NATURAL BRIDGE CAVERNS DOME PIT EXPEDITION LEADS
TO BIGGEST DISCOVERY IN MORE THAN 50 YEARS.
Team discovers new Northern stretch of cavern
SAN ANTONIO – May 10, 2019 – Long after the trail of the easily-navigated Discovery Tour ends, there lies a much more difficult-to-reach extension of the cavern system. Known as “The Lake Passage,” this vast stretch includes the “Dome Pit,” a spectacularly large chamber with a ceiling height of more than 120-feet and what appeared to be a significant, yet due to the wall height, inaccessible passageway at the top of the wall.
A team of cave explorers led by Natural Bridge Caverns owner/operators Brad and Travis Wuest, ascended the wall and discovered more than 600-feet of new passage in Natural Bridge Caverns – the largest discovery at Natural Bridge since 1967 in a journey to the center of the earth that took them approximately 13-hours to complete.
The expedition team also included internationally renowned speleologist Bill Steele, one of the most experienced cave dome climbers in North America, Lee White, and one of four original Natural Bridge Caverns discoverers, Orion Knox, now 78-years-old. After crawling through an extremely tight passage called the “Birth Canal,” and trekking through deep, sticky mud, Knox lost the sole of his boot and made the difficult decision to withdraw one-hour into the expedition. While he was disappointed to miss seeing the ascent to the upper level lead, he is thrilled to know that his original suspicions were spot-on.
To put this incredible discovery into perspective, the length of this new passage is the equivalent of finding a 60-story building laying on its side. In addition to passages, the team discovered several significant finds. Several long-abandoned bat roosts with underlying guano piles were found in areas of the new 600-foot passage. Guano samples were collected from two areas and will be sent to a laboratory for carbon dating to determine approximately how old the roosts may be. Individual bat bones were also collected and will be carbon-dated too. “Locating these roosts so far back from the sinkhole entrance begs the question of the possible existence of another entrance to the cavern, somewhere closer to the Dome Pit or further North in the new passage,” said Natural Bridge Caverns’ staff geologist, Brian Vauter.
After collecting guano samples at the first bat roost, the exploration team found a breathtaking pond of pristine water, surrounded by a crystalline formation known as “cave ice.” These hyper-delicate phenomena are formed from mineral-rich drops of water that attach to each other and grow at the rate of approximately one cubic inch per 100 years, giving the visual impression of frosty “ice” around the surface edge of the pools.
Owner/operators Brad and Travis Wuest consider this a significant moment in history for Natural Bridge Caverns. “For almost 60-years, we thought the passage at the top of the Dome Pit was inaccessible and that we would never know what was beyond that looming, dark opening. Ascending it was an incredibly thrilling experience and knowing that we were about to see and gently place our feet where no human had ever stepped is stuff explorers dream of,” said President/CEO Brad Wuest.
Brad and Travis took turns leading the team and placing those first footsteps. “It was incredibly meaningful for me to share this moment with my brother. As we arrived at a T intersection, we gazed into a crawl passage that extended in either direction, one covered with beautiful “soda straw” stalactites. Of course, we wanted to see more, but we were past due to return to the rest of the team and decided it was a perfect point to end with the knowledge of more cavern passages to lure us back,” finished Brad Wuest.
“Our family is incredibly thankful for the entire team’s support on this journey into a new era of discovery at Natural Bridge Caverns. Without their skill and experience, this trip would not have been possible,” said Travis Wuest, Vice President, Natural Bridge Caverns.
Another landmark achievement on this exploration was the use of drones and drone videography. In what may be the first use of a drone to aid a cavern ascent, the upper level passage lead was scouted and assessed with drone video. Drones were also used to assist with the documentation of the ascent and offer a proper perspective of the actual intensity of the climb.
Video was shot and edited by Passmore VR.
Still photography should be credited to Bennett Lee Photography.
ABOUT NATURAL BRIDGE CAVERNS
On March 27, 1960, four college students, Orion Knox Jr., Preston Knodell Jr., Al Brandt and Joe Cantu from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio began an underground exploration that ultimately would reveal the largest cavern system in Texas. Led to the site after hearing of an amazing 60-foot limestone bridge which would become the caverns’ namesake, the students obtained permission from landowner Clara Wuest to investigate what laid beneath their ranch. Initially the students didn’t make any remarkable finds, but on their fourth expedition they uncovered a long, narrow crawlspace that ultimately opened up into two miles of virgin caverns. Today, their discovery is recognized as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and one of the world’s premier show caverns.