Monday, 30 April 2012

Castleguard Expedition 2012

This was the third trip out to the backcountry of the Banff National Park in Canada to visit the Castleguard Cave system. The trip is the basis of an expedition organized by my cave diving chum Martin Groves.  The cave system is Canada's longest with over 20km of explored passage. Somewhat uniquely the cave finishes under the Columbia icesheet resulting in the passages at the end of the cave being blocked in iceplugs. However closer to the entrance (around 1.6km) is a sump called Boons Sump. This was briefly explored by an expedition in the 1980s' and subsequently revisited by Martin in 2009. In that year Martin pushed the length of the sump for close to 500m. A return in 2010 saw Martin pass the sump after close to 900m of diving, emerging in a large subway sized passage disappearing into the distance. 2012 was to be the return to explore the new cave.......
Leaving the road behind - the early morning start.

Sadly however this year mother nature had different ideas. Just as the Brit element of the expedition were arriving and getting organized in Canada an advanced party of Canadians arrived at the cave to find that the icecrawls at a point around 200m into the cave were completely blocked with ice build up - a consequence of the last month of snowy but warmer weather. A valiant effort was made to try and chip a route through with a hand axe but they were not optimistic.... and phoned in on the satellite phone to say they were heading out. Martin called off the intended diving. Getting to the cave requires a 20km ski tour up a glacier, over a short steep moraine and then down across the Castleguard meadows. No point lugging in the 100kg's of dive kit in the vague hope we may be able to excavate a way in.

Thus a team of three Brits and five Canadians, which included our Parks canada contact Greg Horne, head out to the cave to explore methods of dealing with the ice blockage. The trip to the cave was made easier with Parks Canada skidoos taking the kit to the base of the moraine (around halfway). What we didn't expect is they came back to give us a ride in the tow sledges as well! What a ride!
Skid doo travel!

Our leader Martin discovering the delights of being in the front of the sledge....
The Moraine slope gave the usual fun and games getting he kit hauled up. Fortunately we got organised with a rope and hauled all the kit up working as a team. It was then around 8km of ski touring to the entrance. As the day progressed the temperature shot up, the snow becoming soft and soggy. The slog to the entrance became sweaty work, and extra sunblock was dug out.
Hauling sledges

Ascending the Moraine - Columbia Ice shelf on the horizon

Base of the moraine

Hot hot hot! Chris strips down......

Castleguard Meadows and the Watchman Peak

Castleguard cave entrance was a welcome relief when reached. Camp was soon set and soon the entrance chamber hummed to the sound of various multifuel stoves melting snow for brews and food. Across the entrance the Watchman Peak looked as magnificent as ever. Even if we couldn't cave, the trip out this part of the wilderness was well worth the effort.
Setting up camp at the cave entrance

The next day we set of to look at the ice crawl. This involves a 10m pitch down tp the base of he passage. In summer this is a canal like passage that you wade through, but in winter the water freezes, and depending on the amount of ice that has built up the passage becomes the 'icecrawls'. The blockage wasn't as we expected. An step of ice had built up suggesting recent ice build up on top of the proper winter ice. The Canadians had managed to form a flat out slot for about a body length with no obvious end to he blockage through a tiny gap at roof level. Nevertheless we decided to give it a go. Greg had brought a chainsaw(!) to cut through the ice. This it did very effectively, but after two short blasts the fume build up was getting too much. However Martin seemed to have a need to get rid of some frustrations and set about hammering his way through the crawl with hammer and chisel. Huge lumps of ice came flying back at me and Greg as the flat out crawl became hands and knees sized! After a couple of hours it was decided to call it quits - there was definitely no easy way into the cave this year....
The ice blockage and the point the first team had tried to excavate.

Chainsaw ice massacre.........

Martin ice-cavating!
The rest of the day was spent discussing future plans with Greg, fooling around a bit and doing a bit of photography. I took myself off for a few km's touring on the skis trying to follow the tree line on the flanks of Castleguard Mountain - a quite and magically couple of hours alone in the backcountry.

Solo images taken in the cave passage just beyond the entrance chambers.

These cool 'ice bulges' form in the frozen floors in this section.

The next day was back to civilisation. The temperature had dropped a bit from the previous two days, but still much warmer than expected, and we headed back out into wet snowy conditions. We were all pretty sodden by the time we got back to the cars some 7 hours later.

Fortunately the following week picked up for the cave divers. They opened up a karst spring with the Canadian cavers and eventually pushed this to around 38m depth. As to me - I had come out with the family who were skiing so I just joined them for a few more days than expected!


  1. Nutter! No wonder you like kayaking, you seem drawn to cold, wet places ;D

  2. Wow, Jules i'm lost for words, amazing. Those ice bulges look incredible, I can only imaging how cold it was.