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May 15, 2015
Hell Hole (aka. IXL Cave) is a cave located on the eastern side of Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. It is known for its very narrow and claustrophobia-inducing passages and steep dropoffs into nothingness, many of which require getting down on your back/stomach and squirming through. The most popular route heads to a part of the cave known as the Hall Of Faces, which is a small room filled with clay sculptures of various objects. Most groups take between 2-4 hours (one way) to get to the Hall Of Faces and an equal amount of time to exit the cave.
The approach is very short, but the entrance to Hell Hole can be slightly tricky to find. From the West Remote parking lot, walk a few hundred feet south along Heller Drive to where it intersects with Empire Grade. Cross to the other side of Empire Grade and pass through a gate onto a trail on the other side. Walk a few hundred feet to where a smaller trail branches off to the right and pass through another gate shortly after. The trail should go down to a creek. Cross the creek to another more faint trail, and turn left (south). The trail should start going up towards a hillside with mossy rocks. The entrance to Hell Hole is among these rocks.
This 1989 hand drawn map seems to be the most popular map used for Hell Hole
Our route taken on 5/15/15: Note that YDS ratings are used. I am aware that YDS ratings are not designed for caves, but its a rating system that is widely known and the closest thing I have at the moment for providing some sort of difficulty map.
Mike, Petr, Ian, and I reached the entrance of Hell Hole at around 7:30 pm, just as the surrounding canyon was beginning to get dark. This would make no difference in the cave, since sunlight only penetrated into the first ~10 ft. All navigation after that would be done by flashlight.
all gung ho at the start
Immediately after squeezing through the entrance, the inside of the cave began dropping down steeply. The passage was on average 2-3 ft wide and 2-3 ft tall. About 5 minutes after entry, we hit the first obstacle: the ManTrap Chute. Getting through this ~2 ft by 1.5 ft slot involved getting on our backs and sliding feet-first into the steepening chute ahead. This chute eventually dropped off into a ~10 by 20 ft room known as the Party Room. This would be one of the few places in the cave where we could stand up.
the initial passage
arriving in the Party Room
Where are all the parties at?
On the other side of the Party Room, we climbed/crawled up a steep passage to The Attic. The Attic didn't contain anything too special apart from some very deep-looking dropoffs. After The Attic, the passage narrows for a while. This section is known as The Birthing Canal. The narrowest part of the Birthing Canal is a small bend known as The Corkscrew. We spent around 15 minutes squirming through The Corkscrew. I had to take off my pack and push it in front of me.
The Birthing Canal
At the end of The Birthing Canal, the passage forked. The left fork went towards a large room known as the Main Hall, while the right fork contained a ~10 dropoff with a fixed rope. We decided to descend the dropoff.
descending the dropoff
After more crawling, we hit another dropoff. This one was over 15 ft down and also contained fixed ropes. There were no reliable natural holds on the cave walls, so we relied purely on the rope for descent.
After another section of crawling, we arrived at a third roped dropoff. This 20+ ft dropoff would put us directly into the Hall Of Faces. It contained several natural holds, which made it much easier than the second dropoff, but we had to be careful not to fall through several large holes in the rock.
looking down the third roped dropoff
descending the third dropoff into the Hall Of Faces
The Hall Of Faces was a small cramped room which seemed to be made entirely of wet mud. Small molded mud sculptures were stuck to the walls. There was even a sopping wet register.
After about 30 minutes, we began heading out. We climbed back up the third dropoff, then took an alternate route starting at the second dropoff. As the second dropoff ended, we saw more ropes above, and proceeded to combine the two dropoffs into a single ~40 ft climb, topping out at a rock formation known as the Chickenhead.
above the Hall Of Faces
climbing towards the Chickenhead
After the Chickenhead, the passage opened up slightly, but before long we hit a series of dead ends, and were forced to crawl up a very slippery hole with no holds. The first three of us were able to get through with the next person below them pushing on their feet. The last person, Ian, had some trouble getting through since he did not have that luxury. I ended up sticking my leg down the hole so he could grab on to it, and that didn't work despite what seemed like 20 minutes of attempts. Then I suggested looking for rocks or anything that would give him a height advantage. Luckily, there were several rocks, and for the next few minutes we could hear Ian shifting and piling up some fairly large ones. He tried getting through the hole again, and after some struggle, managed to make it.
The cave opened up slightly and we proceeded through the passage, only to find that after passing the Chickenhead an hour ago, we were right back at it! After scanning around for a little bit, I managed to located a small narrow tunnel just under the Chickenhead, and we proceeded through it, and after 15 minutes, wallah. We were at the base of the first dropoff (where we wanted to be).
From there, we retraced our steps through the Birthing Canal. One thing that stuck out was that getting through The Corkscrew was much harder from this direction. I found myself flat on my back, pushing as hard as I could in order to squeeze through.
Upon reaching the Party Room, we took a wrong turn, spending 15 minutes going straight up a passage to a dead end, then coming right back down. The right way was to the left and was marked by several obvious green arrows. Duh. 15 minutes later, we were finally out of the cave. It was around 1 in the morning. Petr was feeling sick, and proceeded to vomit. Everyone was glad to be back out in fresh air.