Lydia Austin had come up empty.
It was August, her first outing down in Jewel Cave as a trip leader and she was leading a group in search of unexplored cave passages. But crawling through the boulders in an area of the main cave known as Shady Acres, the "leads" or tips weren't panning out.
With the group's excitement dimming, they began returning to the surface. They tried one more lead, and got lucky.
Austin, 29, and the team, found the first of 2,047 new feet of unexplored cave passage — over two-thirds of a mile.
Some people strap on oxygen tanks and dive into the mysteries of the ocean. Some turn a telescope to the heavens to explore the distant universe. But with over 300-some caves, including Wind and Jewel caves, Black Hills explorers claim their own unknown world: one right beneath our feet.
Though they don't contain giant squid or exploding stars, caves are some of the least explored facets of the known world. The newly discovered passages — now named the Hidden Loft area — isn't far from the main entrance. Jewel Cave, first discovered in 1900, is still doling out surprises.
"She's a very complicated cave," said Lydia.
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Cave of unknowns
It's hard to talk about Jewel Cave National Monument without talking about what's certain, and what's not.
The certainties: acidic water dissolved the rock over time, which formed Jewel Cave. The cave's temperature is always about 49 degrees, which is pleasant for obvious reasons during both the height of summer and the depth of winter. There’s rarely a level slope of ground and there are boulders almost everywhere. Exploring it demands strength and stamina.
But to know Jewel Cave is also to ponder its unknowns. The cave may have formed as recently as 38 million years ago, although some theories suggest it could have begun forming as long ago as 300 million years, according to Mike Wiles, chief of resource of management for Jewel Cave.
Nor does anyone know how many miles of passages Jewel Cave occupies. Scientific research that measures the amount of air flowing in and out of the cave suggests that the approximately 170 miles of discovered passages is only 3 percent of the actual total. There could be as many as 5,000 miles of cave passages, according to Wiles.
For explorers of Jewel Cave — about 15 active and regular volunteers as well as more occasional explorers — who descend into the Earth to map its insides, there are many exotic experiences.
There’s Hurricane Corner, where the wind whistles through a hole 18 inches in diameter at up to 25 mph. There's a place called the Horn, also where wind blows, sounding like a soft foghorn.
In some parts, an explorer's headlamp will shine on crystals, stalactites and stalagmites. In other parts, adventurers can see aragonite mineral formations so delicate looking they're called "frostwork."
To get to the farthest reaches of the cave, explorers must head southeast and squeeze through an 1,100-foot section called “The Miseries,” followed quickly by a shorter section called the “Mini-Miseries.”
It takes eight hours to get to the cave’s lone campsite. From there, explorers can go even further. A camping trip to the caves farthest reaches can take three or four days. On trips like those, explorers will easily find new sections of cave.
But those are demanding expeditions. There's almost no level spot anywhere in the cave. Explorers contend with sloping floors and clamber up and down boulders, sometimes squeezing between them to climb up or down into a passage.
“It's like an ever-changing obstacle course," said Mike Wiles, chief of resource management for the cave. “Nothing is ever the same."
Wiles, 57, is one of those people that Jewel Cave has drawn into its orbit. After getting a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, he went back to get a master's degree in geological formations so he'd be qualified to work at Jewel Cave. That was more than 30 years ago.
Wiles hasn’t gone caving in the past few years on account of tearing some ligaments a few years ago in a 2009 ATV accident. He’s recovered, he says, but not in good enough shape to pass through the Miseries for another camping trip. He’s hoping to get there though, to get at least one more communion with the cave that became his life's work.
And though he sticks to the science of trying to figure out how and where Jewel Cave ends, there’s still the thrill of not knowing where the cave begins and ends.
“I want Jewel Cave to go on for forever,” Wiles said.
Dancing in the dark
When looking for her own area to explore, Lydia Austin didn't want pull herself through the Miseries. It had become tougher when she had her first child, and now she and her husband Dan were expecting another.
Dan, who works at Jewel Cave by making maps of the passages, first met Lydia when she transferred from Custer State Park to work at Jewel Cave. In fact, Dan met Lydia while training her to navigate the caves.
Lydia and Dan looked at the old survey maps to find some leads that might yield unexplored passages. They found an area in the main space with some leads, that had been mapped in the middle of the last century by Herb and Jan Conn.
They tried one lead, but it didn't pan out.
“It was really cool, but it ended,” Lydia said one day while sitting at the kitchen table of her Custer home. “But on the way back we found a really tight squeeze where there was strong air.”
Flowing air meant there had to be another passage. So they sent a team member to squeeze through, and the Hidden Loft was officially discovered.
All along, it had been hidden in plain sight. The network of passages will now fill a white space on the map about an hour from the cave’s elevator.
In two subsequent trips in September and November, Lydia and Dan found other passages in the Hidden Loft, including an area up to 20 feet tall and 60 feet wide. The 2,047 feet includes several new leads: even more spaces that will likely be filled in on the map.
That isn't just an expression, either. While underground, the volunteer explorers actually sketch maps of new cave passages. They use lasers to measure distance. They sketch boulders and ledges and formations into a sketchbook. When the book returns to the surface, the new passages are entered into the official record of Jewel Cave National Monument.
The record-keeping is one of the reasons Lydia loves being underground. But maybe the best reason, the most visceral, comes when Dan slipped into that second passage and was gone for 20 minutes because the team had found so much virgin passage.
It was a place where, in millions of years of human civilization, no man or woman has likely ever been.
Said Lydia: “We were dancing."
Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or email@example.com