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White Chief Cave

Sequoia Park, Labor Day Weekend, 1996

At my 4th monthly meeting of the SFBC (San Francisco Bay Area Cavers), with no caving to show for effort thus far, I found there would be an expedition to Sequoia Park, in the Sierras just south of Yosemite, to survey some of the numerous caves there. My group would focus on Cirque and White Chief Caves and operate from a campsite just at the treeline at 10,000 feet almost 5 uphill miles from the trailhead in the forests below. The expedition would start out with a 6 hour drive after work on Friday, sleep out on the grounds of a ranger station that night, hike up to base camp Saturday morning, cave that day and next, and allow all day Monday to pack out and drive back to civilization. It sounded like an opportunity I wouldn't want to pass up, so I arranged to be included.

The trip was billed as a potential tussel with nature. The previous Labor Day, it had rained, I was warned, so that meant bring a tent and some rain gear. No telling how cold it would be, so Thursday evening found me in REI where I spent over $100 on polypro pants and an ersatz fleece pullover to have at least some clothing suitable for conditions in California caves. (It turned out to be a balmy, cloudless weekend).

Sequoia is full of bears who are smart, can smell toothpaste in a tube, and will stop at nothing to get at whatever they can reach, so precautions included not even leaving a can looking like food in a car (bears will vandalize cars to get at that can of food). Previously a bear at Sequoia had learned how to wrench plywood off cabins and the food locker at the ranger station to get at whatever morsels might lie inside (that same weekend at Lassen Park, a bear ripped through the tent opposite one occupied by a colleague at work because the occupants had been so foolhardy as to go to sleep with food therein, though the startled family escaped to spend the night in the safety of their truck). To get around this, you hang food from trees at least 8 feet off the ground (counter balanced; any bear can see if you have an anchor rope somewhere).

Monday morning we were enjoying breakfast when some hikers appeared and warned us that they'd just seen a black bear amble into the woods uphill from our camp. The bear kept out of sight of us, but fellow SFBC cavers up an adjacent valley had to scare off a bear that had wandered into their camp by banging pots.

Then there are the marmots, furry mammals who are in effect miniature bears, who go for anything salty, and will chew through your pack straps the minute you turn away, so I was told. This may be true, but the marmots that lived in the nest at the base of a tree at our campsite were on their best behavior while we were there (plus, we stored sweaty items out of harm's way in the center of tents).

In our case, the major animal infestation was deer, which treated where we'd pissed as salt licks (once I figured this out, I pissed right outside my tent window so I could watch the deer up close in the full moonlight). The deer, graceful doe and caparisoned stags, had respect for humans, but not fear, and grazed peacefully among our tents, virtually ignoring us. Aside from the caves, the benign omnipresence of deer was one of the most pleasurable things about the weekend.

The caves were about half a mile and 400 feet of elevation up from our camp. My first day, I accompanied government surveyor Glenn Malliot into Cirque, where we negotiated a vertical drop-down into snow at the entrance and pursued leads into tiny crawl spaces with jagged edges that shredded the jumpsuit I wore as coveralls (I had to throw the jumpsuit away, though my $100 polypro survived intact). Others in our group had packed in wetsuits and were wading through 39 degree F water. I found this cave a little claustrophobic, though I think Glenn was deliberately trying to get me muddy just to check out my suitability to the environment.

The second day's caving was easier. White Chief was a climb-down-and-walk-through, not a crawl-through, at least not from the entrance we investigated. In that cave, we took time to measure distances, compass headings, and inclination angles from point to point in an attempt to map the cave's main chambers. Like Cirque, White Chief had rivers rushing crystal clear over marble beds, tantalizing passages, and ample decorations. It was chilly but not cold, overall a pleasant experience.

The last day was a day of "rest", so I spent a few moments pouring over Glenn's topo maps and then navigated the mountains nearby to attain a gap at about 10800 ft. where I could see the other side of the mountain and a small lake, and where I understood the route to the next lake over (called White Chief Lake) and to a further lake with an alternate trail leading back to the cars (Eagle Lake). This would be for another day. Time prevented further exploration, as I had to return to camp, pack up, and hike out to meet my transport home.

The cavers will be returning to White Chief for further survey work, and I hope to be asked along to lend a hand. For the time being, I was content to have spent a few days in the open in my extended back yard in what is proving to be a beautiful state with bounteous mountain wilderness. After a year in California, I feel like I've finally found something to do comparable to what I used to take for granted in Oman.

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Last updated: November 14, 1997

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