Cave Repair

Spelunker vs Caver

Moe:  Hey Joe.  I heard you were a spelunker.

Joe:  Naw.  I’m a caver.

Moe:  What’s the diff?

Joe:   Well.  A spelunker is someone who will go into a cave wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops.  Kinda what you’re wearing now.  Maybe a flashlight and a six-pack or two.  He wanders around without paying a lot of attention to where he is going.

Moe:  What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?

Joe:  Nothing.  It’s just that a caver wears closed toed shoes to protect his feet and sufficient clothes for the environment.  He will have at least three sources of light, food and water to last at least twenty-four hours, as well as other required gear.

Moe:  Sounds like a lot of bother.

Joe:  The caver is the one who will rescue the spelunker’s sorry tail when he is lost and/or injured.

Moe:  Oh.  Well.  What if I crawl through a tight tunnel and fall in a hole and break my leg?

Joe:  Then you’ll be happy to know I have been through Colorado Cave Rescue Network’s training.

Moe:  Colorado Cave Rescue Network?

Joe:  Yeah.  The Colorado Cave Rescue Network.

Moe:  So, you’d be able to get me out?

Joe:  Yep.  However, we’d need to be careful to minimize damage to the cave.

Moe:  WHAT?!  Caves are made of rock!  How could you damage it?

Joe:  The formations like stalactites, soda straws, popcorn, ribbon and stuff like that are very fragile and break if bumped.

Moe:  So what happens if you damage stuff getting me out?

Joe:  Then we call in a speleothem repair team.

Moe:  A spello what?

Joe:  A speleothem repair team.  They repair cave formations.

Moe:  They can repair all the damage?  Then why do you need to be careful?

Joe:  They can repair a lot, but it’s a lot of effort and time.  And, there is no guarantee that a formation can be repaired.  It is better not to damage anything.

Moe:  Oh.  And here I thought caving and spelunking were the same thing.

Joe’s right.  Speleothem, or cave formation, repair takes a lot of time and patience.  It’s kind of like putting together a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle without the luxury of a picture of the end result or knowing if all the pieces are there to start with.

Cave Repair

Speleothem repair is not difficult.  It’s akin to working a three dimensional puzzle without a final reference picture in many cases.  It is, also, time consuming.

Tools of the Trade

The basic tools of the trade are minimal, but as with all toolsets, there are items that can enhance your repertoire.  The basic tools consist of distilled water, an epoxy or glue and a tripod with weights.  Other items that can be helpful include: dental picks, paper towels, grout, parchment paper, straws, archeology bamboo tools, baby wipes and a spray bottle.

The adhesive used is either an epoxy or a glue that does not grow mold, works in cool, moist places (most Colorado caves are 55 degrees or cooler) and can take from a second to twenty-four hours to set.  Some epoxies actually use water as an accelerant.  Many times the cave where the repair is occurring has an adhesive that has been sanctioned for that cave system.  Keep in mind that epoxy has a shine to it.  Many epoxies have a tint to them as well.  Many times the glue is a two part compound which requires mixing.  Take care when working with these adhesives so that you do not adhere yourself or anyone else to a permanent fixture in the cave.

Distilled water is used to rinse off and clean the ends to be glued together.  We use distilled water if at all possible to keep from introducing contaminates to the cave system.

A tripod and weight system is used to help hold the pieces in place without movement.  This is especially helpful for stalactites when using a slow setting epoxy.  This way a human does not have to sit and hold the piece without moving or shaking.  An old camera tripod is great.  A couple aluminum balance arms with screw taps and wing screws are additional parts to add to the tripod.  A small ditty bag for holding the counter-weights.  The counter-weights can be lead weights, rocks, etc.

The dental picks are used to clean the ends of speleothems before attaching them to each other.  Use gently.  The archeology bamboo shoots are also a good choice as they are softer than the speleothem and less likely to cause damage.

Grout can add color if the repair is external.  When mixing grout with epoxy, the “wet” color is the dry color.  Epoxy does not adhere to parchment paper.  This can be helpful with mixing and providing a backing to work against.  Grout can be used to add color to the surface for blending.  A straw can be used to puff grout or local “dirt” on a surface to better color-blend the repair area.  If grout is mixed with (distilled) water to fill in an area, realize that the wet color and the dry color are different.  Check and mix your grout colors and compare to the area for color matching prior to adding water.

Getting the Parts

The first thing to do is get all the pieces and determine where they go and how they fit together.

If a piece was broken and all pieces were collected and handed to you or placed off to the side, this is the preferred start to the repair process.  You have all the parts.  You just need to fit them together and then lay them out in an “exploded” view.

If a number of pieces were damaged in an area, then the first task is to determine a breakage pattern:

    • Are the pieces directly beneath or very close to the parts?
    • Did something roll/charge through to where the parts are pushed forward or out to the sides?
    • Did someone swing a stick so the parts went flying in an arc?

Once you have a breakage pattern, it is a little easier to find and match parts.  For multiple sets, flagging tape can be used to mark pieces that go together and the formation to which they should be attached.

Rinsing the ends with distilled water allows for a way of matching stalactites and stalagmites to each other.  The insides of stalactites and stalagmites have circles similar to trees.  Some also have crystallization as well.  Using these rings and the diameter or size will help in finding parts that may go together.  If there are a lot of parts, a suggested method is to rinse the ends of all pieces, place them on a shelf, or shelves, based on diameter, small to larger or vice-versa, with an end showing.  This will make it a bit easier to find a part with a matching ring pattern.

When two pieces look like they might fit together, the next step is the fit test.  Like a jigsaw puzzle, when pieces of a cave formation fit together correctly, they will ‘click’ into place.  The final seating is more a feel than a look.

Putting the pieces together

Cave Repair

A broken ribbon of “bacon” is laid out in preparation for restoration work. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Now that we have our tools and have found our pieces, let’s put them together.

For small pieces, we can put the pieces together and then attach them to the formation.  For larger pieces, due to weight, it is better to attach a piece to the formation at a time.

If using an epoxy with an accelerant, the adhesive typically sets within one second or less.  Use with caution.  Epoxy without an accelerant can take thirty to sixty seconds to set (still tacky) and twenty-four hours to have a permanent hold.  A point to note, the epoxy of choice to be used in caves has good tensile (length pull) strength, but no shear (side ways) strength.  Two part glues take twenty-four hours or more to be able to support the weight of the formation, especially large formations.

Cave Repair

The counter-balance supports the repaired pieces while the adhesive is allowed to cure. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

A close-up of the final results, with adhesive still drying. Photo by D Hilfinger.








When attaching the part(s) to the formation, the tripod is your friend.  For stalactites or other formations attached to the ceiling, pressure needs to be applied in an upward direction.  For stalagmites and formations that attach to the ground, a downward pressure is applied.  Why not use the weight of the ground formation to apply the necessary weight?  For larger formations, say eight pounds or more, you can.  However, smaller formations do not provide enough weight to get a good seal on the adhesive.

When you attach the pieces, prior to adding the adhesive, do a double check of fit.  Make sure you have the right pieces and that they click together.  Check the tripod for fit.  Ideally, having a team of two is good.  While you hold the piece(s) in place, your buddy can set up and place the tripod.  After you have confirmed the fit and tripod placement, your buddy can apply the accelerant, if using one, and the adhesive, then you fit the pieces together and hold.  If you get too much adhesive and it squirts out, your buddy can use a damp rag/towel that you had ready to wipe off the excess.  Your buddy can also set and balance the tripod so you can let go.  Once the adhesive sets, you can gently remove the tripod and set the next piece.  Once all parts have been adhered to the formation, if possible, leave the tripod set up from the last piece, for eight to twelve hours to let the adhesive cure completely.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.







Repair teams match, clean and set formations to repair damage.  On average cave formations grow at a rate of 1” per 100 years.  Anything that is broken in a careless act will not be repaired by nature for hundreds of years to come, if ever at all…


Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.







When you are done, make sure to clean up all of your stuff.

Though we have gone through the simple steps of speleothem repair, it is much better that care be taken and the need for repair not be required.  Should you find yourself in a cave, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.

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