2002 Spring Break Caving Trip Reportwith photo evidence
1300 hrs 3/22 - 0300 hrs 3/27
Cast of characters:
Transportation: 1 Ford Excursion -Ridiculous luxury SUV, 40 gallon fuel tank, barely fits 7 and associated gear.
-Pretrip: There's been rain and flooding in West Virginia all week, but
hopefully it will have abated by the time we arrive.
1 pm: The team assembles at MIT (except Kevin, who's flying in to WV from California)
1:30: Martin rolls in with the Excursion
2:00: We hit the road!
3:30 am: Arrival at the parking lot of The Elk River Inn, Elkins, West Virginia. Kevin has been waiting here, freezing, in his rental car for the past 2 hours or so. It's 18 degrees outside, there's a clear sky, and snow on the ground. We change into our caving gear and head out to Sharps cave where we'll be sleeping tonight.
4:30 am: We park on the side of the road, trudge through a snowy field and up a hill to the cave entrance where the puffs of warm damp air exiting make us eager to get inside and out of the cold night. We start handing our gear and sleeping bags down and head into the depths of the earth. It's damp and muddy after the 6 foot vertical descent into the ground. Off to one side of the passage lies a shed snakeskin, and a few feet further up we pass the months-dead corpse of what might have once been a opossum. Soon we arrive in a large room, the floor of which is covered in huge slabs of breakdown. Although the flat slabs look like tempting places to spread our sleeping bags, this is not where we are to sleep. Alex starts looking around for the passage down to the next level where the floor is packed clay. After poking around the edges of the cavern for about half an hour, we find the right passage and head down. All this time, Martin has ben lugging his suitcase through the cave, as well as his sleeping bag and the rest of his gear. It looks to be quite an impressive burden to be toting through the depths.
~6:00 am: Having each claimed a relatively flat spot on the floor, slippery ground sheets, pads, and bags are spread. Lights are put out, and it's time to sleep in the utter darkness. Through the night/ (day) snoring is used as a form of echo-location to pinpoint the various intrepid cavers snoozing in the cavern.
1:00 pm: The sleepers awaken. Passing through our cluster of cavers is a pair of spelunkers down from Ohio for the day. We eat some food, stow our sleeping stuff off to the side, and head off in the direction of the Brain Room. (also and more importantly, is the fact that this way takes us past a river where we can relieve our bladders at last!). The passage here is mostly rocky shelves and slabs, all very wet with a constant drip from the ceiling. Occasionally a brief crawl is needed to squeeze between two rocks. Soon our path takes us down to the river itself, which we splash upstream in a little ways (the water is only a few inches above my ankles, but very cold). After a bit we pop out of the river and tumble through a gap in the wall to a muddy chamber which quickly becomes drier as the floor rises to become a pile of large chunks and slabs of breakdown. We clamber over these as the wall curves away to the right. At the far side of the chamber, we squeeze through a muddy crawl to emerge in small room with a few formations on the ceiling and floor. After a break for some water, we head onward through another crawl that drops out abruptly in the Brain Room. This is just a whitish formation on the floor, vaguely resembling coral at the top, formed by a drip in the ceiling. We stare at it a bit, then head back to the main room for lunch.
4:00: Time to explore more of the cave. We set off through the cave, on a well trodden path through the rocky rubble and breakdown littering the cavern. Soon the path has completely become a clay slope. We pause for a few minutes to admire the clay sculpture city along one side. Here there are scultures ranging from clay snow men, to a buddha, to a kayaker riding a wave crest, to various sexual sculptures (mud figurines going at it doggy-style, etc). There are even some recent ones of the airplanes colliding with the twin towers, and the American flag. Moving onwards, the slope steepens and after a bit of slippery sketch, we descend into a river. Kevin stops here, as his boots are disintgrating. The rest of us continue on. Here the water depth varies from ankle deep to halfway up my thighs in spots. Damn it is cold! Thankfully, our thermals rewarm quickly in the brief places where we scramble out of the river to go over the rocks blocking our way.
4:40: Martin is only wearing cotton socks. His feet are freezing and he decides to wait a while for his feet to warm up. Alex stays with him. Win, John, Tommy, Eric, and I decide to continue onwards till 5 pm, or until the river ends. At one point we ascend out of the river briefly, only to immediately slide down a slick mud slide straight back into the river.
4:55: We've reached an apparent dead end, and it's too late to look for crawls that might continue onwards. I've been in the river for the better part of the last half hour and even with wool socks, my feet are starting to get numb. We turn around and set off back to the others. To get up the mud slide seems a bit tough, and the sketchy ledge we descended from before is somewhat challenging and feels exceedingly unsafe to reclimb, but this is really only an elementary warm-up for the serious sketch we will encounter in the next two days.
Back at the big room we collect our camping gear and head up towards the light of day. (Martin once again somehow managing to manhandle that suitcase up the slopes and twisty turns of the exit passage)
6:30 pm: Out into the light of day. It's significantly warmer than it was 14 hours ago; the snow has melted and the sun is still shining (although it is rapidly cooling off, as twilight falls). Back at the cars, we strip off our soaked and muddy clothes and head to the inn to check in.
7:30 pm: The Excursion is unpacked. we've settled on our rooms (oh the joys of dividing 3 rooms, 7 beds among 8 people). We've attempted to wash our muddy clothes with the outside hose, and now are in the process of destroying the washer with the sheer load of clay-saturated gear. Our muddy gloves, boots, and cave packs are scattered around the stove, and the snow-bunnies in the other room are looking at us weirdly.
8:00: off to find food! This is apparently an impossibility in WV. We end up on the top of Snowshoe, the local ski resort, where we buy more garbage bags for our gear, and 2 -10$/ 6 packs of beer. we also get redirected off the mountain for dinner, as everything up top is overflowing with the Saturday skiing crowd. After a cheap but not entirely filling dinner at Elihu's, we return to the inn to enjoy the hot tub (stopping briefly at he ski barn so Martin can get some decent socks.)
650 am: Due to an error with alarm-clock calibration we awaken in some haste, believing the hour to be almost 8:00.
7:20: Error is recognized; "Dude, why does my watch say it's 720?" Back to sleep for another 15 min.
815: Buffet breakfast at the inn, while Alex figures out where we're going for the day. During breakfast the proprietor comes up to chastise us about our muddy gear and use of the hot tub. "You can't be washing your muddy gear in there; you know why. you can't just leave the hot tub on all night; you understand that. You can't wash or dry your stuff in here. I don't know what you're going to do." Thanks, dude. Finally, we're ready to go. We hop in the Excursion and set out for Roadside Pit. Following our rather imprecise instructions, and Kevin's GPS, we arrive at the site where the cave is supposed to be. It is no where in sight. We waste 45 minutes looking downhill for it, in the midst of some nasty brambles, as per the GPS coordinates, when in fact it is really only a few dozen meters up the road. Once the cave is sighted, Alex and Kevin set up the rope for our rappel down. Outside, the weather is a sunny 60 degrees, while down the shaft, a cool updraft can be felt, and, if you look down you can just begin to see the waterfall whose loud crashing roar can be heard from above. Alex decides to set the rope in 2 pitches, with a re-belay point at the ledge in the middle of the descent so we can communicate down the depths without too much distortion. As it turns out, the total descent is about 45 meters, the entire second half of which is through the numblingly cold waterfall. (only the last 20 or 30 feet of the upper pitch is through the falls. So, by the time we reach the cavern floor, we are all completely soaked. During my descent, my hair gets stuck in my rappel rack twice, despite having been put in a ponytail. luckily, I get it unstuck by pulling really hard until it slips or rips out between the bars of the rack. Next time I do a rappel, I will wear my pack on my back so that my body is pulled away from the rope, not towards it, as now.
The last man down is Kevin, and he decides to reposition the lower pitch out of the falls, despite the sharp edges of the ledge, since it is deemed that damaging the rope is preferable to the icy ascent we would otherwise have to look forward to at the end of our day underground. However, the lower part of the upper segment of the climb remains directly under the upper falls.
2:00 pm: We are all down in the pit. Most of us have put on all of our layers after removing our harnesses and wringing as much water out of our clothes as we can. Time to set off and explore! Our first steps are through some gloriously sticky mud that immediately coats our feets and tries to steal our shoes. It fails, and we pop through a waist high hole in the wall with a brief wriggling muddy passage to a high corridor, whose walls are covered in drippy blobby formations. To go further, we have to pass over a flowstone formation, being careful to step as far to the side of it as possible. From here the flooring and walls become drier with large blocks of stone for us to scramble over. After a bit of this, the passage emerges above a mud pit. On our side of the pit, the floor drops away suddenly while tunnels out of the bottom of the pit head out under where we are standing. The pit is about 15 feet deeper than our level, and the only way to get down it is on the other side. To go onward we will have to cross a narrow, sloping 15 foot long mud ledge over the pit. For part of the way, there are minimal hand holds in the rock face above the ledge, but these terminate just as the ledge gets steeper and slipperier on the far side. With much trepidation, we inch across, and thankfully, no one falls. We decide to continue on at this level. (Our other obvious option is to slide down into the pit (since on this side there is actually a manageable slope.) We get a few meters further down the passage, when the guys at the front find that the only way to go is down. A hole opens up 5 feet across from and over a slick, sticky, steep, mud slope. Someone previously had rigged a handline down, but we don't feel like trusting it, so we go back to the pit, and slide down into it. Down here there is a river, and while Tommy checks upstream for passable routes, I head downstream. He determines that upstream is only a crawl, in the ankle deep water, with a roof that gets progressively lower. Downstream, i splash for a few meters through the river, and find a muddy bank that slopes up steeply 5 feet, and looks across to a window on the next level, from which hangs a handline. We figure that we've completed the circle here. Tommy and i try, briefly, to climb the slope, but decide that it is just too slick and dangerous, and not very useful if it just leads back to where we were. Again, we try to head downstream more, but the ceiling lowers abruptly, and the passage through would quickly become a crawl through "full frontal hypothermia." Back to the Pit to try again.
We scramble up the slope to to our previous level. What now? Well, looking up as we climbed out of the pit, it looked like there might be a hallway about 10 feet above our heads. The only difficulty would be in getting there. The only way to get up was using the remaining side of the pit (remember, one side being where we entered, and where the passage to the river originated, one side was the mud ledge and drop off, the third was the slope down and the fourth, which we would have to climb to get to the upper level was a vertical rock wall. To get to this wall one would have to step off our level, and out over the pit, using only one crack in the wall, and a flake that looked like it might decide to detach at any moment. If you fell, you'd fall the entire way down the pit. Kevin decides to free climb the wall, and see if the upper passage actually goes anywhere. We watch him go, and pray that he doesn't die. He doesn't. At the top, he finds that there is indeed a narrow corridor that continues quite a distance in. So we all get to go up! Kevin uses some webbing to belay us up. However, there are no convenient rocks to anchor to, so Kevin serves as our anchor, and braces himself against the walls of the upper level. To climb up, we wrap one hand in the webbing so we don't slip. This makes it difficult to use that hand effectively for climbing. Luckily, the vertical part of the climb is short, and that sketchy, fragile-looking flake helps a lot, as both a handgrip and foothold to boost us up so we can reach the slightly easier, sloping part of the climb. I slip once but the webbing serves its function, and i don't die. With a bit of a boost from below, and a pull from above, I make it up to join the others. Soon we're all up. This passageway is fairly narrow, but with intricately water-carved walls and lacy bits of formation. Just this sight was definitely worth the climb. At the end of the passage, we have to duck down and wriggle through a sloping chute, dragging our packs behind us. the chute dumps us out near the top of a medium sized room, and we pick our way down the rock pile to the floor. Off to the left is another passage (there is an arrow on the wall pointing down to it). The room also continues straight ahead, and this is the way we take.
At the far end of the room, there is a narrow crack in the wall just wide enough for us to squeeze through sideways. This branches into a "spiral staircase" upwards, or to a crawl downwards. They both ultimately lead to the same place; another big room with floor covered in breakdown. The high celiings in these rooms are truly impressive. as the room continues, it resembles a grand entrance hall in a ruined castle or palace; wide and tall, and covered in rubble. Suddenly, we come to a steep steep slope. The room stays the same width, but the floor abruptly drops down 60 feet in a rocky, dusty slope, that is, in some places overhung, in others merely vertical, or nearly so. At the bottom of the slope runs a small stream, and on the opposite side, a purely mud slope ascends 50 feet, though not at anywhere near as steep an angle. To get down the first side, we stick close to the right wall, where there is no overhang, and where, in between boulders, many feet over the years have carved short, steep slipperly slides in the clay. Keeping one hand on the wall, and the other one whatever stable boulders you can trust, it is possible to slip down with some vague semblance of control. Getting back up by the same route looks to be a far more difficult task. Thankfully, the opposite slope is an easier hike up the mud path. We pause on the flat top of the rise, and watch the rest of the group slowly picking their way down the ridiculous wall. By this point i'm starting to get cold whenever we stop moving for even a minute. Once everyone has safely made it up to our side, we continue down the passage. On the wall to our right is this huge tiered pillar-like formation. Directly beyond it the mud floor is covered in a lacy network of *something.* If you look closely, it might rememble fungus. Alex tells us that it has grown since last year. Perhaps it is an alien lifeform.
This passage is fairly short and ends in a chamber of formations. Clusters of stalactites, and stalagmites form little niches and grottos. one side of the passage widens as the ceiling drops, and turns into a little low room with clusters of formations along the edges and sodastraws studding the ceiling (we're all very careful not to straighten up and bash our heads against these, or on the napping bats that dot the ceiling here and there). since we've reached a dead end, it's time to turn around. We go back to where the cave fungus is growing blindly across the floor, and stop to eat lunch. After this, it's time to go back down and up that ridiculous slope. It's actually not that bad to clamber back up, as long as you don't try to get up the same way as we came down (the wall does not make a good foot or handhold, however other boulders in the center of the slope are much better for climbing up than down and that is how we go).
We returned to the last fork in the room and head off down the narrow corrider on our right that we saw on the way in. A few meters in, the group suddenly stops as Alex points up and very nervously tells us all to be very quiet. There, suspended about his head, is what we dubbed "The Dagger of Death." The corridor we were in was extremely narrow (not more than 4-5 feet wide), but exceedingly high; my light failed to illuminate the roof high above our heads. The dagger was suspended maybe halfway down the wall, or about 40-50 feet above our heads. It was a long, narrow sliver of rock wedged in above the passage between one or two small boulders and a slight pinch in the cavern walls. It looked as if the slightest vibration could cause the little rocks to crumble out and send the dagger crashing through the skull of the fool unlucky enough to be standing beneath it. We quickly resolved to hurry onwards. Further down this long corridor there was another similar dagger. However, this one was blockier, more triangular, and looked like it was far more firmly wedged against the walls. No one worried about it. The floor in our passage was full of deep holes between rocks, that we had to be careful to avoid slipping in or dropping our packs down. The largest of these gaps in the floor formed a chasm spanning the entire floor of the passage. This narrow pit dropped 15-20 feet straight down before ending in a pile of rocky rubble. The easiest way to cross looked like chimneying. However, the passage started out a bit wide, so getting into the correct position without slipping proved to be a bit difficult. (It was worse on the return). Also if you looked closely there were a set of cracks in the rock a foot or so down from the level of the corridor that could be used as footholds on first one, then the other side of the abyss, keeping hands against the oopposite wall for support and balance. This worked crossing over in the first direction, but it proved difficult to access the footholds from the far side, and on the return back, we all chimneyed across as best we could. On the far side of this chasm, the pathway contined towards the sound of rushing water. We were soon above a stream. At one point the path was divided by a gigantic flake of stone, with holes and ridges punched in it long ago by some forgotton river. The passage eventually ended at the source of the rushing water; a small, round, high ceilinged chamber with a waterfall pouring 25-30 feet down into a small pool. I was too cold at this point to even think about approaching the water, but Win went right in, wading past his knees to douse his head beneath the falls. John sooned joined him. (It must have been a guy thing.) After watching the falls a bit, it was time to leave the cave. We retraced our way back to the hallway above the mud pit, and started our descent one at a time. This time, Alex was serving as the anchor for our handline. While waiting for my turn to go down, I spotted a pure white millipede wandering across the wall. On my climb down the rock wall, I got most of the way down, thought i had reached a place from which I could step off to the side, and rejoin the others waiting along side the mud ledge. I was wrong, but i'd already loosened the handline, and was starting to slip. Win caught me and guided my feet to safety. That was a pretty close call. We all got down, one way or another, and Alex began his climb down. Kevin belayed him from below as best he could, but it really wasn't needed, as Alex didn't fall. We inched back across the mud ledge over the pit, and quickly hurried back to where we had left our climbing harnesses.
5:00 pm: Our gear is on. It is time to climb out of the cave. Kevin rapidly ascends to the rebelay point to set the rope up so that two people can climb at once; one on the upper pitch, one on the lower. Since I am shivering and cold, we decide to send me up first, so I can go to the car and put dry clothes on and warm up. I'm terrible at ascending (can never keep the rope between my feet properly), and curse the whole slow way up the 70 ft to where Kevin is waiting at the halfway point. I decide to stop for a minute or two and catch my breath before I enter the falls. After a few minutes, I decide that I am sufficiently rested to give it a shot. I'm wrong. In the confined space under the waterfall, the rope slants out at an angle, and I cannot get my feet to push up under it. Even with added tension on the rope, I remain stuck directly under the frigid falls. My fingers are getting numb and i haven't made any progress up and out of the water. I decide, since i'm only 5 feet above the resting point, that i'll come back down and try again in a bit. Unfortunately, I'm stuck in such a position that there's too much tension in my ascenders to let me easily unclamp them from the rope. This task is made more difficult too, by the numbness in my hands. I spend a few minutes fighting with the damned things before I get them off and tumble down, completely soaked and shaking, to where Kevin is waiting. I huddle down, and wring out my layers as best I can. I'm told I need to eat to add calories so I can warm back up. so I do. While I'm crouched in the fetal position off to the side, swearing at my pathetic lack of climbing ability, Tommy arrives, and I give him the car keys. He heads up with orders to get the spare rope out of the car in case they need to haul me out of the pit. By the time Martin, John, and Win arrive at this level, I'm continuing to get colder-- can't stop shaking, and if I stop paying attention, I start to hyperventilate. Being cold and wet sucks, but the adrenaline rush is great. My legs are starting to cramp from shaking so much, and I'm convinced I cannot face the falls again. Time to play "damnsel in distress," goddamnit. The guys wrap me in a spare trashbag, and one of the space blankets to help me retain heat, and Win hauls me onto his knees to keep me warm until enough people are up top to practice their cave rescue skills. Eventually, Kevin, Tommy, John, and Martin are up top. We've positioned Eric halfway up between us and the surface to help guide the rope through the crack down to us, and Win, Alex and I are waiting below. I'm not producing any heat of my own, but due to Win's copious warmth, I'm now warmer than Alex, as I discover when Win gets up to harrass the guys above and find out what the hell is taking them so long with the rope. We want out. At last communication gets through, the rope is sent down, i'm attached to it and, for safety, my ascenders are clamped to the first rope. We leave my pack for Alex to haul out. Leaving aside the fact that I was quite cold, and it must have really sucked to be the 4 guys hauling me up those 80 ft, the ride to the surface was fun! After they'd gotten me through the waterfall, i tried to do some climbing on my own, but my legs were shaking too badly still, and the footloop kept slipping away, so in the end I just gave up and was dead weight, until they hauled me to the surface, and I dragged myself out onto dry ground at 8:15 pm. Those boys are all my heroes!
I can tell that the night is warm (in the mid 50's) but I'm still shaking as Tommy leads me back to the Excursion where I change into my dry jeans. Unfortunately, I realize that I forgot to pack a dry shirt, so I just pile sweaters on over my polypro, and huddle up next to the heat vents in the car. By 8:45 Alex, Eric, and Win are out of the pit. The ropes are recoiled, and everyone who hasn't yet, changes. We throw all our wet gear back in the trunk and begin the search for food.
9:00 Sunday night. Looking for an open restaurant in Marlinton WV. Nothing. Everything in the town is darkened and shut for the night, as we cruise through the silent streets. We finally give up and stop at a gas station where we acquire gas, more beer (only 5$/ 6 pack here), and some shitty subway sandwiches and junk food. We return to the inn to eat. I finally stop shivering after drying out next to the stove for a while. The hottub is cold, so we drink beer and got to sleep.
It was a great day! So much Sketch, so little time! At this point,
we think the "You Will Die" cliff we face tomorrow cannot possibly compare
to today's various sketchy situations.
7:30 am: Wake up, check on the drying gear (Thankfully, most is not too muddy today, due to the cleansing power of the waterfall.)
8:00: Breakfast, bacon and pancakes. Alex points out the section of the guidebook on My Cave (today's site) where it says, do not go down this slope without being on rope or, "You Will Die." Sounds like fun! But, first we have to find the cave mouth.
We park the Excursion near a small river, and head upstream. The cave mouth is supposed to be upriver about a mile, so we follow the river bank and enjoy the warm sunny spring day. After a bit, the banks of the river start to steepen and turn clifflike. We have to climb above the level of the water to keep going, and come to one spot, where due to steepness and slipperiness going forward is dangerous. Some of us decide to go back up to a higher elevation and avoid the dropoffs here. We turn around and look for a place where it is possible to go upslope. As we're looking, we meet two other guys who are also searching for the entrance to My Cave. They tell us that there is another entrance to it really close to the road, but that getting to it involves a long climb up a slick, steep mudbank inside the cave. Eventually Kevin, Win, and I arrive at a spot high above the river. Below us, the rest of the group shouts up that they've found the cave mouth. Rather than continue onwards and try to find a less steep, but more indirect route down to the cave, we decide to rappel down, since Kevin is carrying the rope. Alex joins us and he and Kevin rig harnesses for themselves out of spare webbing (Alex left his pack below with the others, and Kevin didn't bring his vertical gear, as he has a plane to catch today and is leaving soon). We toss the rope around a tree and go down. At the bottom we recoil the rope, and head into the cave. Kevin takes a brief peek inside and then leaves.
1:30 pm: The cave mouth is a leaf-and-stick-covered slippery pit, that once we duck inside the cave, transitions to a loose-leafy, then to a loose rocky and muddy slope which goes down maybe 30 feet. It's fun to slide down. At the bottom of the pit we find ourselves a large chamber, much like the large chambers in other caves. In some spots the path is slick mud, in other it takes us up and over large chunks of breakdown. It is pretty easy going, and in a few minutes we've arrived at an easy crawl over packed clay with a low stone ceiling. We crawl a few meters on our hands and knees and Alex informs us that we've arrived at the slope of Death. This has been described to us as a gently downward sloping mud bank. It is about 70 ft of gradually steepening going. At the point where the combined angle and slipperiness of the mud would normally cause a person to lose their footing and slide to the bottom ofthe hill, there is an abrupt, unexpected drop off of 100 feet or so. Hence the, "You Will Die" warning in the guidebook for the ropeless. To make matters worse, at the bottom of the 100 foot cliff, is a river. It is very loud. We've been warned that if we can't hear the flow, It is either completely flooded or completely dry. But what does a loud flow mean? Alex will go down first and find out. If the river is in fact, in flood, or impassably deep, he will immediately climb back up. The rope is clipped into a convenient bolt in the wall, and for backup a sling is rigged around a nearby boulder. We all put our harnesses on, and assume the position for gear check (the position being on our backs with legs spread and knees up, so that Alex can get over and by us in the low crawl space to check everyone in line).
Inspection over, our fearless leader goes on rope, and starts backing down the gentle slope. In a minute he is out of sight, over the edge. Since leaping off a cliff deep underground into a river far below is a very silly thing to be doing, he is taking it slowly, and 15 minutes later, the "off rope!" call comes drifting up from below. That's our signal to get going. One by one we get our rappel rack on rope and go down. I'm the next to last, but as I back down the slope I cannot even see the group's headlamps far below me. The switch from mudbank to vertical rock cliff is startlingly abrupt and involves a couple of nasty overhangs. Rappeling is fun, though, despite the nagging thought that we might have to go all the way back *up* this ridiculously high cliff at the end of the day. The river at the bottom is, in fact, nothing but a small stream with extremely muddy banks and a few mud covered blocks of rock scattered here and there, among which the rest of the group is seated. As I take my place among them, I get to watch the sight of Tommy making his way down to us. His light high above seems quite tiny, but rapidly approaches as he fairly flies down the rope.
Now that we're all assembled safely below, our first destination is a waterfall, a picture of which can be seen in the geological survey of WV. Getting to it requires heading downstream. We start out on the right bank as this side is rockier and less slippery, but it soon becomes impassable, so we cross to the left bank, and start practicing walking across steep, wet, mudbanks without slipping into the water. This involves whacking the sides of our feet into the soft clay mud to try and get enough of a horizontal dent made that our feet don't slide out from under us in the time it takes to slide the next foot forwards and repeat the process. It also helps to create little finger pockets upslope to try and hold onto when you do lose your footing. After a bit of slippysliding and getting coated in mud, we arrive at the waterfall. The stream we've been following empties into the same pool the fall does. We are in a high ceilinged chamber. The waterfall emerges at the far corner of the room from a crack between the ceiling and wall and crashes 45 feet down into the basin. Along one side there is also also a little hole in the rock wall from whence water is actually bubbling up out of the rock. The water must be exiting somewhere, but i can't figure where the drain is. Having looked our fill, we turn around and head back upstream, rapidly passing our rope.
We follow the stream quite a ways slipping over mud, and ducking under rocks, splashing a few feet in the river and crawling between or over chunks of stone. The group is getting a bit spread out, and it's getting difficult to figure out where the people ahead of me went. So we call for a halt and hurry to catch up. We regroup in a wider passage next to the river, with a mud floor and a rock wall separating us from the stream. Once all 7 of us have arrived, we set off again. The passage continues onwards; the floor is now a mix of large rocks and water-rounded stones. The passage looks to continue straight ahead and down, or we now also have the option of going up. And Up. The wall to our left is in fact, a vast mud slope, heading upwards and out of sight. After a brief consultation with the map (which we actually remembered to bring with us today) we decide that if we go straight, we'll go down to a dead end with a room marked as "the virgin pool," while if we climb the hill, we'll come to "the dunes" and maybe find a corridor that leads eventually to an exit. So up we go.
The angle of the incline seems to vary from an easy 20 degrees to something more like 60 in some places, all made out of damp, slick, clay mud. Time for some serious use of the mud climbing walk, and Win sets of in the lead whacking his feet into the dune and heading upslope obliquely. John, Tommy, and I follow. In the first 10 feet up i lose my footing and slide down a few feet. This is what comes of trusting others' footsteps. I get back up and head up hill, this time choosing my own path. I don't recall how high we climbed before we came to a ladder cut into the hillface. I came up to it directly from below, as i'd been inching up the slope right next to where the slope joined the vertical cave wall, John and Win, on the other hand, had been straddling a ridge off to the right and had to cross over a bit of a steep spot to get to the ladder. Once we'd all reached it, it was no problem to climb the last 30 feet to the top. (the steps were just deep enough to give us a good grip and prevent us from slipping down to our deaths (or at the very least to potential limb-breakage at the bottom).
At the top we found ourselves in a huge room. A high ceiling arched overhead, and the flooring consisted simply of waves of these mud dunes, with varying dips and troughs between them. (Nothing to compare to the size of the dune we'd just climbed, however.) While I sat down for some water and food, John and Win explored to the far side of the cavern and settled down in a perch high at the far end, where a new passage continued. Tommy continued to poke around the edges of the room and found a bit of whimsy; a small porcelain bird placed in a niche in the clay wall. Very Cute. We continued to wait for the remaining 3 members of our group. Martin and Eric were advancing up the hill very slowly and very cautiously, while Alex looked on from a perch 15 ft below where I sat. For some reason they weren't using the ladder, which had begun a good ways below their present position, but were instead making their way up the ridgeline, carving new handholds with the wrench. 20 minutes later, they finally joined us, and we trotted across the chamber to regroup with John, Tommy and Win. The place they had chosen to wait was another 15 feet above us, in an easy climb with rock hand grips and packed clay slope. As soon as we poked our heads up to their level, we were bombarded with clay bits. Seems we had missed out on a good oldfashioned clay fight, and they needed to make sure we got our share of dirt thrown at us.
We were pretty sure that this was not the passage we wanted. The map showed an assisted climb a little ways onward. We crawled on a rock slab beneath some more of the ever-present bats to check it out. The crawl we were in ended in an abrupt drop off down into an abysss. I didn't get a good look at it, but it looked perhaps doable to climb down, if you were somewhat suicidal. Though, as the map said, getting back up would not be easy without assistance. We went back to the dunes to find the real exit.
This pathway was cleverly hidden by shadows and took off obliquely from near where we'd climbed up initally. From where we'd climbed, our lights cast shadows that disguised the passage and made it look as if the route was blocked by a deep pit. This was not the case. Onward! For a while the passage was pretty uneventful. We were slightly slowed for a bit when Eric twisted his ankle but other than that, it was all good going. We arrived a part of the hall that dipped down to a river level. We climbed down to the river and found a cairn on a rock in the center of the stream. Some of us thought that this was a sign that we should follow this stream upstream. but Win spotted what he thought was an admittedly diffucult to reach passage at the far corner of the room over a pile of breakdown, at the junction of the ceiling and 2 walls. Alex agreed that we should be looking for a passage above, rather than in, the stream, so I went ahead to explore a different crawl in the right wall above the water. This crawl appeared to continue, and after deepening to a crouching level, split in 2 directions. By this time, the whole group had started to come through the crawl, and while I waited for them to join me at the fork, John went ahead to explore. One of the branches was wet, and low, but had a cairn, while the other was drier and standing height, and appeared to be marked with a red trailblaze. John decided to take the latter route.
By the time everyone had reached where I was waiting, Alex was leaning towards the cairn passage as being the correct way out. But, just then, John called back with the discovery that he'd found something resembling the "spiral staircase" from yesterday but without the stairs. Saying that it looked hellishly difficult, but like a lot of fun, he went up, and relayed back that there was something at the top that might be a cairn. Although it was getting late, we decided we'd all go up and see just how much fun it was. Martin was the second one up, then I took my turn. The passage opened up, like a window, into this spiralling mud tube slick with water, and studded with loose rocks. The level where John had found his "cairn" was about 20 feet up, and the drop from the level of the passage looked to be aout 7-10 feet. Getting up the chimney tube involved this complicated combination of chimneying and climbing around in a spiral, never knowing which rock would be set loose with our touch and send us crashing back down. Despite the constant rain of rocks we sent showering down with our climbing, we all got up safely. At the top, we set off looking for a way that went anywhere. The cairn turned out not to be a cairn after all, and the first room was a dead end. However, Tommy saw a room through a crawl, and I went through to check it out. There was an abrupt transition from the wet rock at the top of the chimney to dry breakdown. At the far end of the room (it was only a dozen meters long or so) there was a passage between the boulders that formed the wall. Around the corner, a cool breeze blew, and the sound of roaring water came through. It seemed promising, but after a long consultation with the map, Alex decided it was Not the Way To Go.
Back down the mud spiral chimney! Almost as fun going down as coming up. So far it's been a great day, but i'm starting to get a bit chilly and I'm getting tired. I wouldn't object to getting out of here soon, especially since failure to find an exit would require us to trek all that long way back to the cliff of death and ascend the rope. Not a thing to look forward to.
Anyway, back at the last fork in the cave, people stop to change batteries, and Alex and i go up ahead to check out the other passage. Here the ceiling drops quickly and we're soon belly crawling over round wet rocks. the "path" here is just a streambed, and the stream is following it with us. It's not long before my legs and arms are completely sodden. No matter; up ahead, Alex feels a breeze. surely a sign that the exit is near! After several dozen meters the ceiling lifts abruptly off to the side and we pull ourselves out of the stream. Reassuringly, there's an arrow etched into a rock pointing up the way we're heading. While Alex starts climbing up the rocky slope we find here, I wait for the others, and change my batteries. Win passes me, and as John reaches the boulder i'm sitting on, I'm ready to go! Up! the route here is now mostly up and up. For brief spaces we can walk before it's time to pull ourselves over another ledge or boulder. Up ahead Alex sees the first few leaves and sticks caught between rocks. The end is near! This gives me enough energy to keep going. There are many loose rocks here, and since the going is mostly vertical we are trying to avoid them, or if they look really dangerous, to replace them off to the side where no one will be tempted to use them as a hand or foothold. Unfortunately, we miss a few, and at one point a rather large rock comes crashing down on Tommy. Luckily it bounces harmlessly off his helmet, eliciting a scream from him, and a belated cry of, "Rock!" from above. At last, Alex spots twilight above, and in short order Win, John, and I have popped out of the ground behind him.
6:50 pm: We're standing a few dozen yards up the mountain with the road in plain sight below. It's still lightish out, but dark is rapidly falling. Alex wants to go retrieve the rope from the other entrance ASAP, preferably before we have to try and find the cave entrance in the dark. So, John and I volunteer to go with him to help carry the gear and rope back. We have to be completely insane! Alex tells Win we'll be back at the car in 2 hours! hah! we don't even know where the river is from here; just a vague sense that it's off thataways! John and I leave our packs for the others to carry and follow as best we can as Alex takes off up the hill at a run! We rapidly gain elevation, but my lungs are burning, and my legs are turning to jelly, weighted down as I am with water-saturated clothing. the light fades. now we're racing along at a constant elevation in the dark, a few meters above the line of rhododendrons. the hillside is steep and covered in loose leaves, rocks, and dirt, but that doesn't slow us down much. Nor does even the fact that most of the trees that we're relying on to steady us are, in fact, rotted and fall over at the slightest touch. We start to pass rock formations that seem vaguely familiar, and when we reach a stream running downhill that doesn't look familar, we decide to go down to the river bank. This rapid descent involves a lot of sliding through the leafmold. It's fast and fun! The river bank, when we reach it, looks unfamiliar, and we decide that we've overshot the cave by a lot, so downstream we go! It's flat for a whiler, but then it looks easier to go uphill to pass over some rocky bits. We can't see the sign that marks the cave from this elevation, so back down we go, and continue along till Alex spots the marker. Then, it's back to pulling ourselves uphill using roots and rocks as hand and footholds, till we arrive at the cave mouth.
7:40: We stop for water before plunging down the slope into the cave, and sliding down full speed ahead into the depths. Time for a few primal screams and whoops in the darkness!
8:05: After a rapid race through the cave and subsequent dash through the crawl, Alex and I have hauled the rope up through the crawlspace, while John coiled it in the main room. We've redistributed the weight between the gear pack and Alex's pack, so we each have something to carry and now its Time to book it on back to the car! After exiting the cave we have to backtrack upstream to avoid the difficult sketchy bit that delayed us in the morning. This entails going back up the high slope, which will also allow us to take advantage of the moonlight to find our way. After travelling up high a ways we think we must be past the cliff-like parts of the river bank. so Alex and John try to go downhill. This is not a good plan at this point. A misplaced foot sends a fucking huge boulder bouncing down the slope. There's a sudden thump as it hits a rock and bounces a final time before the delayed KerSploosh! at the bottom of the cliff it has fallen off of. We keep going. At last, the angle of the hillside has moderated enough for us to reach the now flat shore of the river. Since the moon is so bright, and the night so nice, we turn our lights off, and walk along in the semi-darkness, next to the burbling river.
8:50: Back at the car, we change, stow our stuff and we're off to look for food! We want pizza, so we stop at the first pizza sign we see. This happens to be another gas station food place. The lady there tells us they're closed, but after some discussion about if the pizza places at the ski resort are open, she relents and agrees to make us food. yay! Tommy buys more beer. We hang out and drink while we're waiting for the pizzas to cook. The gas station attendant makes us put the booze in cups so passing cops won't see the open bottles. Finally, pizzas in hand, we return to the inn to eat and soak in the hot tub! John and I compare bruises. Now it's time to Sleep!
The final day
After breakfast, we pack up all our stuff and start organizing the car so that we can hit one final cave before the long drive home. This time we're off to Tub cave. On the drive to the cave, John starts in with the first beer of the day. We follow the guidebook's instructions and park on the shoulder of the first hairpin turn in the road. We then set off downhill, over a barbed wire fence, through a thicket of brambles and a grove of the spikiest trees i've ever encountered, and back up and around another steeper hill, where Alex has located the cave. Standing at the top of this hill, you are looking down into a 150 ft diameter round basin or sink hole. At the very base of this huge pit is the cave entrance. We slip and slide down the damp leafy slope and prepare to enter.
Tub cave is a huge single room. you enter by walking down a slope of rocky rubble and tree debris. The floor of most of the rest of the cave is a vast plain of mud clay in varying degrees of wet stickness. Streams have cut channels through the clay and make for treacherous crossing. Off to the right of the entrance is a rock lined stream that can be followed up a short distance before the rocks cover up its source. Off to the left are some muddy hills, and some rock piles. There's a small waterfall, too. However, the most interesting parts of the cave are the flow stone formations along certain of the walls. These cascades and drips of stone look like nothing more than frozen mud waterfalls, but upon close examination their stony nature can be observed. There are also little dam formations crisscrossing some of the streams in the cavern floor. For the most part, the main floor area would have made a great place to stage a mud wrestling tournament. The clay here is the perfect mud, and the cavern is huge enough to accomodate a ridiculous number of people. The bats in this cave come in two sizes, the little brown ones that we've seen in all the other caves this trip, as well as some larger, darker bats. At the far end of the cave, there is a little crawl that leads into a high wedge shaped room. In the room, we scramble up a steep slope next to some flowstone and stare up at the ceiling. In the center of the ceiling, directly over our heads, there is a chandelier formation which drips onto the flowstone to our left. The walls too, are lined with huge lacy drippy formations. We sit for a while, with our lights out, listening to the sounds of the water dripping. We decide that it would be neat to have some afterimages of this cool little room, so we have Eric flash his camera in the darkness. This is so much fun we do it about 10 more times, before eventually heading back to the main cave and out into the watery light of a rainy afternoon in WV. On the way out, Alex witnesses some kind of bat orgy.
1:00 pm: We've found our way back to the car, changed into our dry clothes, and are ready to go! Time for a beer. (Only 2 bottles left after this)
1:30 After a final stop back at the inn to make sure we've not forgotten anything, we hit the road. The rain starts to come down harder.
10:50 pm: Almost 10 hours later, we're in a truckstop in New York City. It's still raining. John and I split the final two bottles of booze.
11:30 pm: Connecticut; Alex and all his gear are deposited at his house. Martin will drive the rest of the way to Boston. John and I are charged with keeping him awake. Everyone else sleeps. It continues to rain.
245 am: 3 hours, and many miles of semi-incoherent conversation later, we've arrived in Cambridgeport where John's car is. One by one Martin deposits us off where we need to be.
3:00: It's still raining, but I'm Home. Time to sleep.
End trip report
-liz demicco 3/31/02