NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Attendees: Ken Walsh, Mike Broome, Lisa Lorenzin, Howard Holgate, Bryce Schroeder, Martin Groenewegen, Melissa Sweazey, Rob Harris, Mark Daughtridge, John Plyler

General socializing 7:30 to 7:45
Meeting start 7:45

Trip Reports
Last weekend Mike & Lisa went to Butler cave pancake weekend, dug down 8 ft total, came back deciding those leads were not interesting. No blasting was done. Digging in the direction of a known cave.
Also did a commercial cave trip in Cueva Clara in Lares, Puerto Rico, which they enjoyed. Some nice formations. Mostly dry. Wild tours also available but other sightseeing beckoned.

Wiley PTA Science night thanked Ken and the Tritrogs for participating. The kids learned a lot. Ken brought the posters for us to peruse during the break, which seemed well done with interesting facts about bats.

Upcoming Trips:3/26 Lover’s Leap Vertical Survey
4/23-24 Grand Caverns Restoration
4/23 -24 Rob going to Blacksburg caving party that people are welcome to join him for, will include some caving
4/29-5/1 Spring VAR, Durbin WV

5/14 Vertical Training?? – who’s interested? students: Bryce, Ken, Rob, Martin, Melissa, Mike & Lisa for another date Suggested instructors John Plyler, Pete Hertl, Diana, Mike/Lisa. Mark D will continue to pursue putting this together
5/28 (Sat workday, 5/29 Sunday caving) – Memorial Day weekend Butler Expedition Weekend
5/26-28 Kentucky Speleofest
6/25? Grotto Trip ? Crib cave? Others??
? Gilley’s – Mark Little investigating, though busy with non caving stuff now. Part of Appalachian Caving Conservancy (ACC). In VA near Smyth Co, large passages, horizontal
Missouri VOR also coming up, google for info if interested

T-shirts. Martin will check into finding an artist. All are encouraged to submit ideas for design etc.
Howard will get preliminary pricing.

Break 8:16- 8:25 General mayhem ensued. (not really)

Program : Cave Map Reading, led by Ken Walsh

The book “On Station”, with key codes was recommended
Handouts given with descriptions of several cave map symbols.
Ken then proceeded with a well done presentation projected from a laptop which explained symbols and concepts. Ken will post the presentation separately on the TriTrogs website.

Topics and map symbols/notations covered included:
Strike and Dip – tells the tilt in relation to the earth’s surface
Slope- crows feet on map widen to bottom
Also explained:
Ledge, Passage height, Ceiling Change, depth below datum (entrance),
Height above datum, stalactite, flowstone wall, Drapery, flowstone, water depth, pool, Rimstone dams, tick marks to show direction facing for cross section call outs.
Breakdown, cobble, dirt or clay, intermittent sump, stream, ceiling height, pit depth etc

The presentation concluded with a very fun exercise with 3 teams competing. Mike, Bryce and Howard won delicious locally made chocolate bars. All 3 teams struggled to piece together a map and then plot a trip through the cave based on verbal instructions given before the cut up maps were available. Understanding the meaning of the symbols and discovering a path to go past interesting features gave the exercise the feel of actual caving as well as re-enforcing our new knowledge about map reading.

The traditional after the meeting gathering was outdoors at Armadillo Grill with all meeting attendees making it for the nice weather.

February 22, 2011
Ken Walsh, Robert Harris, Steve Molnar, Grant Molnar, Zoey Shepherd, Mike Broome, Matthew “Zeke” Van Fossen, Howard Holgate, Mark Daughtridge attending

Meeting began about 7:30
T- Shirt discussion- Majority present interested in making/buying a new t shirt design.
“Mythbusters” booth run by at Wylie Elementary March 10th, ?? pm till

8:05 pm Mark D was duly elected as secretary and began taking minutes at that point.

Zeke reports Bic lighters 10 years old from Hancock cache did not work, in fact sprayed butane when attempting to light. Candles worked fine. Butane was still flammable but starters did not work. Conducted experiments at his desk, suggests outdoors for further experiments.

Trip Reports:
1) Ken, Mike, Lisa, and Dave Duguid went last weekend to Smyth Cty VA, stayed w/ Tanya, arrived Saturday, got to cave at 1pm after bbq lunch w/ Tanya. Copenhavers Cave survey added 22 stations, 600 ft, went back on Sunday, 8.5 hrs total Big muddy room left hand wall primary survey target. Cave is on a farm. Many cows and a goat supervised changing. Some Ninja black cows appeared under cover of darkness. Climbing and belaying needed to get to a pool they struggled to measure as at least 2 ft deep. Saw hell bender lizard about 10 inches long. (grew 2 inches during tonight’s meeting . . .) Tanya and Lisa did surface surveying and found interesting sinkholes on Sunday. Wrapped up several leads, ~12 survey stations / 80ft on Sunday. Hail and rain while underground nearly got Ken’s car stuck getting out. Tanya wisely parked at the top by the road. Finished cave with about 1700 ft. Could be some high climbing leads or submerged leads.

2) 4 ppl went to see Sanctum on Super Bowl Sunday

Upcoming Trips:

What types of trips are desired? Photo, Survey, Digs, Sport ?
May 1, Spring VAR , vendors expected, Durbin WV, link at Tritrogs web site in calendar (may not work)
July 19-22 Convention in CO
Ken is Looking for NCRC rescue classes
Gap Cave at TN/VA/KY border. survey trip last weekend of each month- CRF, must join CRF to participate. Easy to join now.

Rob heading to Blacksburg around Easter
Grand Caverns cave Restoration April 23-24th (Easter) weekend. Great food provided. Make walkways, change light bulbs, list of projects. About 40 cavers usually show up. Spend all day in and out of tourist cave. Shenandoah Valley in town of Grottos. Last year went to Shakespeare play in Staunton afterwards

Break 8:37

Robert passed around National Geographic cave article
Ken led discussion about safety based on mistakes from the movie, Sanctum:
Attitude/Machismo /respect for life
Didn’t bring backup tanks as assigned
Pushing rebreather through restriction
Waiting too long after losing surface contact
Failure to respect weather forecast
Weather problems
Long Hair loose on rappel
Novice- Failure to listen to leader
Improper warmth gear
Hypothermia- failure to wear deceased persons gear even when crucial to do so
Knife near rope
Food shortage
Going off alone
Ran out of light
Improper rest
Couldn’t dive, got bends
Didn’t tell anyone where he was going,
Leaving a member behind
No backup plan if weather did go bad or cave in blocked exit
One member not mentally up for the dive, pressured to go anyway
Poor diving/buddy breath technique,
Poor climbing technique- Rig point moved
Cable ladder in a waterfall

1) What are duties of surface support team? Are they stated or just “Understood”?
Suggestion that we may want to refine suggested instructions for surface watch.
2) What cave obstacles will you introduce to novices? How should they be coached?
Discussion suggestions: Don’t have someone get on rope for first time underground.

3) What should you consider when rigging ropes, hand lines, and cable ladders? What about handling knives?
Learn good techniques for anchor building, self rescue, etc. Be accountable for your own safety. Don’t just assume leaders know or are using safe techniques.
4) How can spectators disrupt a complicated move?
Too many voices. Distracting. Don’t shine light in someone’s eyes
5) How should you react to the weakest links? Leave them in back?
Have a strong person as the sweep position. No one ever gets out of earshot from the group. Everyone is responsible for the whole team.
6) How do you prevent the onset of hypothermia?
Dress properly, stay dry, keep moving, cover with garbage bag, body heat, (a body on either side) Plan wet stuff for last
7) When packing gear for a trip, how many hours of food, water and light do you plan?
More than you need for the hours you expect to be gone.
Recommended book: Deep Survival talks about general survival ways of thinking that work and those that don’t

Meeting concluded with debate on where to eat afterwards, and a few ended up at the Diner on Glenwood.

“Crap! No holds! Just mud!” Wedged against a vertical mud and rock slope in front and smooth muddy rock slabs on either side I know my only piece of protection, a nylon runner now at my knees, will probably slide off its rock horn if I move up. I’m not sure it would hold for a downward fall either since it’s probably just a small boulder packed in by mud.

I rethink my inital excitement when my compadres suggested this as a great survey trip for me since they needed a “climber” here in Lover’s Leap Cave.

Wedged into the crux halfway up this 40 foot climb on the left side of a long narrow room I still feel as much joy and excitement about seeing what’s at the top and overcoming the climbing challenge as I feel fear that this might be a colossally bad idea. If I fall from this vertical section onto the 40 then 30 degree slope below I’ll probably just slide through the mud, bang against the walls, perhaps sprain or break something minor but doesn’t seem like a risk of death or long term injury. I have added incentive to stay healthy being committed to an international alpine trip in 4 months.

I’ve already stepped back down a couple of times, half hanging on the sling, half resting with steps kicked into the mud with my rock shoes which have 6 pounds each of mud caked on them. Downclimbing to my belayer would be just as treacherous as moving up or staying. Above me about another body length across a 50 degree mud field is a level ledge with what appear to be two small flowstone slopers that should serve as decent protection, maybe even enough to rappel back down. I fling one glove onto the unseen back of the ledge. The second I toss right onto those flowstone slopers. If only my hand were still in that one to grab the only decent looking hold in sight of my headlamp. Now the gloves are literally off and my determination is renewed.

Bare handed I now find a small crimper indented into my left hand wall. The right wall I can reach with my foot with my knee stradled across a boulder outcrop that juts out towards me. The seemingly good hand hold on the right wall broke off cleanly when tested- glad I didn’t trust my foot to it.

The crimper and some small uppy motions inch my hips up further to the top of the vertical section where now the slope seems plausibly angled to stick to. Digging with my bare hands I carve out a fist sized left hand which compresses when I weight it. Dig more to make it usable again. Right hand digs through to a rock I can barely pinch with fingers. Don’t dig enough to make it a jug handle, it might dig loose from the slope entirely. These are my life line as I fish-flop onto the slope. A previous failure getting over a traditional rock climb roof taught me that grace isn’t always part of the best solution. Dig, pull, wiggle, flop, dig, scramble, (slope collapsing as I go,) up to the flowstone slopers. Brush the glove aside, Crumble! It was just mud, not stone. OK, getting used to this now, at least ledge is pretty flat. Fling both gloves down to my belayer, who has retreated into the passageway from the hail of mud and rock I loosened. He was kind enough not to add to my stress by telling me the sling around my one “safe” spot came loose and fell back to him. Gloves I was willing to dedicate to the cause are safe below, but myself I’m still worried about. (Even if my one piece of pro 15 feet below was really there it would only slightly lessen the impact if I hit the bottom from this height. The ledge I’m on is slowly collapsing around the edges- time to move on!

Up a few more feet around a big boulder I find a small alcove that’s even flatter, and seems more stable, though till just mud for a floor. I bang on everything to guess what is real and what is mud. Digging with my nut tool I thread a runner around a real stone again, possibly held just by mud. Clipping in I yell down that I finally have some pro. Breath. Rest. whew, that was intense. look around. If I stand there may be one passage to my left, one above, and one to the right. Yay, the cave appears to go! That’s why we risked this climb!

After catching my breath I drop the tape measure. 35 feet to the belayer’s station. I mark a spot on the big boulder and Dave and Ken both take readings from below to confirm my inclination. They are back in the room beyond where the climb started so it’s only a 47 degree angle to them, but the climb must have been more vertical than I thought given that reading.

I feel safer about my ledge and the closeness of the walls than the one piece of pro I have, but I’m happy Dave has me on belay even on a static rope. I finally relax and stand up. Yep there’s tight crawling passage just above my head to the right. Snaking up and around the upward spiral I find lots of what we presume to be racoon skat, some of it very fresh. I don’t want to crawl through the freshest of it to explore that right hand crawl which is almost square. Besides, if it continues like that for long I’d have to back out through it again into this high vertical channel.

Up is easier and slightly cleaner and opens into a 20 by 8 by 4 foot high room. There are two passages that continue through the other side, what would be left from my piece of pro below. One is squirel sized, the other racoon sized and has racoon like fur stuck in the spider webs on the top of it. Possibly diggable to human sized were one so inclined. I call this room the Smart Car Show Room as other than the height you could fit about 2 of them in here. I had to untie to get fully into the room as the static rope drag was too much. I re-tie, check my knot, and down climb back to my pro. I chose a rapell strategy talking with the more experienced cavers below and rap down, leaving the runner to mark our progress for some future caver.

I name the route “Racoon Ridge” and estimate it to be about a 5.10 R in the rock rating system. Meaning it requires rock shoes and a few advanced techniques to deal with the hard to find or create shifting holds and is Run-out with little opportunity to protect.

I rest and snack before joining the surveyors again. It’s late but we want to finish the known leads before indulging in Mexican food and beer. Before my climb David had dropped more than 60 feet into a pit on the opposite end of the large room from my climb. He found a possible small lead and a flash light we guess is from the 1950’s well down that narrow pit. Ken and Rob rigged a cable ladder down a smaller pit that we all had to step over on the way in. Dave’s pit continued but got too tight for comfort with no one else able to descend and help if he got stuck. Ken’s pit also seemed too tight to continue, even if he’d been on rope instead of ladder. Above Ken’s pit we climbed into a large room with sloping walls telling of major geologic shifts long ago.

“That seems too tight to go, but feel free to poke your head in and see what you think.” – words Ken and Dave’s stomach would soon regret. I snaked around with a few yoga moves and dropped into a room I could stand in with crawling passage continuing 14 feet till it turned intriguingly to the right. We surveyed only another 10 feet past that turn where it would have been a dig to get into a tight canyon 20 feet high by 20 feet long by about 8 inches wide. Once in the computer we were intrigued to learn that this canyon runs back towards my climb and the Smart Car showroom and both of them are only about 12 feet below the entrance elevation.

We added more than 1/3 of the total 543 total surveyed feet to the map of Lover’s Leap cave that day. Outside we carefully night-scrambled down the extremely steep hill that had required rigging rope to retrieve a dropped pack on the way in. Only Pizza Hut was open so late but we happily chowed down with our host Tanya and Rob’s friend Beth who’d just driven from Blacksburg. Never a germaphobic caver I did not balk at sharing a slice with Tanya, but I may never live down commenting that after climbing 40 feet up through mud and crawling through fresh racoon droppings and guano that swapping spit with Tanya would the most pleasant thing I’d done all day.

Pizza Hut fed us impressive amounts of food for which we tipped well before retiring to Tanya’s to stay up way too late discussing endless options for Sunday. Only when we woke at 10 did I learn our goal. We missed breakfast at the only Sunday morning table service restaurant but lunch fared us well instead.

Dave’s truck and Beth’s SUV earned their stripes (literally from several tree branches) on the “road” into the Cotton cave hillside. We split into 2 teams, Ken and I mainly focussed on the intriguing “Easy Way Down” dig, while Dave, Rob, Tanya and Beth checked out 5 Goat cave nearby and Cotton Cave.

A truly beautiful autumnal day enhanced staying outside to dig. We progressed hugely, the highlight of which for me was fashioning some opposing slip knots to grip odd shaped boulders with webbing so that Ken, Dave and I could haul them out with webbing. I was disappointed that none of them were large enough to justify rigging block and tackle to really practice vertical rescue techniques. We opened up the right side of the 10 foot long slot enough to poke head lamps down and even willow thin Beth agreed she could not fit between the slabs it exposed. Straight down seemed perhaps more promising but a final large boulder slab halted progress for the day. Left seemed also unlikely to open up into large enough passage. We all agreed the progress was impressive, but from here it would be much slower and perhaps a few winters of freeze/thaw would help.

Five Goat cave had turned out to be only about 12 feet long, perhaps the easiest map ever. Ken and I wanted to at least check out nearby Cotton, which even with the help of those who’d just come from there was hard to find only 100 yards from “Easy Way.”

I was newly stunned by the immediate beauty of Cotton in the entrance. Back of the main room a climb I’d started up last year intrigued me even more. I was tired from digging, yesterday’s climb and short sleep, but only a realization that it was 6:30 and we had food and 3 hours of highway to consume before we slept deterred me from starting up it anyway.

We allowed a few minutes for reconnasaince of the climb. Beth chimneyed up a narrow section further out in the room that I had thought might lead to a ledge for traverseing back to the water-fall of flowstone at the far end. She got up enough to report the ledge was not as flat or deep as hoped, and we watched nervously as she figured out how to down climb from that awkward position with some aid from Ken and me. The hard part about the climb at the end seems to be an utter lack of opportunities to protect it. It was drier now in late August than it had been on our first visit, and plenty solid and rough. The problem for me is the fall consequences and how to get back down. Everything solid stone but the rimstone pools below meant a much harsher landing than the mud climb in Lover’s Leap would have been. I’d rate this one maybe a 5.7 as a rock route, but one never knows for sure until it’s climbed.
Extra headlamps from 6 people made the space above the climb more intriguing than ever. It appears to open into a large mezzanine where 20 people could stand and then leads further back beneath a large archway. How much more passage it could contain carved by the water that formed all the beautiful flowstone decorations intrigues me!

We’d brought a telescoping squeege pole in hopes of hooking webbing through a high formation which turns out to be infeasible. Instead I tied my camera and a light to the squeegee and Ken and I carefully extended it as high as we could reach. The video was poor, with the light too inconsistent, but as a proof of concept it is an idea worth improving for future explorations. Getting ideas for a future adventure above the stone falls was our main goal so we declared victory, retrieved some old trash from the cave, and headed for the Mexican food Saturday had denied us. Properly rehydrated by Margaritas we discussed the diminishing returns of light over distance on the ride home.

Lover’s Leap map has only a few areas where further surveying might be possible, mainly down the long pit Dave explored. Racoon Ridge may remain a once-climbed wonder for decades. Easy Way Down digging may get harder if it can be opened into cave at all. So the intriguing but hard to protect climb at the current back of Cotton remains our most enticing remnant of this excellent early fall trip. Perhaps it goes no further than we see, but my imagination dreams of glorious hours of surveying unmapped miles.

On June 5, 2009, I made the 5 1/2 hour drive from Durham to the quaint crossroads of Seneca Rocks, WV. After a great Saturday of guided rock climbing on the beautiful, starkly exposed fins and thin technical summit of Seneca, I enjoyed a leisurely run by the upper Potomac river, a couple of beers, and a tasty pizza as I pondered how to spend my Sunday in this mountain paradise. My spartan little hotel room at Yokum’s was such a luxury compared to usual tent that I decided to sleep in, nestled comfortably as I was between the peaceful river 30 yards behind and the melodious 3 am rumblings of the occasional big rig only 30 feet from my front door.

Forgoing further climbs or strenuous hikes I settled on a plan to take advantage of some of the many commercial caves I’d passed on the long drive in. First priority was the closest- Seneca Caverns, touted as the “largest and most beautiful in W. Va!” Skeptical of this claim I asked our lovely guide, Holly, who clarified that the 3/4 of a mile of electrically lit passage included in the tour constituted the largest commercial cave in WV. Aha!
Nonetheless, I was thrilled for the chance to cave in my street clothes even if it wouldn’t be the 5 miles of underground sidewalk I’d enjoyed in Mammoth KY. Even better, I learned that a 2nd cave only 200 yards away was also open for business, and better still was considered a guided “wild” cave!
Barely able to wait long enough to scarf down the rather edible lunch offered on site, I quickly bought my tickets and donned the helmet provided. I was bummed that no outside flashlights were allowed, but once Holly learned that I was a true caver, she not only permitted my peeks around with my discretely pocketed headlamp, but was eager to discuss “real” caving with me as we waited for parents and munchkins to flee from darkness to the next floodlights in the sequence of switches that move groups through the tour.
Holly’s well rehearsed spiel suggested familiar shapes in the many formations throughout the cave, for the benefit of the imagination-impaired. I would have had no trouble appreciating the variety of beauty in the cave without having to squint sideways to see donkey-kong in the flowtone, but it was an amusing spiel nonetheless.
We started out in a room with a large “dutch oven” mound of flowstone, that unfortunately had been partly removed and a deep pit filled in to make the entrance room flat and easy for the public. Later on we ended up below this room where a cut stone wall made from that removal now seals and protects an Indian burial chamber. Holly quietly told me that the owners believe there may be undocumented passages beyond that wall.
Just past the entrance there is a large room looking across to a 40 ft tall balcony ledge with nice formations flowing away below it. Snaking down and around on wooden stairs we entered a smooth tall chimney carved by a once deep pool that left a few small incut ledges along the smooth curvy walls where it’s level had stabilized at times. Below this was the red-lit low point of the cave known as the Devil’s oven, which could have claimed some small children had not some brave legendary child left a permanent hand print in the stone and scared the devil away with her strength. (Not sure if the handprint was natural formation or put there to go with the tale.)
After that we saw a thin strip of “bacon” artistically backlit, several old rimstone dams, but best of all was “mirror lake” where the water remained in the pools. A pit further on beneath the boardwalk clearly had some very deep mud, Holly reported it to be thigh deep on the last guy who’d been in. She later went back with the long handled reacher pole to try to retrieve the pacifier a previous tourist had donated to the mud.
When I found out that neighboring Stratosphere cavern actually afforded the opportunity to be as wild as I wanted it to be I quickly put on some long synthetic pants and old shirt instead of the chilly shorts and decent shirt I’d been wearing. This tour outfitted from a separate shelf of helmets that included headlamps and even offered a secondary mag light. “Zeb” was the fearless leader for Stratosphere- Unplugged! (no electric lights!) I was pleased for the 2nd time in as many days to have a guide for wild West Virginia to myself!
Fifty steep wooden stairs lead down into Stratosphere where the cool air immediately validated my choice for long pants. Continuing in we noticed right away the abundance of white fungus all over the wooden posts of the stairs in the dark cave proper. Stratosphere had been public before in 1939, but closed after the fungus had succeded in consuming the stairs beyond safety limits. All through the cavern what I first thought was mulch was the remains of the old stairs. Now there are posts with rope hand lines where stairs once were. We also found numerous rusty nails, which I later learned to avoid in crawlways.

Here as in Seneca Cavern the entry room had been filled in with gravel to level it out. At the far end a rock and mud slide plugged what must once have continued or been another entrance. Zeb speculated that one might find leads by digging the sides of the entry room too.

After the first turn he pointed out a hole that clients were welcome to drop into and expolre. He said I was the first client he’d ever taken in who actually did. 🙂 At the bottom was a small room with a tightening low crawlway. I scooted into the next little room and took off my strapless helmet to peer into the next bit. It might have kept going but was getting plenty tight by then and seemed unpromising this early in the cave.
I backed out and we continued, past a cool wide based column and a long fallen column. (Or was that in Seneca? One’s mind tends to merge memories. . .) Down a slope where the hand line was appreciated, we found the back of the cavern at it’s lowest point so far where the huge flowstone formation that names the cave resides. “Stratosphere” is a 3o foot high hot-air-baloon shaped feature with hollow fins that ring like organ pipes which Zeb demonstrated with a stick and his hands.
Zeb was very curious about potential leads and we explored high and low behind Stratosphere formation to no avail. Here in the featured room we found another type of fungus I hadn’t expected- a perfect little mushroom at the base of the artificial wall we’d hopped down to enter the room. Above us a stream channel wound through the ceiling, reminding me of the stream above the waterfall in Worleys, VA which will surely work it’s way through its stone floor too some day.
On the way out as we neared the top of the slope we stopped to explore a man sized whole on the lower left wall. It wasn’t large enough to drop into feet first and get into the bit going horizontal. At my feet was also a downward passage possibly large enough to squeeze through and clearly still being shaped by the muddy flow trickling down. I wanted to go inverted, but our helmets were still strapless and I could picture mine lodging irretrievably down that shaft and preventing further opening by the water flow. So I let go the notion of peering in either direction from where my feet were, but paused for a listen. Far below water plunked through untold air into a pool beneath. I’m not sure if you can really tell how much water or distance is involved just from sound but for those of us not imagination-impaired the sound was truly tantalizing. I’d guess the water was dropping 10 or 15 feet into a pool the diameter of your average bistro 2-top table, but who knows it could have been 30 feet into an underground sea bounded with magical treasure.
Zeb had not paused to listen that way before and was intrigued to possibly explore this lead someday soon. Amidst the old mulched stair remnants we found another single-leaf plant sprouting 5 inches high, guarded by an earthworm that was mostly white but retaining a bit of pink suggesting he hadn’t been solely cave dwelling for many generations yet. Our last treat on the way out was several very healthy and plump looking bats. One Zeb identified as a Virginia Long-eared amongst all the smaller pipstrelles.
A high ledge near the entrance/exit would have been an easy climb even in running shoes, but Zeb said the six rooms above weren’t very impressive. If only I’d had reliable Ken there to spot me and a few more hours of daylight for the long drive I probably would have gone up anyway.
Returning to the muggy summer yielded one more excitement as I changed out of the muddy clothes and shoes for the drive home. A model helicopter was darting to and fro above the tall grassy within range of its radio operator. Suddenly it began to wobble widly, sputtered and landed with a painfully ungraceful thud amongst the weeds. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if it was airworthy again, but the owners didn’t seem to distraught as they went searching for it.
Unfortunately my leisurely day had me passing the several other commercial caverns along the way too late on a Sunday evening to stop and investigate, but I hope to catch some of them and Virginia’s Natural Bridge on future trips.

The New Year’s trip previously posted could not have ended with a better cliff hanger- Literally a beautiful waterfall with at least one lead to be explored in Worley’s Cave. Originally I had hoped that a full crew would be able to go this weekend and help us survey miles and miles of unknown cave- my imagination was stirring at full tilt of what we might discover based on the intriguing waterfall we’d left behind.

Alas, only Ken and his total newbie surveyor (me) were able to commit to the full weekend, but we did find a few even newer folks from Duke who wanted to go sport caving half a day. Up for any form of caving Ken and I headed up to Marion on Friday night to crash again with super cave finder Tanya. A fun discussion of all things speleological ensued until we had to sleep and dream of discoveries to come.
The 2 gurus decided that no reliable map of Roberts cave existed with the latest being done in 1952 by paces and compass only. With only limited time before meeting the Dukies in the afternoon we headed to Roberts, instruments in hand. An easier wild cave entrance won’t likely be found- the parking area of the state park announces the Roberts Cave Trail, where 100 yards ahead a handful of obvious holes beckon.

The first hole went only a few feet and the 2nd we checked was obviously the main cave, opening immediately to extensively decorated walking passage. All that we surveyed was level, clear open, displaying relatively clean looking flowstone. We got a good look at a big brown bat too. It was nice surveying the entrance with actual sunlight illuminating the instruments.
Unfortunately we didn’t have much time or get very far, but did establish that it’s worth some return trips. We dropped off Tanya at her house, inhaled a quick lunch and dashed over the mountain to meet untold numbers of Duke students for my first look at Ken’s favorite completed (or was it?) map project- Hancock!
Thanks to Ken’s expert driving of my speedy Prius we arrived in time for me to have a quick peek into Little Hancock while he kept watch for Dukesters. Although small, it boasts some nice fossils on the left, exactly where Ken said they’d be, and some nice formations all along the right wall. We also saw a cool ice formation outside an impassable 2nd entrance to Hancock.
A few minutes later the untold number of Dukies could be told- Two. I guess the others had to study or watch Duke beat up on Maryland or whatever it is Dukies do. (I went to that other school. 🙂 ) Justin had done one wild cave before and Hannah had only been a few feet into some old mines, so everyone but Ken was in for some new treats in Hancock.
Ken nominally let me lead with an old version of the map and I promptly detoured from my initial plan and first explored intriguing passages under and left of the entrance. To get there we had to descend 2 handlines at the start, so Ken was not shy about introducing the newbies to some short vertical passages.
I lost my lead privileges after taking us down an unexciting dead end crawl, so Hannah and Justin led us out of the Octupus room towards the Funnel Tunnel, the one place Ken said we shouldn’t go on a day with snow melt and new cavers. The steep round edges of the first 2 “Toliet bowl” formations were enough to dissuade the new leaders so we back tracked to see why getting to one room had earned it the name “Whine Cellar” but didn’t go all the way to it.

We played around with the climb to Rapunzel’s Tower and then headed back toward In the Pendants Hall. We were all suitably impressed by the maze capacity of this cave. Dare I say we were amazed at how complex it is?

Ken, having memorized the complexity, had some fun with it, making sure Justin and I took the first passage on the left which we crawled out of to see Ken and Hannah walking towards us from the 2nd much easier passage on the left only a few feet further on. That area was interesting enough on it’s own, but Ken pointed out another detour for us to try sans packs. About 10 feet up on one wall was a hole I doubted was much bigger than me with spiny protrusions right where my spine would be if I got up there. With a boost from Ken I did get into the hole and as expected kicked my legs around comically in the air behind me as I wiggled my upper half through to the room beyond. I knew there was nothing to kick against but kept doing it despite what my brain tried to tell my legs. Justin was cool enough to endure the same comic route even after being amused at seeing me do it. We saw some cool water trickling in to clean the rocks there and presumed it was probably near the icy entrance I’d seen earlier. One small pit there smelled of ammonia and then we rejoined the others. I highly recommend the “cartoon hole” for those willing to entertain others getting through it.

We came to a chamber that resonates low tones in entertaining echos where we slithered carefully around some cool formations onto a false floor room above a very deep pit. I enjoyed that room immensly until I laid down on the floor and saw that the inch thin slab continued more than my body length beneath me above the open chasm. I took the tightest way I’ve done yet out of there, remembering a few techniques I’ve heard veteran cavers describe. It wasn’t bad since it was plenty open on either side, was less likely to impact formations and I also knew there was the other way around it.

The opposite ledge of the false floor chasm held a small mud sculpture that presumably was made during the ample time Ken had once spent rappelling, surveying and ascending back from the chasm. It was much more detailed than the other mud sculptures we saw elsewhere and contributed to ourselves.

Back below the high entrance to the mutiny room Ken dropped down into a small pit mumbling that he didn’t remember it, and was surprised to find a low room with interesting helictites on the ceiling, one reminiscent of the map of Italy. The room offered a view through formation far too tight to pass of another small room with a bit of snow white flowstone peeking through. Is any map ever really done?

Newest caver Hannah was the first to recognize the Octopus room and it’s way out. Tired and hungry we eventually did navigate all the way back up the climbs and out into the 23 degree weather to find the log book had become a frozen mass of wet paper stuck to the mailbox.

Back home after consuming good Mexican food with Tanya, we activated the battery in a new cat toy on a stick and found that the squeeky mouse is great for exercising the dog as well.

The next day we slept in a bit, ate a nice breakfast and send the young Dukies on their way. Ken and Tanya and I headed to Worleys and went down to the “sandwich” passage, wherein the caver becomes the meat between close slabs of stone. Backing through the 18 feet or so of sandwich one’s feet eventually come down onto a nice pedestal and into a room opening onto a giant clay sliding board of a room which was the last we got surveyed at New Years. The room is about 30 feet wide by 50 feet long at about a 35 degree angle, at least that’s what my instruments/memory say, and I’m sticking to it until Ken corrects me.

We went straight to the crawlway about halfway up the left hand side of the room, which seemed to have less water flowing out of it than before. It opened up into the same beautiful room I’d only glimpsed at the end of the previous trip. My initial glance had been so hasty that I’d totally failed to realize that as the crawlway opens up there is another crawlway to the right, and underneath the falls is a larger, almost stooping height passage where the water drains down via another route than how we found the room. So, my coveted climb up the water fall would have to wait.

I wanted to go ahead and get wet and get to climbing, but we surveyed the larger passage below the falls first. With my poor novice station setting skills it took quite a while to do only a couple of shots, and we didn’t get to see if it links up with a larger room Ken had explored below which I got to peek into on the way out from the main sliding board room.

The crawlway on the floor where we came in had a sleepy bat right in the middle of it so we saved that for another day too, and finally, I was ready to climb!
On the back of the water fall what looked like great footholds for the climbing shoes I had brought along for the occasion were just a thin black patena over mud. The bottom shelf about 3 feet up tested sturdy so I climbed up there, then onto Ken’s shoulder and tested the suspect mud and rock at the upper rim. Finding a good blocky handhold that seemed attached to a well anchored shelf I pulled up into the opening above and quickly scooted back onto solid ground where the stream poured over the shelf to Ken below.

I ooohed and aahed about the pretty room I was in. Looking across the hole I’d just climbed up from the round room had redish and white striped stone polished smooth like a Utah canyon wall. A 2 foot round passage led away from the hole on the other side, a bit more risky climbing to get into on another day. Behind me the stream trickled over a few ledges of less than a foot high each as the narrow walking passage narrowed upstream to a crawl through.
I set a station looking down to the room below and got one good shot back down. Tanya didn’t want to attempt the wet unstable climb and Ken could not stand on his own shoulders to get up there, so they commenced telling me it was time to move out as I checked out the opening a few feet up stream. I could hear more water falling in the room beyond and could not resist a glimpse.

The short crawlway opened immediately into a room at least the size of a bus. A small plain waterfall trickled down the far wall, origin unknown. To the right a drainage passage, to the left a room that could have other passages off it as well. A few quick pictures of my foggy breath and I was back to the opening, onto a helpful shoulder, lower shelf and the main floor again.

Tanya got to personally see the web worms we’d discovered last trip, and found Ken’s gloves right where he’d left them on that trip too. As they made their way back down the sliding board using the stream as stairs I peeked into the room we think will connect to the lower waterfall drain passage which Ken had surveyed on still older trips.

We re-emerged from the sandwich then the cave itself to dust off in the late afternoon light before enjoying some good Italian food and heading for home. Worley’s left us with more fun to discover, trading one lead for multiples as the survey and our intrigue grows. In all I got to see new-to-me territory in 4 different caves in the 2 days, the joy of being a new caver.