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Snap, Crackle, Pop... Adventures in the Claw Room
Cassell Cave Survey Trip
April 20, 2002 (part 9)
(part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9 ) | Photos |
Well, it was a hell of a survey trip; one that it's going to take me months to recover from...
Turnout for the April Gangsta survey trip to Cassell was low with only 14 showing up. Four of these people were nursing injuries or didn't feel up to the long, hard trip required to get back to the unsurveyed parts. These four would scout out some surface features while the remaining ten of us pushed the current in-cave survey. The pit entrance was likely closed from all the recent rain making the rewarding North Fork unavailable. Instead, three teams were formed up to push the extremes of the much longer and more challenging South Fork.
The CH survey team prepares to enter the Windy Entrance. From left to right we have CD, Tiny, Stan Carts (doing surface work today), Dwight and Gordon. Photo by Charles Kahn.
The old map lists a feature called the Claw Room which was to be our center of operations for this trip. Miles Drake, Rick Royer and Barry Horner would start there and survey farther back into the cave. Bob Zimmerman, Bob Robbins and Edgard Bertout would start at the current extreme of the survey (a station called RL1) and work toward the Claw Room. My team (Charles Danforth, Dwight Livingston, Mike "Tiny" Manke, and Gordon Birkhimer) would head in to the claw room and survey back toward the entrace thus tying the other two surveys together. All teams would enter via the horizontal Windy entrace and traverse the extremely sporty passage back into the South Fork.
The Windy section is not bad and is a lot of fun. There are no huge vertical sections or long, nasty crawls to be done, but three cable ladders, a rope ettrier and a 30' rope climb, not to mention numerous easier free climbs, harry pit traverses and other gymnastics stand between the entrance and the 0,0 Point, the beginning of the South Fork passages. It takes a major toll.
Once we got to the 0,0 Point, the going was substantially easier. In previous months, you were faced with a thousand feet of hands-and-knees crawling on the South Fork's middle level to get to the Waterfall Room. But recently a connection was dug out between the upper level and the Waterfall Room making the trip a thousand feet of easy walking followed by about a fifty feet of really low belly slithering through dirt. This was much easier and cut our travel time substantially.
Once we got to the Waterfall Room--a breakdown-filled chamber with a stream tumbling down through the middle of it--I lead the way into the low, slimy crawl beyond known as the Rolling Room. This is the spot where eleven months previously, I had blithely lead three other folks into a few hundred feet of the nastiest, wettest slime imaginable only to find out it was the wrong way. I got the turns more-or-less right this time and the going was, if not pleasant, at least more reasonable. Eventually, the ceiling gets high enough that you can roll very efficiently through the wide passage, thus the name.
By the time the passage got large enough to stand in, we were all in new territory. The passage becomes moderately tall, narrow canyon winding between sharp blades of rock. A lower level of stream passage in a similar canyon runs along below or crosses underneath the upper passage at odd intervals. The going was anything but easy as we were constantly stepping across deep canyons full of rushing water, squeezed between sharp walls or crawling under squeezes too narrow to fit through.
"We gotta go! The clock is ticking and time has nothing good to offer us here."
At great length, we found RL1. Bob's group started their survey while my crew and I headed farther upstream in search of the Claw Room. We walked for quite a while through wide, meandering stream passage and dry canyon. Everything was pretty spacious though technically challenging in places. We must have walked for half an hour and found no sign of the Claw Room or, more importantly, any of Rick, Miles and Barry's survey stations to start at. Finally, I said "nuts" and we set a station. Surveying went well and we quickly picked up 18 shots before coming out into a room with about five leads off it. Bob's crew was surveying into the room from a different lead. In the mud on the side of the stream were a large set of animal footprints including both raccoon and bear claw marks. Ah! That must be why it's called the claw room! There was much speculation as to how the bear got in there and how or whether it had gotten out again.
Bob's crew called it quits while my group surveyed down the stream passage a little ways. When we finally stopped, we'd done 27 shots and netted 448.3 feet of passage, all pretty easy. We began the retreat which was extremely sporting and rough going. Everything got thoroughly slimed again through the waterfall room. Eventually, Rick's team passed us putting us in the rear.
Everything went fairly well until right at the very end. Everyone was dragging after 13 hard hours of caving and the final bit of the Windy section was quite tough. My crew climbed the ladder down the last obstacle about 100' from the entrance. I stowed the ladder and started downclimbing the more exposed, but much more climbable 20' face. I've done this climb half a dozen times before and it's really quite easy. I don't know if I was too complacent, too tired and inattentive, or just slimed and unlucky, but after about five feet, I slipped and fell 15 feet to the bottom landing hard on the breakdown below. I was okay! My right foot hurt a lot, but nothing else was obviously wrong.
Tiny arrived and started administering first aid. He's NCRC Level 1 certified and was absolutely amazing! My vision started to get fuzzy and a generally stuffy feeling heralded the beginnings of shock. Gordon said, "We gotta go, The clock is ticking and time has nothing good to offer us here." He was right! Soon I couldn't see anything. Suddenly, I passed out, eyes open, head back. When I came to a couple minutes later, I was feeling much better and my sight had returned. But getting out NOW was still my #1 priority.
A photo showing the Big Breakdown Room where I fell; the face in question is on the left wall. I'd gotten down to the blank section before I fell off. I landed below and to the left of where the caver in the white helmet is standing. After recovery, I crawled up the slope in the foreground and out the entrance. Photo by Rafi Reyes from the April 2000 survey trip.
Dwight and Gordon had torn open our packs looking for anything that might be useful: warm clothing, rope, food, water. Tiny said to me, "You gotta tell me the truth and well get you out of here. You hafta tell me if your gonna pass out. Otherwise, I'll hafta go get a couple hundred of my friends to come and get you outta here." Lovely as I'm sure they are, I had no urge to meet a hundred of Tiny's friends, so I stayed lucid and talkative. The initial adrenaline had worn off leaving me cold and shaking violently. Tiny speedily put together a swiss seat and chest harness and rigged a belay line up that last breakdown slope. My vision started to go once more, but a brief rest cleared it up. I crawled up and in about half an hour got out the entrance mostly under my own power. Dwight and Gordon hauled me out and supported me as I hopped back to the road; not more than a hundred feet farther on. Fortunatly the temparture was a comfortable 60 degrees and it wasn't raining.
By the time I was sitting on the side of the road getting undressed, I was feeling pretty good. OK, I couldn't put any weight on my leg, but I was warm, chipper and resigned to my fate. I was stabilized, it was after midnight and everyone was entirely exhausted. That was definitely the hardest bit of caving I have ever done!
The evacuation back to Durbin went well and the other cavers still up got me settled with my nicely swollen ankle packed in ice. Gordon, Tiny and Dwight retired to the bar across the street for a few drinks while they waited for various dinner items. They brought me back a chili dog by request and a whole bunch of fries. Pure ambrosia!
It was somewhat non-trivial getting back to Baltimore, but it worked out and I got home at about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon. After a shower and dinner, Amy took me to the emergency room where I was poked, prodded, x-rayed and diagnosed with a non-articulated (non-loadbearing) fracture of the talus (ironic since I landed on a pile of tallus). Basically a sizeable bone chip on my main ankle bone right below the bump on the outside of my foot. There may also be some ligament damage in my heel, but it's too early to tell.
It gives me great courage to think how much worse it could have been! My injury was only a minor break, not a broken back or worse. I was surrounded by amazingly competent cave rescue people who ignored their own exhaustion after 13 hours of hard, hard labor and performed above and beyond the call of duty. I was 100 feet from the entrance with no more technical challenges between me and it. The car was another 100 feet from that. If I'd gotten injured even 50 farther into the cave (before that final drop) my rescue would have required upwards of a hundred people and several days. And there were certainly no shortage of opportunities! If it had been back in the much more technically challenging rear of the cave where we'd been surveying, they might have had to drill a new entrance. It would have taken a week and probably every caver in three states. I got LUCKY!
So now I'm immobile for at least six weeks. This may be the last trip report for some time as I embark on a campaign of enforced taking-it-easy. This is an ideal oportunity to concentrate on work and thesis writing. My most heartfelt and sincere thanks go out to everyone who helped out in my times of need. May we all live to have the favor returned.
The Penultimate Analysis:
At first glance, our modern survey doesn't appear to line up with the old data at all. But with enough squinting, you can begin to see some correllations between the two versions of the map. The green shows Bob's QZ survey (upper level). Red shows our CH survey which switched between upper and lower levels and showed many leads (red dots). The water takes the blue course and flows toward the top of the map. Rick, Miles and Barry's RH survey (yellow) connects at the bottom and heads off to parts unknown in the south. In reality, the junction room where the CH and QZ surveys met is defined as the space between QZ13 and CH19. These two points are actually much closer together than shown in the old map.