10 August 2008

Winding down the Atacama Expedition

A shot of me from above. I just rappeled into a small pit with an incredibly tight side passage. Pete and I rappelled into this feature today. Credit: Tim Titus.

We have just one more day in the field. From here, we pack it up and prepare for our expedition to Rapa Nui!

Today, my team and I went to two caves in the Cordillera de los Andes. Christina, Tim, Pete, Lynn and I (sensor deployment team) went to Cueva Paisaje de Sal, while Dan and Knutt (exploration team) went to Cebeza Encogido.

Preparing to explore the caves. Credit: Tim Titus.

The sensor deployment team’s objective for the day was to push two upper passages, and locate third entrance of Cueva Sal Paisaje. We think that one of these entrances would require rope work, so we brought all of our vertical gear, as well as our safety officer, Christina. Once these passages were pushed and one entrance confirmed as being connected to Cueva Sal Paisaje we would deploy sensors with this portion of the cave. We’ve already deployed sensors in the lower portion, as well as the surface of this feature.

The expedition doc on stand-by while we are preparing to rappel into the cave. As part of the expedition's safety plan, I decided to have both the safety officer and the expedition doc present whenever we were doing vertical work. Credit: Tim Titus.

The exploration team was to push passage within Cebeza Encogido. When Pete, Lynn and I explored and deployed sensors in this cave last week, we encountered a bifurcation point – the southwest passage connected with the lower portion of the cave, as for the southeast trending passage – we have no idea where it went. Once this was determined, Knutt and Dan would also deploy sensors within this cave.

Knutt, one of our brave explorers, preparing to pry the unravel the mysteries of Cebeza Encogido. Credit: Dan Ruby.

The sensor deployment team's day started off wonderfully. As we approached what we are calling the barn owl entrance of Cueva Paisaje de Sal, we disturbed a pair of Peregrine falcons. Apparently, they were roosting within the barn owl entrance. As we approached, they flew out and both screeched loudly. We then watched them fly towards Licancabur.

Dan, our other brave explorer, en route to Cebeza Encogido. Credit: Knutt Peterson.

Since I have been here, I have observed literally tons of owl pellets within cave entrances. I have also seen bat guano within a few caves. We encountered one spider in Cuevita de Huecos. We’ve also been buzzed by the occasional bee and/ or fly. There simply isn’t much life to observe within the area of the Atacama where we are working. We are essentially it. So, when these two Peregrine falcons broke the desolateness of this area, by calling and then flying across the bright blue sky, it was an incredible treat. I felt really blessed for being able to observe this. Unfortunately, no one had their camera ready, so we have no photos.

Christina, our safety officer, toting a ton o' gear. Credit: Pete Polsgrove.

Our day was punctuated with some accomplishments and some things we wished would have worked out differently. The number one rule to conducting expeditions is to expect problems. The second is to be flexible. So, when things don’t work out, it is important to figure out why they didn’t work out, adapt to the current situation and then move forward.

Rigging the entrance. Christina, our safety officer, took the lead in rigging our rappel. Pete and I are seen here essentially getting in her way. Credit: Tim Titus.

The sensor deployment team deployed sensors within the deep portions of only two of the four passages we hoped to cover today. We were unable to find the other two. We scoured the salt landscape and hiked up and down this terrain searching for these other entrances.

We did go into one entrance we thought was certainly connected to Paisaje de Sal. This entrance required a 4 meter rappel. So, we were able to get on rope today! The down shot is the passage connecting to this entrance was not part of Paisaje de Sal. We did have a map for this cave. The orientation of the passage way did not match the map, and the passageway itself was impassable. It was 20-30 cm wide, was incredibly mazy and was total bone yard passage. Bone yard passage is when there are rocks hanging down into the passage from every direction and this continues down passage. It’s a contortionist’s dream. Unfortunately, I’m not a contortionist.

I'm climbing the rope out of this vertical entrance. Pete can be seen kneeling down below. Credit: Tim Titus.

We did have some good news. Cebeza Encogido is a two entrance cave! Knutt and Dan pushed the southeast passage, and determined that it pinched off and terminated at the main trunk passage. They were able to determine this by having one person on either side of the cave wall, and they were able to see each other’s lights, and speak through the perforated wall. We have yet to find any two entrance caves in the Cordillera de los Andes, so this was great news for the team.

Me'an Tonka. Credit: Dan Ruby.

Ideally, we want caves with one to two entrances. Because we are just beginning to learn how to model cave thermal behavior, it is obviously better to start this process by modeling simple systems and then increasing our complexity as we continue this work. However, the Atacama has been unforgiving in this respect. So, we will be modeling thermal behavior of complex caves.

We all got back to Rancho Tonka early. We made it home before sunset. The team was able to relax and spend some time outside. I made dinner for the team. And, now I’m at Adobe typing this blog.

The hardest part of the expedition will be leaving my new friends. I've been here for a month now, and I've become really attached to these guys (Negra, Heicento and Tonka from left to right). These critters run the roost of Rancho Tonka; however, the big guy is clearly in charge. Credit: Dan Ruby.

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