Dome Luck

In 1952 Gerry Law visited the back of Hancock Cave and left behind his signature and school affiliation (UNC). In 1998 Tanya McLaughlin tracked him down in Texas and interviewed him about the exploration of the cave. He remembered leaving his signature in only two caves but recalled that cable ladders were strung together to enter the cave through dome pits. Tanya dismissed his account as belonging to another cave because Hancock Cave had no known domes.

On December 16, 2006, Matt Westlake, Bob Alderson, and I traveled back through the Funnel Tunnel to this part of the cave. TriTrogs hadn’t been back there since 1999, and we were anxious to figure out what happened in the remaining seventeen potential leads. The weekend was finally dry enough to allow us passage through the Funnel Tunnel, after a relatively short dig through the loose sand at the low point.

We emerged on the other side and headed for the first leads on the right wall. The first two pinched out (easy to sketch in), and the third side passage had already been mapped out as the Ice Box, a mess of loose, wet breakdown.

Bob looked down the fourth lead and told us to pull out the survey instruments. Using a right-hand wall rule, we first entered a high area filled with wet rubble that reminded me of the Ice Box, but it eventually pinched down in an old passageway. The left side of this passage was marked by BIG breakdown slabs that mostly held the rubble in place.

We then returned to the level of the main passage and started surveying the lower leads. They were surprisingly different than the upper passage: water had created solutional passage beneath the big breakdown slabs ranging from hands-and-knees crawls up to ten feet high. From the breakdown hung more of Hancock Cave’s characteristic pendants.

We surveyed over and through the breakdown slabs and pendants, encountering wide rooms and tall rooms with many junctions. They eventually led back to the Harvest Domes, a series of dome pits that we estimated rise up to thirty feet high. The most climbable revealed no human-sized passages at the top, but our survey may have revealed a dome that we looked into, thought we had been there, and failed to enter. Maybe Gerry Law was right about entering Hancock Cave through some dome pits.

We continued closing loops for a while to survey 39 shots for a total of just 429 feet, a good number of shots for Matt’s first survey trip. The problem with the short shots occurred because we hit so many real junctions in the passage. The water had carved out a full maze, and then the daddy-longlegs covered entire walls.

The remaining cave survey beyond the Funnel Tunnel is now down to sixteen leads, and several of these leads promise to be as exciting as the Harvest Domes. After surveying until 9 PM, we blew past the leads in a whirlwind tour to help Matt justify dragging a camera through the Funnel Tunnel. Hopefully his digital camera helped photodocument some of the prettiest formations in Hancock Cave.

The cave length is now up to 2.16 miles, the longest in the county and number 37 in Virginia. There are now 49 loops in the cave; it’s easy to get lost.