Mapping the Gunbarrel Entrance

September 8, 2001
by Bob Robins

This was my second trip to Cassell Cave (not counting surface reconnoitering during OTR). One of the highlights of this weekend was the radio-location work by Brian Pease to better tie down the locations of the two main branches of the cave. I thought perhaps I would help on the surface with the radio-location, but after we arrived in Durbin it quickly became apparent that there was already more than enough help for the surface crew.

While Cassell trips exhibit the same kind of mysterious Gangsta Mappers 'order out of chaos' effect I have seen in action at the Breathing Cave surveys, the specifics are quite different. At Breathing things seem to come together Saturday morning at the last minute, as the final cars roll in to the campground. For the Cassell trips (at least the two I have seen), most of the milling around and team formation seems to happen Friday night as people trickle into the train depot in Durbin. Also I have noticed that more people tend to arrive at Cassell with their own agendas, though they all seem amenable to having their energies redirected by our all powerful cartographer, Bob Zimmerman. Somehow in this process Bob got me hooked up with Philip Balister and Sandy Knapp who were going to dig open and survey the Gunbarrel Entrance of Cassell Cave.

Our objective was to uncover the entrance and survey from an existing surface survey station, through the Gunbarrel Entrance, to a survey tie-in point in the cave. The digging turned out to be a non-issue since there was an obvious entrance--Dave West, who had come down with Stan Carts to show us the surface survey tie in, scooted in with my flashlight and quickly found the way down to the Gunbarrel. We returned to the cars to exchange the digging gear for caving and survey gear and began our survey at the entrance, located in the base of the cliff face above the resurgence. A short crawl in was followed by a right turn into a fissure parallel to the cliff face. This led to a short drop into a small chamber with a pool of water on one side and the entrance to the Gunbarrel on the other. The pool appeared to be several feet deep and at one point a small trout swam by to check out the action.

The Gunbarrel itself is a horizontal tube, about a foot and a half in diameter, slightly elongated at the top and bottom, which ran straight into the hill for twenty feet before opening into a junction with a fissure about four feet wide. The fissure went about twenty-five feet in each direction, across a large pool to a high mud choke on the right and up into a mud choke on the left. The Gunbarrel was bigger than our first impressions, but still tight enough to require us to lie on our sides and proceed with some vigorous wriggling. Our cave packs and helmets became obstacles as we tried to push them ahead of us.

sketch of Gunbarrel entrance passages

Sketch of Gunbarrel entrance passages (Source: Bob Zimmerman)

From the end of the Gunbarrel we had a choice of continuing on at the same level or doing about a seven foot climb to an upper-level passage. The lower passage went for about fifty feet and ended in a small chamber with a blowing lead that looks like an easy dig--unfortunately we had left all our digging gear at the car and the packed mud resisted attempts to remove more than the top couple of inches using hands and convenient rocks. The lead is not shown as going on the old map, does not obviously connect to the upper level passage, and is moving a significant amount of air so I'm sure we will be back to clean up this lead. Another lead went off to the right as a tight fissure that Sandy and I both tried and quickly gave up on--it has an impressive echo, but we later determined it connects with the upper level passage.

Rimstone at the lip of the upper passage provided a convenient handhold for the short climb, but also held a shallow pool that we had to carefully traverse for several feet. We continued on into to the next junction, directly above the terminal room of the lower passage and turned right a short distance to the next junction, which was one corner of a square--a fissure continued straight (the same one we tried to get into from below), while the main passage turned to the left and then right at the next corner. Both passages met again at the opposite corner of the square, with the main passage continuing down a mud slope to the sump. It appears that at times water comes up that slope and may well fill the passage all the way out based on the many puddles and debris found on the route.

The sump was not much more than a shallow pool and ducking under the rock ledge at the sump was easier than expected due to a convenient gravel bar on the left. We came out in a room with the passage continuing up to the left. After four shots we were able to connect our survey to the tie-in point Rick Royer had left on an earlier trip. Our last station was a bit awkward as we had to lie on flowstone with a thin sheet of water flowing over it, but at least it was the last station. I guess getting wet on the last shot was not too high a price to pay for the 527 feet we managed to survey--occasionally awkward but mostly dry.

With the survey completed, we went on a quick tourist trip to the bottom of Cassell Pit where, as previously agreed, we left a note at the rope to let everyone know that the Gunbarrel entrance was open. Our trip back out was quick and we were out of the cave in little more than a half hour. The Gunbarrel proved to be somewhat easier on the way out as I faced the north wall rather than the south as I had on the way in. The packs were still a pain, and I managed to drop mine into a water-filled hole near the exit of the Gunbarrel. Rigging up a sling through the Gunbarrel to haul gear seemed to be a good idea (unfortunately an afterthought) and the technique was successfully used by the hardy souls who hauled out their batteries and scaling pole through the Gunbarrel entrance after reading our note.

While the Gunbarrel does provide a horizontal alternative to the pit, it isn't likely to become a regular alternative for most folks with vertical experience. It would be nice if it could provide an alternative when the waterfall is active at the pit, but the sump is likely to become an obstacle on this route when the water levels are up. Still I found it to be an enjoyable trip and recommend everyone try it at least once.

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  Last Updated: February 12, 2004