Nesbitt Spring Cave

Sump Diving Project

August 1995

Just in case you are interested, here is the full story behind my 1-day of "exploration" with the Nesbitt Springs Project. It's not very exciting:

Friday night, I only got 4 hours sleep, then I drove all day Saturday to get to Mountain View, Arkansas, arriving around 11pm. Because of my exhaustion, my excitement, and the heat and bugs, I hardly slept Saturday night. So, Sunday morning, I was beat.

We met at Joshua's Restaurant at about 7:30am for breakfast, and for our first meeting. Jerry basically said that there wasn't much to talk about since few had seen the cave site. A demonstration of the cave phone system was made, then we were off.

The cave site is at the end of a l-o-n-g dirt road, across a creek (no bridge), across a pasture, then up under some trees, shared by a bunch of cows. Needless to say, you had to watch your step!

A treacherous trail of about 60 yards led you to the side of a steep hill, almost a cliff. About 20 yards from the entrance, you sense a refrigerator-like chill as the air from the cave hits you. The opening is a horizontal slit at the base of a 60 foot overhang. The slit is about 3 feet high, and about 30 feet wide. You have to squat down AND bend over to see into the cave, but the light doesn't go very far so all you see is the water coming out of it and a couple of gravel and sand banks.

We wanted Harve and Dawn to go in first so that they could do a survey of sump #2 in good viz. Jerry, Mike Nelson and I were then going to go into the air cave between sumps #2 and #3, and do a survey of the air cave. While we were getting ready, the dry cavers were setting up a line between the cave opening and near the entrance to sump #1, to help move equipment. That took a lot longer than we thought, so everyone was sitting around, waiting.

When Harve and Dawn finally got ready, Jerry and I started to get ready. Something slowed them up, so I was moving my kit to the cave entrance only a few minutes after they had started to move their kits to the entrance of sump #1. Jerry had convinced me to wear my wetsuit today, since we were only diving sumps #1 and #2. So I was sweating bullets, moving my kit from the van to the cave entrance.

At the entrance, I was moving my kit down the sand bank to the water's edge when I slipped. Together, my kit and I hit the bank like a ton of bricks. My mask case somehow fell under me and I crushed it. The neoprene of the wet suit softened the blow to my left elbow, but it was still bashed up (I discovered later when I removed it). I also bruised my right arm, also to be discovered later. My left hip (which I fell on) felt okay, but later in the day, and the next day, it started twinging. The worst part was, I slightly twisted my back and wrenched it.

There were 3 dry cavers standing near me when this happened. They helped me up and asked if I was okay. We looked at my mask and it was okay, too. I also checked out my tank and H-valve, turned on the air to make sure nothing had come loose and everything seemed ok. But, from that moment on, I lost my confidence when it came to footing. I moved more slowly and much more carefully, at a snail's pace compared with everyone around me. I also had lost some of my ability to carry heavy items, so even moving my single tank around was getting difficult.

I went ahead and moved my kit down to the end of the tunnel, to the entrance of sump #1, where everyone else was getting ready. Just as I arrived, Harve said that one of his hoses was leaking and that he was going to have to go back. He handed me his tape, compass and slate and told (asked, really) me to go with Dawn to do the survey. Reluctantly, I said ok.

A few minutes later, as I was about to put on my kit, I noticed that one of MY hoses was leaking. Someone handed me a wrench but I could not successfully stop it. So I carried my kit back out of the cave, back to the van, and worked on it a bit. Finally, after sweating a few more cases of bullets because I was back out in the 90+ degree heat and still in my wetsuit, I got everything secure and I was seaworthy once more.

After a lot more struggling, I got my kit back to the entrance of sump #1 where Jerry and Mike were still waiting. Jerry handed me a bag to transport to the sump #3 staging area, and I started in.

Being only 11 feet deep, the sump was not very threatening. The line installed was 7 mil, and strong enough to pull yourself along with, if you had to. It ran at the top of the sump, along the ceiling (which was a bit unusual for me). The bag started out buoyant, which was a bit of a problem, but soon enough filled with water and became more like an anchor, which was even more of a problem. Luckily, during most of the traverse, the bottom of the sump was only about 5 feet deep, so I could momentarily rest the bag on the bottom as I swam.

The biggest surprise was that the viz wasn't all that bad, and it wasn't BLACK or smoky like I had thought it would be. The water had a milky look and you would see about 12-18 inches. (I was using my UK1200 instead of my canister light. It's wide beam was not ideal for the low-viz, but it was fine.)

Upon arriving at the first air cave portion, the formations surrounding you immediately upon surfacing were quite beautiful, and FRAGILE! I had to crawl 10 feet or so to get out from under them before I could stand up. Upon standing, I had no where to go without crawling or leaning heavily to one side as the roof and breakdown pile created a slanted access. I choose to use my left arm to support myself as I worked my way around the pile. Once clear of the pile, the stream of water wound it's way around the cave.

The cave was fairly plain, but there were a few active formations, and they were beautiful. I was enthralled with it all, as I do almost no dry caving.

Since I was unable to get my boots to fit into my fins, I was walking with wetsuit boots, and they were not suitable for walking on heavy gravel. So, I gingerly made my way to the entrance of sump #2, where Harve, Dawn and a few others were waiting and resting.

Shortly, we proceed through sump #2. Sheck Exley's original line was still in the sump and I actually followed it (because I couldn't see OUR line). After 60 feet or so, though, Sheck's line ended up running into a sand bank. Hmmm. I started to turn around when I saw our line a few feet to the right, so I latched on to it and kept going. (Yeah, I know, bad protocol, but I knew there weren't any other lines to go running off into the darkness with.) Both the entrance to sump #2 and where it comes out into the air cave were very gradual slopes, requiring you to crawl to get into and out of the sump. It was very interesting, and very different.

While traversing sump 2, I ran into a large, mottle brown crawfish. It was obviously at the top of the food chain in its little environment because it was absolutely fearless.

Upon arriving at the air cave past sump #2, I was exhausted and was starting to get cold. As I sat there, looking around, I noticed some clay on the wall. I stared at it a while and eventually spoke up: "If I didn't know better, I'd say those look like petroglyphs." Jerry and Jeff and the others casually glanced over that way but dismissed it. I was too tired to crawl over there and investigate. But there may be something to it. (It's not that wild an idea that the water table could've been a lot lower in the past, and that Indians walked into the cave that far...)

Making our way back out sumps 2 and 1 was uneventful. I got out of the cave and was just completely and utterly exhausted, and I started to feel my back muscles twitching. After a while I managed to pack my kit up and headed out for the WalMart where I needed to pick up some batteries for me and some knee pads for Glede Holman.

I made my way back to the came site where I collapsed into my cot and feel asleep. They woke me up when dinner was ready, but I was too tired to get up. After a while, painful pangs from my back started waking me up, so I knew what I had to do. I found Jerry and told him that I had to check into a motel and soak in a hot bath, and take some drugs I had for my back. He understood and wished me well.

The next morning, I knew that I would not be able to continue on, not even in a helping role, because of my past history with my back. I might have been able to help if I had stayed in the motel room each night, but I couldn't afford to do that. So it was best for everyone if I returned home.

In retrospect, I should have been better prepared... I wasn't really prepared for the dry caving portion of the tasks, and my stamina probably isn't where it could be, and I don't have a strong enough back to be of much use to an exploration team such as the Nesbitt Springs Project.

I don't regret a single minute of my one day there... it was exciting and interesting. I just hope Jerry and the others don't think less of me for my decision.


Follow up by another member of the team... Harve Thorn:

Date: 21-Aug-95 15:05 CDT

A personal "unofficial" commentary about The 1995 Nesbitt Spring Project by Harve Thorn (

Nesbitt Spring Cave is located in N. Central Arkansas near Mountain View. When the project began on August 5, 1995, the cave had been surveyed as follows: A total of 6050 feet of surveyed passage, with 2500 feet of submerged passage. The system begins as a dry cave with a large flowing stream. The first sump is 600 feet from the entrance and is 271 feet long. Beyond sump one is chamber one, which has 1500 feet of cave passage. Sump II is 150 feet in length. Chamber two begins with 100 feet of crawl followed by another 1500 feet of passageway. Sump III, the object of the project, has been surveyed to 2000 feet at a maximum depth of 100 feet.

Smith, Monnett and Exley were the first know divers in this system (1978)[see note 1 below]. They passed sumps I and II, and dove sump III to a depth of 45 feet. Fant and Disler ( '95 Project Coordinators ) first dove the system in 1992 and subsequently pushed sump III to 2000 feet and a depth of 100 feet.

Twenty-one cave divers, dry cavers, and other support personnel from New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Connecticut, gathered at Mountain View on August 5th to support the Sump III push. Support was provided by Ronnie Bell (Decom software), DiveRite, The Great American Dive Store of St. Charles, MO, NSS-CDS, Cochran Consulting, The Dive Shop of Memphis, TN, Nite Rider Light Systems, Inner Mountain. Outfitters, Aqua Sea Sports of Roswell, New Mexico, Bill's Scuba of Raleigh, NC and other groups, firms, organizations and individuals. Doug Dotson's SMAPS cave mapping software was used.

A campground was established on property near the dive site and a local restaurant provided a room for planning. Generators, compressors, boosters and gas were placed, and a tank staging area was established. Medical personnel arrived, established a response site and communications, and rigged a rescue basket from the cave entrance to the ground below. The camp cook arrived and took charge!

Landowner relations were excellent - obviously the result of long and careful nurturing! The landowner came by the site on a daily basis and was both interested and pleased.

On Saturday, August 6, Sump I was re-surveyed, a 7mm static kermantle line was installed in both Sumps I and II to replace the original exploration line and to ease transport and movement. Rigging was established to facilitate movement of equipment and, in case of emergency, personnel.

By the end of the 7th, several inflatables had been placed in the cave to aid with equipment movement from the entrance to Sump I, and a hard-wired cave telephone was installed from the entrance to the beginning of Sump III, with call boxes in all chambers. A new dry passage was discovered during the telephone line installation. The first two attempts on Sump III were made. At the same time, Chamber II and the newly discovered dry passage from the entrance to Chamber I were being surveyed by dry cavers..

Tuesday the 8th saw the completion of the dry cave survey and staging of additional cylinders and gear to the beginning of Sump III. Exploration of the newly discovered dry portions of the cave continued.

All staging to the beginning of Sump III was completed by the 9th, and surveys and re-surveys of the dry passages were completed.

The final dive on Sump III was made on August 10th and was terminated at a depth of 150'. Dry passage was not found. The sump is close to 3000 feet in length at this time. There are "some possible leads" but none were explored. Dry cavers made found more new passage on the same day and surveyed parts of it.

Friday August 11th was cleanup and "pull gear" day. All equipment was removed from the cave, all rigging was de-rigged, and the grounds were cleaned. Most of the participants left late that afternoon or early the next morning.

Please address questions or comments to Please DO NOT use the compuserve address!!

  = = = = = = = = =  = = = = = = = = =  = = = = = = = = =  = = = = = = = = =

[Note 1]  Email from Forrest Wilson, dated Nov 13, 2008

The first divers to dive sump #3 were Sheck Exley, Paul Smith, and Forrest Wilson

We went to the first restriction at 50 feet. If I hadn't been the third one in, I might have seen that it kept going. Sheck never liked tight silty passage, so it was no surprise he didn't push it. He told Paul that it looked like it might be passable, but Paul didn't get through. By the time I got there, it was a total siltout :-(



Return to Robert Laird's Home Page