By Louis Le, on the occasion of his first wild cave trip, and first adventure with pun and gear masters Mark and Andy.

The road was quiet and the morning already warm and sunny as Andy, Mark, Susan, and I walked silently to Hancock Cave.

We cautiously snuck by a house supplied with potentially lethal chihuahuas, holding tight to the emergency dog treats generously supplied by Tanya in case things got ruff. Never hurts to be prepared, gotta account for the paw-sibilities.

After a successful stealth mission and a careful trek in the woods, making sure not to take the wrong root, we arrived at our destination: Hancock’s entrance! A last minute bathroom break, a pre-caving pic, and we were ready to make our descent!

Mark fashioned webbing into a hand-line to help with the descent as it had rained the day before. It was a somewhat steep and slick drop from the entrance as we entered one by one. The line definitely helped as it was quite muddy on the way down, but after a bit of careful stepping and controlled sliding, I made it all the way down.

After reaching the bottom, a gorgeous cave salamander greeted Susan and me. It was orange with black spots and quite min-newt!

We journeyed up a small climb before we reached another tricky descent. Mark came to the rescue again with his rope skills as he used a carabiner, two slings, and a few alpine butterflies to create an impromptu ladder. (Both Mark and Andy had forgotten to bring the etrier from the car.) Knot rocket science, but I taut it was quite resourceful!

The second descent led to the “Grand”-tham (Grantham) room. As the name implied, the room was rather massive, big enough to house maybe one or two half-inflated hot-air balloons. (Or a dozen half-funny puns.) I honestly did not expect the room to be so large given how small the entrance was. Further exploration led us to the Octopus Room with eight different possible paths- luckily there was a nicely placed cairn next to route we came from as getting lost would not be tenta-cool.

Continuing on, we passed the Broken (Breakdown) Staircase, which looked like massive pieces of piled up blocks, each roughly the size of a flattened Smart Car. I found them to be quite uplifting.

We came to a point in the cave with a steep climb. Mark climbed up with no issue, but the rest of us found the mud to be quite slick, so after a few attempts, the rest of us decided to go a different route and crawled in a dried-up stream. I was super thankful for my knee-pads as the stream was littered with jagged rocks. After what felt like a few minutes of careful maneuvering to avoid unnecessary deep tissue massages, I was relieved to get to the other side. The overall crawl was only about 30’… but felt like a nice achievement as my first cave crawl!

We eventually made it to the comic book hole! Only problem was that it was around ten feet off the ground! Now it was Andy’s time to shine! Using his height and his trusty left shoulder, I stepped up and wormed my way top half into the hole arms first. From there, I momentarily got stuck, took a much-needed thirty second break, and wriggled my way through the hole.

The Author halfway through the Comic Book Hole, trying to persuade his legs to join him . . .
Photo by Mark Daughtridge

I was glad that there was another way around as coming back out the hole would have been incredibly difficult! Susan then gave it try while Andy, who was also doing great photography work, snapped an incredible shot of her legs sticking out of the hole.

Calling it a fun day of caving, we decided to head back out, retracing our steps. Seeing the Broken Staircase again elevated my mood. Identifying the cairn again in the Octopus Room kept me calm-ari. Finally we were bottom of the entrance and could see the light at the end of the cave!
Susan went first and made the climb look so easy. I went afterwards thinking it would not be too bad as I gripped the sling. I took a few steps, then like losing Jenga tower, I slowly teetered over and splat into the mud. After a few more humbling slips and slides I finally made my way up and out of the entrance.

It was my first time caving and I’d heard about the mud…but man was there a groundbreaking amount of mud! If the camera didn’t add ten pounds to our post-caving picture, the mud definitely did! Our time in the cave was not too long, we entered around 10 AM and left at 4 PM, but I had a blast! Thank you to Mark and Andy for their guidance and their unending puns. They were puntastic!

Photo by Andy Chang

When the request came from James River Grotto for people who were willing to lead trips in Smyth County, I (eventually) stepped up to lead a trip to Hancock Cave. Why Hancock? First, I know my route through the cave. Second, with the help of some other TriTrogs, I’m leading a group of Girl Scouts there in a couple weeks and didn’t mind an opportunity to check on the condition of the entrance.

Due to a communication breakdown, Hancock wasn’t among the signup sheets that were put out at 10pm Friday night. I was kind of bummed, but I knew there were enough TriTrogs interested to make a full trip happen anyway. The apologetic VAR staff made a signup sheet in case anyone rolled in early Saturday looking for a trip. Saturday morning six of us stopped at registration to discover that a big bunch of people had signed up – wheee! We rearranged ourselves into two groups – a group of six (including and) led by Kim and Lisa and a group of eight (including and) led by me and Diana.

Kim’s group arrived first, and they rigged the entrance with both a handline and a cable ladder. The ladder was useful on the way in and necessary on the way out. Water poured into the entrance room through several cracks in the ceiling and along the left wall. A guy in my group declined to use either the webbing or the ladder and slid about 30 feet coming in. Wheee! He wasn’t hurt but busted his pack open and spilled its contents in the process. We spotted two salamanders, one Eurycea lucifuga, one only an inch and a half long, dark (Green? Black?), with a pale stripe down the back and some number of toes. No bats.

We were still in the Grantham Room when we heard the first group above us at the Overlook. Our group was moving slowly and two of them would likely have trouble navigating the Toilet Bowls. When we got from the Overlook back to the Octopus Room it was clear that those two would be challenged by anything deeper in the cave. Diana agreed to escort them out so that the rest of us could continue.

After the Breakdown Staircase, we caught up with Kim and Lisa et al at the Comic Book Hole. They had all gone through! Wheee! I was the only one in my group who made it through despite others’ efforts; I clearly should work on my cheerleading skills! That said, it was good that we didn’t waste too much energy there since we all wanted to make it out of the cave, and preferably in time for dinner.

Back at the entrance, everyone made use of the cable ladder. There was a little trouble once it got tangled up with the handline, and it kept sliding into a crevice on the right. We remedied that by having one person wedge himself in on the left in order to hold the ladder in place. When we all met back at the cars, I learned that Diana had assisted her cavers with some photography on their way out, which (based on the smiles on their faces) helped make their trip worthwhile.

My thanks to the considerable efforts of Diana, Kim, and Lisa for salvaging this into a fun, successful, safe trip! Thank you so much! And, bonus, we made it back in time for showers before dinner!

On March 8, Ken Walsh led a group through Hancock Cave. Four members of Walker Mountain Grotto were introduced to the cave during a thorough bat count. We tallied six bats on this trip. That’s three fewer than were recorded last March, but five more than we spotted there in the fall. Bill Grose has posted a trip report with photos on Walker Mountain Grotto’s website:
[link to Walker Mountain Grotto trip report]

Aoogah! Zachary Taylor navigates the Comic Book Hole.
Photo by Emily

I tagged along and got the opportunity to revisit the graffiti cleanup sites that we worked on in November. Our efforts weren’t wasted. The Grantham Room looks remarkably better. Our man-made mud still masks the writing on the sloping walls there. The more vertical areas that we had abraded with wire brushes look a little raw by comparison, but the overall result is gratifying. I didn’t see any signs of new vandalism, unless you count the pack rat rubbish. A lot remains to be done. If you took part in the bat count last fall and you have any interest in a future cleanup trip, you’ll be delighted to know that hauling giant buckets of water into the cave is entirely unnecessary; that was just for fun.

Grantham Room cleanup in November, 2014
Photo by Peter Hertl

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.