Mapping Castleguard cave beneath the remote Columbia Icefield in Canada
Canada's longest cave, Castleguard, extends beneath the remote Columbia Icefield. Access to the cave requires a 20 km ski into the heart of the Icefield. The sump was first dived by David Sawatsky in 1985 and extended in an upstream direction for just over 100m, with a maximum depth of 20m. The altitude of dive base of 2100m and the recorded water temperature of 1oC makes this a most impressive achievement. The aim of the 2009 expedition was to continue the exploration of this site even further.
Castle Guard Caverns Expedition Report
Canada’s longest cave, Castleguard, extends beneath the remote Columbia Icefield. Access to the cave requires a 20km ski into the heart of the Icefield. Visit are confined to winter and early spring because snow melt causes the entrance region of the cave to flood in a most spectacular and dangerous manner. It is the source of this flood water which interested our expedition. Some two kilometres from the cave entrance a stunning water filled rift bars progress. In times of flood the level of this sump rises causing it to overflow and flood the cave. Gazing down into the clear green water it was obvious even to the original explorers that this sump belonged to the realm of the cave diver. The sump was first dived by David Sawatsky in 1985 and extended in an upstream direction for just over 100m, with a maximum depth of 20m. The altitude of dive base of 2100m and the recorded water temperature of 1oC makes this a most impressive achievement. Our aim was to continue the exploration of this site.
Underwater cameraman and CCR diver. He produced and directed his first documentary ('Ultimate Dive Adventures') in feature length in 2003. Born and brought up in England, he has a BA in photography and Media. He is the creative mind behind many of the ideas that shape the products of c-19. A diving instructor himself, he worked as an underwater videographer and graphic designer for many years in Egypt. He also designed a developed the TEKcam system used in the project.
Purely getting to the entrance of the cave requires competence in many of the skills mastered by polar explorers, with sledges of dive equipment along with supplies for a week having to be man-hauled across the Icefield. Base camp was set up in the entrance of the cave where the team had to be prepared for temperatures below -20oC. The Fourth Element base layers proved to be ideal clothing for the ski in with the correct amount of breath ability to prevent sweating with the high energy output. A layering approach with the Artic range of clothing together with the SubX jacket and salopettes ensured that keeping warm at camp was never an issue. Beyond the camp all of the dive equipment had to be transported through about 2km of hands and knees including a notorious flat out ice crawl. All this before getting to the dive site! To achieve this objective a team of 5 experienced cavers from the UK spent a week at the cave and invaluably supported by no less than 20 Canadian cavers from the Alberta Speleological Society taking part in three separate waves. The expedition was an all-round team effort.
The due to the remoteness of the site it was critical to get the absolute maximum dive range with the minimum of equipment weight. To achieve this it was decided that a home-made chest mounted rebreather coupled with conventional open-circuit bail-out would be the optimum approach. The rebreather has a range in excess of 5 hours. With the cold water the thermal insulation of the diver played most on our minds as potentially the limiting factors on the range of the diver. The beauty of the rebreather approach is that only two large cylinders had to be transported to the cave and they can be used for consecutive dives.
In such cold conditions thermal insulation of the diver is not just a matter of comfort; it is a matter of survival; with anticipated dive durations of two hours all precautions needed to be taken to insulate the diver. The team looked into the option of using heated under-suits, however due to the remote location of the site and the corresponding extra weight required to supply enough power this option was quickly discarded. Instead a layering system based around Fourth Element clothing was used, using the base layer, Artic top, Xerotherm leggings, together with SubX Salopettes. Mixing and matching the various tops and bottoms of the Fourth Element clothing ensured that optimal arrangement for both thermal protection and flexibility could be achieved.
Over two dives the sump was extended to just over 500m from the dive base with a terminal depth of just 6m. All of the dive line was used up and this is what limited exploration, not the anticipated cold.
The longest dive was just over 2 hours in duration, the only part of the body which got slightly cold were the fingers and mouth region and it must be said these were the only parts of the body not covered by Fourth Element clothing!
With the current trend in the passage it is anticipated that it may surface into a whole new unexplored world in another 250-300m so the team is very excited and planning to return in 2010.
Martin Groves - Expedition Leader