Ex­plor­ing Sar­lacc’s Pit


National Post (National Edition) - - NEWS - Nick Faris Na­tional Post [email protected]­media.com

He spends his time on the clock be­low the sur­face of the earth, but Lee Hol­lis’ sub­ter­ranean ex­ploits have also helped him see the world, from his na­tive land, Eng­land, to his present-day home in Bri­tish Columbia and be­yond.

A caver whose years in the pro­fes­sion re­cently sur­passed the three-decade mark, Hol­lis has delved far be­low ground in Thai­land, Ire­land, Wales and Spain. He ven­tured into the belly of France’s Gouf­fre Berger, once thought to be the world’s deep­est cave, for three days in 1993. A few years back, he helped dis­cover a pre­vi­ously un­seen lava tube on a Hawai­ian is­land.

As he put it in an email, “I’ve had some in­cred­i­ble cav­ing trips over the years” — ex­actly none of which pre­pared him to process the size of the pit that awaited him a few months ago, when the clouds cleared on a late-sum­mer day as he he­li­coptered into a B.C. pro­vin­cial park.

Hol­lis, 49, is the caver who made the first and only known de­scent into the cave that a team of Cana­dian re­searchers has af­fec­tion­ately dubbed Sar­lacc’s Pit, a Star Wars ref­er­ence that aims to sum­ma­rize the ut­ter enor­mity of the hole in the ground lo­cated some­where in­side Wells Gray Pro­vin­cial Park, a short dis­tance west of Jasper Na­tional Park in Al­berta.

Hol­lis de­scended into the for­merly un­ex­plored pit — whose es­ti­mated di­men­sions of 100 me­tres long by 60 me­tres wide might make it the sin­gle big­gest cave in the coun­try — in Septem­ber, six months af­ter a he­li­copter crew from B.C.’s Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change dis­cov­ered it in the midst of an other­wise rou­tine cari­bou cen­sus. The dis­cov­ery was re­vealed last week.

“If you think of a soc­cer field and you put that soc­cer field on its end, you have this pit go­ing down,” ge­ol­o­gist Catherine Hick­son, who or­ga­nized the re­con­nais­sance ef­fort in which Hol­lis ex­plored the cave, told The Cana­dian Press.

“Think about this gi­ant cir­cu­lar or oval hole that just goes down and down and down. It is truly amaz­ing.”

Arche­o­log­i­cal sur­veyor John Pol­lack, who said the cave was of “na­tional sig­nif­i­cance” in a pa­per he co-wrote about the finding, re­cruited Hol­lis to the re­search team to lower him­self into the yawn­ing depths of the pit and make ini­tial ob­ser­va­tions about its fea­tures. Hol­lis woke early on Sept. 9, the day he, Pol­lack, Hick­son and two other re­searchers flew over moun­tains and lakes to reach the site of the colos­sal sys­tem.

The cave was the largest Hol­lis had ever seen, and as Pol­lack set about cre­at­ing a three-di­men­sional ren­der­ing, he hooked his rope to one side of the beast to pre­pare to rap­pel down as far as pos­si­ble.

As Hol­lis made his grad­ual de­scent, a fierce wa­ter­fall coursed through the cave on his right; in the end he mea­sured its height at 61 me­tres. The de­scent was steep: the slope of the cave ranged from 45 to 75 de­grees, and loose rocks that threat­ened to fall from above posed a haz­ard. He cleared loose pieces of stone from his path as he walked down.

At the bot­tom of the wa­ter­fall, Hol­lis ducked un­der a large snow plug three to five me­tres thick to in­ves­ti­gate how much far­ther the cave con­tin­ued into the earth. He landed on a small ledge 75 me­tres be­low ground level — at which point he en­coun­tered an un­der­ground river that over­took his ca­pac­ity to hear.

That was as far as Hol­lis got that day.

“The first thing that struck me was the vol­ume and noise of the rag­ing wa­ter,” Hol­lis said via email. “I had a ra­dio to main­tain sur­face con­tact but soon real­ized the max vol­ume would not be enough to over­come the sound of the rag­ing river.”

There is plenty left for Hol­lis to scru­ti­nize in the pro­fun­dity of Sar­lacc’s Pit. He said he and the rest of the re­search team plan to re­turn to the cave some­time in 2019 to per­form fur­ther re­con­nais­sance, and they’re hop­ing to con­duct a full ex­pe­di­tion in 2020.

For now, he can ap­pre­ci­ate the rar­ity of his first de­scent, an hour down to the river and an hour back up on a route no one had ever trav­elled be­fore.

“It was a real priv­i­lege,” Hol­lis said. “These op­por­tu­ni­ties are quite lit­er­ally once in a life­time.”



Caver Lee Hol­lis, left, and arche­o­log­i­cal sur­veyor John Pol­lack were part of the first re­search team to ex­plore an enor­mous cave dis­cov­ered last March in B.C.’s Wells Gray Pro­vin­cial Park. The en­trance to the cave is nick­named “Sar­lacc’s Pit,” a Star Wars ref­er­ence.

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