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James Hunter—Discovering Oz

James Hunter helped discover a new section of Carlsbad Caverns National Park's famous Lechuguilla Cave.
September 15, 2015
James Hunter

James Hunter and the 2012 "Oz" discovery in Carlsbad Caverns National Park's Lechuguilla Cave.

“The passage I’m in is lousy; tight enough to require belly-crawling. I’m lying on sharp rocks, but it looks a bit bigger ahead, and the rocks on my left are almost porous—as though there is a space on the other side. I hoot to check if I can hear an echo.”

Discovering Oz

When not at work, the Applied Engineering and Technology Division’s James Hunter not only enjoys exploring caves, but he specializes in discovering new caves and previously unknown sections of caves. In May 2012, Hunter and nine other highly skilled, specially selected cave explorers are inside the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s legendary Lechuguilla Cave (“Lech”), the seventh-longest cave in the world and the second-deepest in the continental United States. The group of eight men and two women is only a few days away from finding a labyrinth of pristine cave rooms, passages and beautiful formations that will extend Lech's already impressive length by over a mile.

“Despite being considered one of the most beautiful caves on the planet—if not the most beautiful—Lech has never been open to the public since the discovery of some of its extensive systems of cave passages in 1986,” Hunter explains. “Access is strictly controlled and allowed only for scientific research or new exploration.”

Four of the explorers, including Hunter and two fellow Laboratory staff members, are from New Mexico; three from Colorado; and one each from Arizona and California.

The 10 explorers after a long day. Back row, l to r: Lab employee Brian Kendrick, Abby Tobin, Jen Foote, Lab employee John Lyles, Shawn Thomas, Dave Lambert, James Hunter, Rodger Harris. Front row, l to r: Derek Bristol, Adam Weaver.

While eight of the team members survey and map known sections of Lech, Hunter and expedition leader Derek Bristol spend their time trying to climb an impressive cave dome called the “Kansas Twister,” which Hunter had discovered in 2007 during a caving trip led by Los Alamos’ John Lyles.

After revisiting the Kansas Twister in 2008 and 2009, Hunter and Lyles are back.

On the first day, Bristol and Hunter climb approximately 27 meters (90 feet) of the Twister to a natural bridge that a different climbing team in 2010 had managed to toss a rope over using a slingshot-and-fishing-reel method invented by Lyles. The 2010 team had found the rock quality above the bridge to be extremely poor and went no further, but they left a bolt anchor and rigged rope for future attempts. Bristol and Hunter climb 21 meters (70 feet) beyond.


“On the second day, we successfully get a rope over a second, higher natural bridge,” Hunter says. “As we continue to slowly, laboriously make our way up we have to rely on every trick in the book and even create a few new ones."

After climbing for at least 12 to 14 hours on most days, Bristol and Hunter rappel back down to return to the expedition’s base camp an-hour-and-a-half away.

Day 5

Near the end of their fifth climbing day, Bristol and Hunter are finally at the top of the Kansas Twister, about 125 meters (410 feet) above the Twister’s floor. Also along are Brian Kendrick and Roger Harris to survey the dome, with Bristol and Hunter doing some of the survey work as well.

Hunter squeezes through a tiny hole that has a bit of airflow, which might indicate more cave. The small hole also has loose rock spilling out of it—a sign that there could be a larger room above.

“The passage I’m in is lousy; tight enough to require belly-crawling,” Hunter says. “I’m lying on sharp rocks, but it looks a bit bigger ahead, and the rocks on my left are almost porous—as though there is a space on the other side. I hoot to check if I can hear an echo.”

Much to his surprise, Hunter’s call bounces back in a second, and it sounds as big as anything he has ever heard. All of a sudden he is no longer sleepy, hungry and exhausted.

“Derek hears my hoot and the resulting echo,” Hunter notes, “and immediately suggests that we suspend our survey work and check the space I’m in.”

Within seconds Bristol, Kendrick and Harris slither up so fast behind Hunter that he has to scramble to avoid being run over.

Hunter and Bristol at the entrance of the giant cave chamber.

First Hunter, then the other three pop out into a large passage and from there discover a giant cave chamber. The men look up into the darkness above them but despite their sophisticated, high-power cave lights can’t see the ceiling.

“A quick check with our laser distance meter shows a height in the vicinity of 61 meters (200 feet),” Hunter says. “We are standing in one of the best-known cave systems in the world, and between having reached the full height of the Kansas Twister and finding the giant room we have just made the biggest discovery any of us has participated in.”

Land of Oz

But the explorers would find a lot more the next day and during a follow-up trip in 2013.  When all was said and done, the giant cave chamber that Hunter’s tiny hole had led to was given the name “Munchkinland" and classified as the second largest room in Lechuguilla Cave.

The Kansas Twister proved to be the largest dome in all of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the ninth highest in the country.


“We called the full discovery, including the Kansas Twister, ‘Oz,’” Hunter explains, “because we reached it from the ‘Emerald City’ section of Lech that John Lyles had discovered back in 2007. Since cave explorers tend to follow themes set by the original pioneers, the green mineral formations near the Emerald City’s entrance started a Wizard of Oz trend. But I also like the connection to the ‘Land of Oz’ as a place of great adventure and wonderment.”

As outstanding as Oz’s pedigree is, Bristol and Hunter’s climbing achievements are even more noteworthy among cave explorers and rock climbers in general.

“The art of cave climbing is a special skill in the caving community,” Hunter says, “and climbing without a power drill to place steel bolts into rock adds another dimension."

Hunter laughs. "Certain places, including Lech, only allow hand drills, which is challenging enough at surface-climbing locations like Yosemite National Park but even more so in caves, where the rock quality often is far worse and accompanied by poor light conditions and 100 percent humidity. If I’m not mistaken, Derek and I accomplished the tallest such climb so far, and we are pretty proud of it.”


Hunter works for the Applied Engineering and Technology Division’s Non-Destructive Testing and Evaluation group.

Photo captions for the slideshow at the top of the page: Slide 1-Hunter climbing in Lech. Slide 2-Beautiful passage in Oz. Slide 3-Pool in Oz. Slide 4-Delicate calcite lily pad formations in a back corner of Oz. Slide 5-Oz's Munchkinland (Note the two team members on the right for scale). Slide 6-Hunter on Oz's Cowardly Lion Traverse. Slide 7-Taking a break from surveying Oz on Day 6 (Hunter is second from right).


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.