Sunday, May 29, 2022

Technical Rigging Class in Hungary

In May 2022, my friend Rene and I had the opportunity to go to Hungary for the Technical 2 Rigging Class put on by the Hungarian cave experts as part of a technical exchange with the National Cave Rescue Commission. We had signed up a few years prior, but due to Covid delays, had to wait. But finally the time came!

We arrived in Budapest (more on that later), and soon were headed to the beautiful northeastern town of Svogliget. Our first full day we attended lectures in a restored building.

The next day it was time to head up to the caves! Carrying lots of ropes, carabiners, and hangers, plus our vertical and caving gear, we hiked about 2 hours through an extraordinarily beautiful forest.

We then practiced rigging approach lines and used both natural and artificial anchors to enter a couple caves.

During the week we also did practice on cliffs near the entrance to Baratla Cave, an amazing tourist cave in Aggtelek National Park in the town of Aggtelek. 

The symbol for Aggtelek National Park is the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). I was really excited to see one. (and just one, no others during the trip)

After about a week I started figuring out where I was. Fortunately, the Hungarians were very friendly and helpful and didn't leave me behind anywhere!

The forest trails were extremely well marked and cared for. But we saw no other hikers all week. There's a 1,100-km long trail that crosses Hungary that sounds like it would be a fun destination.

One day we went to nearby Slovakia to visit a cave in Slovak Karst National Park. Crossing the boundary from Hungary to Slovakia was like driving across a stateline in the U.S. No need to slow down. But across the line, all the signs changed language! Slovakian is nothing like Hungarian. In fact, every country that borders Hungary (Austria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia) all have a different language.

One of the eye-catching things in the cave was this blue slug. Thanks to iNaturalist, I know it's a Carpathian Blue Slug (Bielzia coerulans). They're endemic to the Carpathian Mountains of Central and Eastern Europe and turn blue when they reach 100-140 mm in length. (More info here.)

The cave also had a lovely series of rappels, including next to this pool. It didn't smell the best, though, decaying frogs made us try to move a little faster!

The last big cave I went to is listed for the hikers to visit the entrance. We had permission to go beyond, so we descended nearly 600 feet, rigging the cave as we went.

Part of the cave had old ladders from when it was first explored in the 1950s and 1960s. I felt a lot safer on rope than on these ladders!

On the last day of the class, while the Hungarian students were completing their certification booklets, we got to visit a couple tourist caves. One was the amazing Baratla Cave. We joined a tour and at first followed a small river through a series of rooms. 

Then we went into some even bigger rooms with even bigger speleothems, reminiscent of caves in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.

In the afternoon we went into the now-closed Rokoczi Cave, closed due to lack of tour guides. The cave is very steep, and we saw some cool formations and two lakes. There is still passage to be found underwater.

The caves in Hungary are quite impressive. There are 170 under the city of Budapest. In Aggtelek National Park there are over 200. This is a cave-rich country! Rene and I learned from great teachers how to do things the Hungarian way, which is very efficient. I am so glad to have had the experience.

On our last evening in Svogliget, we went for a walk up a hill that overlooked the town., with the national park int he background. 

Another memory from the class: washing cave gear in the stream that runs through town. The town was quite adorable.

The class ended and we had 1.5 days in Budapest. We headed first to a thermal bath and even got massages (explaining that our numerous bruises were from caving and not from getting beat up!). 

We lucked out and saw the full moon rising over the Parliament building across the Danube River.

The next day we went to Castle Hill, St. Steven's Basilica (where we heard an organ concert)...

...the Parliament...

...and an evening boat ride. It was a lovely day exploring Budapest, and there's still so much more to see!

I can't thank our hosts enough, and I really look forward to when Hungarians come to the U.S. and we can show them around!

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Hanging out with National Geographic

Last summer I had the chance to show a National Geographic writer a part of Great Basin National Park, along with research scientist Dr. Anna Schoettle. We went up Mt. Washington to look at bristlecone pines and discuss White Pine Blister Rust. My job was basically as driver and tour guide, so we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks.

Later, we went up high on the mountain, where we saw some small trees making a start at life.

We also looked at some old bristlecone wood, left from when the bristlecones died off the last time it got cooler and trees moved back down the mountain. Dr. Schoettle discussed some of the new threats these long-living trees face, like white pine blister rust, a non-native pathogen that has had a devastating effect on lodgepole pines in nearby Montana. We also discussed climate change, wildfires, and beetles. Fortunately, the trees in Great Basin National Park look to be okay at the moment, although it's hard to predict how they will do with the fast-moving climate change we're currently experiencing and the many consequences it has, such as more extreme weather events.

Craig Welch is a staff writer for National Geographic and was starting research on a story about forests in peril all over the world. He told us we might only see a paragraph in the whole story about bristlecones as he had so much material to cover. The article would be appearing in May 2022 in a special issue about trees. He enjoyed his trip and kept saying if he had known how stunning it was, he would have brought a photographer with him. 

Fast forward to September, and I was driving a National Geographic photography crew up the mountain for an overnight to capture photos of the area. I had been feeling kind of blah about photography, so was looking forward to being with some experts.

I was immediately impressed by their enthusiasm and abundant photo and video taking.

They made me slow down and take a closer look at bristlecone pine cones (love those bristles!).

And the male pollen cones.

The 2000 Philips Ranch wildfire that burned over one thousand acres included bristlecones, making for some dramatic scenery.

Another thing that impressed me was the vast amount of gear they hauled everywhere. The main photographer was Keith Ladzinski, world-renowned. His assistant Angie Payne (a great photographer in her own right) was a pro at anticipating needs and lugging the heavy bags. Videographer Tommy Joyce kept his camera rolling.

While I observed, I mainly tried to stay out of the way. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos myself.

September was a great time with the fall colors (the far-off aspen patch is one of my favorites!). And spending the night was a good call so we could enjoy golden hour.

I find that I particularly enjoy patterns.

Here's Keith checking a photo he just took.

More patterns. (Did you say squirrel? lol)

The burned trees made for interesting shapes and textures.

Here's Angie carrying tripods and lights. I learned a lot about how much they use additional lighting. 

We talked about bristlecones and their life cycles. This bristlecone is so much older than Angie, even though it's just barely taller than her.

As the sun set, we saw beautiful colors to the west.

The crescent moon hung in the sky.

Then it was time for sleep. Sort of. There were cameras going all night, and then we got up very early to go hike down to the "magic grove" of bristlecones to be there before sunrise. We needed our headlamps.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a cloudy morning, so we didn't get the most dramatic backgrounds, but just before sunrise was quite nice.

Plus, I just love this tree!

So, it's now May 2022. What about that special National Geographic issue? They sent me an advance copy for helping out. 

There's a gorgeous shot by Keith and a paragraph of info. In fact, it might be the most hopeful paragraph in the whole section! The article is amazing, Craig made it seem effortless to combine personal experiences with facts about complex issues. I heartily recommend picking up a copy.

You can also find the story online with a bonus timelapse of bristlecones in Great Basin National Park (and some other trees in other areas):

Forests are reeling from climate change—but the future isn’t lost (

It was such a great experience helping out the National Geographic crews. It is truly amazing how much work goes into every photo, article, and video. Hope you enjoyed this little behind-the-scenes look!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Historic Description of Lehman Caves from Old Brochure

In May 2018, I had the opportunity to visit the new National Cave Museum and Library in Kentucky. It's a marvelous resource, with rooms and rooms full of historical documents.

I found a Nevada box and was granted permission to look in it. 

Then I found this little booklet, Unrivaled Beauty of Lehman Caves, published under copyrights of Beatrice L. Rhodes, K.J. Waters, Baker, Nevada.

Inside it begins with the Discovery (typed out below if you need help reading it). This is one of the stories still shared with cave visitors today, one of the many stories of the discovery of the cave. This one refers to Absalom Lehman finding the cave because his horse fell through a hole. At the time Lehman owned a ranch a couple miles east of the cave opening.
A horseman rode across the hill
And cursed his luck which was so ill
Thought he "Indeed I seem to be
The larget of adversity."
Just then a miracle was wrought
As though in answer to his thought
His horses hoof had broken through
The hillside's shallow crest.
The loyal broken-legged steed
Fell helpless on his breast.
The man knelt by his horses side
The rock and turf away he pried
And through the opening in the ground
Here's what our gallant hero found.
Of volume great, a spacious room
Enveloped in a twilight gloom.
As on and on he winds his way,
For naught his footsteps hold can stay
Our hero stands in black amaze
At what now meets his anxious gaze
Let's follow him, our trusty guide
And see what Nature doth confide.

Then it goes on to Niagara Falls.
 Niagara Falls is next in line
Here Nature's work is most sublime
Silent water over terraced walls
As dazzling irridesence falls;
Its though by spirit hand twere stilled
Or petrified as sculptors willed
Take a fountain's sparkling spray
Or waterfall in elfish play,
And there escaped in crystal drips
Like jewels from stalactites tips.

 Some of the places mentioned aren't obvious today. And they don't quite go in order for the current tour route. The Bridal Altar is now known as the Wedding Shield. Music Hall is the Music Room. But I don't know what the Eagle Gate is.
 Bridal Altar
And in a sweet sequestered spot
Where e'en the angels dare tread not
a fairy 'Bridal Altar' stands.
Here fairy lovers hand in hand,
Were wont to plight their sacred vows,
Then venture forth their souls espoused,
And travel onward with their kind
To mingle till the end of time.

Eagle Gate
From here we pass through Eagle Gate
Where volumes more of treasure wait
To greet our ever watchful eyes
For there is naught here to despise.

Music Hall
We now approach the "Music Hall"
Where the sublime masterpiece of all
Confronts us, and enraptured stand
With ear attuned, while in the hand
We hold aloft a padded gong
The while our hearts vibrate with song.
We touch each chiseled tongue of stone,
Each one a note of perfect tone;
And as we listen dumb and mute,
To music sweeter than the lute,
Through caverns old the echoes swell,
Like some grand old cathedral bell.

 (Horrors! Gonging the draperies in the Music Room is no longer allowed. You can see how some of them have been broken, possibly from this early practice.)

The Gothic Palace is actually the first big room entered after the Natural Entrance, which is what tourists used back in the 1920s, when Beatrice Rhodes and her husband operated the cave.

Gothic Palace
Oh what sight could the vision greet
That with these marvels could compete?
These stately pillars, grey and old
Of picturesque and Gothic mold
Towering so massively on high
Do all descriptive words defy
Some are suspended as from space
And poised with such artistic grace. 

Just a bit farther on, in the Rose Trellis area, is this scene.
While standing out in bold relief,
Behold a snow white coral reef
With diamond luster over all,
A thing of beauty mystical.
What Nature here hath wrought so great
No human hand can duplicate
For he who copes with Nature grand
Or tries to imitate her hand
Is building hopes, alas, in vain,
For such heights ne'er can he attain. 

These beautiful draperies are now unnamed.
The Navajos
While just across up overhead
Such gorgeous blankets are outspread.
The 'Navajos," Oh sight of sights,
On which the coldest eye delights
To rest, and on them spellbound gaze
So doth their gorgeousness amaze
Of colors, rich in orange hues,
With stripes so varied and profuse,
These things, so flawless in the weave,
Almost the Indian would deceive
Who mastered this art years ago,
The brave and dauntless Navajo. 

None of these names remain.
Pompeian Pillar
We pass the 'Pillar of Pompeii,
This stately sentinel guards our way 
For nothing ill can us befall
While he stands bracing cavern wall.

Eden's Bower
And as we enter 'Eden's Bower'
We feel the spell of some strong power
That seems to hold us in its grasp,
Nor do we will it to unclasp
And free us from its magic spell
So we can leave this mystic dell.

Caldron of the Gods
What is this thing that greets our sight
And fills us with a strange delight
Suspended thus on marble rods?
'Tis called the 'Caldron of the Gods'
At night when all is hushed and still
This urn with incense doth fill;
'Tis said the fairies round it prance
And do their graceful spirit dance.

Fat Man's Misery
Now folks, if stout you chance to be,
Avoid the 'Fat Man's Misery'
And go through 'Dublin's Rocky Road 
Into the Cave Witches' Abode.
Here sits an old and wary gnome,
Her hair in silence she doth comb.

The Madonna
Included in a sacred place,
Expression raps on upturned face
And in her arms the 'Christ Child fair
In attitude of fervent prayer.
The 'Virgin' pure in splendor stands
And deepest reverence commands,
In all the realms of human art
This vision has no counterpart.

The "Angel Wing" is a large shield in the Grand Palace.
 The Angel Wing
Suspended in a lofty place
And poised with most exquisite grace
Its wing outspread in feathery frill
A thing defying sculptor's skill,
Hovers an angel, guarding all
As though awaiting Gabriel's call
A crystal pool lies at your feet,
Reflecting this scene so complete.

 Cypress Swamp
We enter now a fairy realm
That doth our senses overwhelm
For here construction doth pursue
The task he started out to do
Each inch of these stalactites take
A century in which to make
And here the water gods did choose
To decorate with art profuse
The walls and ceilings all around
White lily ponds doth strew the ground
Snow-tinted festoons from on high
Fantastic, weird, delight the eye.
Soft, lacy drapes of structure Fine 
Embraced by dainty clining vine,
Or fancy scroll, or clever braid
That eons ago the fairies made
And left a feast for human eyes
Their wondrous, perfect enterprise.
 The Parachutes
Now glance again up overhead
At what before the eye doth spread
Such flawless marvels hung in air
These things so perfect and so rare
The water gods did sculp with skill
And when their mission was fulfilled,
These 'Parachutes' you see on high
Were hung like pendants from teh sky.

 Leaning Tower of Pisa
To the right, carved by painstaking hands
The 'Leaning Tower of Pisa' stands,
While over it in grace doth lean
A deftly balanced submarine.

Lake Como
While here 'Lake Como' placid ties
And sometimes the searcher's quest defies
So clear the water and so cool
In this transparent, crystal pool
That mirrors on its surface, white
Fantastic forms of stalagmite.

Royal Gorge and Colossal Dome
The Royal Gorge we now pass through
And then 'Colossal Dome' we view
Over the 'Alps' our footsteps wend
For we are near our journey's end
We'er loath to leave this wonderland
So richly carved by Nature's hand; 
For pen of poet could not write
Or artist paint the wondrous sight
Nor other tool than Nature's grave
The unrivaled beauties of Lehman's Cave.

What was called Liberty Hall is now known as the Sunken Garden.
 Liberty Hall
We now pass on to "Liberty Hall"
By far the largest room of all
Where "Liberty Column,' massive, grand
In strength and eloquence doth stand
As though to challenge every law
To find in it a single flaw.

The Rhodes ran the cave in the 1910s-20s. In 1922, Lehman Caves National Monument was declared, and the US Forest Service started caring for it. (In 1933 the National Park Service took over.)

The Centennial of Lehman Caves National Monument is being celebrated this year. You can find more info and photos on the NPS website and on the Great Basin National Park Foundation website
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