Caver Spotlight – Brandon Kowallis

      For Brandon Kowallis the journey began in the late 1980’s deep in the Iowan forests of Maquoketa Caves State Park. There, at the base of a small outcropping of rock he and a couple of friends, for the first time in their young lives, entered the dark unknown. At that moment something happened that would change his life and the life of many others in the years to come. . . He caught the cave bug.

      As the years rolled by this insatiable draw toward the unexplored, toward finding a place where no other human on earth had set foot, drove him to remote areas of the the United States in search of caves. In 1999 he joined the National Speleological Society and began working at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, while attending Utah Valley State College and Brigham Young University in pursuit of a degree in Photography.

      Soon he discovered the multi-dimensional nature of caving and cave exploration. He, like many other cavers, discovered ways to bring his talents and interests underground, to bring something back to share with the world above.

I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer. . . . Civilization and fever, and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me, have not dimmed my glacial eyes, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.

-John Muir

       Through his photography, Brandon has had the opportunity to lay down the first human footsteps and bring back images from caves throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala. His images have appeared in natural history museums, on national television, and in books and publications throughout the world.

No possessions are good but by the good use we make of them; without which wealth, power, friends, and servants, do but help to make our lives more unhappy.

– Sir W. Temple

Brandon and Michelle Kowallis at a cave entrance

           While cave exploration is a major part of Brandon’s life he also believes in the importance of living a well-balanced life full of diversity and discovery. Besides exploring the world underground he enjoys spending time exploring his own religious beliefs, classical guitar, family history, filmmaking, website design, and most importantly spending time with family and friends.

         Regarding caving and cave exploration Brandon says, “It is amazing how getting involved in something as simple as caving can shape a person’s life. It has given me a calm mind in the presence of danger always expectant of good, it has taught me to respect that natural world and all living things, it has made me patient in physical and mental adversity, and finally it has introduced me to some amazing and wonderful people.”


Little Brush Creek Cave

Little Brush Creek Cave – Vernal, Utah – This wonderful cave is located high in the Uintah Mountains, Little Brush Creek Cave is a popular destination for cavers and locals. It can be accessed year round, but entrance into the cave in not feasible from the first spring melt to the end of summer,( Watch Out for Flooding) as the entire Little Brush Creek, along with thousands of acres of snow melt, flows into the cave. The cave sees an average of 250 visitors per year, January being the most popular time to visit. It is the longest cave in Utah at 5.93 miles and 658 feet deep. It is the 37th deepest cave in the US.


The cave is part of a larger caving system, and is similar to its brother, Big Brush Creek Cave. Ice crystal formation up to a foot long, and ice structures over 10′ long, make this cave an amazing winter wonderland. Inside the cave, passage ways are narrow and cold. Many tunnels are plugged with logs and debris forced into it in past floods. Much of the cave is spent crawling and winding over very tight passages.


Relationship of Caving and Social Media

         For many years caving and the locations of caves was learned through experience and word of mouth.  This sport has done a great job staying off the radar and only gives to those that seek it with a passion. 

          The locations and details of these amazing places has done what it does best…stay in the dark.  The internet has had a large impact in the caving world.  With the locations being shared to many the traffic of these fragile places has increased and thus hurting them in permanent ways which has resulted in having many of them closed to the public.  Once the location has been posted or shared using social media, you can not get it back and the location will be available to anyone who wants it..forever.  This has created a group of cavers doing everything in their power to make sure the locations of the caves is kept secret.  The grotto (which is a caving group in any state)  is comprised of these cavers doing what they can to keep them safe. (i do recommend joining the grotto to learn safe caving techniques)  The down side they never share or show the locations of these caves, and many times take the location to the grave.  Caves are lost and only re -found sometimes.  There tends to be only a few people in the area that know all the locations of the currently known caves.  They take it upon themselves to be the “gate keeper” and only teach the elite the in’s and out’s of the caves.  They take the opportunity away for many people to experience caving. Why do they get to decide?  This puts caving in a difficult spot.  How to manage the locations and traffic of these amazing places.  Is all social media for caving bad? The answer is NO, social media can be a very effective tool to educate and inspire everyone to protect and conserve the caves.  Because photography is getting better the true beauty is starting to be seen.  I encourage anyone that is interested in learning more and see pictures showing how special they are, please visit the link to the Facebook page.  I hope this helps you see the beauty of these mysterious environments.


Big Brush Creek Cave

      Big Brush Creek Cave – Vernal, Utah – N This amzing cave is located high in the Uintah Mountains, Big Brush Creek Cave tends to be a popular destination for cavers. One can drive to the trail anytime there is not snow (depending on the year). The entire Big Brush Creek, along with thousands of acres of snowmelt (beware of flooding), flows into the cave during spring runoff.  Please check with local forest services to get an updated report before entering the cave.

        It is the second longest cave in Utah at 4.92 miles and 858 feet deep. (The cave could be pushed deeper if it was not for the bad air in dead air passage)  Best time to visit would be in summer through fall. If you have snowmobiles winter is a good time to visit. Avoiding visiting during spring dew to high unexpected, deadly runoff. (The cave has killed before) The cave is part of a larger caving system, and is similar to its brother, Little Brush Creek Cave. Ice crystal formation up to a foot long, and ice structures over 20′ long, make this cave an amazing winter wonderland.

Inside the cave, passage ways are narrow and cold. Many tunnels are plugged with logs and debris forced into it in past floods. Much of the cave is spent crawling and winding over very tight passages.  Further into the cave it opens up into a canyon that takes you all the way to the bath tub room and to dead air passage. 

Photo By: Benjamin Zack

This is where most turn back due to the bad air there that could be deadly depending on the conditions.  The wood and debris from flooding is pushed back and then ferments with CO2, which creates the bad air conditions.  This is a large cave and should be an all day event. If you make it deep enough it will require rope for small drops and climbs.  This cave tends to stay cold and wet.  The average temp is around 45-50 degrees F. This is a great starter cave when it comes to big caving.


Painting the Cave Picture

When someone says the word “caving” it tends to invoke a sense of dark, muddy,  getting stuck, and possibly wet and cold.  Why?

Cave photography has come a long way in the last few years and only now are people starting to see caves in a different light (Pun Intended).  In the past, it has been very difficult to get proper lighting into these caves to take quality pictures and get the detail needed to truly appreciate the beauty of the cave.  So for anyone that has not been into caves before and/or not seen good caving photography might have negative feelings towards caves.  With the use of Social Media, now amateur cavers are starting to take and share caving pictures that are inspiring others to see the beauty of these amazing places.  

Photograph by Brandon Kowallis

To see other amazing cave pictures please click on the Facebook Icon on the right-hand side of the page.  If you have any pictures you want featured on this blog please contact me.


Tis the Season to Cave

Small History of Vertical Caving

Vertical (or pit) caving was pioneered by British geologist John Beaumont (and yes he is french) who gave an account of his descent into Lamb Leer Cavern in 1681. Then another french  (the french are always inventing new extreme was to die) caver Edouard-Alfred Martel was the first descent and exploration of the Gouffre de Padira, as early as 1889 and the first successful descent of a 110 m (360 ft) very wet vertical shaft in 1895. He developed his own techniques using ropes and metallic ladders (that would suck). In the 1930s, as caving became increasingly popular in France, several clubs in the Alps made vertical cave exploration into a recognized outdoor sport.

During World War II, a team composed by Pierre Chevalier, Fernand Petzl, Charles Petit-Didier (sound familiar) explored the Dent de Crolles cave system, France, which became the deepest known cave in the world (658 m (2,159 ft)) at that time. The lack of available technical equipment during the war forced Chevalier and his team to innovate and develop their own ( I love Petzl gear!!).

In the late 1950s, American caver Bill Cuddington, A.K.A. “Vertical Bill”, developed the single rope technique (SRT) in the US. In 1958, two Swiss alpinists, creating the first rope ascender known as the Jumar. In 1968, Bruno Dressler asked Petzl, who worked as a metals machinist, to build a rope-ascending tool, today known as the Petzl Croll ( I love mine), that he had developed by adapting the Jumar to the specificity of vertical caving. Pursuing these developments, in the 1970s Petzl started a small caving equipment manufacturing company, which is today a world leader in equipment for both caving, mountaineering and at-height safety in civil engineering.

Today, the deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave in the country of Georgia. The difference in the altitude of the cave’s entrance and its deepest explored point is 2,197 ± 20 meters (7,208 ± 66 ft). It became the deepest-known cave in the world in 2001.

Caving is starting to explode with popularity and safety equipment.  Now is the time to learn more of whats under our very own feet.  There are plenty of caves to discover and explore.  Tis the season to CAVE ON!!!

Career In Caving?

Experienced cavers rarely or never hire a guide for the cave (only for the country they are traveling within) and that is even rare. I know a few cavers who organize trips to China or other parts of the world to cave and get to cave that way, but it doesn’t earn them a living. (Sure is fun though)

Careers that might involve some cave exploration, if you find the right job:

1. National Park Service hires cave specialists and they work at parks where there are caves in the park. One or two per park is probably all they hire.…

2. Hydrologists who specialize in karst hydrology may get to explore caves from time to time. These can be government employees (state) or consulting geologists who work on contract for government or companies that are regulated.…
also see

3. University professors who specialize in karst science, karst hydrology, geochemistry related to caves, biogeochemistry related to caves, or some other field of research that involves caves.

4. CIA. I am only guessing at this one (plausible denial is required) but I would suspect that CIA or some military branch has hired a few people to explore, map, and remove bombs from caves in places like Afghanistan. You might not live long in this career, but it would certainly be exciting.

Timpanogos Grotto

I invite all interested cavers to get involved with the Timpanogos Grotto (Of the National Speleological Society)

They offer opportunities to explore, map, dig, discover, clean, learn, and enjoy the caves of Utah. New cavers are usually fascinated with exploration, but this desire is quickly converted to desires for preservation of the precious natural resources (Purpose of this blog). At first the grotto members may seem like elitists trying to restrict non-members from accessing caves (which is true with a couple of specific members). The truth is that the Timpanogos Grotto strives to offer education to any groups or individuals so that the delicate cave features that have taken thousands and millions of years to form are not destroyed by the unaware.

Gated Caves: Yes, many of the caves in Utah are gated, but they are completely accessible to those willing to comply with the requirements of the cave’s management plan. This includes certain seasons of cave closure to protect the cave habitat, and limited group sizes to protect the cave features. Each cave has different managers and access requirements.

Red Barron Cave

This amazing cave in rock canyon is one of the most decorated caves in the state of Utah.

Red Baron Cave Utah

You need to anchor a rope to a tree that is split in half, rappel down 25 feet or so into the entrance deck.  Located in the back of the deck room, there is a small entrance that is gated.  It gets very tight right off the bat, but it opens up after about 20 feet.  Taking off your helmet at this point helps tremendously getting through. As there are hundreds of delicate formations throughout the cave, please step lightly and be very careful with your head, as that can break formations and hurt pretty bad if stabbed.

Red Baron Cave Utah

Some of the formations in the cave are calcified roots, stalactites, and helectites.

Red Baron Cave Utah

The most decorated passage is off limits for recreational trips. Red Baron Cave is quite cool year round, so long sleeves are recommended.  This is  very long and difficult hike, so be ready to give a good amount of time to hiking.

Red Baron Cave Utah