Tight Squeeze: Five Cave Trips in One Weekend

I left my office around 4 PM on Friday afternoon. I enjoyed an easy drive past and through Boone out to Blountville, Tennessee. I expected to meet Zoey and the Girl Scouts at their camp at the commercial Appalachian Caverns. However, no one was in camp when I arrived. I did notice two people in coveralls up by the cave entrance, so I went up to talk to them. They were the trip leaders for the Girl Scout wild cave trip that hadn’t left yet (it was almost 9 PM).

I threw on my coveralls and joined Wes and Tanya and walked in to meet the scouts. Wes and Tanya had a lot of experience making wild cave tours as sporting as one might hope. They began by pushing the willing through a side loop that finished with a tight squeeze. They claimed that it was 7-1/2 inches at the tight spot, but I’m guessing it was more like 8-1/2 inches (since I fit). Wes had the girls crawling through the sides of walking passages, and they didn’t care that I kept meeting them as they exited the squirmy crawls. He even poured water from his bottle to make a sliding board that he had to pull the girls down. Near the end of the trip that evening, we found a mud puppy (a creature I never see in Virginia caves). We exited the cave around 11:30 PM Friday evening.

Everyone was awoken Saturday morning at 6:30 AM to begin the next day. This Girl Scout trip was being set up as a 5-day-long caving camp, so there were lots of things to learn. Teaching the drowsy scouts about cave maps at 8 AM was not my shining moment; the early hour really prevented them from showing much interest.

A local caver named Jared and I followed Zoey’s car out of the campground to head toward the cave (about an hour later than expected). However, the van full of scouts took about fifteen minutes more before they joined us at a nearby intersection. We then headed to Renfro Cave where we were allowed to split into two groups. The old saltpeter cave is marked by pinnacles exposed by the mining, and the girls in my group had a good time clambering around and testing their climbing skills. We headed back to the room nearest the entrance, and I passed out map outlines of the cave and keys to NSS map symbols. The object was for the girls to figure out where they were on the map and then fill in the map’s blank spaces. Blank stares. I think they later appreciated that sketching a good map isn’t easy.

We had an extra half hour to go explore, so I led my group to a dead end. They then took us high up in the cave where I spotted the alternate entrance. We were all too big to exit that way, so we returned to the vans a little bit later than the other group. The van took off for lunch, and then we headed to the same park to meet them. Unfortunately the park had multiple parking areas, so we ended up in different places. This led to a late arrival at Morrill’s (Worley’s) Cave.

I think we managed to enter Morrill’s Cave around 4:30 PM. We stayed in one long line as we trampled along the trunk passage. My group stopped about a half mile in with buckets and scrub brushes. The girls learned how to clear graffiti from the cave walls in their conservation efforts, and they were dedicated workers while we waited for the other group to return. The other group did not return. My group headed after them down the Railroad Passage, and I gave some advice to would-be cave photographers as we passed some pretty formations and deep rimstone dams. Everyone was back to the parking area by 7 PM, except the van driver and van. After a few wrong turns on the way to dinner with girl scouts, I skipped out and headed up to Virginia for Sunday caving with other TriTrogs.

After a good night’s sleep, Dave Duguid, Diana Gietl, and Tanya McLaughlin took me back to the upper entrance of Rowland Springs Cave on Sunday morning. A warm breeze blew into this entrance, so no one got cold when we weren’t moving. Dave improved his earlier survey notes, Diana balanced her tripod and camera on dolomitic flowstone, Tanya learned how to pose, and I cursed at blue flash bulbs. While we didn’t do any entranceway shots, I think that Diana managed some nice formation photos (based on her 1-1/2 display screen).

We exited after several hours and then regrouped at the lower entrance of Rowland Springs Cave. The cold wind was roaring out this entrance, and I could see my breath plummet down the hillside. This was new cave to me. We climbed down to the stream level and then back up a cable ladder into a huge room. Dave and I discussed how to sketch the room, and then he began a massive cross section to capture the immensity of this relatively short cave. Meanwhile Diana rigged Dave’s new rope to drop a 30-foot pit.

After Diana discovered passage at the bottom, Dave, Diana, and I surveyed down the pit, with me in the middle setting station. While hanging on rope, I measured 95 degrees for the azimuth down to Diana, and her reading was 30 degrees off from mine. What a way to start a survey! However, the fact that both our clinometers read 85 degrees vertical drop meant that the trig works out to less than a foot in error. With me hanging on rope and Diana sliding down a slope with nearly vertical measures on a compass, that was the best pair of readings Dave could get from us.

The three of us found an active stream passage at the bottom of the pit, and a few high leads would’ve taken us back up to other levels. We continued surveying away from the known cave passage, and the stream eventually gurgled into a small hole in the wall. The stream-level passage ended shortly thereafter in mud plugs, so we headed uphill. It was nice to leave the wet stream, but a cool breeze took over at the higher level. Diana took us up a dry slope until we arrived at some incredible formations. Delicate white rimstone dams and thick draperies were much prettier than anything else I had seen all weekend.

We stopped surveying at big borehole-like passage, with promises of lots more formations for the next survey team. Unfortunately my time lying in the stream and the prospect of driving back to the Triangle that evening made us turn around at that point. The next sets of surveyors have a lot to look forward to. We also did pretty well with our survey, eighteen stations covering about 275 feet in under four hours. Overall, I sure can’t complain about a regular weekend with five cave trips.