Carlin and Dave cancelled a planned cave trip with an aim to drag heavy scaling poles through a water-filled belly crawl. Phew. Eric Williams, Emily Graham, Tanya McLaughlin, and I opted for an easier trip on a sunny June Saturday. Eric prepared a great breakfast for us, yet we still feasted on the cherries in Tanya’s front yard. So sweet and delicious. Eric’s five-year-old daughter couldn’t get enough of them.

We started with a short trip to Stone’s Cave No. 1, at my request. The guys mowing the field thought us a bit strangely dressed until we told them about the cave in the woods. I had to collect a profile sketch and check some leads before I could draw the map. I got very focused on completing my mission and determined that the leads were definitely dead ends/too tight for me.

When I muddily returned returned from the upstream dead end to the group, I found Eric’s daughter crawling on a high ledge to avoid a deep pool (that had been empty on previous trips to the cave). This seemed unnecessary because she was already soaked from a previous pool. However, the surprising part was that a dog had followed the group into the cave. The untagged dog (later dubbed Happy Happy by the five-year-old) found travel through the cave particularly easy, but Tanya and Emily didn’t like getting soaked when Happy shook the cave water from his coat.

We then travelled to Speedwell Cave because none of us had ever been inside. We explored a few different levels, and I discovered that the five-year-old had a considerable advantage in the two-foot-high passageways. Some pretty formations but some graffiti. We were delighted to find little to no garbage dropped inside this oft-visited cave.

by Kim Parks

When someone mentions they will be passing their Saturday by crawling through miles of narrow, underground passageways accompanied by quasi-strangers, the response is clear: me too! Answer as such and you find yourself in a minivan packed with fellow cavers, pouring over maps detailing a large network of below-grade paths with varying ceiling heights. Mark had graciously agreed to lead Alice, Jim, Ester, Andy, and me through Paxton’s cave, teaching a subset of us the basics of caving along the way. At this point I still (rather naively) believed both the map, that claimed that the lowest ceiling height would be a spacious 3 feet, and Mark, who asserted the only crawl would be a 10-foot stretch at the entrance. And here I was hoping to at least get a little muddy.

After catching some sleep in a hotel adorned with a fist-sized hole in the wall and filling up the energy reserves with some solid meals, we were suiting up at Paxton’s ready to venture behind the waterfall and into the cave. Once Paxton’s dog, Boomer, fully ‘christened’ Rob’s pack, and Alice finished the last touches on her impromptu belt made from duct tape, we were ready to go. Watching people disappear under a rock in front of you is not only exhilarating, but you know you are surrounded by like-minded adventurers when their first instinct is to follow suit. True to Mark’s promise, the first low section to reach the larger passage was indeed a fun crawl, and I was instantly hooked on caving.

Entering a few larger rooms, we found the first of many soda straws and helictites. You can’t help but be awed by the sight, especially considering the time needed for such beautiful formations to occur. Each room had many offshoots, and I was glad to be led someone who knew the way. Mark diligently bestowed the caver tenets: don’t trust the arrows or the elephant tracks, watch your head, and touch as little as possible, except for 3 points of contact. How reassuring to know these are no spelunkers, but instead responsible cavers. It was not long before we reached the incredible expanse of the Anthrodite Room, our throne room with Esther and Jim settled in as our king and queen.

After lunch, the adventuring continued. Our first surprise was some traces of cave wildlife. Wild, indeed, despite being inanimate. Some ambitious souls had trucked a few surprising items. Now, the Neanderthals of 50,000 years ago would have expressed their artistic side with cave drawings. Today’s humanity? Barbies, and a well-endowed Ken in compromising positions, watched by a power ranger and some dinosaurs. (….I’ll let you decide whether we have reached the apex of evolution yet.) Not long after we happened upon the elephant rock, (or horse, or ‘rock machine’, depending on who you asked), and we branched out from there to do some exploring, complete with some narrow squeezes. The most notable being one we had encountered earlier, dubbed the superman rock, given that in order to traverse this narrow crack, your body had to contort into flying-superman cave dive, at an awkward angle. This was followed later by a large tombstone rock, also a narrow squeeze.

Mark, with an eye on the time, suggested we travel back through the maze in order to trek in the general direction of the entrance. With three experienced cavers as part of the group, we were fortunate to have three compasses to consult to find north. Only… Mark pointed one way, Rob another, and Andy another. Hmm. It was about this time I thought it prudent to ask if Mark had ever gotten lost in this cave, and his answer was not reassuring (Hint: it wasn’t no). Interestingly, the more times we happened upon the same exact tombstone as before, the more we slowly transitioned to looking for survey tape, arrows, and elephant tracks.

It was about this time that ‘scouting trips’ became the norm, and during one time Mark ventured ahead to see what rooms he could uncover, we all extinguished our headlamps and laid back on the cool rock to let darkness envelope us. Having already covered the deeper icebreaker cave conversations of cow puns, death, God, and jokes about a small medium at large, we could sit back and enjoy the all-encompassing darkness. Mark reappeared with a route in mind, and if we followed enough of these said ways out, eventually one of them might not circle us back to a rock we had seen an hour prior. We started attempting some more challenging climbs, and some even tighter crawls (remember the 3-foot ceiling promise?), and this led us to the promising sign of leaves scattered at the bottom of the break down rooms.

It was with true disappointment that I finally heard the waterfall at the entrance, knowing that meant I wouldn’t get to spend the night in the throne room. Donned in mud from helmet to caving boots, our group emerged as a new round of cavers that had thoroughly enjoyed all the underworld had to offer. Was Paxton’s an excellent introduction to caving and the start to a new realm of adventure? To answer in Troglodyte fashion (per Andy’s suggestion): Good cave!

You’ve probably gotten the April issue of the NSS News by now. I’m pleased to say that Dave, Carlin, Mark, Brian Williams, and I had the opportunity to cave with the cover girl, Steph Petri, last Saturday. Dave and Carlin led us back to the VERY wet part of SnoCone Cave to continue the survey. Steph, Brian, and Carlin were assigned to the stream belly crawl while Mark, Dave, and I sloshed on through.

We began surveying into a small but well decorated room that poured white formations from forty feet above. Mark and Dave surveyed down a crack where I couldn’t fit then returned to help survey through. Although things got complicated when Carlin’s group caught up with us, we continued surveying along the stream level while the other group headed up to survey a well-decorated room above.

Mark and I plugged along across rimstone pools and into another high echoing dome. Fortunately the stream led us out of the narrow crawlways and into a massive foggy chamber. The fog was generated from a fifteen-foot high waterfall that cascaded down into our room within a tomb. Ancient faces peered from one wall, and a massive stalagmite pyramid spilled twenty feet across the room. My favorite decorations appeared as a series of rose buds perched on a flowstone slope.

Without scaling poles we couldn’t proceed further with the survey that day. Mark, Dave, and I took a short trip up to the well-decorated room discovered by Steph and Carlin.

On Sunday we headed to Dutton’s Cave on the other side of the county. I crossed the field, easily found the entrance, then returned for the others and a cable ladder. The sport trip had me leading Mark and Carlin down one of the three pits just inside the entrance while Dave and Tanya waited at the entrance. We found an interconnected maze that drained down to a single pool thirty-seven feet below the upper entrance.

Before leaving, Carlin and Mark ducked into Radon Cave to understand that the entrance fill is very easy to clear.

Nick, Eric, and Bill from Walker Mountain Grotto joined Eric, Emily, Pete, and me for a bat count/graffiti cleanup trip in Hancock Cave on February 19. The cave is owned by the West Virginia Cave Conservancy and a sporting cave for cavers. Emily led us through much of the cave, Bill discovered a tusk/rib bone in the mud, Pete led Eric and Nick up the steep climb to the High Route, the Erics, Emily, and Nick wiggled into the Comic Book Hole, we counted a limited number of bats and found the Funnel Tunnel full of water, and I rubbed out directional arrows from spray paint and other anthropogenic origins.

[All photos below from Peter T. Hertl]
Winter forecasts for the mountains are traditionally subject to change each hour. Therefore, I tried to plan a trip with multiple possible objectives, ready for the weather to keep us guessing. Bring along the cable ladder, multiple sets of survey gear, lots of webbing, extra books, but leave the raft at home.
Pete Hertl, Emily Graham, Mark Daughtridge, and I started the day in the drier cave at the top of the Smyth County hill, Cassell’s Cave. We began surveying up a muddy climb into the Truffle Passage, where Mark sniffed out the places to set survey stations. We quickly rose to a peak and then descended into the passage beyond. Down a long slope to the edge of a pit. Mark descended the 24-foot deep pit, and then Pete set off to retrieve the cable ladder.15591084_10154296135486173_4385020069733452215_o
I had left the cable ladder just 100 feet back, but Pete’s voice disappeared. I sent Emily to the top of the slope to contact him. I heard her calling several times. Pete had retraced his steps all the way back to the entrance; they eventually retrieved the cable ladder while I kept Mark company while he sat at the bottom of the pit. Mark announced that the cave seemed to continue in two directions at the bottom of the pit, but both directions looked tight.

After Pete, Emily, and I descended the cable ladder set in a dripping waterfall, we were less impressed by the leads. Mark pushed his body into one lead and kept snorting and shoving, but I don’t think his feet ever left the room where we stood. Emily chose to survey the opposite lead and gleefully wallowed beneath an archway. Pete and I surveyed toward her, and then we sent Mark wallowing after her. The tiny archways (one foot high by one foot wide) petered out, and I could barely peer through the mousehole where Emily had crawled.

After that adventure Emily just slipped right into the lead that had befuddled Mark. That side deadended quickly too, so the Cassell’s Cave survey is complete after we added 190 more feet. We were all muddy messes when we exited the cave.
Pete was feeling lucky with his camera, so we headed down the hill to Stone’s #1 Cave. I was amazed that the insurgence was almost completely dry. Pete photographed the golden Aztec writings and the orange Hot Air Balloon formation, and we headed home that evening after a dinner with Tanya McLaughlin, our gracious host who found these caves for us.

For fairer weather one would dare not ask,
And better company could scarce be found
For spending hours of labor underground—
If barely so—for we had set our task
(And my excitement I could barely mask)
At digging, hauling, sorting pound by pound
A century of rubbish most profound,
So that among our spoils, we might then bask.

A dozen cavers got themselves arranged
Above, below, and sev’ral in between.
As full and empty buckets were exchanged,
A salamander and some bats were seen;
I wonder if they think us all deranged,
At work so hard to make their trash pit clean.

Read a proper trip report on Walker Mountain Grotto’s blog.

23 bags of trash, 9 buckets of broken glass, miscellaneous detritus

23 bags of trash, 9 buckets of broken glass, miscellaneous detritus

Dave, Emily, and I drove up to Smyth County for a fun survey of previously reported caves. Tanya had made a great impression on the new landowner who didn’t even know about the caves located very close to his house. We slept in on Saturday morning, so we weren’t ready to go when Laurel, Karston, and Carlin arrived.

The seven of us parked at the owner’s house on the morning when Hurricane Matthew was making landfall in North Carolina. The rain had already stopped for the day.

We walked directly to Cassell’s Cave, exactly where we expected it to be. Then Emily and I headed downhill and found Stone’s Cave #1 within five minutes, despite the fact that the weeds were over my head. Carlin introduced Karston to his first wild caving, but Karston didn’t seem impressed.

Back at Cassell’s Cave, I was the first to slide down the webbing and was relieved to find a sloping ledge running beside the steep pit inside the entrance. The ledge led me down onto a ridge in a BIG room. The ridge ran the length of the 250-foot-long room, but the ridge dropped off more than twenty feet on the left side. And the cave was well-decorated.

Laurel sent Carlin back for his camera while Dave, Emily, and I began the survey. This little cave had been reported as containing a long well-decorated room, but we were not expecting the cave to be this fascinating and dripping with formations. We surveyed 748 feet of passage that day, helping Dave map out the whole room. Then we noticed several leads on the left, both high and low.

We also noticed some children’s voices coming from the entrance and thought that Karston and Laurel had returned for us; it was around 8 PM. However, it turned out that the landowner’s four- and five-year-olds were at the entrance with him speculating about all the jewels that might be inside.

I exited to show the landowner and six kids where Stone’s Cave #1 was located. We had a talk about safe cave exploration as he drove me around on the family SUV. We drove back to the Cassell’s Cave entrance to find Dave, Emily, and Carlin exiting. The landowner drove us down to my car, and Dave shared the sketches with him to let him know more about the cave beneath his property.

Ask Carlin to share some photos.

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It was great that Carlin signed up last minute for the survey trip. That meant I could send him with Amar and Matthew Lubin to the low, wet part of the cave while Sam Kincade and I sketched profiles and photographed.

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Sam and I traveled down to Sculpin Lake and measured the depth at 8 feet. My photos of the fish did not come out well. Then I completed my profile of the cave as we worked our way on the wet level over toward the Candy Room.

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Sam quickly learned how to pose for cave photographs (I guess this comes from growing up in the social media age). Eventually Carlin’s team of soaked cavers joined us at the entrance.

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It was the best of teams,
it was the worst of tie-ins,
it was the spring of unexplored leads,
it was the cesspool of despair.

On Saturday Carlin Kartchner and I joined Jason Lachniet for my first visit to Perkins Cave in Washington County, Virginia. While we were donning our caving gear, the ACC workday cleanup crew cleared us a path through the weeds and poison ivy. As we entered the cave, Carlin made sure that I avoided a nest of baby birds on a ceiling shelf.

Up and down through the cave we followed Carlin back to a mop up lead he hadn’t quite finished. The up-and-down refers to the changes from standing to lying prone over and over again. We worked our way back to Carlin’s previous survey. He had apparently been surveying through dry walking passages encrusted in gypsum walls.

Our mop-up leads began where the walls got wet and muddy—when we could find walls. We surveyed into breakdown to create a 100-foot loop and sopped up our clothes real well. No time to get cold because we then headed for the opposite side of the cave. Along the walking way, Jason treated us to the Antlers, formations that look like albino lions’ tails.

The next destination was right before the beginning of the 800-Foot Crawl. To get there, we needed to go up the 50-Foot Climb (Jason explained that the original surveyors showed little creativity in naming passages). Carlin found a “simpler” way to navigate the top of the climb by pressing into a fissure and then pushing upward. As I climbed up and looked, I asked, “Will I fit?”

“I don’t see why not,” Carlin replied.

The extra two inches of depth to my chest were the factor that Carlin hadn’t considered. I exhaled and shoved my chest through. Then I spent two minutes sucking in my belly while floundering my arms to move up six more inches. I was comfortably thinking about Pooh Bear and the honey pot when I recognized that I likely wouldn’t go up or down from here. A lack of toe holds meant that I couldn’t push my hips through, and my arm pushing just pushed me sideways into positions that seemed to enlarge my hips. Carlin dropped some webbing from my pack, and the foot loop was exactly what I needed to clamber out of the fissure.

The next survey was just a short distance away, and then we fought over who would do the sketching. Jason lost the draw but found it relatively easy to sketch with the stations we were setting; Carlin and I barely stayed ahead of him. The well-decorated dry passage ended in a formation choke with blowing air coming from a virgin area beneath the hill. Our combined surveys in Perkins that day netted 36 stations and 1046 feet.

For the trip out, Carlin guided us upstream along the Stream Passage, so everything was uphill and wet. Great trip to come out around 11 PM. “It is a far, far longer survey that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

On Sunday I unintentionally drove the cows away from Sheep Cave in Smyth County. After getting past the poison ivy trees, Tanya McLaughlin, Carlin, and I surveyed up into the balcony and through the one side passage we had skipped last winter. We netted about 100 feet in survey, but the best part is that we’ll never have to return to that cave.

Emily Graham and her niece Ava enjoyed a short tour of Rehoboth Church while I readied my camera gear. No sign of Anuj. Luckily Emily had cell service and was able to confirm that the trip number had dropped to three.

Inside the cave entrance we ran into another group exiting because of a boot epic fail. We plunged deeper to search for the cave-adapted salamander. I photographed some salamanders losing pigment, but there was no sign of the transparent salamander we found last summer.unpigmentedsalamander_lowres

As we neared the sump, we discovered 2-foot seedlings growing down from the ceiling in several locations. The gravel bank was built up enough to allow us to crawl into the sump area. We found a big bullfrog and another small frog living there, and Ava and Emily helped
me take photos.


From there, Ava led us up into the Sand Passage for a snack break. We traveled down the passage until we found the low crawlway that extended out of sight.

After a few more photos in the stream passage, Ava led us through the Long Room and back to the sliding board. Gosh it was slippery. And we got very muddy.

Emily and Ava led us through the Zoo Room with no sightings of clay sculptures. We stopped once more for photos before exiting the cave and captured the magnitude of the mud we had picked up.