By Jim Nicholls (NSS# 15216)
Nielson's Well is, at the time of this publication, the deepest, single vertical shaft in Utah. It is, for all I know, the deepest single-drop vertical pit in the western United States.
It's realm should not be taken lightly or with too much confidence. Every time I have visited the cave, I have met a different set of problems and conditions. I have returned more a dozen times during the past 12 months because I experience a humbled awe no other cave in Utah can match.
The cave environment is typically alpine. It is a hypothermia high risk cave with no easy way back to the surface, if you become overwhelmed. Any rescue attempt in retrieving a victim would require all the resources of the cave search and rescue organizations in the Intermountain West.
The main shaft has appeared stable so far and does not present any risk of large rock fall or collapse. The cross section of the shaft is large and can best be described as "TAG Like" in its proportions. The two main ledges are a nuisance and rob the pit of its potential of being a free drop all the way from the surface, the last hundred feet or so are the "best". The final drop heightens the spelunker's senses to an acute condition. (What happened to the walls? Where did they go?") The "snow cone" is a common feature in other alpine caves of the area and while providing a needed smear of color at one end of the large breakdown-filled Big Room, it also creates a host of problems for which most vertical cavers might not be prepared.
I do not believe any checklist of basic or luxury items should be published to ensure a safe and comfortable time at Nielson's Well. What anyone who reads this should realize is that there is no margin for incompetency or inexperience in this cave.
There is no easy method of communication from the top of the pit to the bottom. The first trip was very spooky. I was not able to communicate with Ken Stahley except by shouting at the top of my voice. If slightly incapacitated or hypothermic, I might not have been able to let him know of my condition. I doubt that whistle signals would make the situation any safer. Any sound wave traveling up the pit will encounter all kinds of interference along the way. We have never been able to successfully shout back and forth and understand what the other was trying to say.
As far as I am able to tell, after spelunking in the Intermountain West for 4 years, bats found to be hibernating in an alpine cave environment are unique. Bats have been encountered in this pit. Is it essential for their well being to shun the use of personal twoway radios or should it be left to one's personal preference? No matter what the personal cost of a communication system, the flying mammal's welfare is more important. Not being a zoologist, familiar with bat population studies in Utah, I would recommend that their privacy be honored and respected. A moratorium on visitation to the pit should be observed by all cavers between of October through June.
Voice activated two-way radios have proven to be an asset in maintaining clear and instant communications between the surface and the far side of the Big Room, at the bottom of the shaft. I can recommend two simple and inexpensive modifications that will enhance and protect the communications system.
When the conditions in the cave are very wet and humid it would be wise to keep the radios inside ziplock plastic bags. If the units become wet, their performance may be degraded. The use of duct tape and several rubber bands will help in the sealing of the bags. Be sure to tape the voice activation switch "open" to ensure that it will remain on during the descent. A transmission wire is a small gage wire that allows the radio signal to travel unimpeded up the shaft to the surface. The wire can become entangled the your rope while descending. Some ingenuity is required to devise a smoothly operating reel that enables the caver to take the transmission wire down the shaft as he rappels.
Ken Stahley, Mike Beer and I have tried various techniques of "laying" a transmission wire down the shaft. Each time was a marginal success. What may be needed is for the first descending caver to rappel to the first ledge. There, the wire should be lowered to him. The first descending caver should carefully attach it to his shoulder or helmet and gingerly drop the pit. Once at the bottom of "snow cone" and out away from the rope, the caver should take the transmission wire to the nearest wall and secure it. If it can be installed in such manner, then subsequent cavers could safely rappel and ascend without becoming entangled in the transmission wire.
The cave air temperature is similar to another Utah cave, Jim Peck's Ice Cave. It ranges from 35 degrees F to 39 degrees F. It is colder than Little Brush Creek Cave. Anyone not wearing the maximum weight in wool or polypropylene or even Capalene underwear will not enjoy themselves in Nielson's Well. Large areas of ceiling drips and small waterfalls have been encountered sometimes and then not found again other times. You will get wet and should be prepared not to get chilled. A metal-lined thermos bottle filled with hot cocoa or tea, a hardy lunch, a small piece of ensulite or foam, a large trash can liner, a carbide lamp or numerous candles and a ballaclava should all be considered "basic" items to help the last person waiting at the register rock keep from drifting off into never-never land while other cavers ascend.
Your personal vertical gear should be capable of operating soaking wet, covered with slime, and occasionally frozen. The delights of the snow cone may provide an interesting backdrop for photos, but it also creates some problems. Depending on the type of rope used, the ascending caver has to fight a portion of slack rope when starting the climb. All static ropes stretch to some degree. During the beginning, cavers will "march in place" to walk out the slack. In doing so, the caver will stomp up and down in a mud-hole. The bottom edge of the snow cone is similar in consistency to chocolate mousse. Consequently, the rope becomes very slimy. As the ascending caver achieves some progress up the cone, the mud on his boots and ascenders is carried up also. The first caver up the rope has the least difficult time, but what is left behind makes the remaining cavers' climbs a real chore.
Jumars have to be "thumbed along" until you break free of the "ice-slime" and reach the free vertical portion of the rope. After the free ascending position is achieved, the rest of the ascent is easy. I strongly urge anyone who does not own a sewn harness and sewn accessory straps not attempt this cave. Under conditions just described, hand-tied knots may come loose and pose a real danger to the user and all those involved. A well made, store-bought harness or well designed, hand-stitched harness, tested for conditions similar those found in Nielson's Well, should be considered a "basic item."
At least two rope pads are necessary to properly rig the pit. The first lip at the surface requires a 4foot long pad. The edge is almost a 90-degree change of direction with several sharp parallel ridges. The second recommended pad should be located 30 feet down at the second ledge. That location demands rope protection because of the 15-degree change in direction the pit makes. From there, the rope unavoidably follows the shaft wall. While dangling 300 feet below the second lip, the actions of climbing are transferred up the rope. The bobbing and jerking motions cause the rope to move back and forth across the second ledge. The rope will be subjected to constant sawing action against the dolomite if a pad is not used at this location.
Any attempt at a rebelay to avoid using rope pads at the second ledge would demand a level of technical rock climbing skill that no caver in Utah possesses. Any attempt at a rebelay at the second ledge would expose the caver to a risk few cavers should have to endure. Sturdy rope pads that can be secured to the pit walls are an absolute must for this and any pit.
If you do not possess the proper equipment or have not achieved the required experience of deep vertical caving, please do not attempt to test your skill at Nielson's Well. Vertical caves similar to Nielson's Well are common in the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia (TAG) region of the eastern United States. While caving in Tennessee, I was fortunate to have successfully dropped many of them repeatedly. I offer these recommendations to the Utah caving community hoping they are not considered too "genteel."