It felt like true exploration: not knowing what lies ahead, the incredible sights and challenges of the unknown

A caving trip by Brent McGregor and his friends turned into one of the most important environmental projects in the US  

Scrolling through YouTube, US climber Brent McGregor came across a video of a glacier cave on Oregon’s tallest mountain, Mount Hood. “The cave didn’t have a name, wasn’t mapped, nor were there any recorded studies connected with the cave,” says McGregor. Intrigued, McGregor then asked two of his fellow seasoned climbers Eddy Cartaya and Scott Linn to help him find it.

Little did he know that this chance encounter would be the start of a rolling project that would go on to help the work of climatologists, microbiologists and geochemists all over the world – it would be the launch of the Sandy Glacier Cave Project. “It was like being an astronaut as we would have the chance to go where no one had ever been before,” says Cartaya.

A small group of people knew about the cave, but as far as McGregor knew, the only person that had been physically into the cave was the maker of the YouTube video. He did not have a waypoint [location] for the cave, so all they had to go on was the photograph of the glacier that he had provided. Unfortunately, when the team set off in June 2011, snow was still filling the mouth of the cave, so it didn’t look like the photograph.

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The climbers had two days to hike up to the glacier, which is 6,000 feet above sea level, and then a five mile hike to the cave. On the first day they were met with fog and cloud and had difficulty seeing the features on the glacier. After finding shelter on a nearby ridge line, they woke to be met with blue skies and a much higher chance of finding what they were looking for.

After sometime searching the surface of the glacier, they spotted a slit in the surface and thought that it could be the entrance to the cave. Until now they had only really explored lava tubes created by the lava flow from the volcano. “What we found was a new type of cave for us – a cave made of ice instead of fire,” says McGregor. “As Eddy put it, “It sucked us right in.  We were hooked from the start.”

The duo had spent many years climbing the mountains around that area. “Finding a way to explore the space directly beneath that alpine environment was beyond belief,” says McGregor.

When McGregor rappelled into the cave he was awestruck with what he found. “I had entered a very wild and dynamic place. There was a loud roar of rushing water and there was the occasional crashing and rocks and ice falling from the walls and ceiling,” he adds. “I felt exhilarated and excited.”

McGregor and his fellow climbers were presented with mesmerising sculptured ice walls which were decorated in shades of green and blue. But the climbers knew that they were also facing a very dangerous environment and as remarkably beautiful as the cave was, they also needed to be cautious. “It felt like true exploration: not knowing what lies ahead, the incredible sights and challenges of the unknown,” says McGregor. As this cave was without a name, they called it Snow Dragon.

McGregor and his team didn’t realise the impact of their findings until five months later when they came across the Cerberus Moulin, a shaft that dropped 150 foot down from glacier’s surface to the bedrock floor of a cave that they later named Pure Imagination. From here they could see that the cave continued another 600 feet beyond the Moulin. They knew that they had stumbled across something unique for Pacific Northwest Glaciers and they would need help documenting what they’d found.

McGregor had worked on research projects before, identifying invertebrates found in caves and assisting with winter bat surveys, but he was a climber first and foremost. This was just something he chose to do on a volunteer basis. Now since the team have gone public they have several operations being executed underground.

Each year they have a seven to ten day expedition in the spring, where 12 team members conduct new surveys of the caves. German climatologist Andreas Pflitsch has now joined the team and uses a thermo-imaging camera to detect temperature differences in the caves. Photographs are taken constantly throughout the year, and rock samples and biomass that has been found are gathered for research.

Since they came across Snow Dragon Cave in June 2011, they have gone on to discover two more caves, Pure Imagination (October 2011) and Frozen Minotaur (July 2012) and of course, the Cerberus Moulin.

Frozen Minotaur was their toughest find. The team had already been on the mountain for a week and were becoming tired, but they had a feeling that something lay upstream from Snow Dragon Cave. So they waded through the river, sometimes have to tilt their heads sideways to keep their mouths above water. “Our communication line had failed, but we decided to push ahead with a 10-minute turnaround time.  That was just enough time to find the first big room of the third branch of the Snow Dragon Cave System,” says McGregor. “I will never forget my wet suit unzipping and filling with ice water which immediately lowered my core temperature.  I returned to camp fully exhausted.”

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During their work in the caves, they have dealt with falling ice and rocks and sub glacial flooding, which nearly closed off the cave passage. However, they have continued to survey and map what was once one of the largest known glacier systems in the US.

It is now once, as Sandy Glacier Cave Project team have also seen firsthand the effects of what is happening to the planet. During the six years that they team have been mapping the cave they have seen devastating changes. “The Cerberus Moulin increased by 400 per cent in volume in one year and by 2015 Snow Dragon Cave had completely melted and collapsed to nothing,” says McGregor.

McGregor and his fellow researchers plan to return to Mount Hood next spring, will remap the glacier that they found on Mount St Helens and will head into the caves of Mount Rainier in the summer.

“I am lucky to have come in at the right time with the skills to do the work and knowing that we have now preserved a record of these glacier caves is rewarding.  I feel that we did something worthwhile.  The photos, maps and instrument data, are the only things we have left,” says McGregor.

To find out more about the Sandy Glacier Cave Project you can check out their Facebook page. Here they explain more about the work that they do and you have the chance to donate to their research if you wish.

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