Tears Of The Turtle
By Tom Hill with Jason Ballensky // Photography Braden Gunem
Obsession is, more often than not, seen as a negative trait. Common wisdom tells us that we need balance, perspective, the ability to take a step back. But obsession can be useful. In the long term, it allows us to maintain focus on our goals, not deviating from the objective when others question. It is the drive that keeps us training throughout dark winter nights, or spend hours packing and repacking kit. Most importantly it means that sometimes we just keep on going, long after we stopped having fun, long after our bodies have had enough, long after 99% of the mind is ready for a hot bath, a cold beer or comfortable bed.
Jason Ballensky is hundreds of feet below the ground, part way along a cave network that he discovered over 10 years ago. It is morning, although there are no clues to the time as he opens his eyes, his body cocooned in the warmth of a sleeping bag. There is a total absence of light until he fumbles for his head torch. Switching it on is comforting; human instinct welcomes the implied safety light brings. The torch beam doesn’t reach far. It reflects against his tarp shelter fabric, lighting it from the outside in. There is, of course, no real need for the tarp. His environment is in a completely steady state. The temperature never varies from a frigid 38ºF, and it never rains. Psychologically it is important, though. Hundreds of thousands of years of human instinct lead us to find comfort in a simple shelter. Firing up the stove, Ballensky and two teammates prepare for another day pushing further along the slots and squeezes of the limestone cave network, in pursuit of his obsession – simply to find the end.
Caving is almost unique in the world of outdoor activities, quite simply (and at the risk of pointing out the obvious) because it takes place below ground. For most of us, part of our motivation to get outdoors is, well, to do just that. Outside, open spaces, big skies, big views, fresh air. What drives a caver, then? For Ballensky, it is simple. ‘It plays to my adventurous side. Physically, it combines a lot of activities I enjoy – hiking, climbing, ropework. I love to visit unknown places, though; that’s where real adventure lies for me.’
Hundreds of thousands of years of human instinct lead us to find comfort in a simple shelter. Firing up the stove, Ballensky and two teammates prepare for another day pushing further along the slots and squeezes of the limestone cave network, in pursuit of his obsession – simply to find the end.
Escape requires hauling oneself up 49 fixed ropes, using barely functioning mud-jammed ascenders. Should there be an accident, there is no contact with the outside world; radios are useless. This is a dirty, dangerous and difficult business.
It is easy to romanticise caving, but it is rarely the stuff of Jules Verne novels. There are of course the gems. Large caverns, giant passages, filled with beautiful rock formations. Tears of the Turtle is not like that. ‘In its essence, it is a seemingly endless narrow crack, descending into the abyss. It is cold, muddy, claustrophobic.’
In 2014 Ballensky and his team extended the known range of the system to 1,659ft below ground, making it the deepest cave in the continental US. With depth comes objective risk. The antithesis of climbing, retreat is not a matter of lowering off. Escape requires hauling oneself up 49 fixed ropes, using barely functioning mud-jammed ascenders. Should there be an accident, there is no contact with the outside world; radios are useless. This is a dirty, dangerous and difficult business. It is perhaps no surprise that Ballensky has made his way through multiple team members since his obsession with the cave began. ‘I wear people out!’ he says with a chuckle.
Ballensky has had a long love/hate affair with the cave system. He first ‘discovered’ the cave in 2006. It extends below Turtlehead Mountain, in the high alpine Bob Marshall Wilderness area of Montana. He thought he had found the bottom as far back as 2007, but discovered a previously unnoticed crack on a return visit. This culminated in his expedition of 2014, which confirmed the system to be the deepest on the continental landmass. That trip ended when the team hit an impassable mud lake, or the ‘Slough of Despond’ as it was christened. Too deep to walk through, they had to call time. It was, however, obvious that the cave continued and Ballensky was driven to return once more.
Exploring a cave that is already known to extend so far underground – as well as being incredibly deep, Tears is also over a mile in length – brings all the logistical challenges of any large-scale expedition. Ballensky and a team of 12 returned in 2016, with a single objective of seeing the cave through to its end. They hiked the 22 miles to Tears’ mouth, carrying half a mile of rope along with all the other supplies that they’d need for an 11-day assault on the system. Working in teams of three, they spent three days below ground at a time: one day to traverse the system to its furthest known point, another to push further and another to return to the surface. The team delicately traversed over the rock wall to the side of the Slough of Despond, and continued further into the unknown.
The cavers fought through passages rarely wider than 2ft, inching forward and gradually deeper. On their third day, they would return to the surface, exhausted, their PVC suits filthy with mud. The exhilaration of their first glimpse of daylight matched by the first mouthful of fresh air, the sensation of warmth and then being dry for the first time in 72 hours.
Still, they didn’t find the bottom. The team opened another 600ft of horizontal passageways, descending merely 30ft beyond the previous low point; every inch hard earned, all true exploration of somewhere that no human had been before. Time was against them; it was taking so long to reach new ground, there was relatively little time for actual exploration. What were Ballensky’s emotions after the 11 days? ‘Frustration. I am so driven to finish this. My expectations are split between hopes and reality. I’d love to find a large cavern, something at the end, a true conclusion. The reality is that the crack will probably peter out to something totally impassable. I still need to find out.’
Another trip is already planned for 2018. Will it be the last? ‘I’m not sure. I know that there’s unfinished business at the moment though. I’ll be pursuing some more fun projects in the meantime, and guiding more aesthetically pleasing caves. I need that balance, but I will return.’ Oh, and lastly, why the name Tears of the Turtle? ‘I knew as soon as I started this, we’d cry if we could make the descent, we’d cry if we couldn’t.’ That’s the thing about obsessions, sometimes we just need to see them through, even if – deep down – we already know the outcome.