Roubidoux Springs Push
August 20, 1996
Kurt Olson and Robert Laird
Kurt Olson and Robert Laird
(This article was published in the NACD Journal Fall 1996 Issue.)
Two days prior to the Roubidoux dive, we did a push at Cannonball Springs, Lake Wapepello, down in the southeast corner of Missouri. To read that story, click here.
August 19, 1996, Waynesville, Missouri. At the edge of this sleepy town is a cold and clear spring called Roubidoux, issuing forth from under a busy gravel road. Townsfolk pass by and often stop for a quick look. A young woman brings her dog down for a swim in the 56F water, but he won't go in because it's too cold. Two old gentlemen bring fishing rods, roll their pants up to their knees and wade in, laughing because their feet go numb. No one stays very long... except the cave divers.
The history of cave diving at Roubidoux Spring dates from the mid 1970s, when Carlson, Delaney, Rimback and Tatalovich had explored only the first 400' of shallow passage. In 1977 R. L. Miller and R. F. Fogarty made several exploration dives and surveyed the deep section to a total penetration of 1600' at a depth of 160 ffw. Miller and Fogarty's exploration stood for thirteen years when, in 1990, several explorations extended the line another 800' into and just beyond the second very large room in the system. Kurt Olson, Dave Porter, Mike Heusack, Roger Gliedt and Doug Chapel conducted the 1990 explorations. The total penetration was now 2400' with a maximum depth of 210 ffw. The following year Kurt Olson and Mike Heusack explored 200 additional feet of passage for a total of 2600'.
On Monday, we assemble and lovingly pore over our gear and fill our tanks in Rolla, drive out to Waynesville and prepare for a familiarization dive in Roubidoux. The dive is primarily for my benefit since Kurt knows the cave quite well. We bring along a basic-cave diver to join us for the first dive. The line runs into the cave for about 450' down to about 60 ffw, then drops down a well-like room to 120 ffw and turns sharply. A low section gradually widens after 1000', and a few hundred feet later opens into "The Big Room." On the familiarization dive, the third diver turns the dive just short of this room.
The visibility is not great, but acceptable. In the cave, there is little silt, the walls are mostly black and covered in geothite, and it is very rugged. In the low sections, the rock seems to reach out and grab at you. Like at Cannonball, we are lucky because the flow is unusually mild, so swimming is easy. Scootering will be even better.
That night Kurt again describes the cave to me in great detail. The existing line consists of 1700' of gold line and 700' of heavy exploration line. Roubidoux's high springtime flow is notorious for shredding the guideline. With each successive group of explorers, heavier line was installed and old line removed. In a small section, just after the big room, old exploration lines appear to go all over the place. One small section of Miller and Fogarty's line is still present marking the end of their exploration 19 years ago.
"The Big Room" starts at 1400' back at a depth of 150 ffw. With the poor visibility you know you are in The Big Room when the walls, floor and ceiling disappear as the line runs straight through the middle of the room. Just beyond that the gold line ends. The heavy exploration line is almost always intact since the passage is large. There is also a lack of sharp rocks -- common in the front part of the cave -- that can shred the line. The next notable landmark is a shear cliff-like drop off marking the beginning of the second large room at 160 ffw deep. Our last stage bottle is to be dropped on the ledge. From here the line almost runs down to the floor of the room. We will momentarily duck under a ledge at 200 ffw into the main passage, then up to 180 ffw where the line ends 2600' into the cave.
August 20, 1996. Now to get ready for the dive.
All mixing and filling are done in Rolla, and it takes from seven in the morning until about four in the afternoon. This is to be a trimix dive, but we have very little helium left. We cannot get the ideal mixture (20-20). Since the dive can be done on air - and has been many times - we aren't concerned about it. We add all the helium we have left and end up with about a 21-10 mix, too "light" to be of much help, but it is better than straight air.
The plan involves a double-stage for the dive itself, two bottles of nitrox 40 for the 60-30 foot deco stops, and two bottles of O2 for the 20 and 10 foot stops. We also place two additional bottles in the system at 20 feet. By the time the preparations are finished, the drive to Waynesville, check in at the police station and get kitted up, it is almost five o'clock in the afternoon. A long day is about to become even longer!
Bottles are placed, scooters are revved up, and the dive begins. It didn't take long to realize the visibility is even worse than the day before. During parts of the dive it is no better than 20 feet. At times Kurt disappears from view. I know he is there, but with his light pointed forward and with the bad visibility, I can't see him until he moves his light toward the side or back. (He mentioned the same effect on the way out with me in the lead.) We make our stage drops smoothly and carry on. While passing over the two big rooms, we occasionally lose sight of everything except the line. Traveling at high speed, blackness all around, with nothing but a line in sight, is a strange feeling.
At 29 minutes into the dive, the end of the line is in sight. Our planned turn-around time gives us only 16 minutes of exploration. We drop our scooters and clip them to the line. Kurt ties off the exploration reel, hands it to me and we start swimming. As agreed, Kurt scouts the cave ten feet to my front and left to illuminate as much of the passage as possible. The light red-brown color of the walls in this section of the cave improves visibility somewhat, to about 60'. At this point, the cave is about 60' wide and 20' high, silt is evident everywhere, almost no flow, depth is about 170 ffw and ascending slowly.
We continue close to the right-hand wall and the left wall starts to slowly move away as we swim. After 200' or so, we cannot see the left wall and the floor starts to drop away slowly. After 300' we can no longer see the floor. The roof becomes flat, and the huge room we've found drops below us into darkness. Since visibility is about 60' at this point, we only know the room is at least 60'x60' but from the way the right wall is shaped and the way it drops almost vertically, we feel it is much, much larger.
The percolation from the ceiling is coarse silt. I see a hole in the flat roof above me, slightly larger than my head. I hesitate for a moment while I watch my bubbles disappear up the hole. I notice we're running out of line and signal Kurt. We start looking for a place to tie off and quickly realize that there are no small rocks anywhere to be seen.
The unusually flat ceiling is at 170 ffw, the right wall consists of van-sized boulders, very square, separated by smooth silt-covered rock. As the line runs out, I signal Kurt that there is no place to tie off. I hand him the reel. (It was his reel so if he wanted to just leave the reel there, I wanted that to be his decision.) I start to swim back along the line, looking for a tie off. At one point I spot a small outcrop and wrap the line around it.
Later, Kurt told me, "I looked around and even dropped down the wall about 20 feet looking for a tie off. The few places I tried simply broke off. I saw the outcrop you had tried to tie-off on to but it, too, broke. After reeling up sixty feet of line I made three more attempts to tie off. All I found was crumbling, sponge-like rock. Our time was up. When I made one last attempt to tie off the line on a large outcrop, the entire section of rock fell several feet down to the bottom. Realizing I was almost back out of the seemingly bottomless third large room, I cut the line and followed it back thirty feet to ensure it was securely wrapped at the entrance of the room."
The exit is uneventful, and the deco is cold but not as boring as Cannonball. At the 20 and 10 foot stops there are ledges, nooks and crannies to explore. Surfacing in the small basin, the stars above us are bright and beautiful. The line in Roubidoux is now 3000' long ending in a giant room... with a LOT more to explore!
-- Robert Laird
Here is a link to a couple of other pictures of top-side Roubidoux. Both are rather large images, so expect it to take a couple of minutes (or so) to download. One is of the spring run, the other of the basin, taken from the road. They aren't very exciting... but the cave was! Click here to see them.
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