Cavers end 60-year search under Mt Arthur
A 60-year-old dream has been fulfilled by cavers making it all the way through New Zealand's deepest and longest navigated cave system.
Five men made the 8.9km underground journey through the Stormy Pot and Nettlebed systems underneath Mt Arthur last week. The passage drops 1200m, making it the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere.
After repeated trips to the two systems over the past three years, the team finally discovered the link in January. On that trip, they were unable to get up the 10m shaft that connected the Stormy Pot and Nettlebed. They mounted a return expedition last week with the five core members of the team that had discovered Stormy Pot's entrance on Mt Arthurs's western flank in early 2011.
Kieran McKay, Aaron Gillespie, Neil Silverwood, Chris Whitehouse and Troy Watson were the Extreme Caving Group, with half a dozen of the country's other top cavers also taking part in about a dozen expeditions in the Mt Arthur systems over the last three years.
Mr McKay, a wilderness instructor based at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre near Tongariro National Park, said the achievement of discovering the link, which happened when he smashed through a cracked rock wall at the end of Stormy Pot on January 30, was "dampened a bit because I was the only person of the original team who was there when we connected the two systems".
To make the historic through-trip with the original team was "the best caving trip of my life", he said. It was so rewarding that he is returning at the end of this week with another team to make the through-trip again.
When Mr McKay could look past the rock wall that blocked the end of Stormy Pot and recognised that what he was looking at was part of the Nettlebed system, it was "the biggest surprise of my life", he said.
"I thought, yes, we've done it!"
The team had previously confirmed a link with a dye and kerosene smoke experiment in a Red Bull-sponsored expedition last October but knowing smoke could get through was very different from finding and wriggling through a tight shaft.
The team had surveyed the two systems and estimated they were at least 100m apart, so when Mr McKay started digging at the rock wall, he expected that "we'll be doing this for the rest of our lives".
Navigating the link between the two systems "realised the dream that started almost 60 years ago", said Mr McKay.
"A bunch of Nelson cavers - guys I actually met a few nights ago - were looking for the deepest cave in the world. The dream was to go in through the top of a cave system and to come out at the bottom of the mountain. When we found Stormy Pot, there were a lot of people who wanted us to get all the way through. It was an amazing reaction. It made me feel so humble to be part of that process. They started it and we got to come along and finish it. We weren't going to give up and as a team we did some amazing things, but we were following in some big footsteps," he said.
The Nettlebed system was discovered in 1970 and over the years was explored to a depth of 800m. Mr McKay's team then discovered another drop to 1200m, opening up the possibility that it might connect with the Stormy Pot system to create one of the world's longest and deepest through-trips.
Mr McKay said he was confident many other large caves would be found beneath Mt Arthur. "We've only just scratched the surface. One day that system will be 100km or more - hopefully in my lifetime."