New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting & Ft. Stanton Cave Conference — Abstracts

The First Decade in Snowy River: Stalking the Mammoth Cave of the West

Donald G. Davis

Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, 441 S Kearney St, Denver, CO, 80224-1237,

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I first visited Fort Stanton Cave as a young caver in 1960, and as I wandered along its level, winding, river-system galleries, I thought "this is just like what I've read about Mammoth Cave!" I was hooked, and joining with organized cavers, I explored FSC from time to time from then until the century turned. A Wheeler Survey team had surveyed ~2.12 miles in 1877. By 2000, our efforts digging through breakdowns had earned enough virgin passage to bring the length to ~8.52 miles. But digging continued in an intimidating collapse called Priority 7 in northern FSC. On Sept. 1, 2001, four diggers broke through into a short, muddy, windy passage that led eastward to a junction with a horizontal walkway leading NE and S. The floor hosted a dry streambed lined with a pristine white calcite deposit such as no one had ever seen.

No one stepped onto it, following a BLM directive that required an environmental impact statement in the event of a major discovery. That took two years, but in 2003, the first cavers walked onto Snowy River. We had feared that the calcite surface might be very fragile, and had even devised padded "snowshoes" to test it with, but the central path proved to be thick and strong as a sidewalk. Teams began surveys NE toward the Bonito Valley and S into the hills. The valleyward direction led about half a mile to a short dropoff where a small spring, Crystal Creek, fed a meandering streamlet running across a mud-floored chamber ending in a sump. One major side passage, the Metro, climbed up to the south into an undulating paleo-gallery that ended in a massive breakdown.

The south proved to be the ongoing direction. Three increments of survey got us to station SRS108 along Snowy River South in Oct. 2003, where breezy passage 20 feet wide and two feet high (start of the "Crawl from Hell") continued. Various interesting places were named along the route. Then another delay took place because BLM had declared the Priority 7 route unsafe. A side passage W from SRS23 had proved to end under the E wall of Don Sawyer Memorial Hall in the historic cave. The project dug a 45-foot bypass shaft that broke through in 2007, whereupon Snowy River was seen flowing for the first time. Via this safer, easier approach, survey was resumed in 2008-2009, crossing two major breakdowns (with a puzzling side passage, Sandy River, looping most of the way around them but ending in a sand choke), an intermittent muddy sump (Mud Lizard), another miserable crawl, then thousands of feet including the Underground Railroad, an upper-level loop (Fallen Arrows Corridor), and more large borehole, crossing the Mount Airy collapse-pass, and an unusually delicate stretch of calcite which triggered another hiatus until 2011, when one trip brought the cave to SRS383, still going big under the Ruidoso airport. The survey had reached 15.58 miles. At this point John Lyles takes up the story.

pp. 26

2022 New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting & Ft. Stanton Cave Conference
April 7-9, 2022, Macey Center, Socorro, NM
Online ISSN: 2834-5800