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Story of Sellecks Sump: Part 1

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Photo credit: Teddy Garlock and Mitch Berger

After my brief introduction to sump diving in the Bradt Sink sump, it was time to start working on another lead. Discussing with several of the area dry cavers, we decided on the Sellecks system as a great candidate. Sellecks has been dove twice before, both times by area cave diving legend John Schweyen. Schweyen dove the cave system in 1991, passing through two sumps (areas of underwater cave) and stopping his exploration at the start of the third sump, some 700′ from the entrance restriction. According to his dive reports, the water was very cold but the cave had some large passages (for NY sumps). Since Schweyen had already dived it, I had a much better idea of what to expect and could plan accordingly. Like Schweyen, I elected to bring side-mounted aluminum 40’s for my oxygen tanks and a wetsuit (mostly out of necessity, since my dry suit was “vacationing” in Florida). I also prepared several more silt stakes in anticipation of the large, line-trap prone passages. Since the system has flooded many times since the last dive in 1991, I was hoping that Schwyen’s line would no longer be present. The line would likely be severed, slack, or otherwise all over the place presenting a significant entanglement hazard.

 

Early on June 7th, I arrived at the Syracuse University Outing Club (SUOC) equipment room to meet up with several of the sherpa’s who would be assisting my gear and me to the sump. Present for the trip was Nathan Roser, Joey O’Reilly, and Kalia Zell. This was to be Kalia’s first caving trip, having very recently been trained in vertical caving techniques. We arrived a bit late to the cave, meeting up with caver Mitch Berger. We geared up in the parking lot and began the long hike to the cave entrance.

The entrance to the cave is a large sinkhole, with a giant fissure at the bottom of it. Descending into the cave system requires rope work since the sinkhole is very steep and ends with a 25′ tall vertical drop through the fissure. My dive gear and tanks were distributed amongst 4 bags ranging from about 30 to 40 pounds. Since the entrance wasn’t completely vertical, we had to wear the bags on our backs during the descent into the system.

As everyone descended into the cave I had my first opportunity to view the entrance to the sump. The entrance was an awkward and tight restriction, but the water looked relatively clear. Flow was very minimal, and the water was COLD. I tied in my guideline and much to my surprise saw the remains of Schweyen’s guideline on the rocks outside the restriction. This was not a good sign since the line inside the sump was likely to be a formidable entanglement hazard.

After securing my guideline, I began assembling and checking all of my gear. As mentioned earlier, I would be using side-mounted aluminum 40’s. I generally use the rule of 1/6ths when solo cave diving, permitting me to use 1/6th of my gas on the way in, and 1/6th on the way out, leaving 2/3rds of my gas supply for an emergency. This level of conservatism would also allow for me to safely reach the entrance of the sump even after having a catastrophic failure of one of my tanks (very highly unlikely). For my harness, I used my Dive Rite Nomad, and for exposure a two-piece 5mm wetsuit I have owned since I was about 13. Although the 47-degree water was on the cold side for a wetsuit, a wetsuit offers much better abrasion and puncture protection than the dry suit I am currently using.

After completing my equipment checks and calculating my gas reserves, I entered the sump. Entry is a bit awkward, I had to kneel in a shallow stream to put my fins on, and then flop forwards towards the deeper water as I ducked to miss the overhanging rock and enter the sump. The “refreshing” water began to enter my wetsuit; I grabbed my reel and began the dive.

My first impressions of the sump were very good. Visibility was better than expected, at around 3-5′. The passage was about 5′ wide and often times the height was unknown. I was in a fissure, much like the entrance room. After about 50 feet I found the frayed end of Schweyen’s dive line, likely severed during flooding events of the past 20 years. The line led into the sump, and I began following, running my own line as well. Along the way, I placed several silt-stakes in places likely to cause a line trap and hinder my exit in the low visibility return. After about 150′ and 8 minutes of swimming, I surfaced into the first air chamber. The feeling of excitement grew as I looked around the passage, previously only ever seen by Schweyen. The air chamber was long, about 75′. It was also about 5′ wide, and very tall. I would estimate the average height around 20′, with one section appearing to be around 45′ tall. Water was dripping down the walls in several places, and the air chamber was warmer than the cold air I was in. I swam on the surface of the shallow air chamber water to the other end, where sump two begins. I had just hit my gas limit of 1/6ths, so I would not be diving sump two just yet.

I tied off my line at the beginning of sump two and began my return trip. On the way out, Mitch grabbed some cool shots of me coming through the sump.

After the dive, it was time to pack up the gear and prepare for the climb out of the cave. Getting out took more time than getting in, but we still had everyone out of the cave within a couple of hours of the end of the dive. On the surface, I shared footage with the team, who became among the first to ever see beyond the sump. We finished with pizza and a celebratory beer and departed for Syracuse to clean all of our gear.

Moving forward, I am planning a return trip the sump in the very near future. With my line already in place, passing sump one will be very quick and require much less gas. On the return trip, I will be utilizing larger volume tanks, and my dry suit. The goal on the next trip will be passing sump one, two and making an attempt to crack sump three.

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