Excitement was high on Friday night when Tom, Amy and I arrived at a festive Durbin Depot. The Kornack Cave Camera generated quite a bit of interest. Amy was introduced all 'round and greeted like a long-lost friend. The fact that she was carrying Saturday night's dinner mayhave contributed to the warm welcome, but I'll give the Gangstas the benefit of the doubt and ascribe it to their warm, generous nature.
Amy was not up for vertical work or a 12-hour trip, so she would hang out Saturday and mind the fort. Plus, a tourist trip of Sinnett-Thorn with Pat Bingham was planned for Sunday, so she'd get plenty of cave then. Tom and I jumped into the fray of survey team picking and quickly put together a group: Miles Drake, Bob Zimmerman, Tom and myself to survey the Skeleton Domes. I was going to continue as apprentice sketcher by running book and sketching in parallel with Miles. No problem! Bedding was deployed and a fitful sleep had in anticipation of tomorrow's endeavors...
Saturday -- The six inches-and-counting of new snow draping the landscape was the first sign that things might not go as planned... Previous survey plans and parties were hastily and chaotically modified to suit available four-wheel-drive vehicles and groups headed out intermittently as more transportation was found. Miles was feeling violently ill and Bob wanted nothing to do with a slippery, snowy Pit entrance. I was given a battlefield promotion to Journeyman Sketcher and put in charge of a group: Tom Kornack, Dwight Livingston and Mike "Tiny" Manke. Our goal was to start at the top of the Skeleton Domes on the North Fork and survey down the long-unexplored and nebulously-defined Bratwurst Passage.
Neither snow nor unplowed roads can keep us from our caving! Dwight, Tiny and Charles gird ourselves for battle as the snow continues to pile up on Back Mountain Road.
Tiny negotiates the nasty ettrier climb in the Skeleton Domes.
Dwight and Charles deal with the flowstone traverse near the Rat Race on the way to the Skeleton Domes.
Pretties on the way to the Bratwurst formation room
Dwight ponders the strange alien pod in the formation room.
Dwight in the Bratwurst passage at the lunch stop and first big lead.
The status of the survey thusfar in part of Cassell Cave (no entrances are shown on this portion). The Bratwurst and Notwurst passages are labelled as are the Big Room, the Skeleton Domes, Medville Falls and the Waterfall Room. My survey this trip started at the Skeleton Domes and headed south. Trip report numbers for different sections are listed; see the top of this page for links.
...when daylight woke us up a few hours later. I arose feeling very much the worse for wear emitting a constant stream of aches and creaks no doubt audible to everyone in the room. Downing miscellaneous calories helped as well as various pills.
As I've said before, if Amy hadn't been there and anxious to cave, no doubt Tom and I would have bagged the whole Sunday caving thing entirely. Fortunately the snow had stopped and the roads were reportedly plowed pretty well. The sun was shining and everything was very pretty. We loaded things into the car and drove the hour to Thorn Spring Campground to meet up with Pat and Evan, Ian, Steve and Tom from the JHU Outdoors Club. Things were beginning to look better, but I still wasn't keen on donning presoiled gear. The coveralls weren't as horrible as they could have been, and we stood around at the side of the road in our underwear despite the chilly breezes.
The Thorn entrance is on top of a hill and is a 30' shaft. Access is tricky without vertical gear. Sinnett is a larger cave and has a nice horizontal entrance. A large band of limestone tilted at about 45 degrees underlies the entire area. Thus all the passages in both caves tend to slope up strongly to the northwest and down to the southeast. Sinnett and Thorn were originally separate caves until the discovery of the super-tight Connection between the two. This Connection is unpassable except by people with chest sizes smaller than 42". Guess what size I am!
Our goal for the day was to enter Sinnett and access Thorn by this legendary Connection. Pat lead the charge across the bridge and up the hill to the obvious entrance to Sinnett. Twenty feet in we encountered the formidable gate made of angle iron. We undid the lock, scooted inside and locked the gate behind us. Access is a serious issue in this cave. Both entrances are gated and access is limitted. The caves host one of the major maternity colonies of endangered Virginia Big-Eared Bats and no one is allowed to enter between March and September when mother bats and their pups are present. During the winter, groups are allowed in but must sign up beforehand with the coordinator.
The passage quickly descended into a series of fairly spacious crawlways above dry fissures. Everything was quite dry and black 'soot' covered the ceiling. We worked our way back into the cave encountering the remains of Civil War-Era saltpeter workings and other signs of human use. Various bats were hibernating on the walls. Most of these were the common, tiny Pipistrelles easily identified by their angled posture when they hang and orangish arms.
We worked our way back through the often-confusing cave headed generally southwest horizontally along the strike of the limestone layer. A tight crawlway perhaps five feet long along a sandy floor blew air in a gale as we crawled through. From here on we could often hear and see (and indeed often couldn't avoid standing in) a small stream. The passages became more sporting often requiring crawling along a high passage or stemming across the canyon. Often there was more than one way to travel and I would amuse myself by taking the most awkward looking one.
At length, we came out into the Waterfall Room where a 30' waterfall splashes down from the side of a symetric dome into a beautiful, round pool. Ledges to one side provide lovely viewing and lunching locations. Everyone dropped their packs and spent some time poking into nooks and crannies. Half an hour later, we regrouped and headed back to the sandy crawl.
Next stop was the Silo. We struck off to the west headed up the slope of the geology. The Silo is a fascinating, cork-screw structure over smooth limestone cutting across several layers and shelves of canyon. Just like everything else in the cave, the angle is about 45 degrees making it an interesting hybrid between horizontal and vertical caving. Pat and Tom free-climbed up and rigged a handline for climbing. One by one, people scampered up the slope. Eventually we squeezed through some chunks of breakdown and emerged in the Big Room.
After visitting half a dozen caves, you come to the conclusion that pretty much all of them have something called "The Big Room". It's unavoidable. Some of these rooms are simply the biggest thing around and might be cramped to host a dinner party. Some are truly huge and you could park a 747 in them. In the Sinnett-Thorn Big Room you could land a 747! It's that jaw-droppingly big; 800 feet long by 80 feet wide with a 40 foot ceiling. Massive breakdown the size of school busses litters the floor but is still dwarfed by the scale of this immense room. Deep pits vanish into the gloom along the eastern wall. Tom and I hiked from one end of the room to the other and it took a good ten minutes of steady walking along the sandy ridge running down the middle. We perched up on the high, northern end amonst some giant, rounded stalagmites and watched tiny pinpoints of light moving around in the utter darkness below. Our headlamps could barely make out the walls on either side and stood no chance of making it to the far end of the room two and a half football fields away. It felt like outer space; it felt like the moon. Words utterly fail!
The southeastern side of the room was defined by the sloping layer of limestone. Myriad soda straws and larger formations dotted the ceiling. On the northwest, the wall was defined by a huge fracture perpendicular to the bedding plane. This fracture was conciderably rougher and housed various embayments and nooks of all sizes. In one of the larger of these, Pat lead us up a series of sandy slopes into a large corridor.
Had we not just been in the Big Room, this would have seemed extremely spacious, but as it was, the 20' diameter passageway seemed cramped and small, though comfortingly human in scale. But there was more fun to come! Down at the bottom of a slope was a tiny hole 8" tall and two feet wide with gale-force winds blowing into it. This way lies the Connection. Some of the JHU guys had already struggled through it. I doffed my pack, removed the mini-mag from around my neck and prepared for a battle with claustrophobia.
The first squeeze was definitely tight. A pebble from the sandy floor lodged in my solar plexus and was pushed through like a boulder under a glacier. Fortunately, the constriction was brief and I found myself in a 15" tall, ten-foot diameter room tilted at the characteristic 45-degrees from horizontal. Ian coached me into the room and then started through the real tight part ahead. This is a ten foot long, horizontal tunnel with an entrance about 8" tall and no more than 12" wide. Polished rock on all sides announces that there will be no mercy for those who almost fit. I concidered my options and tried a few configurations finally opting for helmet off pushed ahead with my left arm. The right arm dangled uselessly behind me as I tried to make my shoulders as narrow as possible. The rock pressed in from all sides and the howling gale intensified as I plugged the hole. Ian could be seen ahead and he was on hands and knees--a very good sign under the circumstances. There was no backing out now; I had to go through with it. I let air out of my lungs and squeezed my ribcage through the tightest bit. Slithering forward an inch at a time, I reached the relative comfort of the middle part. Ooch, scuffle, ooch, scuffle, pant, pant, scuffle. Finally I squeezed my head through the final constriction and emerged in a very spacious passage four feet in diameter and, like everything around here, angled sharply upward. It looked like an escalator and smelled like victory. Welcome to Thorn!
Tom followed me through as did the rest of the JHU folks. Pat and Amy elected to stay on the other side and not damage themselves; probably wise. Thorn is a very different cave. At least in this part of Thorn, all the rooms were large, but low with ceilings no more than four or five feet from the floor. But everything was angled upward at 45 degrees. Thus we could crawl upward like climbing a mountain from the inside. But you had to be very careful. Numerous bats (mostly pips) hung from the ceiling and at this time of year, waking them from hybernation means likely death. We fanned out and explored for a time before filing back through the Connection. I was the last one out and was pleased to find it was much easier in the this direction with gravity on my side.
A pleasant arm rappell down the Silo and a bit more sliding and we were back in the horizontal, northeast-southwest part of the cave. We'd been in the cave five hours at this point and were getting hungry. We made our way back to the entrance checking out alternate routes here and there. I took the lower canyon level for a ways and was pleased to see that it connected to the crawling passage above at many, many places. Finally, we emerged from the gate and found ourselves outside, in the cold, snowy darkness of West Virginia.
It was an excellant weekend of caving. Working with Tom, Tiny and Dwight was a great pleasure and we really clicked as a team. Though I was anxious about caving two days in a row, the Sinnett trip provided a nice, casual way to stretch out abused muscles and see some new sights. All in all, a stellar weekend.
The Home Cave