Desert Sump Diving

Setting up the Rappel

Scuba diving in the desert is improbable. Cave diving in the desert is improbable. That makes me the fox in the henhouse.

When cavers reach a pool of water that blocks forward progress, they usually mark it on their map and turn around to explore other passages. Cave divers rarely venture into caves, since springs offer much easier access and scuba gear is heavy.

So, what is a cave diver in the American Southwest to do? Go cave diving.

The first sump was at the bottom of a long, steep slope. We tied off the gear to a rope so it wouldn’t all slide into the pool and destroy the clear visibility. I suited up while balancing on a small ledge over the pool. Using extra-small

Gearing up

scuba cylinders, I tied off my cave line so I could find my way back out from the inevitable siltout and carefully descended beneath the surface. The passage was a narrow rift that forced me to roll sideways like a fighter plane, then plunge headfirst through the narrow

The descent

channel. I made a tieoff to a tiny nubbin of limestone and pushed between  the floor and two thick fangs protruding from the ceiling. I worked my shoulders back and forth until the backplate slid through and finned out of the slowly expanding silt cloud. I dropped a tieoff over a tooth of rock and rolled sideways through another narrow fissure. The ceiling was riddled with small, sharp edges of rock that caught on my suit and gear. I splayed my legs over a ridge of rock, twisting sideways as the silt cloud closed in on me. I saw a small pillar through the fog and reached for it as my light faded to black. I felt it with my hand and tied off the cave line to it by feel, then locked the reel. I kept my hand on the line, since it was my only hope for exiting the cave alive. Gently I rocked my shoulders and slid forward like an amphibian, but the ceiling was too narrow to go much

Jeff carrying gear

further. I felt around in the darkness for a way to move further, but the ceiling, wall, and floor conspired against me. I  slowly tried to back up, rolling my shoulders and hips to free my gear from the small edges in the ceiling. I did a sort of headstand, gently walking my feet up the face of the rift, then back down into the passage so I was facing the exit, then sat still for 10 minutes to see if the silt would clear. After 5 minutes, visibility had increased to a few inches;  I checked my gauges by pulling them up to my mask and shining my light on them. I had enough left to sit a few more minutes and see how much the water would clear, which would indicate the amount of water flow. The transition from utter darkness to even the glow of light is psychologically comforting. I braced softly against the wall and ceiling, avoiding the deep silt on the floor, and relaxed. The water cleared slightly, and I began the exit with a few feet of clarity. This was quickly lost, however, when I came to the last narrow spot. Those two fangs caught the back of my harness and wouldn’t let me go further, despite subtleties with my shoulders and hip. I

Return to the surface

backed down in the now-black water to try again but couldn’t pull free in either direction. The clock began to tick in earnest. I took as much of a breath as I could between the close-pressing walls of my Charybdis and sat still for a few moments, then slowly tried again, pulling in each direction, rolling my shoulders, exhaling. Still caught. I took  a few more breaths, letting the electric jolts of panic dissipate into the darkness of the siltout and thinking about my options. There weren’t many, but I had a few tricks yet to play.

Mercifully, the tricks remained unused. With a final exhale and a little English, the fangs released their grip and I backed down into the passage a short way, then went back u, and wriggled through the squeeze a few inches to the right. After a pause at 15

Climbing out

feet for a precautionary decompression stop, I emerged on the surface to an array of headlamps worthy of a concert. I floated on the surface to further relax and make certain there were no decompression issues while talking about the dive, then began the exit process.

Thanks to everyone who helped to carry gear, the trip was good fun and a great success.

The Team

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