FIFTH GENERATION OWNERS, ORIGINAL DISCOVERER AND INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN CAVE SPELEOLOGISTS TO EMBARK ON A NEW PHASE OF DISCOVERY AT NATURAL BRIDGE CAVERNS.
Team to explore section of cavern that has never been accessed by humans.
SAN ANTONIO – May 8, 2019 – “How vast are the caverns, are there more passages to discover?” This is the question that captures our imagination and is the most often asked of Natural Bridge Caverns tour guides. This sense of wonder and adventure led explorers to discover Texas’ largest cavern 59-years ago. And now, once again that same sense of wonder has us asking that same question, is there more to discover? Throughout the vast cavern system are areas that have never been mapped. Some passages and rooms are so remote and physically challenging to access, that only one or two people have actually seen them. There are more leads (possible passages) that haven’t been explored. But the lead above the Dome Pit has stood there mocking us for years. All signs point to a significant discovery that might very well yield a whole new section of cavern, and an expedition to the site is planned for Wednesday, May 8 at 10am.
Owners of Natural Bridge Caverns, Brad and Travis Wuest, will be leading the journey. As very young children, the brothers spent countless hours exploring, learning, and working in various areas throughout the cavern. They marveled at the immense chambers, pristine pools of water and massive columns of fluted limestone, and like the explorers before them, wondered just how far it goes. The Wuest brothers consider themselves to be extremely blessed. Their playscape became their passion, as each brother took on the responsibility of not only managing the attraction’s business end but caring for the living cavern. It’s not just making sure visitors don’t touch the crystalline formations within the cavern; it is much greater responsibility. This includes preservation and protection, but also conservation by education as visitors learn about caves and the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems.
Joining the expedition is 71-year-old Charles William Steele, Jr., known as “Bill Steele.” According to National Geographic, Steele, one of the world’s foremost speleologists, expedition cavers, has led and participated in expeditions in some of the longest and deepest caves in the USA, Mexico, and China. Steele and the team are set to undertake yet another journey to the center of the Earth as he joins one of four original Natural Bridge Caverns discoverers, Orion Knox, and the Wuest brothers to continue what began back in the 1960s when Knox and fellow students Preston Knodell Jr., Al Brandt, and Joe Cantu made an initial discovery that ultimately would reveal the largest cavern system in Texas.
After locating what is known to most guests as the Discovery Passages of Natural Bridge Caverns, Knox and fellow cavers continued their exploration through much more of the difficult-to-reach extensions of the cavern system. In one of the farthest reaches of the cave, Knox discovered what is known as 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.
“I noticed an opening on the far side of the chasm, giving me hope that there could be another large cavern or additional passages, but I had no physical way of climbing up to see if the opening actually led to somewhere, or if it was a dead end,” said Knox. In his late seventies, Knox is excited to have the opportunity to go back into the cavern and finish what he started. Lee White, a well-known cave dome climber, and a part of Bill Steele’s team, is one of the most experienced and well-known free-climbing cavers. White’s skill along with the advances in climbing equipment will allow a safer passage and better way to map and detail what is discovered. In order to access the landing, White must free climb the 70-foot high slick wall, installing bolt holes as he ascends. Once he reaches the ledge, he will be able to drop a rope for the others to climb up to access this uncharted area. The expedition team is hopeful the wall is made of solid limestone, which will make the ascent much quicker. If White hits shale or muddy layers the bolt holes will fail and he will be forced to scale other parts of the wall to locate solid rock, which could take many more hours. The task is physically exhausting, and it comes after hours of crawling and climbing just to access the Dome Pit area.
The amount of time needed to make the total ascent won’t be known until the team begins testing anchor points and negotiates the climb. After ascending, the group will explore the secrets the potential new passage reveals. Rough cartography, or surveying, will be completed by expedition members. Each landmark, formation, water feature and directional changes such as turns, or passage endings will be annotated to help explorers navigate the area on subsequent visits. This scientific study includes the sciences of hydrology, geology, minerology and paleontology which as a whole helps to determine the overall health and well-being of the cave.
Finally, the entire exploration team must do the trek again-in reverse-to exit the cavern. All in all, this initial expedition is an incredibly physically taxing venture and is expected to last a minimum of twelve hours.
The journey is a challenge even to the most experienced and physically-fit cavers. These vast underground expanses go beyond the commercial tours offered by Natural Bridge Caverns and have only been traveled by a handful of Wuest family members and a few lucky cavers. Just getting to the Dome Pit will take an estimated 3 hours navigating through many challenges such as long, tight crawls, sections of knee-deep, clay-like mud, protrusions, negotiating pitches, squeezes and hazards, not to mention the lack of illumination. They will also carry 20+ pound backpacks filled with climbing gear, water bottles and power bars, and additional batteries for their helmet lights. Let’s not forget the additional weight of fragile filming equipment.
The Wuest brothers’ hope is simple: To go where no human has gone before. “If we find some incredible discovery, such as unique formations or a large open cavern, that is really just icing on the cake,” said Brad Wuest, President and CEO of Natural Bridge Caverns. His brother, Travis, who serves as Vice President of the Caverns, agrees. “Once we get past the immediate sense of awe and wonder of discovery, we will look for any geological or archeological finds, such as underground lakes, small animal bones or signs of bat roosts,” said Travis Wuest. “My family and I are extremely grateful to the Steele team and for Knox’s willingness to undergo this expedition. What we uncover on Wednesday could literally change the entire Natural Bridge Cavern system as we know it.”
Cell signals, GPS waypoints and other communication devices are unavailable underground. Sporadic journey updates will be posted on our social channels:
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.