Spring Valley Caverns


Toboggan Run Passage in Cold Water Cave
December 2006


On May 21st 1977 Knut Wefald, Brian Bushay and Scott Trossen ventured deep into the bowels of Cold Water Cave with a single purpose. They wanted to finally solve the mystery of what lies beyond a 1,450’ crawling sized stream passage referred to as the “Toboggan Ride Passage.” Instead, what greeted them was a horrific bone chilling experience that they would never forget.

Upon reaching the “end” of Toboggan Run the explorers decided to take a well deserved lunch break before attempting to penetrate the lead in front of them. This is a portion of their trip report:

“We were just finishing when suddenly we heard to our horror a loud heavy flow of water rushing into our passage. Scott quickly aimed my scuba light at the upstream passage. We saw a cascade of water bearing down on us. Scott threw his glasses into the lunch ammo can (mine were in there from the beginning of the trip) which I closed. Then we all grabbed electric lights and ran for our lives (1/4 mile to go)! Scott left his light and helmet. I had mine on but the light was going out. Brain had a good carbide lamp and Callender’s flashlight (we found it on the way in). Brian was in the lead with me behind him. The water was traveling much faster than we were and the level rose rapidly by 6 to 8 inches. Debris from Scott’s open pack kept up with us. I had my auto knee pads on and determined I had to take them off in order to make better time. They also kept up with us and tangled in our feet. At one point Brian stopped in front of me and the water immediately began to pile up behind him six inches or so. Since Scott and I were traveling faster than he was he let us go by. Scott kept up voice contact to assure us he was O.K. We all got out without incident except that Brian tore out the right knee of his wet suit and turned his knee into hamburger.”

Wow. The hair stands up on the back of my neck just reading about that. Shortly after the Windmill Entrance was created into the cave I was warned by a disgruntled Cold Water caver that this cave was bigger than I was and that it would surely devour me. Therefore I decided to end it all as quick as I could and chose Toboggan Run, a bonified death trap passage, to end it all. In the process I figured I might pick up a bonus discovery along the way.

Yes, this cave is certainly bigger than me, and longer too! And after finally reaching the “end” of Tobago Run I had to admit that this passage had a life of its own, and really did seem to want to devour me. I spotted the tight fissure along the wall and wasted no time in working my head and my shoulders up into it. I could see and hear a large void but was unable to squirm up into the blackness without destroying my wet suit. I was now faced with the same predicament as the early explorers.

Back then they had a solution. They elected to transport a virtual rock removal arsenal to this site in hopes of removing enough rock to accomplish the goal. They gathered up an 8-ton jack, two rock hammers, several ammo cans, and three side packs, which they strapped onto a plastic tobaggon. They managed to drag this over laden bulky toboggan throughout the entire route, all the way to the lead I was now peering up into. Unfortunately their time was cut short here.

Several weeks after my initial visit our group was back in the cave with our own rock-removing arsenal. It all fit in one compact 10” x 14”water tight case, which was gingerly pushed ahead, carefully avoiding hundreds of formation clusters along the walls and ceiling. Now and then broken off formations would catch my eye under the clear moving water and I was saddened to see so many. One of our group was visibly angered by this and shouted out loud “who was minding the store back in 1997 and who would allow a toboggan to be drug down this highly decorated passage?”

I reminded them that if the formations had been broken during the 1977 panic retreat-or if the formations had blocked the progress of the initial explorer, then nobody should sit in judgment of them. The response came back “then why are numerous other once pristine passages in this cave trashed?”

Several hours later the mood level had changed significantly after we Micro Shaved the necessary rock away from the fissure so that an average caver could gain access to the space beyond. Since our last trip I learned that several really skinny cavers had managed to slip through the constriction back in 1977, and had reported that they had found a dome room, and had returned to their group within a matter of minutes. Both had stated that the stream continued to course across the floor of the dome but that it was sumped. This was not a safe place to be alone. If they slipped on the slick breakdown rocks, or if one of the large slabs shifted and pinned them, there would be no rescue options available in this isolated site.

Clay Kraus and I marveled at the dome room, which was about 40-50 feet tall. It was literally covered in glistening white calcite. Several hours were spent in there, in awe of the diverse formations and fossils. We inspected the buried stream passage in the floor and called it a day.

Some time passed, and a push trip was planned. Unfortunately one of our group had a family emergency the night before the trip and one other had a last minute scheduling conflict. Regardless, Clay and I proceeded as planned. In post haste we made our way to the dome room and formulated a plan of action. Within one hour, using our bare hands, we opened up the stream at the base of the room and could hear a thundering drone from beyond. It sounded very distant but very powerful. The water level had receded, and for the first time in perhaps thousands of years, an air space opened above the water. Even though I had forgotten my diving neoprene hood I decided to go for it. Clay agreed to remain in the room as a back up and I wasted no time in gathering the necessary gear for a push trip. I laid on my back and slipped into the bone chilling water. I was able to keep my hair out of the water, but my chin was totally immersed for about the first fifty feet. It felt like it was going numb. This water was definitely colder than the water in the main stream passage. Then I encountered a zone of substance that can only be described as quick sand, but this was a relief because by then I could raise my entire head out of the water. The passage was slowly getting wider and the rumbling grew somewhat in intensity. After hundreds of feet the passage became friendlier and eventually the muck gave way to a bare rock floor. Crawling faster now, I could see a widening in the passage up ahead and felt I was approaching an intersection. Soon I was able to stand up and then I literally walked right into a fantastically tall dome. This dome was the tallest I have seen in Cold Water Cave to date. I walked around the base of the dome for several moments and just marveled at the incredible size and height.

I rejoined the crawling stream passage again and knew that I would be approaching the source of the rumbling soon. After a few moments I could feel a constant rush of air on my face and could actually feel the rumbling. Up ahead I could see a blank wall but knew it really had to be a sharp corner in the passage. Sure enough, after turning the corner I stood up and again walked right into a dome. What greeted me was a stupendous waterfall, which was pouring out of an upper level passage. The waterfall, which I would estimate to be 40 feet high, was crashing down into a small diameter pool, which then calmly exited the room on its way towards Clay. I scouted around the room and determined that I was standing at the origin of the Toboggan Run Passage. While standing there, marveling at the discovery, I sang a few rounds of “Singing in the Rain,” then crouched back down into the stream passage and eventually regrouped with Clay, who had been totally out of earshot.

Clay and I formulated that this section of the cave had never been discovered because of three facts: 1) The water level stains on the stream floor slabs (which were removed by us) at the base of the dome room had remained unchanged. 2) All slabs and rocks that were removed to lower the stream level had never been disturbed since they had fallen there. 3) There were no survey markers anywhere in the new section. 4) There were 2 slender soda straws that were blocking the discovery route, which were inadvertently broken as I slowly and cautiously attempted to pass under them. (I managed to avoid all the other formation clusters, sometimes requiring me to lower my face into the water.)

In retrospect, the fact that the three original explorers did not uncover and explore this new section on May 21, 1977 most certainly saved their lives. If the sudden surge of water had occurred while they were in the new discovery passage their fate would have been sealed. Undoubtedly they would have taken refuge in one of the two domes and floated in their buoyant wetsuits until the water subsided, but in spite of this temporary victory the worst would be just ahead. Without a doubt, the mud and slurry that had been displaced by the explorers along the crawlway leading to the domes would have been pushed back towards the exit by the surge of water and would have blocked the exit. Since it would be impossible for the slurry to rise up and cross the dome that Clay had been waiting in I estimate that the slurry would have backed up the passage for at least 50 feet. Even if help had arrived within 8 hours it would not have been possible to formulate a plan, transport all the necessary equipment to the site and remove the slurry before the unlucky cavers succumbed to hypothermia.

Pushing the limit has its risks-and its rewards. This was an important and exciting discovery, and one which will further the knowledge of this immense cave system.

John Ackerman