Went to the states. Here’s the rant. Grammer will be lacking.
K Brook’s NSS trip to the NSS convention 2022 in Rapid City, South Dakota; Nice to meet you.
It was leg week, because it’s always leg day. So my mother (Carolina Shrewsbury, nee Brook) and step father (Willian Shrewsbury) run a shop in the USA called On Rope 1 and running this shop involves going to all the various conventions that happen all over the USA. They are getting close to retirement now and needed some help getting stuff shifted during the NSS convention and there was no one willing to help in the US so they needed some immigrant labour for heavy lifting. Enter me, due to my skills of shifting shit and not pure nepotism. The plan was to meet them in Chattanooga, Tennessee and load up a bus to drive to Rapid City, South Dakota.
I have received rumour of some caves in the US so I bought the plane ticket and off I went to see what the new world could offer.
Landing in the US I felt the sweltering heat of the deep south greet me and I stripped off my British garb as soon as I breathed in the air. Border security was not impressed but the rule is that “if the sky’s out, the thighs’ out” and who am I to argue? Dressed in my finest shorts and wife-beater I felt the Georgia sun and was reborn a sunburnt-ginger.
Bussed it up to Chatanooga where On Rope 1 is based in the basement of my mum’s house. I spent the first couple of days helping Mum out in the workshop, making up parts for harnesses and adjusting for the jet lag. Also performing my primary duty, heavy lifting of all the gear that would come to convention.
All the gear was loaded onto a Blue Bird bus (picture an American school bus but covered in more bats). William and Mum have a very good setup on the bus where it can turn into a mobile shop quite easily with peg racks down one side and buckets of harnesses and kneepads on the other. Shelves galore for everything else. However for this convention it all needs to come out to a vendor stall, hence the need for a heavy lifter.
Now the Blue Bird was designed to take kids to school, not drive across country so driving at 70mph we could get 7.2mpg. A good and efficient number for what would be a two-day journey. Another aspect of this journey was that there was three of us on a bus, which only has two seats. So I was sat in a camping chair in the central aisle. The entire way there and back I was staring out of that big windscreen thinking that if anything happened, I’d be right out that window. But nothing happened and life was good (at least I hope so as I’m still sat in the camping chair as I write this.)
The only thing I can say about the journey there was that the Midwest is flat, it was like the Vale of York on ‘roids. As soon as we passed Nashville the landscape only got worse going into Iowa and Missouri where frowning is the state sport. Crossed the Mississippi river and Missouri river and saw the Arch at St Louis. A quick stop in Kansas City, Missouri in order to get some sleep and BBQ.
The next day we crossed the Missouri river for the final time and we were truly in the land of the Sioux and Lakota People. Now the Dances with Wolves references began and I knew none of them. Grasslands as far as the eye could see and cattle dotted all over the place. Finally, as we approached Rapid City, we could what I had come for; the Black Hills. These were only the foothills but they had the most elevation I had seen since Tennessee.
The Convention itself was hosted at a place called the Central States Fairground and where its primary function is rodeos. The first night coincided with a local rodeo so we had nowhere to setup the bus (which is also where Mum and William sleep; I would have a tent). Signed in and found out the camp ground for RVs was not ready. We immediately left in order to find a campground, slightly sad about that but it meant I was on the bus during that night’s thunderstorm.
During the length of the convention, we had several thunderstorms and a tornado warning. It seems that the weather might be a bit extreme in South Dakota, as everyone considered this normal and the strangest thing was fog one morning. British weather rant over.
No caving this day as this was one of the three days I had to work unloading the bus. Vendors were setup in the rodeo arena and due to the length of the bus (12m) we could not drive it up to the stall so everything was rolled to the stall on a hand cart. No issue as this was the reason I was there.
Stall setup I dashed over to registration and get myself onto a caving trip. Stagebarn Crystal Cave was the only trip that still had space on it so I signed up and met the trip leader Carl Bern who was very friendly and welcoming and helped to introduce me to some other cavers over the course of the night. I could mention loads of names of people I met but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say a bunch of shit-talking went on that night.
Monday morning I met up with Carl who drove to meet up with the others on the trip at Haggar’s stores in Black Hawk. There were four other cavers joining us that day, Shawn Hogbin, a West Virginia caver, Phil Rykwalder, who I remember as Texas-based but don’t quote me on that, Michael Haley, a Missouri caver, and Lloyd Morrison, who unfortunately I didn’t talk to much, but he took some lovely photos.
We all discussed the logistics of the cave and started car-pooling as there was not too much parking space at the cave entrance. We set off out of town and turned after 5 minutes into Stagebarn Canyon, a gravel road running along an old railway cutting that we assumed was for a mine. The canyon itself was impressive, covered in Poderossa pine (nearly all of the black hills are) with the exception of the canyon top where there is sheer cliff varying from 10-20m in height with some impressive pillar formations from what I could see.
When we got to the cave entrance, I saw that this cave was a former show cave with concrete and wooden steps leading up to it. We actually had the land owner come up and speak to us. Initially he was a bit peeved as he has a speed limit on the gravel road of 15mph. Carl kept to this speed limit with the exception of the one straight bit of road in front of the landowners house as he did not know the limit existed (oops). Besides that the owner was happy to see us and he actually needed our help with the electrics in the cave.
The electrical lighting for the show cave are still intact, working and there was a family reunion coming up so he knew a couple of crawl spots where light bulbs had gone and he simply wanted us to change the bulbs. It would be nice for the family to have a big tour of the cave and see what the granddaddy had created. This was a fantastic bit of news as it meant we could turn the electrics on and see all of the show cave lit up. Looking at the electrics in this cave I am amazed they still work as there was water running down a lot of the cables but from what I saw the sheaths has not been damaged and there was no water ingress despite no containment or IP-rated equipment. In fact that were several switches that had plastic bags on top of them in order to protect them from water drips. There were several legs of wire that were clearly running through unstable rock that will go at some point but it didn’t go that day. Cowboy country, cowboy electrics. Love it.
Lamps changed, we set off into the cave proper and at this point I should describe South Dakota caves for those who don’t know. I will probably get the geology wrong.
Most caves I have ever done are solution caves where the water flows in from the surface. Not these caves. They are dry as OFD upper series with only a couple of drops here and there, average temperature of the caves is 9°C so trousers and t-shirts are the order of the day. They had some kind of unique phreatic development and as a result they have formations such as Boxwork that does not occur in such abundance anywhere else to my knowledge. The walls of the caves are covered in nail head spar which have broken off in places and these seem to be the only places where this spar is not. In regards to the layout of the caves they are vast maze passages much like Knockfell Cavens on a larger scale.
This trip was an in and out trip to a place called The Halls. These are three large trunk passages that cut through the maze network of the cave. The way there from the show cave involved a 45 minute crawl which was much like the ones at home except no water and there was much more friction due to the spar and popcorn formations on the floors and the ceiling. The crux of the trip was a 4m long flat out crawl along a bedding which was 22cm high. This required some work to get through but was easily passable for most of the group. Lloyd had some trouble on the way in but with some quick reassurance he got himself though. Mike however was at his size limit here and required some serious effort to get himself through. He was wearing a lovely yellow REI base layer that by the end of the trip had so many holes in it he ended up looking like Swiss cheese. On the way back I had to physically pull him out of the bedding as he was having difficulty overcoming the friction of the popcorn on the roof.
The Halls are thumping great trunk passages 10 to 15m in height and with some obstacles such as traverses and pits. We covered the main walking-size passage before encountering chokes at either end. The Halls are called Leviathan, Behemoth, and Short Rib. The naming convention seems to only work 2 out of 3 times it seems. The cave carries on past this point and exploration is ongoing. The passage past the Halls is much like it was before according to Carl with 8-9 hours needed for a return trip, not including surveying. Great cave. Would do again.
Returned to convention. Did more shit-talking. Many thanks to Carl for leading the trip and the group I was with were fantastic and very strong.
This was a non-caving day for me as I didn’t manage to sign up for an official trip. I got to registration early and signed on for that sweet Jewel cave trip. Jewel was ‘the cave to do’ if no other in the area. More on that later. I attended two American exploration talks and heard about the explorations of caves in Missouri, Wyoming and the Tetons, as well as further work in South Dakota itself. Interesting stuff these Yanks get up to.
There was a Luminaire talk by John Scheltons, a former NSS president on his time in the NSS and working on getting cave conservation signed into US law. He also detailed on how he hosted an NSS convention on his ranch and hosted a rodeo that the cavers competed in. It looked like good fun but we wouldn’t get away with that these days with health and safety I think.
Final thing of the day was a Speleothem repair workshop. I learned how to use the NSS-approved epoxy to repair speleothems and how to use the homemade-speleojacks. If you want to make your own I have the book now on Speleothem-repair and all we will need is patience and a lot of PVC piping.
Had a sandwich and went to bed early after meeting the Jewel trip leader Larry Schraffer and arranging an early start.
It is Wednesday my dudes. Met up with Larry and a couple other cavers, Stephanie Marie Stanton and Helen Hicks for the drive to Jewel, about an hour and bit from Rapid City. The drive through the Black Hills was amazing and to see so many undeveloped crags was staggering. Back in the UK, the worst of them would have at least 50 polished routes but out here there was not a climber in sight. We passed the Crazy Horse monument and arrived early at the cave to meet Ron Miller and Cathy Borer to complete our group. Everyone besides me and Larry were Georgia cavers and both Ron and Cathy were involved Lechugilla so between them and Larry I got to hear about loads of caving politics, since Jewel has its own unique management style.
For those who don’t know Jewel cave is a big massive f*ck off show cave with an elevator. So after getting changed into freshly-washed, dry caving gear (white nose decontamination and all) we got into a marble lined elevator to head down into the show cave.
No words will be spoken with the show cave visitors. No eye contact will be made with the show cave visitors. The show cave visitors will not see you. We snuck through the show cave and got to our boot changing location. Jewel requires two sets of boots as the wider cave has loads of manganese, a black mud that will stick to you and cover everything if you so much as look it. Understandably the show cave does not want to get this on the visitors so we keep it clean by changing shoes before going off the beaten (concreated) path.
Jewel was much like Stagebarn with nailhead spar all over the walls and the unique phreatic development. There was not much boxwork on the route we did and Larry informed me that Wind Cave is the more famous for that type of formation. The main difference is the sheer size of the place. The tallest passage in Stagebarn was 15m; Jewel has ‘canyon’ passages that I would estimate at 70m in height. The cave is another maze with 4 main levels and extends to over 200 miles and is still very much still going.
This trip was a loop called the Hub Route. On this route we saw many interesting formations such as Spiders, which are gypsum crystal that have formed under a layer of mineral which remained when it was pushed away by the gypsum growth. Other notable formations were positive moulds of ancient tree routes, massive fist-sized nailhead spar growth and crystal growth with pink impurity though to the core. I could not describe these formations in print to do them justice.
We had our resident scientists on this trip, as Ron was geologist and Cathy a biologist so we could get answers for most of the nitty gritty questions when it came to the cave formation and life. None of these answers I remember, however as I am just a simple man and there is only so much my mind can take in one day. Larry commented that having one geologist is always interesting, but having two is insufferable. The sporting aspect to the trip were load of climbs where it is either pure friction on spar or slippery shite on manganese, with some awkward sections of moderate gymnastics.
Unfortunately Stephanie had to duck out of the trip early due to feeling unwell which was a perfectly respectable decision. All trip members performed well and we got out after 5 hours which was done at a relaxed pace due to the sheer amount of talking. Needless to say we all got on very well and I’d gladly go with any of these fine cavers again.
Caving trip over, we all packed up and washed off the worst on the manganese and stopped by the town Custer for some post-caving pizza. I recommend the buffalo and mushroom pizza.
Many thanks to Larry for the trip. I particularly enjoyed talking about all the caving and climbing opportunities in the Black Hills and he has definitely inspired me to return. We could have not asked for a more informative and practical guide and I hope to cave with him in the future.
It is still Wednesday my dudes. Caving was not all we got up to that day. When I said that you could not do a caving rodeo these days, that did not apply to South Dakota and John Scheltons, the local caver/rancher who got together his rodeo buddies and held the second ever Speleorodeo. I formed a 3 person team with Helen Hicks and Zach Englebert another Georgia caver. The contests were: calf wrestling, cattle penning, hide racing and steer riding. Our team was called the Lawless Overflow Campers. We did ok and I’m unsure where we scored on the table but will say it was a lot of fun. In each event we were teamed up with a cowboy who would do most of the leg work while we flopped about like fools.
Calf wrestling was the biggest team event. A calf would be loosed into the arena, our cowboy would lasso the calf and we would come up behind it and bring it to the ground. Once on the ground we had to tie three of its leg and brand it, this was not a hot brand but a water one. Zach manged to wrestle the calf on top of himself but Helen got the legs nice and tight while I applied the brand.
Cattle herding involved a cowboy trying to separate a lone steer from a group of 10 and getting it into a pen. We would help guide it in and then shut the gate. We passed the allotted time as it was confusing which steer was ours, and I can say that sharing a pen with 7 riled up horned steers was intimidating (their points were sawn off but the horns were still large).
Hide racing was where the cowboy would drag a caver on a cow hide up the area, whip them round a barrel and bring them back. Helen took that task as she was the smallest but despite the horse’s best efforts, the other team won that race.
I took point on the steer riding which I think most people can imagine and a video does exist of this. I lasted all of *a* second before that steer threw me to the ground despite all the schooling that a couple of 9 year old junior bull riders gave me. I grassed my arm in the soft sand floor of the area but that was the only injury of the night for me.
Finally we had the bonus event of money horns (the name I just made up). Four steers with various dollar bills tied to their horns were to be let loose into the area and whoever grabbed ’em, got ’em. Cowboys and cavers alike took part in this and it was chaos and video does exist. I managed to get the $50 bill but not direct from the horn as it fell off while the animal was still in the pen. Rachel Saker also went for this note but I got their first, fair and square. I went back into the area to try my luck with the others and for my efforts I got hit square on by one of the steers. I can’t say that it hurt but it serves me right I suppose for taking part in a rodeo. No more notes for me, but one young man got a torn piece of at $20 bill. I valued it at $8.63, he later got the whole note for his efforts.
I can say I’ve never done, or ever again will do something more American.
Rodeo over it was back to the shit-talking. We had a local band playing that night got loads of dancing done and back at the noisy campground we had Team Popular Tunes vs Team EDM. EDM was as smaller group but had more commitment so ended up on top.
Thursday was another workday for me as it was William’s turn to go caving on a Junior Speleological Association trip while includes the current and former presidents of the NSS.
Not much to report on that day as it was mostly spent on personal admin, shit-talking and helping Mum around the store. I did however go to a tack store to buy myself a real rodeo hat. I thought that if I had ridden steer I’d have earned it. One of the cowboys recommended a store in town that was “just around the corner” called Triple Tack so I decided to walk there. It was a 20 minute walk that crossed two highways and a main road that might as well have been a highway. Between the steer riding and the walk I think the steer was safer as there were no crossing and no pavements. However walking back to the convention wearing what was essentially a skirt and a full blown cowboy hat, I think I caused some traffic issues.
There was a caving carnival on that night but I opted to go to dinner with my mum, William, Bruce Smith and Gini Smith. Bruce and Gini were the original owners of One Rope 1 and Bruce was a pioneer of American Vertical Technique, being one of the authors of On Rope and featuring as a centrefold in National Geographic. Buffalo meat was eaten and stories were told of SRT techniques, equipment and finding gold on Chinese riverbanks.
Returning to the convention there was a storytelling contest that I was advised to enter. I had no original intention of entering but I was pestered into it. I told the story of Lindsay Dodd shitting in Lancaster Hole and if you want to read that you’ll have to buy Sid Perou’s book, 30 Years as an Adventure Cameraman. I got a joint win in the contest with Carol Vesley, so UK caving stories can travel it seems.
I was a bit sad that Mike Futrell did not go up with a story he had called “Dude, fuck!” which would have been him on stage for 5 minutes saying dude, and fuck in no particular order. He performed it with me as an interactive experience and I think I would’ve lost to that.
I must admit that I checked in with Sid after telling the story and I got two things wrong. It was Lancaster Hole, not Pen-y-Ghent Pot; and they were wearing Goon suits not wetsuits. For non-brits or the young, Goon suits were military surplus exposure suits used by fighter pilots.
That night was colder than others and the night before had been wild, so Thursday was pretty quiet. Shit-talking occurred in the Shallow Grotto area where we listened to Bluegrass and huddled round a gas fire. The only thing that happened that night for me was that I finally shaved off my hair as balding is happening and I ain’t hanging onto a losing battle. Rachel Saker did most of the work and attempted a Good Ol’ Boy haircut, confidently stating that she had shaved goats before so this would be easy.
Mum was not impressed with the haircut and resolved to fix it as soon as possible. After a quick morning of helping out around the store and showing off the hair to those who had not seen it, or were too drunk to remember, I was whipped away and it was buzzed off with quick ease. The store was busy on the last day as people needed to scoop up gear before we closed at 12pm.
Closed up and done, it was time to pack up. It was an efficient operation and we were done in less than two hours on the hottest day of the week. All that was left was to attend the banquet. The banquet consisted of typical American fair. Meat, Corn, and potatoes. Hazel Barton gave a good speech about not stealing vegetarian food because they were served first, it had just the right amount of sass. Well-deserved awards were handed out and absent friend were toasted. Afterwards the Bluegrass held a gig on the main outside stage and much drinking and dancing was had. During this all a very sozzled Derek Bristol came up and said Hi to me! I must be building a reputation for myself or was just lucky to be standing next to someone he actually wanted to talk to.
We danced the night away and email addresses, phone numbers, Facebooks and Instagram accounts were exchanged. I made loads of new friends and would actually highly recommend coming to the convention for anyone considering it.
Set off at 3am to beat the heat. Shat in a bucket. Wrote this rant. Hibachi grill for dinner.