Few cavers return from TAG with unused vertical gear, but I managed to find a few enjoyable short trips to beat the campground heat during the NSS Convention. 

On Sunday, I spent the day with TriTrogs in Camps Gulf Cave. Emily G. led me to the air-conditioned entrance where we waited for Mike Y., Taylor T., Carlin, Melanie, Eli, Mark D., and Nick. A mourning dove seemed to be building its nest over an alternate entrance to the cave, and the cool air pouring from the cave mouth was a welcome relief from the summer heat. Upon entering the cave, Emily led us up through a breakdown pile into a huge room with lots more breakdown. We circled around numerous rocky piles and over slick mud into wide stoop-high passages. Big rooms and wide passages.

On Tuesday, I was signed up for a short cave trip in Alabama near Russell Cave National Monument. I rode with cavers new to me from California, Florida, and Indiana, and we talked a lot about our various travels. We parked at the end of a caver’s driveway and strolled into the insurgence of Montague Cave. Roger and Brittany were great guides. Fifty-foot wide walking passage welcomed us as we strolled past some formations and may not have lost ten feet of elevation in our half-mile walk. Coolest thing to see may have been the crinoid stems that were hanging from the ceiling in one spot. About halfway in, I pulled the garbage bag out of my helmet and we started collecting beer bottles and cans, as well as other trash that had washed into the cave. I think we gathered around 20 pounds of garbage before we left the cave.

On Wednesday, I got permission to join Emily, Meredith (Nick’s wing mother), and the Speleothem Repair class for their underground field exercise. Quinn, a Huntsville caver, rode with us to Wonder Cave. The formerly commercial cavern introduced us to a genuinely friendly cave owner with incredibly friendly cave dogs. After a stroll along a cave stream, we ascended the stairs to a beautifully decorated section of cave to repair formations that were located along the tourist trail. Under the direction of this year’s winner of the NSS’s highest award (William J. Stephenson Award) Val Hildreth-Werker, Emily, Meredith, and Quinn located the two missing pieces of a large stalagmite (weighing around 30 pounds) and carefully undertook the process of restoring the piece to its original standing. Then I retrieved various tools for Kristen Bobo (the recipient of this year’s NSS Conservation Award) as she repaired another mite. My big contribution to the trip: I carried out half a canoe.

Wednesday evening one of the first TriTrog members (Karen Willmes) rode with Emily and me down to watch the evening bat flight from Nickajack Cave. Most other TriTrogs joined us, some in kayaks and some aboard paddle boards. The endangered gray bats from the nursery colony were soon swooping over our heads at the observation deck. Tennessee bat biologists had set up a thermal sensing camera that let us see seemingly hundreds of bats emerging from the cave entrance every few seconds.

By late Thursday afternoon, it was hot again at Convention. Mike Y., Emily, and I took off for a free visit to Big Room Cave at The Caverns where the evening photo salon was to be held. Mike forgot his helmet, so he was spared the sticky mud that Emily and I found when we went off trail in street clothes and shoes. I tipped extra at the restaurant where we had dinner because of the mud I dripped on their carpet.

So glad I got to join Phil Sullivan and Nick Taylor for a brisk survey in Buchanan Saltpeter Cave. After a prolonged effort to calibrate multiple electronic instruments, I think Sully was glad that I had Suuntos along to provide backsights. Still in the twilight zone, we started surveying  across a wide, decorated room but stopped when the 30-foot-wide pool from wall to wall got 2” deep.

From there we headed back toward the entrance where Sully had identified multiple other leads breaking away from the twilight zone. I felt embarrassed bumping my shoulder as I tried to swing my torso up onto a ledge. Fortunately Sully helped me with the climb (by hauling me) and rigged a bit of webbing to facilitate the climb down.

We found a short passage out of the cold January temps where a tri-colored bat was wintering. That short room felt like a sauna compared to the other entrance areas we surveyed (areas where big brown bats were sleeping). The upper passage seemed to continue beyond a great pit, but the cliff where we stood offered no access. I assessed that I might be able to find the room at the base of the pit from the entrance ( it worked!), and we set a survey station in the middle of a huge decorated room with multiple rimstone and flowstone banks.

From the entrance again we surveyed a walking passage to the huge decorated room with multiple rimstone and flowstone banks. Along the way Sully climbed into another upper passage that brought him to the same place that Nick and I walked to. I noticed a 2”-deep pool at the far end of this room but chose to survey a crawlway that returned us again to the entrance.

We sketched the cave passages that we had measured. I proved that I didn’t need Sully’s help at that torso swing climb, and we closed the loop between the two leads with 2” of water. Nick and I appreciated that we were wearing Wellies. 

We wanted to assess a few leads from the huge room to start the next trip. One climb led up to the continuation of our upper passage. The other one snuck past a flowstone cascade into a passage that may be the prettiest I’ve seen in Smyth County. Ready for the next survey trip.

Mike Broome’s GPS found a neighborhood shortcut as we left the Convention campsite, so we missed one of the landmarks (a low water crossing) as we drove to Tolly’s Cave in the Elk River Valley. However, it was just a quick turnaround, good parking, and (to me) a short walk up the hillside. Mike Broome, Lisa Lorenzin, Emily Graham, and I explored Tolly’s after a short climb past a salamander and spiders. We had a map along, and a great blow-by-blow description of the cave’s character.

We climbed and wriggled from room to room past some nice formations. Because many different geologic layers are sandwiched in and above this cave, we saw some cool blending of color, such as black dendrites decorating the walls. Nice rooms and good to cave with Mike and Lisa again. And it broke up the drive home from the NSS Convention. Thanks to Emily for picking this trip and gathering all the information.

On Wednesday at the NSS Convention, I took a morning class in speleothem repair practices. It followed all the steps from inventorying, matching puzzle pieces, drilling holes for support pins, building supports and splints from PVC pipes, and then mixing and applying epoxy. The class was led by Mike Mansur and Kirsten Bahr, and he brought along a full set of wooden blocks and cement pieces that we had to repair to create speleothems in a vertical box. Emily thinks that the instruction manual is well produced and certainly inspiring.

In the afternoon we took off for the entrance area inside Hamilton Cave on the NSS John Guilday Cave Preserve to try our hands at our recently learned skills. Although my big role was discovering stalactite pieces that had no matching pieces on the ceiling, the group did manage to repair four formations that afternoon. It was definitely a class that I learned a lot in and was excited by the prospect that other people might repair broken speleothems. It is exacting, patient work, and I hope to be able to support such repairs in the future.

Back in the 1960s, Perkins Cave was surveyed using carbide lamps to mark stations and trying to extend the cave in many directions at once. The 1972 map shows blobby walls and no passage detail over in the U Survey section. Naturally there must be some leads going north that they missed. 

The blobby northern section is mostly a massive wall of breakdown. Our March trip tried to survey a way over or to the right of the massive breakdown pile. We met only dead ends too small for humans. On April 8, Emily Graham, Piotr Suder, and I headed to the lower section and to the left of the breakdown pile. We still hoped that the breakdown pile could be surveyed over/under/around/through.

The previous day’s deluge left the breakdown drain area wet and slippery. Piotr and Emily pursued the slippery lead into a hole that quickly became too tight for humans. Off to the left we scaled and surveyed our way up into a room of pickup truck-sized breakdown. Off in one corner we found a dead bat clinging to the ceiling and covered in white nose fungus.  Behind that Piotr squeezed past other fungus on the floor and into a breakdown-choked passage.

Alas, no good leads. Piotr did a great job leading us out of the cave without ever consulting the old map. And I fastened the lock on the cave gate in under thirty seconds.

At the February TriTrogs meeting, we had enough members interested in a survey trip. It’s great when a trip gets mostly planned at a meeting. Matthew Weiss, Maria Droujkova, Emily Graham, and I stayed at Tanya’s house in Marion before the trip Saturday morning. We had no trouble finding our way back to the Perkins Cave survey lead, but Matthew and Maria photo-documented the trail to be sure we’d get back.

The stooping lead in the U Survey section took Emily (and the rest of us) beneath a massive breakdown pile and then turned into a low crawlway. It opened into a pantry-sized room and then into another crawlway. That one ended in a larger room with no human-sized exits.

We spent time trying to find another route past the breakdown pile but had no luck. It was still better luck than Maria’s boot had had, so we exited the cave with less survey footage than I would have liked. Fortunately Matthew was eventually able to re-lock the cave gate when we exited.

It had been a few months since the last TriTrog sport caving trip, so I offered up the traditional Hancock Cave Bat Count trip for New Year’s Eve. I don’t think we had had a bat count since pre-Covid, and a warm chili dinner at Tanya McLaughlin’s house seemed like a good idea in the frigid winter temperatures.
But it wasn’t actually cold New Years weekend. The mountain road was fine despite the icy waterfalls that still decorated the mountainside. We discovered that the stream outside the cave entrance was still frozen that morning around 11 AM when we crossed.
Laura Young and Emily Graham rigged a handline at the entrance. Laura’s exuberance during the trip was outweighed only by her cave pack. We were treated to bats in the Entrance Room and several other locations. Emily seemed best at spotting all six bats we found, and Laura’s experience with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program helped us identify the likely species from a distance. Emily’s Zebra Light made that possible. Laura appreciated that I hold out hope that some year we’ll find many more bats wintering in Hancock Cave. But not yet.
We took a side trip up into the Vertical Maze because Emily hadn’t explored that part of the cave before, but nothing up there looked very familiar to me. We traversed the passage where Tanya had led her first survey trip, but I think we needed to descend about twenty feet just to be near the top of the Breakdown Staircase.
As we spent five hours exploring the cave, the icy waterfalls and streams outside had thawed in the rain, so the Entrance Room greeted us with heavy waterfalls and a very slick trip up the handline and out of the cave. I found myself rolling from side to side to make any progress as I reached up for the handline used to haul out the cave packs. Near the top I tried again rolling my legs from side to side to fit out the entrance from my crouched position, with my knees catching on the ceiling by just an inch.
A great trip overall, but the new trail to the cave entrance is still mighty slick during a winter thaw.

Emily Graham and I accepted Vardell Smyth’s invitation to use his home in Boone, North Carolina as a launching point for a survey trip into Perkins Cave (Washington County, Virginia). Jason Lachniet trusted me to find my way back to the leads I left beyond the Second Discovery area of the cave.

Emily had to correct the routes I tried three times on the way in, but Emily, Vardell, and I made good progress toward the survey lead for the day. Our second survey station brought us up into the Gypsum Pancake Room, three-to-four-foot high and roughly thirty feet across. Side passages of varying sizes abound along this passage. The floor is composed of crumbling thin slabs of ceiling, but typical stalagmites and soda straws populate the indeterminate walls.

Surveying crawling and walking passages around the perimeter led to some dead ends and to one huge room (yet to be surveyed). Our original one lead left us with 468 feet of survey and roughly five new leads that all appear somewhat substantial. When finishing the last survey station, Emily was welcomed by nocturnal cave residents in what we’re calling Nibblers Way. Field mice gathered round her while I finished the sketching and even seemed to follow Emily as we exited the cave. With the mice to guide her, we exited with no wrong turns.

I’ve cleaned up lots of cave graffiti on conservation trips in the past, but the VAR Spring Restoration was my first foray into cleaning lampenflora from the cave walls. Slightly paraphrased (by Meredith Hall Weberg from Hildreth-Werker, Val, and Werker, Jim ed. Cave Conservation and Restoration, C 2006, pp.343-344):

“… Lampenflora is a collection of photosynthetic organisms (blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, algae, mosses, and other plants) that grow near artificial lights in the cool, humid cave environment.  Lampenflora are not ‘natural’ or “native”; they are brought into the cave on visitor’s shoes and clothing.  Lampenflora found along cave tour trails are considered opportunistic in cave ecosystems.”

Twenty-four VAR cavers, including six from the TriTrogs, came out to Endless Caverns to help fight off the lampenflora that hadn’t had serious attention in ten years. It turned out that the staff had likely been doing spot cleanings, but I noticed green formations as I left the Oriental Palace. I was assigned a resupply role and a heavy water sprayer; Dave Socky and I followed the scrubbers into the cave.

Scrubbers were cleaning the Mitten Room, Vista, Hindu Temple, Sky Land, and Grand Canyon as we walked along, but they didn’t need our help. The ceiling got high when we reached the Marine Corridor, so Dave and I tried to devise ways to reach the ceiling lampenflora twelve feet off the floor (with limited success). Emily Graham chose lamps closer to the floor and spent the next hour there with Dave de-greening the walls and formations.

Taylor Orr scrubbing lampenflora (photo courtesy of Dave Socky)

I followed Stephan Francke and Taylor Orr into the Oriental Palace and helped them spot green patches on the formations. They pulled out their toothbrushes and began spraying with hydrogen peroxide. I headed back to the entrance for more supplies and encountered Chris Flannagan and his son on their mission to replace burnt-out light bulbs. We encountered many scrubbers who thought that they were heading out of the cave for lunch, but they were actually headed back in.

After VAR sponsored a free lunch, we expected that everyone would be cleaning graffiti beyond the front maze. Dave and I spotted some lampenflora for a group with weaker headlamps. I noticed it’s even easier to spot the green fuzzies from other people’s lamps. In Alexandra’s Ball Room, we found more high lampenflora, so I started to exit the cave in search of a ladder. After a few turnarounds initiated by the people we encountered, I found myself heading into the cave in search of a ladder stored in a side passage.

Ken Walsh cleaning in Boulder Room under Emily Graham’s direction (photo courtesy of Dave Socky)

I never found that ladder. Chris and his son helped Tommy Carpenter and I look, and we passed Emily and Stephan scrubbing in a lower passage. Eventually we reached the back of the tourist trail and helped the Flannagans replace old light bulbs. I’m afraid we missed the turnoff to Fairyland.

Emily, Dave, Tommy, and I exited the cave very slowly, stopping to scrub many times. Emily spent a good amount of time converting the Snow Drift from green to white while we whitened up the formations in the adjoining hallway. Boulder Canyon had a single lamp at the top lighting lampenflora on the walls, ceiling, and floor. When we completed scrubbing there, we headed out (after sharing the Cathedral’s beauty with Emily). 

Emily Graham and Tommy Carpenter in Cathedral (photo courtesy of Dave Socky)

Wonderful veggie pizza dinner from VAR that evening (with the cave manager) and a beautiful night for camping.

In attendance: Ken W., Emily G., Zeke VF, Martin G., Mike B., Ann O’N., Arthur, Louis L, Hannah S. and Luke, Stephan F., Ellen S., Joe J. Michael E., Pete H., Taylor T., and April N.

Arthur asked about sharing some photos from a possible cave and agreed to set up a time to meet at a coffeehouse to share.

Mike Broome shared a draft of the Treasurers Annual Report and answered questions about the computations. In 2021 the grotto paid $95 for web hosting services and $200 for the donation to West Virginia Cave Conservancy. Mike will post the Treasurers Annual Report.

Stephan claimed his pullover that was left at Ken’s on December 5, making his meeting attendance fully worthwhile.

The upcoming trips list was very abbreviated and only included the April 19 VAR conservation trip and the May 20-22 MAR/VAR regional events. Members were encouraged to add their upcoming trips to the TriTrogs Google calendar.

Pete H. agreed to share a PowerPoint presentation about his trip to Mexico at an upcoming meeting.

Pete described his trips to vertical caves in Alabama. He stayed in the lap of luxury at a lake house. His trip began at Balcony Sinks Cave with a 200-300 foot drop. At the base of the pit, the group climbed a fixed rope into a cave passage that eventually dropped into a stream. This led upstream into a sixty-foot wide room filled with flowstone.

Pete’s second day of caving took him to Natural Well Cave in a residential community with a small 15-foot-by-15-foot entrance and no water running in. He rappelled onto a bunch of fallen trees and travelled downslope from there. It led to a small crawling passage that eventually opened to a tall room (over 150 feet high) with a small waterfall. Pete offered a safety note about the trip out.

Pete’s final caving day led him to Stephen’s Gap Cave, a cave with a key-coded parking area. As Pete’s team hiked to enter the cave, they passed a stream plunging into a cave entrance. A little old lady could walk into the second entrance, but Pete’s team took the time to rig and rappel into the entrance down through the heavy spray of a waterfall. Through a series of rope pulldowns, the team descended into a fast-moving stream passage and soaked the cavers. They exited through the first cave entrance.

Zeke then led the TriTrog officer nomination process, and only a single person was nominated for each position. The entire slate was accepted by acclimation, and the other members offered congratulations to the new TriTrog officers:

Chair: Zeke Van Fossen

Vice Chair: Louis Le

Webmaster: Taylor Tibbs

Treasurer: Mike Broome

Secretary: Emily Graham

Zeke mentioned his plans to deliver a program about scenarios in the future.

Discussion turned to the cat formation in southwest Virginia before the meeting closed.