Explorer's Club Montana Man: Jim Chester
September 23, 2008
By Jim Mann
"The Secret of the Caves" is one of the books in Jim Chester's nearly complete collection of authentic Hardy Boys mysteries.
Little did he know, reading those books as a youngster, that he would spend a lifetime in pursuit of mystery, adventure and discovery.
The Eureka area resident's accomplishments, mostly in Montana cave exploration, led to his recent induction into the Explorers Club, a prestigious organization with a who's-who roster of the last century's best adventurers.
"I think the thing that drug me into this kind of life was the reading I did early on," said Chester, a ponytailed rural mail carrier who has shelves of books on science and adventure.
Chester says he is "in awe" to be part of an organization that includes Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Leaky, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. Chester is one of seven members in Montana; the most well-known is probably paleontologist Jack Hoerner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
Although his business card identifies him as a "weekend adventurer," Chester says he's always been extremely dedicated to his recreational pursuits.
"I didn't have an Apollo capsule to take me to the moon or anything, but nevertheless, I was very serious about what I was doing," he said.
His Explorers Club application outlines more than 2,000 hours of underground exploration in 206 caves, along with an epic sea kayaking expedition through the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska.
Chester was appointed a "fellow" member of the Explorers Club, a slightly higher status than a standard membership, mainly because he documented his underground adventures in a lengthy series of caving publications.
"I've always been comfortable with writing, and with books and publications," he said. "Rather than strictly climbing a mountain, or going to the bottom of a cave, I just took it that extra step and managed to put it down on a page."
Chester says the Explorers Club has 2,700 members, and most of them are entirely unknown to the general public. But their accomplishments are impressive.
"There really are some high-profile explorers in there, but the vast majority of them you wouldn't know if you saw them on the street," he said.
The two explorers who nominated Chester for induction, Bill Steele and Bill Stone, are among the best-known spelunkers in the world.
Stone has been featured in National Geographic and Outside magazines for leading epic team explorations of the Huautla cave complex in southern Mexico that may be the world's deepest.
"They are both really high-profile cavers," he said. "They've both been right at the top of the caving world for the last 25 years. With their sponsorship, it was really hard for me not to get in."
Chester met the two not long after he began exploring caves in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas in 1970.
By that time, Chester had been climbing through caves around the world for several years.
He helped explore and map Big Horn Caverns in south-central Montana in 1965. He explored a series of caves in Europe while in the Army, service that eventually took him to Vietnam.
When he returned, he participated in a three-month exploration of Kentucky's Mammoth/Flint Ridge cave system — the world's longest.
He helped locate, explore and map caves in a project that eventually led to Newell Campbell's book, "Caves of Montana."
Chester made the first trips into a large cave in the Absaroka mountains, a task that required a difficult winter entry through a waterfall shaft.
But through most of the 1970s, he devoted his energies to the vast cave networks in the heart of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat. Eventually, Steele and Stone joined him.
Both cave systems involved scores of vertical shafts descending into underground rivers and lakes. The expeditions involved wetsuits, inflatable boats and extremely cold temperatures.
The Bob Marshall system descended more than 1,000 feet, and at the time, it was among the five deepest caves in the United States.
"We went hard," Chester says. "We pushed hard for a decade."
But eventually, the expeditions became more difficult and dangerous.
"The difficulty had reached a point where it was pretty serious every time you went in," he said. "It was like each trip was ratcheting up the potential for a problem."
By the late 1970s, Chester was worn out. With the exception of one project in the 1980s, he didn't make a serious return to cave exploration until last year.
"You can definitely wear yourself out doing this kind of stuff," he said. "But I never really left the circle. I was just not as active."
He retained his membership in the National Speleological Society, which he had joined in 1964, and monitored the latest discoveries from a distance.
But last year he got an e-mail from Steele, suggesting a return trip to the Bob Marshall cave system. Chester accepted and was reunited with Steele, Stone and other spelunkers that he hadn't seen for 20 years.
Last summer, the group entered the network once again. And they laid plans to continue exploration. This winter, Chester will lead an effort to use satellite and infrared aerial images to identify new entrances.
At 56, Chester says he's physically less capable of doing the most extreme caving, but his technical knowledge of surveying, mapping and exploring caves is sharp.
"I'm really more interested in using the new technologies to find out out more about this system," he said.
Chester says his interest is entirely renewed because of last year's reunion.
"It's not the same as going to the moon, or discovering a lost temple in Nepal, but it is exploration and discovery just the same," Chester said. "What has always fascinated me about caves is that they exist, and it's a world that is unseen."
The earth's surface has been scoured by explorers for centuries, he said, but it is still highly possible to be the first to lay eyes on a cave.
"That's the neat thing about caves — you don't know where the next big one is going to be," he said.
Chester missed the Explorer Club's annual black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City last month. But he insists he'll attend some day, and he wants to check out the organization's New York headquarters, a fancy clubhouse with a reading room and library lined with trophies and books on science and adventure.