A Deteriorating Trip to O-9 Well, June 13–15, 2014
I want to note that I was friends with Geary Schindel for many years. This is just one of many great adventures and good times that we shared. But then he turned on us. He proved himself to be a deceitful, lying asshole. It is all documented in Geary Schindel Exposed!
It began as a relatively normal caving trip, but quickly deteriorated. And it all started with Geary.
I setup a Bexar Grotto trip to O-9 Well in the middle of a hot Texas summer. Most of us left Friday evening after work. I drove from San Antonio with Pam Campbell, and following us were Wade McDaniel, Tom Rogers, and Gary Donham. Wade’s truck made it without any blowouts, unlike the two separate blowouts and flat spare he had during a single trip to Deep Cave, but that’s another story.
Somewhere along the way, Pam and I realized that we left without insect repellent. We stopped in Ozona for some, but the only insect repellent in Ozona’s tiny grocery store contained DEET. I don’t like spraying myself with a carcinogen that dissolves synthetic clothing, so I skipped it. After all, the other time I was at O-9 Well, we didn’t need insect repellent at all. Sure, that trip was in the middle of the winter and so brutally cold that our group’s 7-gallon water jugs froze solid overnight, but how different could summer fauna be? Vastly different as we soon discovered.
The West Texas desert around O-9 Well has been in severe drought for a few years, but it had rained recently. It looked like it might even rain again that night. We found the windmill that marked our road and turned off the highway. The dirt road is well maintained, but soon we came upon a huge depression in the road that was filled with water. I hesitated, not knowing how deep the water was and afraid that my little (but awesome) Honda Element might get stuck. But I take my low-clearance, car-framed mini-SUV places most people don’t take their towering pickups, so I plowed through.
Muddy water splashed up around the vehicle. The world disappeared behind a brown veil of viscous grainy liquid, spotted with large chucks of mud. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit. I don’t really drive that fast through unknown water puddles, but it was a tense moment, not knowing how deep it was, if the bottom was solid or gooey mud, if we’d get stuck in the middle of the muck, how steep the sides were, or how slick the mud was. All that uncertainty hung in the air for an intense two seconds until we emerged out the other side. Oh…that was easy. The road was littered with these mud holes, but with my new-found confidence, I blazed onward.
Geary Schindel and Rob Bisset were also driving up together from San Antonio. I don’t know if you’ve been to Ozona, Texas, but it’s a flat, barren land. You can see for miles and miles. And that makes thunderstorms particularly spectacular.
Enter Geary. He worries about everything. Off in the distance, possibly as far off as Arizona (that’s an exaggeration…it was probably only in New Mexico), Geary watched a storm rolling in. It was twilight, so each bolt of lightning shone brightly, illuminating layer upon layer of dark clouds.
I should mention that Geary has been struck by lightning before, so nature’s amazing light show that night stirred up a crippling terror for Geary. He grew concerned about staying at O-9 Well, sleeping next to a metal windmill. Where, oh where, would lightning strike amongst this flat wasteland of shrubs and a towering metal windmill?
OK, that’s a pretty valid concern, but Geary is still a worrywart. That’s also why I like having him around—no one can think of everything that could possibly go wrong like Geary can. He’s a great resource in that regard.
So as he’s approaching Ozona with a thunderstorm looming on the horizon, Geary calls his wife back in civilization (i.e., Internet access) and asks her to start looking up hotels in Ozona. There aren’t a lot of hotels in Ozona, and most of them are occupied en masse by the oil industry because of the area’s recent oil boom. Geary and Rob pull into a hotel, and as Geary’s waiting in line at the front desk, he hears the hotel attendant direct the couple in front of him to another hotel with “the last vacant room in town”.
Most people at this point would give up and just camp at the cave, but not Geary. His worrying makes him quite resourceful. Where else in town could he possibly stay? The jail, of course. Yes, the jail. Like I said, it all started with Geary.
So here’s Geary, late at night, beating on the door to the jail. Some leery officers open the door to Geary’s beaming smile, who asks if he and some friends can sleep in the jail tonight. There’s a short exchange as Geary explains his dilemma, but the officers explain that it’s Friday night in the oil fields and they’re expecting a full house. However, there’s always the church.
Apparently, Ozona has a non-denominational church that the congregation opens up to wayward souls, hitchhikers, vagabonds, etc., so cavers would fit right in. The officers gave Geary the number to the church’s minister. Geary called, and the minister said he’s at a baseball game at a town about an hour away but agrees to head to Ozona to open the church to these cavers (vagabonds).
Right about that time, my group had just arrived at camp. The first thing I did was setup my canopy because it looked like it might rain. And that’s when we heard it…this high-pitched whine.
Suddenly, we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. Third worst mosquito swarm I’ve ever experienced (the worst was in the Alaska tundra in the summer, and second worst was at Goose Island, Texas). They swarmed you in the open, they swarmed you in the cars. Someone pulled out a can of DEET and I bathed in it lavishly. But even as my clothes melted away and cancerous lesions formed on my skin, the little bastards were not deterred. It was a maddening, unrelenting onslaught.
Right at that moment, Geary called, telling us that he had a place for us to stay in town. A church. But we’re already at the cave, setting up camp just 50 feet away from the entrance. Why would we ever want to drive all the way back into town, through all the mud holes and down the long, desolate highway, just to drive all the way back a few hours later in the morning?
Mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes. For such a tiny creature, they can be a huge motivating factor. We abandoned my canopy and jumped in our cars. Drivers navigated the mud holes while their copilots tried to kill the numerous mosquitoes that had invaded the cars. Pam smacked one on my ceiling that had apparently feasted heartily on one of us already because it left a huge red smear on my headliner. Little bastards.
Will Work for Milkshakes
Back in town, Geary and Rob needed a place to hang out while waiting on the minister. They headed for the icon of any small Texas town, Dairy Queen.
It was a rough night for that particular Dairy Queen. Not only was it a late Friday night in an oil town where the jail was expected to fill up soon, but one of the six DQ employees called in sick. Later that same shift, another employee abruptly quit. Thus, on one of their busiest and rowdiest nights, the DQ was down one-third of their staff.
Orders were delayed. Tables weren’t getting bussed. People were so frustrated with the service that all night they had been taking their delicious Blizzards and ice cream cones and mustardy hamburgers and plopping them upside-down on the tables in protest. Or maybe that’s just what rowdy oil field workers normally do and why the jail fills up.
Regardless, by the time Geary and Rob walked through the door at DQ, there wasn’t a clean table anywhere. Rather than stand around waiting, Geary decided to put his Master’s degree in hydrogeology to work and offered to clean the dining room for a milkshake. The staff gladly handed him a broom. I’ve got photographic proof.
By the time the rest of us got back to town, Geary was sucking down a milkshake and told us to meet him at the volunteer fire department behind the park in the center of town. We pulled up and Geary and Rob were standing with someone in a sports jersey. When the sports jersey guy saw my long hair, he exclaimed “Rocker!” while holding up his fist with index finger and pinky extended and banging his head back and forth. Turns out he’s the minister. “Oh, it’s one of those churches,” I thought.
The local law enforcement showed up shortly thereafter to run our IDs at the minister’s request. He just needed to be sure we weren’t mass murderers before letting us stay unattended in his church. An understandable precaution, especially considering that the insides of our cars were speckled with fresh blood stains from the mosquito invasion. Geary and Rob checked out OK, and they vouched for the rest of us. Probably helped that Geary had local employment at the DQ.
The church was a house just a few blocks away, tucked away in a residential neighborhood. The main room was large with a dozen rows of chairs and a stage with an electric guitar and keyboard. Just as I suspected—one of those “progressive” churches. As the minister showed us around, he explained that it used to be a mortuary before they converted it to a church, which explained the faint odor of embalming fluid coming from the locked double doors at the end of the hall. Isn’t this how most horror movies start? A group of friends in the middle of nowhere, forced to sleep in a creepy place with a strange religious element, and, of course, the prerequisite locked area where they’re not supposed to go, beyond which lies some maniac with a chainsaw and a hockey mask.
Cavers started merrily claiming aisles, just like their oblivious horror movie counterparts. Geary offered me the last of his hard-earned milkshake. It was delicious, and I heartily slurped down what I assumed would be my last meal before a gruesome chainsaw death. Pam and I claimed one of the small side rooms down the hallway from the locked doors and laid out our sleeping bags. Yes, the perfect horror movie setup where the group is in one area while a couple sneaks off to be alone. As we settled in for the night, I noticed the lights in the ceiling were pointing directly at our sleeping spot, and I realized that this was one of the funeral home’s old viewing rooms and we were sleeping right where the corpses were once on display. Cue chainsaw noise.
Despite my impending doom, I somehow managed to fall asleep. I awoke in the morning, not to sounds of chainsaws and blood-curdling screams, but to Tom Rogers’ perky smile. He asked if we felt like someone was watching us all night…and then confessed that he had stood at the doorway watching us for several hours during the night. I think he was joking, but with Tom it’s hard to tell. I should probably mention that Tom is a carpenter and that he has lots of saws and power tools that could be used to dismember people. It’s the horror movie plot twist! It was Tom all along! I gave Tom a nervous laugh to acknowledge that he was (hopefully) joking, then mentally took a head count to make sure we weren’t missing anybody.
My horror-movie fears were apparently unjustified. Everyone made it through the night, and I suppose sleeping indoors at the church with running water and bathrooms was a nice alternative to mosquitoes and lightning strikes. We cleaned up the church (lead by Geary, who was a pro after his extensive DQ work) and left a donation for the church’s generosity.
Screams of 12-Year-Old Girls
Before heading out to the cave (again), we decided to stop for breakfast tacos at a local dive. Chris Lafferty and Wes Rosenstein were driving in that morning, so I called to tell them that we were in town having breakfast. Unfortunately, they had already passed through town 15 minutes earlier, so they decided to continue to the cave.
Shortly thereafter, Chris called back and asked if we had been down the dirt road that morning. Suddenly over the phone I hear a splash and what sounded like a bunch of 12-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Chris excitedly gets back on the phone and says the roads are really bad. He’s not sure we can make it. There’s another splash and more 12-year-old Belieber screams.
Now I’m kinda nervous. The roads were already bad yesterday, and now with last night’s thunderstorm, there’s no telling what they’re like. When we got back to the dirt road, all I can say is that Wes and Chris might both have fancy four-wheel drive SUVs, but apparently neither of them have ever been off-road. The road was exactly the same as the night before, and under my guidance my little (but awesome) Honda Element made it just fine again. City folk. Sheesh.
We arrived to discover that my canopy survived the night. The storm that drove Geary to seek shelter in town turned out to be nothing more than a light drizzle. We setup camp and started rigging the 127-foot entrance drop while Rob took a “managerial position” in his hammock. I went down first to rig a rebelay and redirectional around the well pipe, but Geary worried about the added complexity for the newer vertical cavers. So I abandoned it in favor of a straight drop through the skinny pinch next to the pipe.
Next, I headed downstream over the rimstone dams to rig the second drop as the rest of the group came down the entrance drop. The rimstone dams get progressively deeper and deeper, and by the time you get to the second drop, you’re plunging into small pools that are over your head. Most people wear wetsuits in the cave, but I was wearing only running tights and a quick-dry shirt. I always run hot, and the cold water felt good to me. Refreshing. Then there’s Wade…
I rigged the second drop on the new bolts high on the wall and rappelled down the 55-foot drop alongside a waterfall that splashes onto beautiful flowstone at the bottom. Chris and Wes follow me down the narrow water channel to the next minor drop, a 10-foot rimstone dam. We rigged a hand line, and I climbed down. Pam made it down fine, too, but Geary was worried that some people (who squeal like 12-year-old girls) might have trouble on the hand line, so we undid the butterfly knots and used our vertical gear.
Just a few feet away is the next drop down a picturesque 38-foot-high flowstone. As we’re rigging it, Wade shows up next to us and starts doing jumping jacks. We’re out of the water at this point, and he has a wetsuit on, but he’s still freezing.
It’s not the only time Wade has been cold in a cave. I had to rescue him from Spring Creek Cave when his lips turned blue from hypothermia. He also didn’t help on a few tank hauls because he was afraid he’d get too cold in his wetsuit while hauling massive amounts of gear. (These are the same tank hauls where I wear running tights and a t-shirt and still overheat.) I didn’t think this cave would be a problem for him because we’re barely in the water at all, but I underestimated just how delicate Wade is. I guess that’s what he gets for being so muscular and lean. Maybe he should put on a thick layer of insulating fat like the rest of us, and then he wouldn’t get so cold all the time.
While Wade is doing jumping jacks, we finish rigging the rope. It’s a spectacular drop over the gorgeous flowstone with water flowing down it nearly four stories, splashing into a pristine pool at the bottom. I stop on the way down to place some new photography toys I made (Cree LEDs attached to 9V batteries) into nooks and crannies so I can do some extended exposures of the falls.
While I was busy taking photos at the flowstone, the rest of the group went down the final descent into the last room to see the sump and infamous dome climb (R.I.P. Joe Ivy). My flowstone photos turned out OK, but the extreme drought in the area has reduced the water so much that the flowing water barely shows in the long exposure shots. Frankly, the better photos are the flash shots when everyone was climbing back up. And the best shots are when someone “augments” the waterfall by forcing water over the upstream 10-foot rimstone dam, preferably while some poor sap is ascending the rope.
Like Chris Lafferty, the poor sap. I have a photo of him desperately clinging to the side to keep the deluge from drenching him (if only I had taken video, then you could have heard him screaming like a 12-year-old girl yet again). However, that was nothing compared to the waterfall to which they treated me. I was the last one up so no one was below to witness, and my camera was packed away, so I have no pictures of the event. But take my word, I was over to the side where Chris cowered, and I was still being pummeled by a massive onslaught of water. Water just kept coming down and down for what seemed like an eternity. OK, it was probably only two seconds, but it was way more intense than those two seconds driving through that mud puddle the night before.
When I finally got to the top, the guys were squealing with glee at their triumphant little flood. Wes stuck around to help me derig the climb, and the others went upstream to start on the 55-foot ascent up the previous waterfall.
That previous waterfall is quite gorgeous, too, so I pulled out my camera again to snap a few photos there. Try as I might, I could not convince Wes to strip down for some calendar shots, so I took some naked calendar selfies. (I’ll probably include one in the next Texas Cavers Calendar. Contact me to reserve your copy now!)
After my fantastic calendar selfies, I started packing up my camera gear. My typical setup is two large foam-lined Pelican Storm cases crammed with all my photography gear: camera, flashes, remotes, Cree LEDs, extra batteries, extra memory cards, cleaning cloth, cords, snouts, grids…the list goes on and on. I take those two Pelican cases and put them in a massive, bright red Gonzo Guano Gear PEP pack. Along with a full-size tripod. Plus all my normal caving gear. And about a gallon of fluids because I run hot and sweat a lot. Once done, my pack is nearly as tall as me and weighs 50 pounds. OK, slight exaggeration again—it’s only about four feet tall. But it really does weight 50 pounds. Seriously. I’ve weighed it. Geary aptly nicknamed it the “pig”.
I hauled the pig up the 55-foot ascent, derigged the climb, then headed toward the entrance, carrying the massive pig over the flowstone dams. I set the pig at the bottom of the entrance climb and went back to the dams to soak, hoping to cool off and even get slightly hypothermic before hauling the pig up 127 feet.
I came back a little later to find my pig being tied to the bottom of the rope. Apparently, Geary was worried that our group didn’t know enough about haul systems and decided to do some hands-on training on the surface. After carrying my monstrous pack through that cave (like I do through most caves, in fact), I can’t say I minded.
The surface crew starts pulling up the slack, and as soon as the rope is tight, we get a call down from the surface, “It’s stuck!” No, that’s my pack. You’re just now lifting it off the floor. That’s right. Five guys with a haul system had trouble lifting what I carry through nearly every cave. Yeah, I’m a bad ass. Or an idiot. But an idiot with a passion for cave photography.
After much struggling, they eventually haul out the pig. Chris and Wes head up. I come up last. By the time I get to the surface, I’ve been in the cave about 10 hours. Some people have been on the surface for quite a while (because they’re so delicate and cold), so I’m expecting that they’ve cooked supper and maybe made some margaritas. But when I surface, I notice my canopy is no longer up. Neither are anyone’s tents. Everything is packed up, even Rob’s managerial hammock. There are no chairs, no food, and worst of all, no margaritas. That’s when they tell me about the gnats.
Now, I can only relay what they told me because when I got to the top there were no gnats. But “supposedly” from the time the first person surfaced to just minutes before I surfaced, there were massive swarms of gnats. The gnats were so bad that everyone had to cover their faces with bandanas and shirts just to breath. And despite the facial covering, the gnats were so thick that they were still slipping through and flying into everyone’s mouth and nose.
Supposedly. Like I said, when I made it to the surface, there were no gnats at all. No mosquitos. No looming thunderstorm. In fact, it was a very pleasant evening. I don’t know what they were complaining about. But my group had mutinied and told me that everyone was heading home that night because of the alleged gnat problem. Everything was already packed and they were just waiting for me to surface so they could flee the area, like the cowardly little mutineers they were. Actually, Wade took off before I even got out because he couldn’t stand the gnats. I told you he was delicate.
Really, I think everyone was secretly terrified of staying for their own reasons and invented the gnat excuse. Just like the night before, I’m sure it all started with Geary. He probably had some binoculars and saw a storm way off in the distance, but not wanting to admit his ridiculous fear, starts complaining about the gnats. “Hey, guys, look at these three gnats. They sure are annoying.” Wade, Tom, Gary, and Pam were probably still traumatized by last night’s mosquitos, afraid they would reappear tonight, and respond “Yeah, those three gnats are buzzing all around us.” Plus, Wade was probably worried that the temperature might drop below 90 and he would get a slight chill, which made him gasp slightly and inhale a gnat, “Ew! I think one just flew in my mouth!” And I bet Wes and Chris were still quaking from the mud puddles, and shriek “Aaaahhh! I can’t take it! And it’s because of these three gnats! Well, two now that Wade ate one…but yeah, the gnats! We gotta get outta here! Let’s tell Bennett about this horrible ‘swarm’ of gnats and how they’re flying in our mouths and noses!”
Despite the breakdown of their psyche, I managed to calm them down and convinced the mutineers to stop in Ozona for food. They were all hungry, despite the amount of gnats they claimed to have swallowed.
We decided to stop at the park in front the volunteer fire station and have our supper there. It was late when we arrived and the night was dark. Fortunately, the park was well lit by the big city lights of Ozona. People started pulling food out of coolers, discussing which flavor of Gatorade goes best with all the gnats they supposedly ate. Someone lit a campstove.
Then suddenly a car whipped around the corner with sirens blaring and lights flashing.
I should be clear and say that we did not start the fire. In fact, we never even saw the fire, but apparently there was a fire somewhere around Ozona that night. For about the next 15 minutes, we watched as car after car raced to the volunteer fire station behind us, engines revving as they navigated the 11 blocks that make up the entirety of Ozona. Some had sirens, some had lights, some had way too many sirens and lights obviously overcompensating for something. Eventually a small fire truck arrived. I think that’s something they should keep that at the actual fire station—maybe Geary can mention that at the next town meeting since he’s locally employed. A few minutes later they all departed. Shortly thereafter another fire truck appeared and raced away in the same direction. Better late than never.
And so the show ended. All the chaos just moments earlier was now nothing more than sirens fading in the distance. A quiet fell over the town and over our group. It was as if the sirens carried away our individual cares and worries, and we were at peace…except me. We said our melancholy farewells and departed, but inside I was pissed that after caving all day, I had to leave a perfectly good campsite, a hot meal, and margaritas to drive all the way home at midnight because of a bunch of gnats. Alleged gnats. For the record, even if there were some gnats—and I’m not saying there were!—I think the “massive swarms” were highly exaggerated, unlike everything else presented here, which is completely and totally accurate. Seriously! The mud puddles, the mosquitoes, the jail, Geary working at DQ for a milkshake, the progressive church/mortuary, the smell of embalming fluid, sleeping under the viewing lights, Tom staring at people, Chris and Wes screaming like 12-year-old girls, Rob “managing” from his hammock, Wade always being cold, the flash floods, my 4-foot-tall “pig”, the sirens and lights—it’s all true! Everything! Well, everything except the gnats. I still don’t believe the gnat story.
So as I’m driving home in the early morning hours, down long stretches of desert roads, my ire subsides, and I begin to think wistfully about sitting around the campfire, the playful firelight merging with the glow of my laptop screen as I feverishly try to process the trip photos before my battery runs out. Meanwhile, other cavers laugh and relive the day’s events and tell tales of past adventures between swigs from the bottles of whiskey and moonshine circling the group—horrific tales of mud and tight squeezes, boastful tales of rocking someone’s pack, wishful tales of flatrocking my dad to put us (and presumably him) out of our misery. And, as always, we make fun of Wade for drinking Coors Light. Those nights around the campfire are one of the reasons I love caving. The dark pangs of longing slowly crept through me. I wonder why we didn’t have that fireside comradery this trip…but I already know why. It began as a relatively normal caving trip, but quickly deteriorated. And it all started with Geary.
This article has also been published in national caving journals:
- “It All Started with Geary: A Deteriorating Trip to O-9 Well.” Texas Caver, Volume 63, Issue 4, Winter 2014, pp 17–23.
- “It All Started with Geary: A Deteriorating Trip to O-9 Well.” NSS News, Volume 3, Number 5, May 2015, pp 14–17.