Windeler Cave

WCC re-opened and gated Windeler Cave in 2009 after 12 years of closure. In 2010, we instituted a trustee program so that a limited number of visitors can appreciate this spectacular cave each year. In this article you'll find a brief overview of the cave and WCC's involvement with it, then the story of our gating and reopening activities, the people that got it done and how they work together, and finally details of the trustee program.

Background
Windeler Cave was discovered by gold miners in about 1946. They were blasting a shaft in hopes of reaching the "mother lode", the famous gold-bearing vein in the Sierra Nevada that is, unfortunately for these miners, very far away. However, their shaft intersected an exceedingly beautiful and untouched cave. We now call it "Windeler Cave" after Charlie Windeler, the main miner and also its chief protector in those early years.

Charlie Windeler recognized the value of keeping this cave in its pristine condition. Many similarly beautiful caves in the Mother Lode area have been ruthlessly vandalized and gutted by careless visitors. For example Crystal Palace cave once had numerous gorgeous formations; nearly all are now broken and muddied. Other caves in the area have become show caves with concrete paths and walking tours; they"re no longer "wild." Windeler kept his cave from suffering either fate; some say he blasted it shut with dynamite to keep it safe. We do know it was buried under tons of rubble for years. The exact location faded from memory and the cave passed into myth.

Members of Diablo Grotto led by Ernie Coffman heard about Windeler's cave and set out to find it. By dint of research, careful investigation, good luck and a great deal of hard labor they located and reopened the cave in 1972,subsequently forming a committee to manage the cave. They installed a gate and began trips to enjoy, map, and study the cave. However it was plagued by a series of break-ins, and the committee had to fix and replace the gate several times. The committee didn't have the energy to replace the gate after another break-in in 1997 so they sealed the cave shut with concrete. The cave sat buried and almost forgotten for several years.

Gating and Reopening
Recognizing the need for someone to take over active management of the cave, the Diablo committee contacted the WCC and asked if we'd be interested in managing the cave. In 2007 we completed negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service (landowners) and signed an agreement taking responsibility for the cave.

From 2007 to 2009 WCC worked on a new gate. Jim Hildebrand put numerous hours and a lot of his personal resources into the project and for that we are grateful. At the same time we needed to build up a committee of dedicated, conservation-minded people that could sustainably manage the cave. In 2009 a new committee was formed and installed a shiny new gate. We have taken advantage of modern technology to help keep the cave secure and protected.

Finally having secured the entrance, the committee then engaged in two reconnaissance trips to learn what we'd actually gotten into, and develop ideas of how best to protect the resource while providing for balanced access to careful explorers. We are very happy to report that the cave is in great shape! Charlie Windeler, and the Diablo Grotto after him, did a truly exemplary job of protecting this cave. While there are a few restoration projects we'd like to undertake, it is by and large in the same "underground wilderness" state as it was at the time of its discovery, and WCC means to keep it that way.

WCC has established an excellent working relationship with the Stanislaus National Forest (Mi-Wuk District) and has their full support of our mission to provide access to and protect this very special resource.

The Windeler Committee
What should th committee look like? How big should it be, who should be on it, and how should decisions be made? These were tricky questions as many people had opinions and a strong desire to see the cave after its long closure.

In 2009, then-Stewardship Director Martin Haye formally created the committee based on a volunteer list. The goal has been to achieve a balance of different groups of interested people, make decisions efficiently, and get the work done. The current committee members represent the nearby National Speleological Society chapters (called "grottoes") as well as cavers unaffiliated with any grotto. They were chosen based on enthusiasm they expressed and their complementary abilities. Membership is not fixed; there is a healthy interchange as new people enter and others step out over time. The current members are:

  • Dave Bunnell (Mother Lode and Columbia)
  • Charley Nelson (San Joaquin Valley)
  • Chuck Chavdarian (Diablo)
  • Chuck Lee (Diablo)
  • Dale and Sherry Hartwig (Mother Lode)
  • Dan Snyder (Mother Lode)
  • Ernie Coffman (Diablo)
  • Jef Levin (Diablo)
  • John Tinsley (San Francisco)
  • Kelley Prebil (San Francisco)
  • Martin Haye (Mother Lode)
  • Ron Davis (Stanislaus)
  • Steven Johnson (Diablo)
  • Mark Bowers

 

We devised an innovative system for quickly coming to decisions on all manner of issues from simple to thorny. The committee operates entirely by email, and everyone has a voice in the process and plenty of time to "say their piece." The Stewardship Director introduces one or two new issues at a time. After a week of email discussion the director summarizes the developing consensus; a further week of discussion can be used to hammer out finer points or for people to elaborate or change their minds. At the end of two weeks the director records the final decision and the process begins anew. In very rare instances consensus isn"t reached and in those situations the Stewardship Director makes the best decision s/he can given all the input. Of course all decisions made by the committee are subject to review by the WCC Board of Directors.

Trustee Program
A very important but complex area of discussion was how to allow reasonable visitation to the cave. The committee has decided on a trustee system inspired by those used by the National Park Service. Six trustees are selected by the committee, serving for two years. Each trustee is allowed to lead one trip to the cave per year provided they uphold the conduct agreement they made with the Windeler Commmittee when they became a trustee. Here are the current trustees and who they are expected to represent:

  • Steven Johnson (Diablo)
  • Mike Davies (San Francisco)
  • Dave Bunnell (unaffiliated cavers)
  • Ron Davis (out-of-area NSS grottoes)
  • Mark Bowers (Stanislaus and San Joaquin)
  • Martin Haye (Mother Lode Grotto)

 

Each trip consists of up to 6 cavers (including the trustee). Typically the trustee will lead at the front of the group, and designate an especially experienced caboose from the participants to bring up the rear. The trustee and caboose can monitor everyone in the group, though all participants should of course be looking out for one another. Due to the cave's delicacy, having everyone watch each others' heads and feet avoids damage to delicate cave formations.

Many trustee trips will include some restoration work. For instance some places have mud left by former explorers that should be cleaned off. Larger maintenance and restoration projects, along with a baseline inventory, will be conducted by the committee separately from the trustee trips.

The Future
We're very excited! The WCC has made great progress by opening and securing Windeler cave, establishing a sustainable process for making decisions, and putting a trustee system in place. Those who want to visit the cave are encouraged to contact a trustee. We must all follow (literally and figuratively) in the careful footsteps of those who came before us, and stay true to their legacy of keeping and enjoying Windeler's underground wilderness.