with our rental house are preparing for another work night...
Some of the activities I ended up keeping myself busy with included:

Learning How To Slaughter a Pig

Our friend Vico taught my friend Jean and me the basics of killing and butchering a pig. Obviously, besides a sharp knife, mastering this endeavour takes more training than doing it once -- but we got an excellent introduction. We spent an afternoon shooting a wild hog that Vico had caught earlier, trimming off the skin, and dissecting the meat. A good anatomy lesson, too!

Learning how to butcher a pig...

Visiting Chicago and Iowa

Andrea and I spent a week out of town during my time in Austin. We flew to Chicago and touristed around for a few days, something we had been wanting to do for a long time. And took the train from there to Ottumwa (Iowa) to see her parents. Good times were to be had, including a lesson in shooting a variety of guns.

Andrea shooting a cowboy (lever-action) rifle...

Playing With Car Electrics

It had been on my list for a long time to improve the setup of the auxiliary battery in the Tacoma, now my only vehicle. It took me several days of planning, shopping for parts, and fiddling around to move the inverter it powers to a spot in the cab where it wouldn't block the second jump seat anymore; to connect some of the existing and a few new power outlets, as well as the stereo, to the auxiliary battery; and to wire a remote switch that lets me join the auxiliary with the main battery to give the main a boost if it runs out of juice. Success! It's nice to have a car where you don't have to worry too much about drilling holes into the chassis to run wires through, too… ;-)

New wood panel to squeeze more power supplies into the middle console... Ugly, but it works.
In between, it was time to pack again for the next trip... (And of course, there are still tons of projects left on my to-do list.)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Canyons, San Luis Potosí's Deepest Cave, and Food...

I hadn't written yet about the remainder of my Mexico trip, so here it is. I got back from down south about four weeks ago. Thanks to the truck being searched twice at the US side of the border I was ten minutes late for the UT Grotto meeting, but overall I didn't experience any trouble driving through Mexico. So how did I spend the three weeks after the Puebla expedition?

I stayed in Mexico City for a few days at a friend's place who was one of the organizers of the Puebla trip, and enjoyed having some time to decompress, catch up with the Interwebs, go souvenir-shopping downtown, and watch my Mexican friends dance Salsa. ;-) The Metro made getting around easy, and I loved all the different areas downtown with stores that specialized in one thing or another. There were blocks of only hardware stores, audio equipment stores, cell phone repair part shacks, ...

Alexander von Humboldt statue in front of the (ex-?) National Library in Mexico City.
We headed toward Pinal de Amoles in Querétaro for the weekend, intending to go canyoneering. Spending the night in the picturesque (but loud) mining town, our group of a handful hiked from the town center toward the canyons the next morning. After some way-finding we made it to the upper part of the La Barranca canyon and had a blast hiking, rappelling, sliding and jumping into the water pools.

Instead of returning to D.F. (Distrito Federal, aka Mexico City) afterward, I decided to spend a few days in the touristy capital of Querétaro, where I got surprised by plenty of coffee shops with real espresso, and really good microbrews served in a few spots. If anybody is looking to relax in a touristy and safe setting, I recommend it!

Jumping one of the shorter drops of La Barranca.
My last two weeks were spent in San Luis Potosí, staying with the parents of a good caver friend of mine from Austin. I didn't get to do quite as much caving as I had initially hoped, but I know what it's like to have to work during the week and only be able to go caving on the weekend. ;-) So I enjoyed a constant supply of fantastic food cooked by the doña of the house, and spent some time walking around the (quite scenic) old part of town.

However, I also scored an awesome "tourist" trip into what is now San Luis Potosí's deepest cave. I was invited to tag along to pick up some cavers from their long weekend of exploration, and this unexpectedly turned into a day trip down to Camp 2 in the cave (at -500 meters or some such). A very beautiful place!

Cave passage in San Luis Potosí. Glove, umh, for scale.
And I went on another canyoneering trip to Pinal de Amoles with my friend Jean, who came to visit from Austin for a long weekend. This time, we went and played in the lower part of the La Barranca canyon. I have to admit that the water-rich canyons we did in Querétaro are way more fun than the fairly dry ones I had experienced before this trip. ;-)

Jean and I also participated in a successful vertical and self-rescue practice of the local caving club in San Luis Potosí, A.P.M.E. They have access to a steel tower that was originally built for emergency workers to practice, and is just perfect to hang a bunch of ropes off for practicing vertical skills...

Driving the truck back to Austin, and in general driving around in Mexico, was uneventful. Lots of checkpoints, military and police, on the highways in Mexico, but I wasn't hassled once. And my Spanish skills have definitely improved, but are still on a very basic level. ;-)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tzontzecuiculi Expedition 2013

It took me about half a day to loose my sun glasses in the thicket of brambles, brush, trees, and other random spiky things we encountered on our first day of looking for cave leads at ~2,500 meters elevation in the state of Puebla, Mexico. The first half day of sunshine, that is, after about three of pretty much non-stop heavy rain -- after all, we were in some sort of cloud forest.

Mexican (and Australian ;)) friends invited me to participate in their annual expedition up in the Sierra Negra mountain range, and I excitedly agreed to come out for the full month of the expedition. This expedition features some great Mexican cavers (as well as a few from other places in the world); had previously produced caves over a kilometer deep; and I was keen on spending some time in an environment that would actually force me to improve my pretty much non-existing Spanish.

It turned out to be a great time. For about the first two weeks, the expedition force was comprised of about a dozen cavers, many of them from Mexico City, but also including my good friend Bev from Austin. A going cave lead from the previous year, a cave named Doncella, sadly did not continue past a hundred-and-something meters depth. Much time was spent prospecting for, and checking, new karst features and potential caves in the -- as seen from base camp -- more remote (and higher elevation) parts of Tzontzecuiculi. (I am told that even the locals don't know the meaning of this mountain's name.)

Gathering back together after a day of swarming out high on Tzontzecuiculi to look for caves. A typical exposure of weathered limestone; the brush down in the forest can be much worse to travel in.
Potential cave leads closer to base camp, and to the little town Ocotempa at the base of the mountain, had been "exhausted" in previous years. (To the level of thoroughness one would expect if there are potential exciting leads elsewhere on the mountain that nobody has ever looked at.) And so we cruised (and oftentimes stumbled) over the very weathered and much-exposed epikarst; thrashed (and often cleared our way with machetes) through the undergrowth of the (mostly) pine forest, and in and out of sinkholes; in areas between one and three hours away from base camp.

A propos base camp. Located a couple hundred meters above and few kilometers from the next town, at the location of an old logging site, exists a spot on the mountain that has sufficient flat grounds for a large communal tent structure as well as individuals' personal tents. Scrap wood from the locals' logging operations conveniently helped with the creation of some basic structures, such as a large table and a kitchen area that already existed from previous expeditions. Finding wood for campfires, which were also used to get rid of most of our trash in accordance with local custom, wasn't a problem either.

In camp on a rainy day. The water jugs are already full from collecting rain water off of tarps.
Mules were rented to transport gear and food up (and at the end, down) the mountain to and from our trucks. A little stream is close by to collect water, although (in my opinion) the rain running off of tarps that we collected during some large rain events we experienced throughout the expedition tasted significantly better. ;-) Last but not least, there even is a hill with (albeit very, very slow) cell phone / Internet access within 10 minutes hiking distance. Quite plush. :-)

In the last two weeks of the expedition, with a caver force slowly being reduced to five of us for the final week, efforts started to concentrate on mainly two promising leads, one on the east and one on the west side of the mountain:

A cave referred to as TT103 (based on its entry in the expedition's cave/karst feature register) that had been found -- but not explored -- last year and is about half an hour away from Doncella. This allowed us to use the bivvy setup that had been established earlier at the Doncella entrance, allowing a team of two or three cavers to spend the night close to the cave -- in sleeping bags under a tarp spanned between trees -- rather than spending about four hours a day just for the hike from and to base camp. Plus, a trail had been established to Doncella previously, making travel not easy, but at least easier. TT103 was the first cave on this expedition to exceed a depth of 200 meters, and in the end was pushed to slightly more than 250 meters. It awaits more exploration...

TTW28 was found this year on the west side of the mountain, at almost 2,700 meters elevation, after a good day or so was spent early on to establish and cut a trail to that side of the mountain for easier travel to that prospecting area. After a hundred-and-something meters of depth the cave required a bit of chiseling to enlarge a constriction, but then continued well. Since we had only one set of bivvy equipment, which was in use at Doncella, this eventually involved long day trips from base camp as the depth of the cave continued to grow. This cave was left going at the end of the expedition as well, with an exciting pit half-way rigged.

In the entrance of TT103. Cleaning eroded limestone off the wall in order to place a bolt anchor for the rope.
Many other "lesser" caves were found during the expedition, some going to about 50 or 70 meters deep, but were quickly abandoned when it turned out that they didn't continue past that. (Looking at the elevation of the resurgence that is associated with the karst up on the mountain, a depth potential of about 2 km exists if one can only find the right cave. ;-))

All in all, I enjoyed this expedition a lot and learned many things. For one, obviously, a decent set of caving-related vocabulary in Spanish; although -- as usual -- it takes me forever to commit new words to my brain's memory. But also a good amount of new (to me) caving techniques and tricks, heavily influenced by the European style of caving. Rigging with 8 mm rope and knots I hadn't known before; using abrasion-resistant and lightweight dyneema cord instead of webbing; having universal ways of charging all types of batteries from a 12V battery fueled by solar panels; ...

And not least, this may well have been one of the most socially developed (in a positive sense) expeditions I have been on. A number of friends who mostly know each other fairly well (and yet were extremely welcoming to me as a new group member and not-much-Spanish speaker); sharing of not just food, but all sorts of gear, including each other's vertical kits and caving suits (who wants to drag their many kilograms of personal gear to another part of the mountain every day? ;-)); and temporary contribution of individual rigging gear for group use by each individual instead of commercial sponsorships or huge expedition fees. (In addition to a number of things that have been amassed over the years in a group stash, everybody brings some rope, rigging gear, ...) Etc.

Another month of my life well spent! :-)

Exiting a cave from where it bottomed out. You can see the daylight and vegetation in the entrance.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Off to Mexico...

Those were 2.5 busy weeks in Austin!

I came back from China with a list of desired improvements to my caving gear and other preparations necessary for my upcoming trip to Mexico. Besides the usual things on my to-do list that I thought would be easy to knock off without having a day job.

One thing that had bothered me multiple times on the last expedition was my photo setup. So I decided to invest 150 bucks to buy a new off-camera flash and sync cable -- the previous generation was a manual flash that always caused over-exposed photos in small cave passage, and a cable with a short in it. Tests of the new setup left me quite pleased so far. Another investment of several hundred dollars was a bunch of Petzl gear, including some replacement spares and a kit to set SPIT bolts, a specialized type of self-drilling caving bolts for (non-permanent) expedition rigging. I had wanted that kind of gear (a hand driver for the bolts, a number of hangers, and obviously bolts) for a while, but the upcoming expedition in Puebla finally gave me an excuse to actually buy it.

My current cave-photo setup: A Lumix LX5 with a Panasonic flash and sync chord to get the flash off the camera and prevent reflections from water and dust in the pictures. Not quite as nice as dragging an SLR around, but certainly more compact. There are more interesting flashes out there that work with my camera, but this one here actually fits into my little waterproof box and seems to work just fine.

I also managed to finish another long-term project that I had spent an hour on every now and then for the past two years: improving the subtitles that I had found online for my favorite German movie, 23 -- the story of the German KGB computer hackers from the 80s. I'll put them online when I get back to Texas.

In between, I spent some time digging in south Austin caves, and providing training in SRT (single rope technique - vertical caving) to half a dozen folks. Good times!

Right now I'm in Laredo, Texas, at the border to Mexico. Tomorrow I'm planning on heading to San Luis Potosí, and then on to Puebla the next day. The plan is to go caving in the state of Puebla for a month, spend a week in Oaxaca surveying caves, and then take up a friend on his invitation to spend some time with his family in San Luis Potosí to work on my Spanish and explore their caves.

I'm excited to finally take the truck back into Mexico, the last time was in May 2010, before things sort of deteriorated in terms of safety in northern Mexico. Recent reports from cavers driving to southern parts of Mexico across the border sounded like they did not have any trouble, and with driving only during the day and on toll roads I decided it's an acceptable risk for me to take the Tacoma instead of flying and/or taking buses.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Caving in South China - Hong Meigui's Spring Festival Expedition

I went to participate in this year's Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) expedition of the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society. The objectives sounded exciting: Establish camp in (and push leads off of) Da Luo Dang Tiankeng. In particular, explore a multiple-seconds drop (when throwing down a rock and listening for it to hit the bottom) downstream, where the explorers had turned around during a previous expedition, since they didn't want to take their chances to get flushed down it in the rainy season.

View of camp, and into Da Luo Dang Tiankeng.
The tiankeng (Chinese for "sky hole", "heaven pit") is most easily accessed by cavers through the San Wang Dong system, rather than climbing to it on the surface and dropping into it. This involves a 2-6 hour trip (depending on amount of gear to carry and other factors), mostly through walking passage and some borehole, but with a few shorter vertical drops, smaller spots, and climbs on the way. We established camp in the passage that opens up into the tiankeng after a few dozen meters; the floor is relatively flat, and there was evidence of previous human use in the form of two cooking hearths and a little rock wall to protect against the wind, presumably created by miners a little while ago. We brought custom-made, floor-less, light-weight tents with us that were attached with strings to bolts and features in the walls, in order to protect ourselves from the draft when in our sleeping bags and capture some of our body heat -- a common technique when camping in drafty cave passage.

It was funny to stay in a cave camp that would see daylight during the day. And cold, since we had direct access to the surface climate. (As opposed to the usual 12 degrees Celsius that is typical for the caves in the area.) Camp was maintained for ten nights total, Angela being the only one down there for the full time without getting a surface break. Erin almost made the record, but then her and I were faster than planned on the de-tackling day before breaking down camp for good, and managed to drag a load of gear out of the cave all the way to the surface, earning ourselves a break from the freeze-dried dinners underground and going back to sleep one more night in the cave. Early on in the expedition, Madphil and I had spent a day bouncing to the surface and back to get more rigging gear, our supplies of rope being exhausted much sooner than expected. (Our trip lead to the entertaining question of what a reverse call-out time should look like: Send a rescue party to the surface if we aren't back in cave camp by the next morning? ;-)) And to add yet another surface trip for myself, Devra and I joined the team leaving the cave during the first wave of de-rigging and departure from the expedition. I spent a surface day to rebook flights, and then solo-caved back in to bring food supplies for the remaining days.

View up in Da Luo Dang Tiankeng.
Once derigged, all the gear was transported back from its / our temporary home in the village of Er Wang Dong (Houping area) back to Tongzi, and us remaining expedition members spent multiple days cleaning gear and wrapping up things. The accomplishments of our group of (at peak times) eight cavers during not quite two weeks of caving included:

  • Exploring the downstream passage, spear-headed by Carl. The ~ 80 meter pit was rigged, and passage was explored until the remaining leads were still promising, but require better preparedness for cold, wet caving.
  • Madphil and Rob spent most of the days aid-climbing upward, using a total of not quite a hundred bolts. Their noses directed them straight toward Tian Ping Miao Tiankeng, a (relatively!) smallish sinkhole known from surface topography and now connected into the system. Sadly, no interesting leads were found off of it.
  • Erin climbed up a steep slope in Da Luo Dang Tiankeng in order to determine its extensions, and to her surprise found passage that showed evidence of miners (nitrate, maybe?) spending time up there, processing stuff, and having built a system to traverse a series of rifts as evidenced by wooden stemples and ladders apparently used to ease traveling at a certain elevation in the rifts. We spent multiple days exploring that passage without finding an obvious way on - when we ran into climbing leads in the last days, the only hammer drill left in camp conked out at the first attempt of using it.
  • Beardy and I got a good amount of decent photos on the trip, I think. I wish I had brought my second slave flash unit...
Upward, by means of hammer drill.
I enjoyed this trip a lot, it was a great mixture out of new and old caving friends, skills, and personalities. It also was a good opportunity to get me comfortable again with (and remember where my limits are when it comes to) slightly more involved expedition caving - traversing along fixed lines, (free) climbing relatively exposed climbs, etc. I'm ready for the next one! :-)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cave Survey Guidelines, and Other Things

A few years ago, Bev and I wrote a set of notes for new cavers on how to be a (both effective and efficient) part of a survey team. Basically, how to read instruments, set stations, communicate with the sketcher, etc. Which, really, is a good (the best?) way to get involved with and invited to caving projects, until you progress from there to learning how to sketch and draft maps, amongst other things.

David surveying in Punkin Cave, a couple of years ago... ;-)
While surveying in Quintana Roo over the holidays, I had time to reflect on this and also to collect some extremely useful comments from the fellow cavers who were around. I've finally managed to consolidate all this and publish an update on our Grotto web page:

Cave Survey - Using Tape / Disto and Instruments (PDF version)

In other news that will be less interesting to the general public, I'm currently spending a few weeks in Texas before heading to China for an expedition over Spring Festival. Besides participating in a cave digging project in Austin, (which is surprisingly fun, I have to admit as somebody who doesn't dig much in caves,) we made some progress in my project cave O-9 Well last weekend.

Line plot of survey data from Walls (a cave survey database application). 100 meter-grid. The orange stuff was added to the survey last Saturday.
Nine Texas cavers headed out west to continue the re-survey of the cave in three teams. All in all, we surveyed over 500 meters of fairly small, muddy, and wet passage. It took us longer than I had expected, too. But, all the main passage has now been re-surveyed, and what's left to do is to follow a side lead to where it's likely to end under a plugged sinkhole (the leg taking off to the north on the line plot above). And, of course, for me to draft the final map of the cave based on the survey data and sketches -- the primary reason for starting the project.

Apart from that, I'm dragging behind with accomplishing the various things on my to-do list. Something that hasn't changed since I left my job. Ah well.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Quintana Roo Cave Mapping Project

Over the holidays, Andrea and I went to Quintana Roo (in México, it's the state sharing a peninsula with the Yucatán) for ten days. Our aim was to help with the survey of dry caves in the region, conducted by the Quintana Roo Cave Mapping Project. (Dry caves in this context mean they aren't underwater caves that require cave diving -- there may still be streams and lakes.) The particular objective of this trip was to create a high-quality re-survey of a cave system that is also being used by a natural reserve tour operator, just south of Playa del Carmen. The resulting data will then be used to create a new map for the cave.

It was both plush and productive caving. All in all, our group surveyed over 27 km of cave on this trip. I personally contributed about 2 km of sketching over 9 caving days -- some in chest-high water, but most of it looping through a huge breakdown room with multiple chambers created by the breakdown. Frequently running out of pages made my brain hurt sometimes, though. (See photos of pages of my survey book. They will be replaced with better copies soon.)

A page from my survey book, showing the south-east corner of a large breakdown room we surveyed.
Survey notes. Distance between survey stations, as well as azimuth and inclination readings.
Since the caves are all located in the jungle and close to the surface, they have a rich fauna. Amongst other creatures, we frequently saw amblypygids, tarantulas, small catfish, cave-adapted fish, cave crickets, etc.

Amblypygid sensing around for prey. No scale, sadly, but there were some pretty big ones in the caves.
Our group of 20+ cavers mostly camped on the same property in the jungle that our main cave entrances were located on. We had flush toilets, showers, a pool, and daily breakfast and dinner were cooked for us -- couldn't be better! In between, we took a day off to visit the Maya ruins in Cobá and go snorkeling in the Gran Cenote outside of Tulum. Traveling from Texas to our camp was fairly straightforward, too -- direct flights between Austin and Cancún. Fun times all around.

Cutting (not quite ripe) coconuts to mix their juice with rum on Christmas Eve. :-)
I didn't take many pictures, and the few I took are of pretty low quality, but for completeness, the public photos of this trip can be found here on SmugMug.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Photos: Nepal, Bhutan, Bangkok

Happy 2013!

Views in the Khumbu Region of Nepal

Views in the Khumbu Region of Nepal

Over the holidays I finally managed to edit photos from my recent travels. If you are interested in taking a peak, here are the links to my public SmugMug albums: