A rich history marks the mapping of the 200th mile of Jewel Cave

By Leslie Silverman

200 MILES DOWN — Volunteer cave explorers recently mapped the 200th mile of Jewel Cave. From left to right, cavers Dan Austin, Adam Weaver, Rene Ohms, Chris Pelczarski, Garrett Jorgensen, and Stan Allison pose for a celebration picture. [Submitted Photo/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE]

On Dec. 15, a team of six cavers entered Jewel Cave National Monument.

On Dec. 16, the crew mapped the 200th mile of the cave.

Jewel Cave, the second largest cave in the country, was first explored nearly 60 years ago.

“When I started exploring Jewel Cave in 1959, we only knew about 3,000 feet of passages. A few more had been secretly discovered, but we did not know about them at the time,” said Dwight Deal, a pioneer in the history or the cave’s exploration.

That day, the group surveyed 3,338.75 feet of passages. When they exited the cave on Dec. 17, they were greeted by park staff, family and friends for an evening celebration and potluck and to share their experiences.

The National Park Service sign proclaimed Jewel Cave to be “a small cave” in those early days with only two miles mapped.

“I gained permission to explore and survey the cave and recruited Herb and Jan Conn to help. We had mapped seven miles, mostly of cave passages never before been entered by humans, by the time I had finished my MS thesis on the geology of the cave,” said Deal. “To the geological knowledge of caves that existed in 1959, Jewel Cave was crazy and nonsensical.”

From 1959 through 1981, the Conns explored and discovered more than 60 miles of cave passages.

Since 1981, two generations of cavers have followed in their footsteps have continued to discover new passages, unique formations and even cave lakes.

Exploration is time consuming.

From the elevators it takes about eight hours to reach deep camp, one of three camps created for cave exploration.

Explorers travel from deep camp to the end of the cave to continue mapping. Caving involves a lot of physically demanding activity.

While other caves can be more technical with rope rigging, water and cold to contend with, Jewel Cave is still quite taxing to explore.

“Jewel (Cave) is a very special cave in terms of distances traveled from the entrance and in terms of physical difficulty,” notes Stan Allison, one of the six individuals on the team that mapped the 200th mile. “The cave constantly requires scrambling over breakdown (rocks), climbing up and down chimneys and squeezing through tight chest compressing squeezes and extended belly crawls. The easy walking cave in Jewel (Cave) is the exception, not the rule.”

Allison, a caver since the age of 16, began working at Wind Cave as an interpreter in 1990. From there, he moved up to a cave technician position.

His first Jewel Cave trip was in 1990 and he was part of the team that made the Stopper discovery in 1991. That has led to over 70 miles of cave.

Although he missed the 100th mile survey trip he still made yearly trips to Jewel Cave to participate in exploration until about 2012 when survey and exploration in caves in the Grand Canyon became more of a priority for him.

He has surveyed over 30 miles in Jewel Cave and is one of the top 10 surveyors in terms of mileage surveyed.

“Jewel (Cave) is among the most challenging caves that I have worked in due to non-stop obstacles, extensive crawls and long distances traveled,” he said. “Jewel (Cave) has a very fun character with crystals on walls that enables free climbing of pits and domes that would not be climbable in other caves due to slick surfaces. Jewel (Cave) is also a lot of fun, because the wind is a constant companion.”

Mapping of the cave is done entirely by volunteers.

Jewel is currently the third largest cave in the world and second largest cave in the nation.

“Caving is a difficult and demanding activity, and the monument has been very fortunate to have such dedicated and skilled cave explorers, who love caving at Jewel Cave and keep finding more of this amazing underground resource,” said Michelle Wheatley, superintendent of Jewel Cave National Monument, in a release.

The most recent discovery in the cave occurred in 2014 when explorers found a narrow fissure with airflow in the western branch, which they called the Southwest Splinter.

The Southwest Splinter has led to the discovery of 24 additional miles of passages in addition to the uncovering of the cave’s first lakes.

Due to the remoteness of that area, cavers spend up to four days in the cave, resting each evening at a site called Deep Camp.

It takes cavers about eight hours to reach Deep Camp from the visitor center elevations.

From there, it takes another four hours to reach the “end” of the cave.

“It felt good to be part of hundreds of cavers who have contributed thousands of hours of time since 1959 to achieve 200 miles of cave survey,” recalls Allison.  “After surveying the 200th mile we found a large stalagmite approximately seven feet tall and five feet in diameter with beautiful cream and reddish coloration. It is the largest known stalagmite in Jewel Cave and it was like the cherry on top of the 200-mile cake.”

Allison hopes to support the 300-mile trip and celebration as well as the next generation of cavers who continue to explore and survey Jewel Cave.

The monument is planning a 200-Mile Celebration on June 28-30 in Custer.

Guest speakers, youth activities and an array of presentations are being planned with the assistance of the Black Hills Parks and Forests Associations.

Registration materials and a complete listing of events will be made available by Feb. 1.