December 28, 2017
It’s day 3 and we finally got some sleep last night. However the weather doesn’t seem to be cooperating with us. It was really cold this morning, and analyzing tanks with cold fingers was not fun. Now have even more tanks to analyze, ( 4 sets of doubles, 2 AL40 deco bottles and 2 AL 80’s) it takes a lot longer. The truck was certainly much more full now. Today would be our first stage dive. Neither of us really knew what to expect but we were excited.
We were supposed to meet Mark and Mer at Little river at 8am. My dive buddy and I were up pretty early, and since little river isn’t too far from where we are staying, we were able to get moving and out the door the pretty early. She still wasn’t feeling 100% but maybe a little better than yesterday. We ended up being the first people in the parking lot and arrived at around 7:30am. We got our gear all setup even before Mark and Mer got there. We thought this was a good start for the day, however it all went to shit pretty quickly once we started diving.
Mark and Mer showed up right on time, and we went over the dive plan for the day. Today we were to dive stages into little river. A stage is a single aluminum 80 cubic feet bottle that you carry on your left side in addition to the doubles (Double 104 cubic feet tanks) on your back. This allows you to dive further into the cave, hypothetically. Little river has always been a cave that I rarely have a good dive in. It can have high flow, it gets deep quickly. I feel like I get C02’d easily there. The first 200 feet of the cave can be a lot of work, pulling and kicking against the flow just getting in the door. The cave entrance is an oval hole starting in about 10 feet of water, that you could drive a small car through, if it wasn’t blocked by a fallen tree. The tree does make a pretty good place to tie a primary tie off. Next you swim down a wide hill to a depth of about 50 or so feet and take a sharp left to find the gold line. From there you have to fight your way into the cave under a low bedding plane with high flow. The flow finally lets up a little once you are down at around 95′ feet deep. For the most part, you pull yourself into the cave the whole way. The trick is to go super slow. Take a few moments to rest between each pull and glide, then move forward some more.
After our dive briefing we got our deco and stages hauled down to the water and got into our gear. We hiked down the steps to the water and were pretty excited to see Little river was looking really pretty. It’s hard to know if the flow us up or down until you try it. We had been here just a week or two ago and the flow seemed down. We were hoping it was still down.
Once in the water we did our bubble checks, clipped our stages and deco bottles to our side, and then did our GUE EDGE. Suddenly we felt very awkward with all this new gear on. We have become pretty accustomed to diving in just back mount doubles, and now we had two extra bottles clipped on us. Our dive plan was to do the first dive along the main line and see how far we get with a stage. Then we would drop the stage and continue on back gas. Next we would do the same on the second dive without a stage and see if we could get to the same spot. Naturally one might expect, that with a stage, which equates to about 400 PSI of extra gas from a set of doubles, would get you pretty far into a cave. Then from there you continue to travel on back gas after you drop the stage bottles. So we planned our dive accordingly. We can normally get a decent way into little river on 400 psi but we also figured that the extra resistance of swimming the stage would slow us down. We kinda figured we would drop our stage at the chimney that drops down to the deep section just past the gold line, conservatively.
My dive buddy ran the reel on the first dive and we made short work of getting into the cave, tying off on the log at the entrance, followed shortly by a small piece of rebar for the secondary tie off. From there we dropped our deco bottles at the 20 foot mark out of the flow. We followed the left wall down to the gold line and tied in. I found that swimming with a stage was certainly awkward. We made it to the chimney and still had some gas in our stage before drop pressure, so we decided to descend down to the deep section and drop down there. I felt like we were going too fast and I was working too hard. I could also see My dive buddy kicking harder than normal. The stages just make it more work.
We finally dropped the stages just past table rock which is only maybe 2-300 feet in. It took us forever (probably 8-10 minutes) to drop the stages. We have never really done it before so we didn’t quite have it down. . The stages are hard to unclip too, fighting them and stowing the long hose is a pain. It’s all just awkward. Even after unclipping them, we both fiddled with where to drop them. I moved mine a few times because it seemed like it was in the way. We normally get a good bit further than this on back gas with an equivalent of 400 psi. Both of us were working too hard though. It was just a crappy dive that things didn’t seem to be going right. We continued on to the place where the gold line splits into two. Think of it as a Y in the road. Both directions have a gold line. This is marked by a large line arrow. My dive buddy and I put our cookies down on the exit side of the big arrow, and continued on. We went another 300 feet before I hit turn pressure and thumbed the dive. This was further than we had ever been in little river. Actually we had never been past the big arrow before. On the way out I was trying to relax by letting the flow gently guide me out. I was starting to have a better dive, just following the gold line out, I rounded a corner and looked at the gold line that was in front of me, when suddenly My dive buddy singled me. She called me back to her because I actually swam past the big arrow marking our exit. I was essentially swimming back into the cave on the other side of the Y. Of course I felt really stupid at this point. It’s a good thing My dive buddy saw it. From here had some failures on the way out and it wasn’t a good dive by any means.
We did a little better picking up the stages and made our way back to the reel. From there we began to do our deco. We had planned a stop at 30′ and 20′ feet for decompression. But we’d do most of our deco at 20′. We got back to the 20ft mark and unclipped our deco bottles from our line and tried to clip them to our side. By this time the stages were pretty empty so they were very buoyant. Now we were both flailing about, with a floaty stage, trying to clip the deco bottle on under the stage. Furthermore we had made a mistake at the beginning of the dive by using our deco bottles as a way to pin the line to the floor. So the when we unclipped them from our line, there was now loose line floating around, being blown out of the cave. I did my best to secure it on a rock but it was still loose. Both of us tried to stay neutral in the flow and face each other to do our gas switches. Part of the GUE procedure for changing gas is to verify your buddy is on the correct gas for that depth. So you need to see the bottle they intend to breathe from. Doing this procedure incorrectly can be fatal. For example, if you breath a pure oxygen bottle at a deeper depth than 20 feet.
Finally we managed to get both bottles clipped to us and began our gas switch procedure. I was in the flow getting blown out of the cave, my stage was not behaving nicely and we were supposed to switch on to oxygen a long time ago. After maybe 5 minutes of us struggling with all the gear, My dive buddy was able to make the switch and I quickly followed. We had 5 mins of deco roughly. And we were an absolute shit show. Shortly after going on the O2 My dive buddy tried to back up to an area around a corner into a small cubby hole out of the flow. This was so I could be out of the flow more, she got our line wrapped around her fin, so I was trying to untangle her from the line. Now the line was loose again and going everywhere, then it gets wrapped around me. At one point I remember looking up at Mark, (he was hiding behind a big log), I could swear he was getting some enjoyment out of watching the circus act we were performing. Here’s a lesson ..don’t put loose line in..ever and don’t use bottles to pin the line down. After some acrobatics we managed to get the line back under control and finish our deco. From there we exited the cave.
Once on the surface, I looked at My dive buddy and we both basically had the same frustrated look on our faces. Today was not our day. Stage diving is exhausting. it really is. There is absolutely no way I could have handled that dive without the work we have put in over the last year. Not a chance in hell. All our fun , pretty dives that we had the previous two days just got blown out the window. Littler river had our number. After a little in water debrief, we got out of the water to change tanks and have some lunch. It was still really cold. Actually the weather had gotten colder. The sun was gone and our fingers were just frozen cold. I had a sweatshirt over my undergarment and My dive buddy wore my down coat. We were still cold.
After an hour or so we got back into the water. Our next dive was without stages and we were going to do a jump off the main line then come back to the gold line and continue in the direction we went on the first dive. We took the lessons learned from the first dive and didn’t leave any slack on the reel for the deco bottles, ran the reel pretty efficiently to the main line and tied in. We made just to about table rock where we dropped the stage bottles the first dive and My dive buddy signals me in a more frantic signal than the normal “slow down” or “hang on” type signal I’m thinking “that’s strange”, so I turn around and she’s thumbing the dive. I figure she’s got ear problems or something, which is no problem at all. I thumb the dive and since she is already number 1, we head out of the cave. Once back at the surface, My dive buddy says she felt really off, she had terrible pain in her head. She had been having sinus congestion for the past few days so figured it was that. Mark and Mer were absolute professionals about it all. That rule that anyone can thumb the dive at any time is true. We live by that. We started to exit the cave, leaving the reel in place, we did a little deco and I could see she was a little upset.
Yesterday day at peacock Mark told us a little story about calming a dive buddy down if things got too crazy underwater. The key is to make calm decisions. He would look at his buddy in a calming way, reach over and pat them on the shoulder as if to say: ” it’s going to be ok” My dive buddy said “Like a thunder shirt for dogs” If you don’t know what the thunder shirt is; its something you put on a dog to calm them during a thunderstorm. We we all got a laugh out of it because we are dog people. So today, I’m there at 20 feet on some 02 looking at My dive buddy and she’s upset. It Think of the thunder shirt, reach over and pat her on the shoulder.. This would now become a thing, if your buddy was upset you gave them the thunder shirt. It seemed to work too and she relaxed. It’s kind of silly but if your buddy is freaking out and you just act calm and cool, then they calm right down. We exited the cave and headed to the surface.
After a 20 min or so surface interval, My dive buddy was feeling better and we decided to give it another go. This time I went super slow. I wanted to make sure she was ok and if she wasn’t feeling it we could always turn back. We made it down to table rock again and then just a few feet further there is a jump which we took. This was cool because it’s a very different cave in that area. Low, silty, muddy and many colored rocks. I was leading so I tied in a gap spool back on the other side of the jump to put us back on the main line. Think of it as a short detour. We continued further on the mainline, past the big arrow and basically made it to the same spot we did with the first dive on a stage. I thumbed the dive and we made our way back out, cleaning up our cookies and spools. This dive with much better. We did our deco and exited the cave. We were slightly less of a shit show on this dive.
On the surface my comment was something like “Why exactly are we using stages?” The extra drag of swimming them into a cave and time to drop them, then switch back to them on the way out, seemed to negate any benefit. Mark laughed. Stage diving takes practice to get any really benefit out of it, he said. We did a debrief on the surface and got out of the water. It was late, we were tired and hungry. Everyone packed up fairly quickly because we were all pretty cold.
We all drove back to EE for fills and lecture. Class ended at 6 and we came back to the house. My dive buddy made dinner while I messed with gear. Both of us felt pretty defeated as we ate dinner. The cold is really starting to wear on us and we may not be eating enough. I’m really glad we are at a level of physical fitness that we are for this class, it’s certainly helping. None-the-less, it’s exhausting. One of our issues in cave 1 was that we weren’t used to doing multi-day dives. It was our mission this past year to dive as much as we could on a long weekend. Partly because we love it, but also partly because we knew we needed to get used to that for Cave 2.
My thoughts on today: Most of the frustration was with clipping and unclipping the stage and/or O2 bottles. I just don’t have it down. Diving with a stage is a pain in the ass that I’ll need a bunch more practice with. Mark is having us dive Madison tomorrow so that should be a little less work with the stage but I’m still not looking forward to it. The weather app. is calling for colder temps tomorrow.