Crossbones Cave - 12/14/2013

Cavers: Mitch, Ben, Ellena

More photos from this trip

It all started a few weeks ago. Mitch and Ben hadn't been caving since helping with the ambitious run of beginner trips three weekends in a row at the beginning of the year (right up to the day before all the bat hibernacula caves close for the winter), and Ellena had been wanting to finally get to go on a vertical caving trip. The Saturday before finals week was the only day they all had free until next year, and they decided to go try to see Crossbones Cave, with Ella Armstrong as a "warmup" (but we'll get back to that later).

Crossbones is a very little-visited advanced vertical cave (as in nobody is believed to have been in the cave, which is locked except when cavers get a permit to go there, in about two years, and the last time anyone from the club went there looks like it was in Spring '04). It's on the same preserve as Knox Cave (which, somewhat ironically, is one of the most visited caves in the northeast), and is actually connected to Knox except for a major breakdown blockage between the two caves). The descriptions say that it's advanced because of a very tight constriction near the top of the 50-60' entrance rappel called "the toilet bowl", and also that once you get in, there's a lot of tight crawling.

So far, it's been a pretty mild winter, but in the week leading up to the trip, we began to hear lots of noise about a major winter storm warning from Saturday into Sunday for the upstate NY area and also Boston. Winter caving in the best of conditions is an experience. The caves are still 52 degrees, but changing into and out of caving clothes in the freezing cold sucks. Doing it when there's snow on the ground sucks more. And doing it in the middle of a serious storm turns out to be a snowventure! The forecast mentioned the possibility of 6 inches of snow and they'd been advising people to try to avoid travel for days, but this sounded like a pretty normal amount of snow for the northeast, so we didn't change our plans.

We headed out just after 8am, along with a crowbar and lock deicer (in case the lock on the cave needed some coaxing), and a cake to bring to the HHG holiday party we were planning to stop by on the way home. It was cold - about 11F - but no snow to be seen. By the time we stopped for breakfast and a break in Blandford, though, that had changed. It was light snow... no big deal. We got to Knox a bit before 1pm, after driving right by it the first time (amazing how covering off-road parking areas with a blanket of snow makes them look like they're not there) and parked, momentarily wondering if we were going to be able to get the car back onto the road later. We had decided on the way that we probably weren't going to do both Ella and Crossbones, because changing out of and then back into wet, muddy caving gear in the freezing snow so we could drive between the caves would be horrible, and walking between them in wet cave gear instead of winter gear wouldn't be fun either.

But we took a walk in our winter gear and orange hunters-please-don't-shoot-me apparel down the block to look at the Ella Armstrong preserve and the cave entrance. Ben and Ellena hadn't been there before. Then we headed back to Knox, picked up the crowbars, and bushwhacked our way down the trail to Crossbones. First the key wouldn't fit into the lock, then the key wouldn't turn in the lock, and then the shackle still wouldn't open. But we came to terms with the silly little thing by offering to give it a warm home in one of our packs for the rest of the day, and then it finally opened. Undoing the chain and lifting the grate off the culvert pipe over the entrance to the cave, we were met with an excitingly warm gust of air. Despite using Mitch's StenLight, though, we couldn't quite see the constriction or the opening to the bottom of the entrance drop, nor the rigging bolts that we had read would be there. The culvert is also slippery, and rigging something to help get into and out of it was recommended, so we looked around. Sadly, there weren't any promising trees right next to the entrance, and the nearest good-looking one was about 20-30 feet away through lots of bushes and twigs.
Looking down the entrance culvert into Crossbones Cave (photo credit:

We went back to the car to change into gear and consider how to rig and investigate what was below the spot we could see, and we made sure to close the lid on the cave... you know, to prevent all the warm air from escaping. We changed into our gear as quickly as humanly possible, attempting to huddle in the car for warmth, and eventually running the heater in the car (at which point we noticed we were extremely low on gas). While trying to warm up, Mitch and Ben pondered what to do with three lengths of rope, a cable ladder, webbing, carabiners, a nearest tree 20-30 feet away through bushes, a culvert pipe without obvious ways to rig around it, a pit we couldn't see, and bolts that might or might not exist. We considered just going to Ella Armstrong instead (it's a much more straightforward beginner vertical cave), and upon remembering that the car was warmer than outside, we considered whether we actually still wanted to go caving. After a while, we talked ourselves into it and lugged all of our gear, ropes, and rigging equipment back to the cave.

Ben rigged one length of rope around the somewhat distant tree, and Mitch attached the cable ladder to the rope just before it reached the cave, and got some help from Ellena untangling and settling the rope under all the branches it was hitting. Then he climbed down into the cave to check out the bolt situation and the drop, which took a bit of squeezing through spaces to get to. What he found was less than ideal - directly over the drop were two bolts pretty obviously intended to be used as a Y-hang anchor that would offer a free drop. One of the hangers was loose enough to twist, and the other hanger was missing entirely, so obviously this was not going to work as designed. A couple feet higher, but offset a bit from the drop was another bolt. It wasn't clear whether this was originally meant for the rigger to safety themselves to while reaching for the lower bolts, or if it was a replacement for them, but it's only one bolt, and the nut holding the hanger on has some rust. After some discussion, we ended up rigging the rope to the upper bolt, backed up to a rung of the cable ladder (which, assuming it didn't break, was attached to a rope rigged to a tree outside), and padding under the bolt and at the lip of the toilet bowl.
The lower two bolts, one with a loose hanger, and one missing its hanger The upper bolt, partially rusted

The hole didn't look so terrible initially, but as Mitch attempted to rappel through it, he found that while he could fit through the hole, moving arms up and down through the hole was very hard, and he definitely didn't fit while wearing his pack, which had wedged itself into a corner. After trying fruitlessly to free himself of the pack for a couple minutes, unable to either rappel down or walk back up the ladder while wearing it, he asked Ben to come down and try to help unwedge and lift the pack off. Easier said than done, but they eventually succeeded, and Ben considered whether this was an omen and it was time to decide that we shouldn't keep going because if we were having this much trouble getting in, getting out might be even more of a problem, and the storm would be far worse later. Mitch was pretty sure he fit through the hole fine without the pack, and there were rocks around the hole to step on on the way up (plus the ladder was dangling through the hole to offer footholds on the way up), and we eventually decided to continue. Fortunately, just beyond the toilet bowl, it turned into a very nice open free rappel down a dome... into a warm cave. Ben lowered the packs down to Mitch, and then Ellena and he rappelled in. By this point, it was after 5pm - possibly the latest we've ever gotten into a cave on a "day trip," and two hours since we had left the car, but we were finally inside and warming up.
The rigging situation, and Ellena descending through the toilet bowl Finally inside the cave!

The entrance dome was pretty - much like the one at McFails, except smaller in diameter and absent a waterfall (which was just fine with us). Having gathered our gear and eaten a bit, we crawled into the next room, which is an even more impressive dome that drips a bit. This large room had some digging tools still laying around, and offers two main directions to go in. As Ben was entering the room, he was startled by a bat flying by - very confusing, as the human entrance to the cave is normally sealed and locked, and it's believed that there isn't a way through the breakdown pile that connects to Knox Cave. We didn't see the bat again the rest of the day, and we didn't see any other bats, either awake or hibernating.
Looking up the dome towards the toilet bowl Ellena emerging into the main room with the second dome

We decided to first check out the direction that heads towards the blocked connection to Knox. This starts off with a small climb up a mudbank, and then becomes a fairly narrow belly crawl with a couple bends in it for a bit over 100 feet - if you love tight crawls and dragging rocks under your stomach, this is for you! Making a right turn at the end of this crawl, you get to do some hands and knees crawling around a bunch of breakdown that eventually splits into two paths. The right path can be stoopwalked through until it basically becomes blocked off. The left path, however, turns into an excitingly tall canyon with some beautiful formations (including cave bacon, which you don't get to see too often in northeast caves) along the way. Towards the end of it, you can climb up to an area where eventually it's choked off by breakdown, and this is probably where you could walk into the Indian Passage in Knox if you could walk through walls. We took some pictures, and then admired the various stalactites and such on our way back to the tight crawlway.
The beginning of the tight crawlway headed towards Knox (photo credit: Mitch and Ellena resting at the end of the long crawl
Formations in the left pathway
Ellena and Mitch climbing up near the end of the left passage

Mitch scurried through the crawlway back to the second dome and had lunch while waiting for Ben and Ellena to arrive, and once everyone had been watered and fed, it was a bit past 6:30, and we decided to turn back by 7 (our callout time was 9). We briefly checked out the other side of the cave, looking at one short dead-end, and then the major low passage off from the dome room. Shortly into this passage is an offshoot leading to the 12 foot drop that goes to the lower level of the cave. We had originally planned to try to see this, and had brought rope for it, but during the complicated attempt to get into the cave, we decided that we weren't going to have enough time (which was true!) and left that rope up above. It turns out that there's a pre-rigged rope (around a natural anchor) at this drop, but we were tired from all the crawling and didn't have much time, so we stayed on the upper level. Mitch checked out a little bit further down the passage, but eventually ran out of enthusiasm for crawling, and we turned back and headed for the entrance dome.
The roped drop to the lower level of the cave

Having donned our vertical gear, we decided that one person would attempt to climb up and get through the toilet bowl and perch themselves at the rigging area to haul the packs up, and then the others would climb up. Mitch went first, fortunately finding both that it's much more easy to climb the rope without a pack, and that going up through the toilet bowl wasn't any more complicated than he'd expected it to be. The packs came up pretty much as planned, and then Ellena climbed the rope. Once she was past the toilet bowl, Mitch climbed up to the bottom of the culvert, and Ellena took his place and passed the packs up while Ben was climbing the rope. Mitch climbed the cable ladder out with his pack, and then Ellena had him pass down the tail of the rope that the ladder was attached to so she could give him other packs and gear to haul out. First he got his winter coat out of the bookbag we'd left on the surface, as the snow was fairly heavy at this point, and then he fished the cave lock out of his pack before that froze shut, and hung it off the chain.
Mitch ascending Ellena ascending

While Mitch and Ellena were hoisting stuff out of the cave, Ben worked on pulling and packing the rope. Once everyone was on the surface, we tried to pull the cable ladder up, and of course, it snagged on something. Ben shook it a little, to no avail. Mitch shook it a lot, also to no avail, until Ben said "I'm going back down, aren't I?" at which point the vigorous shaking paid off and the ladder came flying out of the cave. Mitch's excited response was "behold the power of desperation!" With everyone now standing out in 9 degree weather, pitch black, with heavy snow, we set about packing everything up and derigging. It was now 8:30. When we had finally finished disassembling and putting things away, Ben began working on clearing off the lid from the cave that had become buried in half a foot of snow, at which point Mitch looked over and asked "where'd you put the lock?" "I thought you had it in your pack," Ben said. And then a desperate search of the area all around the cave for the silly little 2 inch square lock that had become buried under snow began. Mitch and Ben dug through piles of snow for several minutes, turning up nothing, and then Ellena walked over and found it immediately.

With some effort, we got the cave all locked back up and headed for the car, which was hidden under a mountain of snow, but fortunately both opened and started, and we were able to make our callout time by a whopping 11 minute margin. We cleared the car off enough to get access to our stuff, and then tried to get out of our frozen cave gear and change into dry street clothes without freezing to death. As we were trying to pack the car, someone driving along the road asked if we were stuck, not expecting there to be any other reason some weirdos like us would be out there off the side of the road in this mess. It was clearly too late to go to the 6pm holiday party at this point, and the car desperately needed gas, so we finished packing and nervously awaited the answer to whether we were going to have to dig and push the car out of the parking area to get it back onto the road.
Packing up in the storm

With some amusement-park-ride-like back and forth rocking action, the car did in fact get out of the parking area without us having to be outside pushing, though being unable to see out any of the windows caused us to not realize we were totally clear of the parking area until we almost fell into the depression off the far side of the road! Driving very slowly with very little visibility and even less traction, we made it to a gas station and filled up - another crisis averted! As it was approaching 10pm, the place we were considering going to find dinner was closed, so we began to head towards home, planning to stop at an Applebees a short way down I-90. The roads were terrible, but we were assuming that the Interstates would have been all salted and plowed long ago, and that if we made it to I-90, we'd be home free. No such luck - everyone on I-90 was playing the "guess where the lanes are!" game and sliding back and forth.

We made it to Applebees, warmed up, ate, and wondered if we'd ever be able to get the car out of the parking lot. During dinner, Mitch also found out that Ben and Ellena had no idea just how much the car had been skidding all the way from the cave to the restaurant so far (he'd been wondering why there seemed to be a bunch of concern about a strange swishing noise we were hearing, and not so much about whether we were going to crash). We wondered why the Interstate hadn't been cleared, and ended up deciding that maybe salt just doesn't work when it's 9 degrees F out. Ellena asked Mitch how far he thought he could drive safely in this weather, and after thinking for a moment, he concluded that if we drove slowly enough, it would probably be safe to move the car to the adjacent parking spot. Looking at weather forecasts and temperature maps, and realizing that our choices were to either try skidding down the highway at ~30mph for between 5 and 10 hours or admitting that it wasn't safe and we weren't getting home that night, we found a motel down the street.

Miraculously, the car got out of the parking lot. As we saw the motel coming up, we tried to figure out where one turns to get into it, and failed because the roads involved were simply no longer anywhere to be seen under the snow. So we continued down the block until we found another motel, and with some difficulty, figured out how to reach it. We parked the car in the space it chose to skid into and got a room. Ben noted how nice and peaceful the snow looked from behind glass in a warm room. It was now about 1am, and the person at the front desk had told us that a plow would be there around 5am to clear the lot. The storm was supposed to let up by around 8am.

When Ben went to find breakfast around 10am, he found that the plow had indeed been there, and had plowed us in. After looking despondently out the window at the parking lot for a little while, the motel staff asked which car was ours and went and dug it out for us, and after breakfast, we were on our way. The local streets were still in bad condition, but the highways were fine. Ellena got exposed to Dangerous Dick and the Duckbusters for the first time, and we arrived home at 2:30pm just narrowly snatching the club record for longest-day-trip from James's famous Morris Cave (a.k.a. Stuck In Vermont Cave) trip two Springs ago!