Published in Halliday, William R. (1959).

"America's Deepest Cave." Adventure is Underground: The Story of the Great Caves of the West and the Men Who Explored Them. Harper & Brother, Publishers. New York. Chapter 6. pp 60-84.



Neffs Cave: America's Deepest Cave



The story of the exploration of Neff Canyon Cave is a tragicomedy of struggle, error and confusion, exaggeration and skepticism, heroism and stupidity. Not one of those who partic­ipated can look back at his achievements with real pride and pleas­ure, and the cave is still not fully explored. Nevertheless, out of it all came the record American cave depth of 1,186 feet.


Neff Canyon Cave is no legendary cave that few have visited, located somewhere far back in rugged mountains. On the contrary, parts of the gully in which it lies can be seen from the windows of members of the Salt Lake Grotto of the N.S.S. Its mouth on the west face of the rugged Wasatch Mountains is about two thousand feet above their homes and less than five miles away. A jeep road even leads off a suburban Salt Lake City street and extends to a point which is only a 45-minute hike from the cave. The rotted remnants of an old ladder in one of the upper pits indicate that the cave has been known for many years. Nevertheless, it was not until 1950 that any news of the cave reached the speleological world or the world in general, for that matter. Not until now has its full story been told.


As in the case of nearly every unplanned beginning, there are a few details of the 1950 fiasco which cannot be reconciled. It seems quite clear, however, that it was in 1949 that some high school boys stumbled across the obscure opening of the cave while hiking in the Wasatch Range. They were entirely fearless boys, on the threshold of young manhood, and had been brought up in the Mormon tradition that God would provide for those whose faith was strong. They squeezed into the tiny, jagged opening and saw by the dim light that the cave continued downward at a steep angle.


They returned to the cave with friends of their own age, equipped with flashlights and ropes. They tied a rope outside the cave en­trance, and began to climb down along its length. Soon they came to its end and had to return home to borrow more rope. In this way they made several visits, advancing deeper and deeper into the cave. Finally, on March 22, 1950, three of the young ex­plorers came to a great pit leading downward into the largest chamber they had yet found in the cave. It was not quite vertical, and they had plenty of rope. One by one they slid down a drop-off of more than 150 feet and continued exploring until they came to still another pit and could go no farther.


Then came a problem. They could not slide back up the rope. Nor could they climb up the slick, rotten shale walls even with the aid of the rope. In fact, there was nothing they could do except sit. They sat.


These audacious young explorers had never been in any other wild cave. They had no training in mountaineering and rockclimbing. They had no information about cave-exploration techniques. They had unwittingly committed every major blunder known to cavers with one exception, and this exception saved them.


Originally there had been five in the party. After a few minutes in the cave D. B. (Pete) McDonald and Jerry Hansen, university students who were "guests" on this trip, realized that the exploring party was wholly unprepared for such an undertaking. They wanted nothing to do with it. Pete and Jerry waited while the others went on.


Several hours passed. When their friends were an hour overdue, the two became properly alarmed. They left the cave and from the nearest house notified the office of the sheriff and the boys' family.


Pete is an outspoken person. His dramatic telephone report brought the sheriff and a crew of deputies at a gallop. Almost before the sheriff arrived, however, a swarm of others had heard of the boys' plight and had collected from nowhere. Sobbing parents, praying clergymen, newspaper reporters, deputies, and mere bystand­ers were milling about in the little glen just outside the cave entrance. No one had any constructive suggestions. The sheriff him­self was a portly man, and it is doubtful that he could have en­tered the cave even had he been so inclined. Except for James Lyon, brother of one of the boys trapped below, no one in the crowd showed the slightest interest in being the first rescues to enter the cave.


Hansen and McDonald were both thoroughly fatigued by their recent exertions. Nevertheless, it was clearly up to them whether the trio was to be left in the cave. Pete says that he was seriously tempted. Anticipating this situation, however, Pete had called a rockclimbing friend of his, Allen W. Kesler, as well as the sheriff. James Lyon, Pete and Allen re-entered the cave, and, near exhaustion themselves, pulled the lost explorers to safety.


It was early in the morning when they reached the surface. The rescuees were in much better condition than the rescuers, and led the way out of the cave. They were greeted triumphantly. "The Lord has provided!" exclaimed one of the thankful parents.

From the narrow entrance came a muffled, plaintively discordant response: "What about the rescue party?"


What, indeed, of the rescue party? The parents gave the credit to God and the newspapers gave the credit to the sheriff. James Lyon went off with his brother, and Pete and Allen found themselves quite alone, ignored by everyone. They began to laugh.


The Lyons must be given credit for courage. This experience did not dull their enthusiasm, and they were able to learn from experi­ence. Four months later they returned to the cave with four friends. Although still not employing safety ropes at any point, they took the precaution of leaving three of their party at the top of The Great Pit. Remaining in the cave more than nine hours, they descended two pits farther than The Great Pit and returned to the surface without accident.


In the interval between these two trips a group of ten local citizens, also without caving experience, decided to find out if the tales told by the youngsters were true. Was there a zoo-foot pit three thousand feet down in the mountain? Perhaps the cave might be worth something as a tourist attraction.


The usual problem arose at the jagged, narrow entrance. Charles Malmborg, the titular leader, was one of several who were unable to squeeze through. Those who could enter spent four and a half hours in the cave. Mr. Malmborg reported: "The men of our party crawled down the twisted, tortuous passage for an estimated distance of from 1,500 to 2,000 feet; part of this was climbing vertical drops of 10 to 40 feet hand over hand on a rope. When they arrived at the place where the boys had been trapped, they found a sheer drop of over 100 feet ... Our advice is Keep Out." This they filed as a written report for the staff of the Wasatch National Forest.


Jack Ehlers, spokesman for the other explorers, in turn filed an indignant report of his own:


"Undoubtedly Mr. Malmborg's party never, reached the place where the boys were stranded if they were only 2,000 feet in the cave. We used 50 feet of rope to get down the 100-foot drop they speak about. The larger drop ... is some 200 feet high. . . ."


Nevertheless, it was the Malmborg report, forwarded to the N.S.S. by the Forest Service, that first brought Neff Canyon Cave to our attention in December, 1950. At the time we had no N.S.S. members in Utah nor did we know of any other qualified cavers in the state. The report lay dormant for eighteen months.


Meanwhile a Utah congresswoman seized upon the pub­licity the cave had received. Disregarding all descriptions of the na­ture of the cave, she publicly called upon the National Park Service to investigate the cave to see if it was worthy of national monument status. The newspaper articles again focused local attention on the cave. The National Park Service complied, rather reluctantly. The middle-aged superintendents of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Timpanogos Cave National Monument headed a party of natural­ists, rangers and Park Service planners. The son of the Timpanogos monument superintendent was present, and on him fell much of the burden of the exploration. The group spent four hours in the cave on September 18, 1951, reaching a narrow squeezeway two or three hundred feet along the slope from the entrance. Beyond this point only young Lee Walker could worm his way. It was obvious that Neff Canyon Cave was no commercializable cavern, and the party returned to the surface. Unfamiliar with such caves, they reported that it was excessively hazardous even in the upper portion which they had visited. Their report stated:


"In conclusion, it is my candid opinion that this cave has no scenic value, will not by any stretch of the imagination meet National Park System standards, and is without a doubt the most hazardous cave I have ever seen. If it were in a National Park Serv­ice area, I would recommend that the entrance be blasted so no one could possibly gain entrance to it. The inscription above the en­trance: `Fool's Cave' is a justifiable description."


The Salt Lake Grotto of the N.S.S. was organized in September, 1952. Less than a month later four of us obtained permission from the Forest Service to see just exactly what this Fool's Cave was. We knew that no one could crawl down 1,500 feet of cave and back up again in four and a half hours, much less the two miles in nine hours reported by the Lyon-Ehlers party. Still, there must be something there, and it was our job to find out what it was.


Our party included Bob Kennedy, a Salt Lake City accountant with previous experience in Pennsylvania's toughest caves, and Dick Woodford and Marvin Melville. Dick and Marv were both good rockclimbers and had proved their worth a month earlier in a deep new Nevada cave we had found by following the wrong di­rections. The rest of the Melville family was to act as our support party, waiting at the entrance. They had quite a wait.


"How in the world will we ever describe this entrance?" was my irrelevant thought when we topped the ridge and descended the gully to the cave. It was a sink, and yet not a sink in the usual sense of the word. The gully ran westward along the face of a low lime­stone cliff, and the beds dipped steeply to the north. Originally the gully had continued past the cave, but at some time in the past its stream had found a way into the limestone and abandoned its former course, gouging out a sink as it surged into the cave. Worm­like impurities in the limestone gave the grotto at the base of the cliff an extremely jagged appearance and this was accentuated by a series of deep cracks in the rock.


The actual entrance was a vertical slit along the side of one of these fissures. It was twelve inches wide and perhaps twice as long. Except for those accursedly jagged projections of impurities, it would have been quite wide enough for us. As we slid into the cave, each of us heard the loud rip that told us our coveralls would not survive the trip.


We dropped eight feet into a small chamber and lit our carbide lamps. Alton Melville lowered our ropes and other gear to us, and we were off, twisting and turning for a few yards until we entered the main passage. Looking back we could see bluish daylight through two small openings. It was the last we saw that day.


The cave passage had the general shape of an inverted V. It led downward at a slope of more than 50 degrees. At the floor the passage was three to six feet wide. At shoulder level it was often little more than passable. On the floor were large and small boulders. Gravel and silt also bore witness of the stream which cascaded through the cave each winter and spring. The boulders forced us to clamber where we could otherwise have walked. Overhead other boulders were wedged into the narrow crack, but none was loose. So far the danger had been greatly exaggerated.


After 150 or 200 feet, we entered a chamber about twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. Here a second, smaller chamber entered from our left. Peering into it, we could see that it paralleled the passage we had just traversed.


Still the cave continued downward and precisely northward. Within fifty feet, we came to another chamber, forty feet high. Its floor was a mass of great fragments of fallen limestone blocks, now securely wedged in place. In opposite comers narrow pits dropped fifteen or twenty feet to the old level of the cave.


Both pits were tight, jagged and undercut. Since neither looked easy, two of us tried each pit. More sounds of ripping clothes were heard, but we passed through and compared notes. On the way out, each of us preferred to try the others' route rather than again face the misery he had previously encountered.


Ahead of us the cave narrowed down to a width of one foot. Aside from a few more tatters, this was no special problem until we came to the end of the narrows twenty-five feet on. The floor then dropped away for twenty feet. Instead of limestone we found only wet, rotten-feeling shale as we climbed down. What was this? We had seen no shale at the entrance.


We looked back and upward after we had all made the descent. High up we could see the limestone, slanting downward just as it had everywhere above the pit. Below it was a layer of shale making up the lower walls of the pit. The answer was obvious. The cave had extended downward to the very bottom of the thick limestone deposit, and the cave stream had attacked and eaten into the weaker shale which lay below it.


Then we noticed something else. On one side of the passage the contact of the limestone and the shale was about three feet higher than on the other side. We were descending along a fault where one block of bedrock had once slipped about three feet onto the next. We found the same situation at every long drop-off we passed, and drop-offs were plentiful. First came ledges twelve and ten feet high. Soon we came to the lip of a more impressive cliff, about thirty-five feet high. Here, for the first time, we fixed a climbing rope. At the base of this cliff we found the rotting remains of a once-stout wooden ladder, but it gave us no clue to its maker.


Within a distance of less than fifty feet we encountered two more shorter, vertical descents. Then our voices echoed hollowly and we saw a great black vault looming ahead of us. At the ceiling the narrow crack rose out of sight. Down we gazed into nothingness over the edge of The Great Pit. We were impressed. It was quite a hole.


This was what we had come to investigate. We looped a manila climbing rope 120 feet long around a large, well-wedged boulder, tied it with a bowline knot, and tossed it over. It hung along the stream-cut angle of the pit and did not reach the bottom of the room.


Looking at the pit we saw that the drop was not quite vertical and the walls of the cleft were close enough together to permit us an occasional pressure hold. We decided that we could climb back up without undue difficulty, using prussik-knot slings if necessary. To Bob and Marv fell the unhappy jobs of belayers, which meant that they would have to remain atop the pit while Dick and I were ex­ploring below.


Carrying short lengths of rope from which we could fashion climbing slings, I tied myself to the belay rope, exchanged signals with Bob, grasped the climbing rope and started over the lip.


Within a few feet, I learned that the ascent would not be as easy as it had appeared. I was back in that miserable, rotten shale. The shale was only a minor nuisance going down, and I called to Dick that it would be safe to rappel if he wished. Testing the rock for handholds, I found I could dig them out with my gloved hands and even carry them with me. I have never encountered such rotten rock in any other cave.


Before long I was nearing the end of the rope. With relief I saw that it extended to a steep limestone slope which could be negotiated without artificial assistance. I called back the good news, untied the safety rope, and gingerly made my way downward another sixty feet to the floor of the chamber and thence forty feet to the small opening of a passage continuing into the unknown.


Now it was time for our gear to be lowered to me. As I watched, a loop of rope descended into view. The packs were caught on a ledge. I called the news up to the others. The slack rope disappeared, and I heard them jerking the packs loose.


Out of nowhere came a weird, low-pitched, whining whistle. A whirling object fell through the beam of my flashlight, struck the slope at the base of the pit, and shot straight out to land almost at my feet. With a gasp I recognized the leather case of my 35 mm camera.


I picked it up and looked at the camera with justifiable misgivings. Amazingly enough, it looked as if it could be repaired even though the frame was a bit askew. The leather case had absorbed most of the terrific impact of the 100-foot fall.


By this time the packs had been lowered to the end of the rope. I left my shelter to untie them, then retreated again. A tiny glint of yellow light appeared at the apex of the chamber, then began to descend. Dick had started down. Soon came the soft whir of the first falling rocks he dislodged. It was followed by a series of sharp cracks as the rocks smashed against the limestone layer below, then ricocheted in tiny fragments, rattling against the walls of the chamber like machine-gun fire. How slowly he seemed to move, almost two hundred feet away! It was not long, however, until he joined me. We called to Bob and Marv that we would be back within two hours.


After the vast height and comfortable width of the Pit Room, we felt cramped in the narrow passage beyond. Nevertheless, it was no smaller than that above The Great Pit. The cave began to slant downward again, still continuing due north.


Within fifty feet I was intrigued by some irregularly carved limestone ridges which permitted us to straddle the passage instead of descending. I made my way along them. Unexpectedly, passages opened on each side. With Dick close behind me, I climbed to the opening on the right. Nestled in a hollow was a small pool with brilliant white shelfstone covering most of its surface. It was the first beauty we had seen in this dark, gloomy cave and our spirits rose immeasurably.


Mud made the crossing a bit ticklish, but we stepped across the main passage into the other opening. Here again was a surprise. A short, low passage led to a small chamber floored with soft, powdery dirt. The dirt was almost completely dry, a real novelty for this dank cavern. To our left a tube about eighteen inches in diameter slanted upward as far as our lights could reach. At the far end of the room we ducked through a hole and emerged in another small chamber. This one was much more dramatic. From above and from the left came a steep, wide tube. Offset a few feet, it plummeted to un­known depths down a slick, bare limestone slope. Flowstone covered part of the floor of the tube, and we were interested to see that a small, tortuous stream had dissolved a tiny channel down its sur­face - mute witness of changes in spelean environment.


We looked at the platform upon which we were standing. It was a "false floor" of flowstone. On the other side of the small room a similar, thin coating was still perched atop a dirt fill. Across the yawning mouth of the wide pit we could see some white stalactites contrasting brilliantly with their drab surroundings.


We could go no farther in this direction, but we still had some time before Marv and Bob would be expecting us. We returned to the main passage, fixed our last rope at the top of a small ledge, and again pushed on into the depths. It was not far, however, until we came to the lip of a 30-foot drop-off. A shallow pool was visible below. Our spot-beam flashlights showed us that the passage con­tinued, but this was the end of our scouting trip. In four hours we had learned a great deal about the cave and could plan our return trips accordingly.


We coiled our rope and returned to the Pit Room. A faraway pin­point of light, much dimmer than an evening star, told us that we were not forgotten. At the sight of our lights Bob and Marv prob­ably felt equal relief.


As mine was the ultimate responsibility, Dick was to ascend first. A husky, teen-age mountaineer, and strong as an ox, Dick had no fear of the climb. He scorned the use of prussik slings. As he would be on belay and could not hurt himself, I raised no objection. Seeking the mouth of the lower passage in order to be out of range of falling rock, I watched as he tied in and began the climb.


At first all went well as he ascended in the wide V of the pit. The rope provided handholds, and he was usually able to retain footing by pressure on the walls of. the V. A hundred feet is a long way to go under these conditions, however, and it was not long until he was calling Resting" to his belayer. After a few minutes he began to struggle upward again, yard by yard. It was forty minutes before a very tired young man was hoisted over the lip of the ledge by the scruff of his coveralls. Then it was my turn.


I was planning to do it the easy way-by using prussik-knot slings. By this technique the climber is tied to the climbing rope by three smaller ropes. One is fastened around his waist as a safety device, and the others form loops for each foot. The prussik knot holding each sling to the main rope loosens with a slight push upward, and grips with the least pull downward. By moving each knot in turn the climber is able to climb right up the rope, slowly but securely, in his own private loop ladder.


At least this is the principle. I made the slings and affixed them to the rope, then tied on the belay rope and began to climb. I advanced eight inches and no more. My prussiks would not slip. I started over again. The second try was no more successful than the first. Apparently the mud and grime on the rope created just enough friction so that the knots would not slide freely when the weight was removed. The climb was not going to be easy, after all.


The details of this ascent are something I prefer to forget. I was able to use one sling as a handgrip on the rope, and that was all. "Handholds" on the shale cliff were easily available, but were worse than useless. I could pick them up in chunks many inches in diam­eter. Each time I placed my foot against the wall, a shower of shale shattered far below me. Twice I slipped, and fell a few inches until halted by the safety rope. I blessed that wonderful nylon rope and the caver belaying me. A dozen times I rested to get a little strength back into my arms, which were doing almost all the work. The last time I was only a few feet below the ledge, and Dick, now well rested, gave me the horse laugh. "So that's the easy way!" he crowed. It was all over after an hour. We coiled the ropes, re­newed the carbide and water in our headlamps for the third or fourth time, and headed out, rejoining the surface party just at dark, ten and a half hours after we had gone underground.


Despite our difficulties, the trip was a success. We had learned what the cave was like and what we would need for more than a scouting trip. We spent many evenings constructing rope ladders, and we acquired a set of field telephones with a thousand feet of wire. We bought several lengths of rope, both to replace our old manila ropes and to extend our underground capabilities.


We calculated that it would be possible for four people in sleep­ing bags to stretch out on the soft earth of the small dry chamber we had found, and made up lists of minimum needs for under­ground camping. We trained new recruits, both in easier caves nearby and in night-climbing practice on a cliff just outside the city-nearly getting arrested in the process. An overzealous deputy sheriff, driving by while we were practicing, was unable to imagine why people with headlamps would be climbing around on a sheer rock face at night. He was sure that we were up to no good.


By spring our plans were completed and we were waiting for drier weather when a bombshell struck. It came in the form of a telephone call from Pete McDonald, who now was one of our most active members. "Have you seen the Tribune this morning?" he bellowed. I had to admit that I had not. "Look on page thirty-­two," he suggested and hung up.


"Climber Urges Sealing of Canyon Cave" was the headline staring at me from page 32. It told of the daring feat of a local climber, wholly lacking in previous cavern experience but well known in the Rocky Mountain area as a result of climbing exploits which had been reported in hair-raising terms by newspapers of the area. Together with several friends, equally inexperienced underground, he had penetrated "2,000 feet" into Neff Canyon Cave, finding it frightfully dangerous and of no scientific or scenic value. It should be sealed shut, he was quoted as saying, so that no one could ever enter it again.


We called an emergency meeting to discuss this threat. The local newspapers had no way of knowing that no mountaineer, no matter how skilled in his own field, was qualified to render so important a judgment, nor was the public, for whom the articles were in­tended. Even more threatening, it seemed to us, was the claim that the descent was sponsored by the Forest Service.


We went to the headquarters of the Wasatch National Forest and protested vigorously. Its staff was embarrassed as we. They as­sured us that they had had nothing to do with the exploit and said that they had not even had advance notice of it. Nor would they consider sealing the cave shut on the mere recommendation of someone who knew nothing about the scientific importance of caves.


Partially reassured, we decided to issue a statement to the local newspapers outlining the facts. All this took time, and the editorial columns of the Deseret News took up the cry, "Close it up!" Before out statement was ready, however, we were delighted to receive unheralded support from the southwest corner of the state. Leroy J. Bailey, chairman of the old Utah's Dixie Grotto of the N.S.S., had seen the articles and promptly exploded. Spitting fire with every sentence, Roy submitted a letter to the editor of the News which must have curled the hair of more than a few readers:


In regards to an editorial in the Friday News [he began], why not season your Ounce of Prevention [the editorial's title] with a bit of judg­ment and knowledge?


A mountaineer climbs into a cave; it's dark in there and looks hazardous.

So, he immediately says it should be closed. He has no idea of how much that cave may be to science. He says that it has no scenic or scientific value. Is he a qualified speleologist? Does he know whether or not the cave can contribute to the knowledge of the biologist, geologist or hy­drologist? ... The fact that I am able to read the Deseret News does not make me an authority on newspapers. Neither does the fact that a mountaineer can climb into a cave make him an authority on caves. When he takes his mountaineering equipment underground he is work­ing under conditions that are entirely foreign to what he is used to. When he has learned to take care of himself properly while underground; when he has learned that what is safe procedure in bright daylight is NOT safe underground; when he has learned something about caves; then he can speak about caves with authority. In the meantime, let us not be hasty in recommending that a cave be closed until all of the facts are in. Caves are more than just a hole in the ground. They are the source of a vast amount of knowledge of earth structure and other sciences.


After Roy's letter, our own statement was distinctly anticlimactic, even though the News titled it "Salt Lake Group Flays Proposal to Seal Cave." There wasn't much that we could add. We simply summarized our experience in the cave and indicated that even our preliminary findings showed that the cave was neither so dangerous nor so lacking in scientific interest as the climbers had believed. Although we agreed that the cave was too dangerous to be entered by inexperienced persons, this was true of many caves and its closure could not be justified on that ground alone. Nothing more was heard of the proposal.


It was not until October 3, 1953, that we completed our prepara­tions. Dick, Marv, Pete and I were to comprise the advance party which was to spend thirty to thirty-six hours in the cave, sleeping in the "Bedroom," as we had dubbed the dry side passage, after advancing as far as possible into the cave. Support parties led by Bob Keller and Bob Kennedy were to be in charge of transportation of equipment and safe tying us at The Great Pit. It sounded ideal, and we packed our gear in duffel bags, since the cave was too tight for the use of pack boards.


Once we were inside, it soon became unfortunately obvious that the cave was also not designed for duffel bags. The bags caught on every jagged projection. Tight squeezes that had previously given us only routine difficulty required lengthy, laborious hauling and shoving. Note-taking, attempts at photography, and unrolling and unsnarling the telephone wire added to the interminable delays. It took us almost twelve hours even to reach the edge of The Great Pit.


The telephones had stopped working, so we abandoned them at that point. We lashed three ladder lengths together, and Dick rappelled over the edge to straighten them. They made the descent easy, and for the first time we felt a little better about our bright ideas. Our bedding and gear was lowered, without accident, and the four of us wrestled it into the Bedroom.


We were exhausted, and it was bedtime anyway. We uncurled the bags and made a dreadful discovery. There was room for only three sleepers, not four, and the three would really have to contort them­selves to fit. Dick was the only one who was at all comfortable that night. He abandoned the Bedroom, looked at the rocklike false floor in the adjoining chamber and staked a claim to it, wholly ignoring the pit just beyond his feet.


We munched a cold supper and crawled into our bags as A. Y. Owen shot photo after photo. A. Y. is an ace Oklahoma spelunker and a staff photographer for Life magazine. At the last minute the staff of the magazine had got word of our attempt to conquer this potentially record-breaking cave and had flown him to Salt Lake City to cover the event. We were delighted to have him with us, and Pete McDonald had relinquished his place on the advance party. On the descent he had been unable to get satisfactorily dramatic photos because of the narrowness and steep pitch of the cave. Now he was trying to make up for it in a vain hope of saving his article.


It was not a restful night, and we were in need of rest. The room had seemed warm and dry in comparison to the rest of the cave, but a damp chill soon crept through our bags. The soft dirt floor developed, hard, rocky knobs and we had to roll over many times. We were so tightly packed against the walls that when one of us had to roll the others had to follow. At intervals one of us would turn on his flashlight to consult his watch, hoping it was morning.


At about 5:30 we gave up, rolled up our bags, and began breakfast by cutting the top off a can of soup and putting our carbide lamps under it. After the soup we heated water in the same can for what looked like cocoa but still tasted like soup. Canned fruit salad and Boston brown bread followed. It was an odd combination, but easily portable, and it put some life back into us.


Our original plans had called for us to do our exploring the previous evening, but all chance of that had been dissipated in the 12­ hour struggle above The Great Pit. Several hours remained, however, before Bob Keller, Bob Kennedy, Pete McDonald and the others would meet us at The Great Pit. Still bleary-eyed, we dragged the sleeping gear back to the Pit Room and returned to the main passage with our climbing gear. Two rope ladders brought us to the bottom of the pit at which we had stopped before. Beyond we found a level passage which continued for about fifty feet, then narrowed to a slit less than a foot in width. It was too narrow. Although it led down out of sight, we could not continue. Was this the end of the cave?


We noticed that the stream bed did not enter this crack. We retraced our steps and soon saw that the stream course swung to the west and entered a small, irregular aperture at knee level. We did the same, and found ourselves in a rather spacious room with a pit curving along its south and west walls. We tied our last ladder to a rock pinnacle, and Dick safe tied me down. At the base of the pit I crawled a few feet and found myself looking into the upper end of a huge chamber slanting down to my right.


It was a good place to stop. We had used all our ladders, and the support party would soon be expecting us back at The Great Pit. I rolled a rock over the lip of the overhang and into the new chamber. It rolled for many seconds. It would take much more gear to go farther into the cave. It was equally obvious that we would have to figure out some other way of getting equipment into the depths. The method we had attempted was futile.


I climbed back up and Dick went down for a look. Then we coiled the ladder and returned to the belayers sitting atop the other ledges. To gain experience we tried climbing each ledge without the ladder and were pleased to find it possible. We were learning more and more about the cave. We dragged everything to the Pit Room and arrived precisely on schedule.


Where was the support party? We saw no gleam of light at the apex of the room, but far off we could hear a low growling rumble that soon resolved itself into distinct voices. To everyone's amaze­ment, both parties were on time-something almost unprecedented in the annals of cave exploration!


All our gear was tied into four loads to be hoisted by the support party. In this way each climber could unsnag a load dragged up­ward ahead of him. Marv took the lead, climbing the ladder on be­lay as A.Y.'s lamps flashed brief glimpses of brilliance into the gloom. Then A.Y. ascended, losing a metal tripod leg which chimed melodiously on the way back down. Next went Dick, carrying the battered piece of tripod, and I was alone.


I have been alone many times in such a place, and even in this exact spot. Cold, wet, and nearly exhausted, however, I must have been somewhere near the breaking point. Loneliness overwhelmed me. Dick's light and that of someone far above were the last con­nection I had with anyone on earth. What was I doing here, any­how? The thought came to me that man has no place in such secret places of the earth. The vastness of the arched chamber surrounded me.


A shout recalled me to rationality. "Rope coming down," some­one called. It was time to move. I dragged the last bundle up to the end of the ropes and retreated to my bombshelter, out of the range of dislodged rock. The pack moved only a few feet before snag­ging. Bowing to the inevitable, I called for the safety rope and began to climb the ladder, signaling when the equipment was free so that the support team could pull it up a few more feet. Ladder climbing is an art, not a sport. It is hard work under the best of conditions. Nevertheless, it was a tremendous difference from my previous struggle with the pit. I was up in less than fifteen minutes despite the problem of the snagging packs. What a pleasure it was to see the faces of my fellow cavers! No longer was I alone.


Every face showed real strain and fatigue. It had been no easy job for either team. We started some of the party toward the surface with part of the equipment while we sought to retrieve our 105 feet of ladder. Naturally, it jammed, and we twice had to send Marv partway down to free it. Though the strongest of all us, he was completely exhausted by the time it was all free and at our feet, ready for rolling and packing.


Then began the nightmare. If it had been hard getting the packs down through the narrow crevices, it was far worse pushing and hauling them back up. Two of the teen-age members of the support party gave out completely, and Marv was in bad shape. When we finally reached the double-pit room we sent the trio ahead without any load. As for the rest of us, it took real effort to move aside even when a loud clatter and hasty shout "ROCK!" warned of a swiftly bouncing boulder a foot in diameter, dislodged by someone's slogging foot.


How far to the entrance? We all claimed to see familiar land marks at every step, but it seemed always farther ahead, a dimly recollected mirage. When Bob Keller felt the telltale chill of mountain air he was too tired to pass the word back. One by one we silently squeezed out into the dusk, dragging our loads behind us. Before the last pack was out, we had been underground 33 hours and 15 minutes. Wet, muddy, ragged, and with drawn faces we looked as if it had been a month. A.Y.'s photos show that we must have been a real spectacle, but right then we didn't care.


Alton Melville had a large fire ready for us, and hot drinks revived us enough that we could stumble back through the brush to the jeeps. We were sick and tired of this cave, we commented to any­one within hearing, and would never go back-at least not right away. Actually it was six whole weeks before we returned to install a chain and padlock at the mouth of the cave for the Forest Service and seized the opportunity to do a little mapping. At that mo­ment, however, we thoroughly agreed with the remark we overheard as A.Y. telephoned his chief: "It's the most miserable cave I ever saw." Bob Keller went to the hospital for ten days, and none of us was much good for some time.


Before that next trip a touch of comedy entered the story of Neff Canyon Cave, but it was comedy with ominous overtones. Three weeks after our ill-fated trip a local newspaper article an­nounced: "Climbers Conquer Depths of Hazardous Neff Cave." We read it and blinked. It began: "Perilous Neff's Canyon Cave has been Conquered."


Harold Goodro, the mountain climber who had previously urged the sealing of the cave because it was too dangerous, apparently had changed his mind. He had gone back to the cave with two friends, Caine Alder and Lee Jensen, the article announced, and now in­vited anyone interested to look for their marker showing how far they had gone. He claimed to have reached the bottom of the "4,000­foot-long" cave at a depth of two thousand feet, almost doubling the American depth record previously held by Carlsbad Cavern. They had reached the bottom and returned to the surface in fourteen hours, about as long as it had taken us to get our gear to the bottom of The Great Pit.


We had thought that ours was an unusually good team of cavers, even though we had been overloaded on this one trip. How could three mountaineers who knew next to nothing about caves succeed where we had failed temporarily? Neff Canyon Cave is not a cave which requires exceptionally skilled technical climbing, and we felt that the difference in the skill of the two groups alone was not enough to account for their rapid success. Their leader was recog­nized as one of the most skillful climbers in Utah, but members of our own team also had had considerable experience both in caves and in sunlit climbing. My own training, for example, had been by rock-climbers of the Sierra Club, renowned throughout the world. And we were very doubtful that three men could carry all the ropes and ladders which we considered necessary to explore the cave safely.


We read more of the article and our hair stood on end. Nowhere in its text was there any indication that the last man down each pit and the first man up each cliff had been belayed. A typical section related:


“ ‘The entrance to this [large room] is in the center of the ceiling, making it necessary to climb hand-over-hand up a rope without any contact with the wall. Nearly 110 feet of rope climbing on half-inch wet nylon rope near the bottom of a long cave was almost more than I could do,' Mr. Goodro said.”


Could this article have been accurate? We were doubtful. Our own teams have been misquoted by newspapers on a number of occasions, and it was easier for us to believe that the newspaper had sensationalized the account rather than that the trio had actually shown such disregard of safety techniques to which we had devoted such exhaustive effort. Nevertheless, the article was written by a man who was a personal friend of the leader of the climbers and who formerly had been president of the Wasatch Mountain Club. We could not ignore it.


Our attempts to contact Mr. Goodro were unsuccessful and we were left in doubt for a long time. We envied the trio their very real achievement, but not one of us was sorry he had not been with him.


Many months later the Grotto learned from Caine Alder, one of the three men who had made the descent, that the newspaper account was indeed not wholly correct. The trio had descended this particular pit-into the Big Room-by rappelling on a rope tied to a rock above the pit. To this rock they also affixed their 3o-foot rope ladder. Half of the ladder hung free in space. They carried another coil of rope, but on the ascent it was of no value until a belay could be established.


As Caine tells the story, Goodro tied the end of the rope around his waist and grasped the rappel rope. With its assistance he climbed up the face of the shale cliff as far as he could-a rise of about forty feet. The climbing was not especially difficult, Caine recalls, but the rock was unusually rotten, and 9oodro was unprotected on the climb.


Goodro tied a loop in the belay rope to serve as a foothold, then took a deep breath and began the hand-over-hand climb toward the dangling ladder "about 23 feet" overhead. To reach it would be an amazing feat, but Goodro managed to climb to its level. But even his strength had a limit, and he slid back to the loop, unable to climb onto the ladder.


It was a bad moment. Goodro's labored breathing echoed omi­nously through the cave. Someone had to get up to belay the others, and Caine and Lee were frankly afraid that they would not be able to reach the ladder if Goodro could not.


As the others watched tensely, unable to help in any way, Goodro again began the fateful climb. Again he reached the ladder but could not swing onto it. Again he slid back to the loop, still able to main­tain his grasp on the rope.


Worry . . . despair ... words are meaningless at such a time. A superhuman effort was necessary, and a superhuman effort was forth­coming. Most of us would be exhausted for hours after two grueling struggles of this sort, but on his third attempt Goodro was able to swing onto the ladder. Then he slipped the extra rope through the bottom space of the ladder and tied it around his waist. Now for the first time he had a measure of protection by belay by those below. If the ladder broke, of course, everything would plummet to the floor together, but if the climber merely passed out from his terrific exertions his fall would probably be halted in mid-air if the belay was perfect and the flimsy ladder stood the shock. And ladder ropes are known to have snapped under the mere strain of climbing! The lives of three people have rarely been balanced more delicately on the scales of fortune.


Years later, Caine wrote me:


I do not think that any knowledge of caves is necessary when a group is trying only to completely explore a cave. I do think that the prime requisites for exploring are: 1. Experience in rockclimbing and 2. Experi­ence in handling ropes. . . . It is obvious that to have had all climbers belayed, we would have to have left a climber at the top of each cliff [not quite true-karabiner belays can be used]. This would have required an addition of 12 or 13 men to our group. We did not think this to be practical. It is our opinion that for an experienced, strong rockclimber, only one cliff requires the use of a safety belay-entrance into the Big Room.... Caves aren't the safest things to explore. One is crowding his luck just to enter a cave like Neff's.


Goodro, Alder and Jensen are rockclimbers, not cavers. Their view­point is very different from ours-but to be fair to other rock­climbers, it must also be said that this philosophy of calculated risks to achieve a goal is far from universal, at least among those with whom I climb. The three climbers are entitled to their belief, but few who approach such a cave as Neff Canyon Cave with this philosophy will be as fortunate as they were.


We did not doubt that the three mountaineers had conquered the cave that had caused us so much grief, but we were highly skeptical of some of their other claims. The sketch map which they had given the newspaper had quite a number of obvious incon­sistencies. We felt that their depth claim was absurd. There are less than a half dozen caves in the world two thousand feet deep. And what of the side passages that they said did not exist? Having slept in one, we were inclined to dispute the point.


At the time of our first visit we had estimated our greatest depth as 350 feet. Highly disgusted with our 33-hour fiasco we estimated the depth of our second penetration at not more than 450 feet below the surface. Knowing the tendency of all of us to exaggerate underground distances, we suspected that even these figures were too high. From Goodro's "map," it looked as if we had gone between half and two thirds of the distance to the bottom. They might have set a far western depth record-that would take only another hundred feet or so-but their guesses were no acceptable proof. We would have to go back and measure the cave.


A year rolled by, and it was again the optimum season for another assault on the depths of Neff Canyon Cave. We talked of an expedition spread over three weekends. On the first weekend we would install ladders and ropes, which would not rot in one week's time. On the second we would explore and map the cave, and it would require a third to remove the gear. Yet no one seemed seriously interested. The cave had left its mark on all of us.


Another year went by, and another. New blood entered the Grotto, and the five of us who had taken the worst beating were no longer in Utah. It was probably just as well. The new generation of cavers was eager to find out just exactly how deep the cave actually was, and we probably would have discouraged them.


By this time one of the trio who had made the controversial descent, Caine Alder, had taken part in several Salt Lake Grotto trips to other caves and had proved himself a good caver. Dale Green, later chairman of the Salt Lake Grotto and director of the Utah Speleological Survey, and Paul Schettler were eager to map the cave, and Caine wanted to return to take some photo­graphs. Painting a glowing if somewhat inaccurate picture of the cave, they persuaded a civil engineer, Bob Wright, and a geologist, Yves Eriksson, to accompany them to help with technical observa­tions and carrying the gear. Alexis Kelners, an enthusiastic young spelunker and mountaineer, completed the party.


As a result of our earlier experiences, the group decided against any attempt to carry sleeping bags into the cave. They planned for a support party to go in a day ahead to install ropes and ladders. At 6:0o A.M. on October 20, 1956, this support party, led by Bill Clark and Jim Edwards, entered the cave with 250 feet of rope ladder, 6oo feet of manila rope, and 24o feet of nylon rope. By nine in the evening they had not returned, and a rescue party was hastily organized. At the jeep road, however, a last-moment telephone call relieved the tension. The cavers had just checked in, exhausted, after reaching a depth we now know to be 823 feet. The would-be rescuers tracked Bill Clark to his lair. He was in his bathtub, half asleep. They had run out of ladder at the top of the Big Room, Bill said, and the next party would have to take some off the bottom of The Great Pit. Then he dozed off in the tub after mumbling something about difficulties in getting the ropes back out. Dale says he took that remark far too lightly.


With an additional 240 feet of rope the assault party reached the cave at six o'clock in the morning, October 21, 1956. By a last minute decision, they began to map the cave as they descended, rather than on the return as is the usual practice.


Mapping is always a tedious job, and progress was slow. Even so, they moved much more rapidly than our 33-hour party, and time is always meaningless underground, anyway. It is inevitably a shock, no matter how many times it has happened before, to return to the surface and find that the sun is not where it was when the party entered the cave. It was a week before I became reconciled to having lost a day on our previous trip.


The cavers rappelled down each pit, and the previous installation of the ropes and ladders greatly speeded their progress. Within a few hours they had reached the point at the top of the Devil's Slide, where we had stopped. Dale made some rough calculations, and found, to their surprise, that they were already 650 feet below the entrance-a greater depth than any other measured cave west of the Continental Divide! There actually was hope for an Ameri­can depth record!


This was a convenient point for the cavers to reload their car­bide headlamps. While sitting there, an ominous rumble echoed through the cave. As one, the group dove for shelter, while some two hundred pounds of rubble rattled down among them. A large piece of shale struck Paul on the helmet, knocking him down. This is the function of helmets, however, and he was not injured. An­other rock landed on Dale's pack, smashing a flashlight and flatten­ing his dinner supply of cheese. A trifle shaken, the team inspected the rigging of the next ladder, and descended to the Devil's Slide. Dale says that he is still sure that the rope which lashed the ladder in place had three ends.


Along the Slide there was no problem of narrow, jagged squeeze­ways. Here the problem was the smooth, slippery wet shale floor, angling downward at' 5o degrees for several dozen yards. The few finger and toe holds were loose and untrustworthy, and it took half an hour even to find a spot for the tripod of Paul's Brunton com­pass which was being used to map the cave. Next came the small hole dropping through the ceiling of the Big Room, a descent of eighty feet, almost entirely free of the walls. As a safety precaution, Bob and Yves remained at the top of the pit as belayers. The others rappelled down. Dale was not wearing rappel pads, and he reports that the rope burn under his thigh came at a highly inconvenient place.


Dale was descending uncomfortably but satisfactorily when a shout from below checked him in mid-air. "Stop where you are," Caine called, with urgency in his voice. Dale complied, unhappily wondering what was wrong. He inquired.


"Nothing's wrong-I want a picture of that," came the reply. Dale's response, lent force by his position, cannot be printed.


Loose sliding slabs of shale greeted the party at the bottom of the drop. The sides of the 70-foot chamber were visible only dimly and, with some regret, the quartet passed onward without exploring its margins. Within a few minutes the explorers found themselves in a different kind of cave. Gone was the high, narrow slit. Instead, they were making their way through a maze of breakdown blocks from which any number of passages might lead. They had a specific goal, however, and stuck to the most obvious route.


A happy shout echoed from the depths where Caine and Alexis were in the lead. The trickle of the stream at the bottom of the cave was audible in the distance. Paul and Dale sighed with relief. The had made forty-five measurements over a period of thirteen and a half hours, and were dog-tired.


Caine took his photographs and he and Alexis returned to the Big Room, where they exchanged places with Bob and Yves. Dale and Paul were recording the final measurement when a loud rumble was heard. They pocketed their equipment and started out. Within two hundred feet they found Bob and Yves, looking pale and shaken and groping in the rubble. They told a strange story.


Bob had used a large rock as a handhold, and found it solid. When Yves followed, the rock began to slide toward him. Shout­ing a warning to Bob, he managed to slide out of the way, but it came close enough to Yves to strike his glasses and knock them off. The frame broke, and Bob could not find one lens. Yves is almost blind without his glasses. Getting a one-eyed man out of this cave would not be easy.


For a moment there was despair. Then, incredibly, while climb­ing up to Yves, Dale spotted the spectacle lens lying on a rock. Although it had fallen fifteen feet, it was unbroken! It took only a little tape from the first-aid bag to repair the damage-typical cavers' luck!


It was eight o'clock when the six reassembled above the Big Room. They were tired but happy, and distinctly optimistic. Dale later told me:


"We figured that it took about an hour per thousand feet to climb on the surface, and since the cave was `just a little' harder, we should be out by ten. Twelve hours later we staggered from the cave with all our equipment still somewhere inside."


It took an hour to coil all the ladders and ropes. At the Devil's Slide the ladders all fell out of the ripped sacks in which they were carried. Beyond that point, getting the gear up each drop was a major undertaking. "In fact," Dale recalls, "getting anything up a drop, including ourselves, was a major undertaking."


The chimney and ladder climbs were exhausting. While the cavers were actually moving, the cold dampness of the cave was no prob­lem, but the waiting periods necessary during the handling and coiling of the ropes and ladders caused their teeth to chatter audi­bly. As on our earlier trips, the ascents were far more difficult than the descents.


At 6:30 A.M., twenty-four hours after the party had entered the cave, the group was struggling to haul the equipment up the 30­foot drop-off above The Great Pit. They had solved the problem of the lack of a belayer atop The Great Pit by sending the first man up the ladder with a rope around him in rappel position. But then came the problem that they could not conquer.


The baggage continually jammed in the narrow pit. They found it necessary to belay one of the group as he leaned far out to free the packs. While this was in progress, an odd noise was heard. One of the group was snoring! Everyone else looked anxiously at the belayer, who was supposedly in complete control of the safety rope. He, too, had fallen sound asleep!


That settled it. The cavers recognized that they had to get out at all costs before their exhaustion caused a serious accident. They abandoned all but their emergency gear and plodded upward. Each step was a distinct effort, each boulder a mountain. Not until eight o'clock, twenty-six hours after entering the cave, did they emerge into daylight. Not even then could they stop and rest. A rescue party was to be on the way if they had not reported by nine. Any one seeing them trotting downhill with glazed eyes and muddy, ragged clothing would have wondered what could reduce men to such a condition.


It was not until the next day that Dale calculated and plotted the readings they had made. He found the length of the cave, taken along the slope, to be 1,700 feet. Then he computed the ver­tical projection. Exultantly he telephoned the others.


"The depth of the cave is 1,186 feet," he reported. "We've got Carlsbad beaten!" And they had. The figure then given for the greatest depth of Carlsbad Cavern, at a lake in the Aragonite Room area, was 1,076 feet. This figure has since been revised to 1,113 feet as a result of a recent resurvey made jointly by the National Park Service and members of the N.S.S. This survey also was made with a Brunton compass, as was that made by Dale and Paul. A Brunton compass is a precision instrument. Percentage error with its use should be only a tiny fraction of the seventy-three feet by which the depth of Neff Canyon Cave was found to surpass that of Carlsbad Cavern, now the second deepest cave known in the United States.


What of Neff Canyon Cave today? Except for the party which returned a week later to recover the equipment, no one has been in the cave since the mapping party. There is no excuse for thrill seekers to enter it, nor will the Forest Service grant permission for such a visit. The difficulties of the cave have daunted those who otherwise would be studying it as they do the other major caves of the West. Nevertheless, a day will come when speleologists again will begin to wonder about the faulting and joint systems of the cave, about the deposition and re-solution of its scanty speleothems, about the evidences of glacial and interglacial periods in its de­posits, about its insect life, and a host of other obvious problems. Someday they will be back, with the Forest Service key, mapping the side passages, peering into holes we overlooked, completing our knowledge of this remarkable cave. The insatiable curiosity of man­kind makes this a certainty. But they will be of another generation of cavers. Those who have reached the endurance barrier imposed by safety considerations in Neff Canyon Cave are somehow changed. They remain enthusiastic cavers, but they never wish to challenge Neff again. At least, not right away!



Two years later, while this was being written, Dale Green led a third expedition to the bottom of the cave. Side passages between the Bedroom area and the Devil's Slide were found to be more extensive than originally believed. The cave has still not been completely explored.





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