Trip report: WV 2004, Day 1+2, Friday 5/28-Saturday 5/29

The first day of the annual MIT caving club trip to West Virginia is always spent in transit. Twelve or more hours in a car, heading slowly down from the Northeast; land of three and four lane highways to Pennsylvania; home of long, straight two lane routes, before finally reaching West Virginia, where narrow one-lane roads wind through the mountains, granting access to the sparely populated towns that lie along their way. But who cares about that after 12 hours sitting in a car? What we were there for was the caves.

We left Boston Friday morning at 10:45 AM, in 2 cars. Seven of us were supposed to have gone down in a single large SUV (Ford Excursion), but were screwed over by the rental agency and left with a piddly little Expedition, utterly incapable of seating 7 people plus gear. We took two cars, and played tag all the way down the highway, finally arriving at the junction of rte 66 and 219/51 at 12:45 AM, Saturday morning. Here is where we were supposed to meet the eighth member of the group and token undergrad. However, due to an unfortunate lack of cell phone coverage, (and hence many missed messages) he had packed up and gone home (a five hour drive) an hour before our somewhat tardy arrival. Such is life. The remaining members of our intrepid little band consisted of Alex and Karen (co-planners and theoretical trip leaders), Liz, Greddy, Pavel, Jose, and Jason. Since the light was good at the intersection, we stood around for a while getting dressed in our grungy cave clothes, and getting our gear all packed for the night's visit to Sharp's Cave. That task done, we drove a little way up the road, parked our cars by a dry well, and finished prepping for the cave.

Sharp's cave is up a hillside on the other side of a small field. We initially wandered up an overgrown dirt road, but that didn't feel promising as the way to the cave, so we started over again, following a stream uphill, until the path to the cave became obvious along its banks. After a final pee break and inhalation of the flower-scented air, we climbed down into the dank and muddy depths of Sharp's cave, hauling our sleeping bags and pads with us, and trying not to get them too wet in the excessively drippy interior of the cave. It was a lot wetter in the entrance passage than the last time I'd been this way (March, 2002), and consequently, our gear got muddier than I'd have liked. A small salamander laughed at us as we crossed the first hole, and slid down a wet rock into the first chamber. Fortunately, several of us had been to Sharps before, so it was only the work of a few minutes to find the correct slope slanting down into Halloween Hall. This is the place we always choose to camp out in, as the mud floors indicate that there has been no recent rockfall, and hence we need not fear getting brained in the night. (at least not through natural accidents).

By 2:00, we'd found our sleeping spots of preference and settled in. Some of us then got to learn the lesson that others had already -- sleeping on a slope means you slide off your ground pad and into the mud -- not so comfortable! Those who'd been there before immediately chose flat spots they'd remembered or comfortable convexities to lie at the bottom of.

Sleeping in a cave is not really the most comfortable thing in the world, especially when you wake in the morning feeling nature's call and have to make a trip back to the outside world to visit the forest restroom. But the discomfort is made up for by the comfort of a hot breakfast of cocoa, and eggs with cheese and tortillas all cooked up on a camp stove in the middle of the hall. Finally after dining and clean up, we were ready to go caving! Yay!

We started the expedition with a debate on whether to visit the brain room - an old favorite, or to try to find Sharp's waterfall. Eventually, we settled on the waterfall as being the more novel option. After one false start in which we veered off into a channel on the right side of the cave, only to emerge once more in the hall we'd come from, we stopped being dumb and went looking for clefts in the left wall of the hall. Our search was guided by the sound of rushing water below. The first cleft we stuck our heads down sounded quite promisingly loud. Unfortunately, however, getting down involved slotting ourselves down a narrow 7 foot drop into a small crawlspace. From here there appeared to be two paths to the stream in the lower level. The first gave easy access to the stream, however, once in the stream, you would have to do a long bellycrawl in order to achieve any downstream progress. This was not an attractive option. The second path was steep and small, and appeared difficult to crawl out of, and seemed to give no better access to the stream. Plainly, this was not the entrance we were looking for, so we turned around and attempted to exit the cleft. Jason got up first, wedging himself up through the narrow gap. Karen went second, getting pulled bodily from the hole by Pavel, while I opted to use my hips to wedge myself up to a corner seat, and hence out of the hole. Alex and Jose followed in their own way.

Up ahead, Greddy and Pavel had already started looking for (and found) another potential entrance to the lower level by the time Jose emerged from the cleft. Thus time it was an easy slide down a muddy slope, a brief crawl, and a short drop down into the mini-canyon of the stream bed. Up ahead, it was easy to hear the rushing water of the falls. Here, the roof was high enough to allow us to walk upright, and so we sloshed through the water, navigating our way downstream between jagged, water-carved walls.

~Cave descriptor interlude~ How do I describe a cave without sounding dull? Do I mention the routes we took as we clambered and crawled? Or do I describe the colors? Or the shape of the rocks? A cave is dark. The only lights come from our headlamps. LED's and carbide are the brightest, illuminating with a bluish white glow or warm yellow respectively. Incandescents are dimmer yellow, and tend to light up only a small area. Your world is reduced to a small circle of light darting around an enclosing sphere of blackness. Hard to tell what's before or behind you. Your friends are points of light bobbing around, with only an occasional flash of color to distinguish them. The color of the cave is brown; brown mud, grey rock. Rock covered in brown mud, muddy water, muddy cavers. The mud is almost entirely uniformly brown, and soon, so are the cavers. The rock, in contrast, is a veritable rainbow of color where water has cleaned it. Grey, lime-white, rust red, yellow, the occasional dark flash of black river-pebbles. The shapes of the cave vary. In river passages, we see serrated water-carved rock, sharp edged like a knife, ridged like the folds of a colon where water has eroded over the eons. Then there are rooms of breakdown, a cubist's dream. Giant blocks and small blocks, all jumbled in piles and slopes, smoothed down at the edges by mud coatings, but otherwise unweathered in all their angularity. So too, there are the formations, blobby and irregular, flowstone oozing along the walls or the irregular lumps and tubularities of stalactites and stalagmites jutting from floor and ceiling like fangs. Finally, there is the mud, forming huge slopes and dunes. Sticky, and slickly gritty, they provide visual relief from the sharpness of the naked rock of the rest of the cave. The water in a cave is its own aesthetic group entirely. From the spray of a waterfall to the turbulent flow of a flooded stream, to the muddy puddles that collect amidst the rocks, the water catches your eye. It is, after all, the creator of this entire system. So that's a cave, in brief. All else is a mere detail. ~end cave descriptor interlude~

After the stretch of riverine wading, we reached the source of the crashing water. From the riverbed at our feet, the water fell 6 feet into the streambed below. However, this was only part of the waterfall. When light was shone across, we realized that we were standing in the middle of a cylindrical chamber, about 20 feet in diameter, and 20 feet tall. On one side, the cylinder was interrupted by the upper streambed entrance, and on the other, the lower stream exited from the pool at the waterfall's base. The remaining sides were slightly terraced as they extended above our heads. Water splashed down these terraces from hidden slits near the ceiling, so that we were surrounded by falling water. After circumnavigating the falls, we descended to the lower streambed, until it exited back at the upper level near the J18 junction. In this vicinity, the rockfall of the upper level fades into an area covered in mud. This would not be especially notable, save for the fact, that, tucked away at the top of the slope where the roof comes down low, there is a mud sculpture garden.

In a nook where the ceiling lowers, someone has set mud letters dubbing the sculpture garden 'HOLYWOOD.' The garden has changed from last time I was here: the monument to the twin towers is gone, but the kayaking guy remains. Some of the more creative obscene sculptures have vanished, but there are more mud phalluses than ever before. There's even a 420 ashtray, with real ashes (though I was unable to smell them well enough to determine if they were genuine pot). We lingered here for a while. As Greddy made his own contribution to the penis sculpture collection, Alex, Karen, and I went to go play on the mud slide on the other side of the chamber. It was even more fun after Karen poured extra water down to further reduce friction.

After our play break, we ventured onward, eventually returning to stream level and wading through ankle and knee deep water (with the occasional stumble and slip to thigh deep.) These river passages are not unduly exciting, and so, around 230 PM, the group opted to turn around. On the way back from the river, we chose to take the drier route through the upper level rather than the wet wade back through the waterfall. Unfortunately, footing is treacherous on the mud coated blocks that serve as a floor, and after being wet and muddy all day, we were suffering from a steady decline in our frictional coefficients. I did a fair amount of sliding and stumbling about, but fortunately, managed to catch myself each time before any damage was inflicted upon me. Pavel, however, was not so lucky. At one point, he slipped and fell on a rock, gouging his leg, and knocking the wind out of him. There may also have been a minor rib fracture or bad bone bruise involved as well, but nothing so serious as to interfere with the rest of the weekend's caving.

After a quick stop to gather up our camping gear, we exited the cave around 3:30 PM, into a gloriously sunny and warm day. Fortunately for us, the stream near the cave came fully equipped with its very own waterfall, which we took full advantage of to shower off the worst of the mud before heading to the cars to change into clean, dry clothes and warm up in the sunshine.

The remainder of the day was spent in settling into our rented condo on top of Snowshoe mountain, and drinking beer. So ends my portion of the WV trip report! -liz