Mike's Report with some spiffy pictures of the rattlesnake that nearly killed them all!
Once again, the bi-annual CampingClimbingCaving fest is upon us! Amy and I got an early start on Friday morning and headed out towards West Virginia, home of many things that are good. Amongst those good things was Dolly Sods and we aimed to visit after hearing the numerous stories. The drive went quickly and we had some exciting lightning and hail outside Moorefield. But the weather soon improved and we made our way up FR19 to the Dolly Sods plateau.
The Sods are a highland plateau which acts as an ecological island of flora left over from the ice age. Many of the species of flowers there are common to northern Canada and very out of place in the mid-Appalachians. With their typical regard for ecological rarity, the US Army used the plateau as an artillary range during WWII. Thus we were greeted by frequent signs about not disturbing live ordinance that might be found. We took a couple of short, lovely hikes in the ferny forest but found no live mortar shells nor flowers that looked out of place. But I'm not an expert on either so perhaps the place is overflowing with them. Occasional thunder and looming cumulonimbus kept us on edge and fairly close to the car.
It wasn't until we were on our way out that we discovered the real unique part of the Sods. In large areas north of the actual Wilderness area itself there are these bogs and treeless meadows stretching all across the undulating plateau. Looks quite a bit like the moors of SW England. The wind and the clouds made it a lovely sight. Here there were various wildflowers--Clover, Indian Paintbrush, Marsh Mallow, Yarrow--but still nothing that looked unusual to me. Satisfied and yearning for dinner, we started the long decent into the valley and the half-hour to Seneca.
Apparently on the trip down, Amy's break light bulb had fallen down into the trunk. What with the precipitous descent, the break light had been on a lot and when we opened the trunk to extract camping gear later on we discovered that the bulb had burned a hole through several layers of her sleeping bag! Yikes! Fortunately, the sleeping bag is still perfectly usable. Also fortunately, it wasn't something critical like a rope or harness that had acted as a heat sink!
Arriving at Seneca Shadows a bit after six, we found Jeff Deutsch, Phil Hodge, Aaron Teske and Jesse Nice in residence. The rain started up again so we headed for the dining pavilion over by the walk-in sites and cooked up a big pot of grub. More folks arrived and by 10pm, the population was quite large. Unfortunately, the rain kept most people in their tents and social interaction to a minimum. At some ungodly hour Mike arrived with his harem of four... only two of the harem had bailed out at the thought of rain. Thus we were dragged from our beds to investigate the ruckus and met Charlotte-from-Sweden efficiently helping Mike with the tent and Mary standing there looking dispiritted and half-frozen. Judging the situation to be well in-hand, we went back to bed.
Saturday dawned grey and foggy. Rain looked likely and there was significant hue and cry for a caving trip. After the requisite milling about and waiting for people foolish enough to have eaten at the 4-U/4-Ever, we got a move on. We consisted of Amy Rosenberg, Dave and Pam Klinger, Anne Gonnella and Roger Tarr, Lori and Greg Marciniak, Charlie Kowal, Aaron Teske, Jesse Nice and myself. Four cars headed south towards Cassell Cave arriving in good order by 11am. I dropped in on Mr. Cassell and introduced myself and he gladly granted permission to enter his cave.
Cassell is the same cave that I've been helping to map along with the Gangsta Mappers, a loosely-structured cave surveying collective, and have quite extensive knowledge of the front parts. It's a challenging cave requiring climbing and quite a bit of endurance; not a beginner cave by any means! I was apprehensive about leading a group of eleven into this, but everyone was experienced and self-reliant. It turned out quite well!
By 11:30, everyone was suited up and ready to go. We had assumed left and right that, given all the recent rain, water levels would be up and the Pit Entrance (a 96' rapell through a small stream) would be roaring and unpassable. To my utter amazement, it was dry as a bone and throughout the rest of the cave, water levels were lower than I've ever seen them. Never-the-less, we lacked ropes and the other technical gear to use this entrance and thus slipped, slitheres and glopped our way through the horizontal, Windy entrance.
I hoped to poke around a bit in the maze or corridors near the entrance, but the general concensus seemed to be for a push to see the Pond. So we went from the entrance halls up to the stooping tube passages of High Street. Some climbed the face after me while others opted for the safer rope and cable ladder ascent. Shortly we reached the junction of High Street and Times Square, the major NE-SW trunk passage in this section of the cave. Amy squeezed through the narrow connector slot and rigged the second cable ladder. While this was the first time anyone else had used a cable ladder, there were no mishaps. (You're supposed to use your feet on the ladder, Roger!) From there it was easy walking through booming borehole on an undulating mud floor to the Pond area. Great formations provided opportunity for many photographs and we all concidered our next destination.
We'd only been in the cave about an hour and were well ahead of the schedule I'd planned on. There was a move to head back into the cave and get to the Waterfall Room. So we traversed Time Square again, passed the ladder and came to the spot where the three-level canyon starts to appear.
When we survey, we usually climb up onto the stone bridges of the middle level and spend quite a while going up and down through some very 'sporting' terrain. Not knowing this, everyone had kept going down the obvious passage on the lower level. Curious as to where this went, I followed and found myself stooping and crawling through a comfortable, dry passage which ended up far more quickly than I would have thought possible at the base of the waterfall.
From a medium-sized room, the floor slopes down into a 10' diameter chamber with fluted walls. Twenty feet above, a stream of water pours through a small hole in the center of the ceiling and splashes into the shallow, gravelly pool. A small beach allows troglodytic sunbathing and watersports. But the path from here was unclear. While some took pictures and poked around, Anne and Roger immediately crawled down a short belly crawl on the right which openned up into a small dome-pit. Jesse, Aaron, Amy and some others investigated a lead six feet off the floor going in much the same direction which emerged high on the side of the domepit. Greg and Dave investigated a narrow, muddy hole on the far side of the waterfall and found it went nowhere. While Roger pushed a couple of high leads to no avail, Anne and Pam investigated a continuation of the belly crawl that had lead to the domepit. The discovered it got larger and soon gave way to two parallel channels of gooey mud with a ridge down the middle. This matches the description I've heard of the feared 'Ski Tracks' which apparently continues as a low, muddy crawl for quite some distance. It is sufficiently nasty that the Gangsta Mappers haven't surveyed it yet.
Mightily confused as to how we'd gotten where we had so quickly, I checked out a lead back and to the left. After a short, challenging climb, I emerged into the narrow crawl-space which I recognized from my first time in this cave. A very tight belly crawl over a ledge skirting the room below and waterfall lead over to the left and to the rest of the cave; I was on the middle level. But a series of holes in the ceiling gave access to the much easier walking passage of the top level.
When folks had tired of poking around, we climbed up to the middle level and negotiated the exposed hole in the ceiling to the upper level. From there we quickly made it to the top of the waterfall (which is much less impressive than the view from below) and did the short rubble-floored crawl to the Shazaam Chute room. The Chute showed a trickle of water, not the usual torrent that pours from it's sewarlike opening.
We had now officially reached the end of the map I'd prepared. But moralle and energy remained high, so we continued back with the goal of reaching the Window Climb before turning back. From here on, the passage is narrow canyon with occasional pits to skirt and short climbs and drops. Charlie had opted to stay back at the waterfall citing fatigue. But the remaining ten of us strung out and hiked through the top level of the canyon passage occasionally skirting pits and doing short climbs. Quite a bit further on, the Loop Drop--so named because of the muddy old loop of rope draped over a formation allowing a couple of steps down to the middle level--caused some people some aggitation. Even with the new bolt and ettrier we had installed last time through, people had an interesting time getting down.
Without too much trouble, we reached the Window room. The climb-down into the large chamber is quite challenging and only half of us bothered with it. The large, L-shaped room with soaring ceilings and dripping water is a sight to see and provided a nice endpoint of our explorations. While energy remained high, this was the definite head of navigation; to continue farther requires either a long cable ladder (and some way of rigging it from the top) or vertical gear to ascend the rope through the Window, a narrow apperture of stone 30' off the ground. Those of us who had descended, climbed back up and we started the retreat. Or "attacking the rear" if you will.
Again, the seemingly ungainly group of eleven proved remarkable flexible and self-reliant. No one got lost and we made good time. Reaching the waterfall room, several people were dispatched to collect Charlie and head out via the lower level while the rest of us stayed up high. Upon reaching Times Square again, I heard voices and saw lights below us.
"Aaron, Charlie, is that you?" I called.
"No, it's Travis," the mysterious person replied. Hmmm. There was certainly no Travis in my group.
"How many of you guys are there? Where are you headed?"
"Five. We were just poking around and headed that way," pointing in the direction of the waterfall, away from the entrance.
"Ummm. Well, we're leaving now and we'll be taking those ladders you climbed down with us." Once they found that out, it was no problem convincing them that now would be a good time to turn around. All in all, it was very fortunate we ran into each other. Had they been trapped in Times Square or farther sans ladders and sans map, it would be quite challenging to get back out. Fortunately, it all turned out well in the end.
By the time I'd made it back to the entrance hall, most of the rest had squirmed out the exit. Charlie Kowal and I spent a while negotiating the narrow exit; finally I slithered up and out getting traction on the ceiling with my feet. Charlie could get traction so Roger and I each hauled on an arm until he popped out. The time was 4:30 and we'd had a nice, 5 hour caving trip. The sun was shining and everything was extremely hunky-dory. Everyone headed back to camp and eventually migrated down toward the big table at the Front Porch for pizza and so forth. Ahhh!
Sunday dawned much more auspiciously than the day before and I was anxious to climb! The dew-soaked tent was dried and folded, gear was packed and at long last Amy and I made our way to the Seneca parking lot. The hoardes of other cars there already spoke of the hundreds of other climbers frustrated by Saturday's rain. Thus it came as no surprise when we found a party of four and a party of two already on line for Skyline Traverse waiting while another party cleared the first belay. Furthermore, the party of four was headed for Conn's East, the climb I was aiming for!
Thinking quickly, we stepped upslope about thirty feet and I lead Worrell's Thicket (5.0). Yeah, it's about as easy as they come and I put in exactly four peices of protection in 160' of climb. But it was really quite relaxing and got the kinks out nicely. Before we knew it, we were on the Lower Broadway ledge and had leapfrogged the party of four. A pair of yellow lizards with electric blue tails vacated the area and we ate a nice lunch with the view to the east. We traversed the ledge, climbed the several short chimneys and arrived at the area of Conn's East.
Some guidebook work and talking to a couple of other climbers located the start of the climb. It leads up a left-facing corner past a large chockstone and through a big chimney bearing north the entire time. From there it wanders north (right) across the east face of the south peak of Seneca and eventually emerges on the summit ridge at the top of the first pitch of Gunsight to South Peak Direct (5.4).
I started off the lead and quickly got hung up on the large chockstone. After a few false starts, I managed to do a beached-whale maneuver over it and continued on. The rest of the pitch was awkward in places and didn't feel like a 5.5, even for Seneca. To minimize rope drag, I set up the first belay before the large chimney. Amy started up but had significant trouble in a couple of places. When she reached the belay, we agreed to call it a day and rap out when we reached the bolts at the next ledge (carrying a guidebook can be a good thing!). The next half-pitch was very straight forward and we were both soon sitting on top of the huge flake under a pair of cold shuts attempting to keep the rope from dropping into the six-inch chasm that vanished out of sight below.
But with one 50m rope, we weren't going to reach the ground! More guidebook work showed me another pair of 'shuts twenty feet away across the ledge and from there another set below and to the right. With two short raps, we should be able to make the ground easily. There followed a series of annoying rope management during which I beaned a climber on Pollux with my rope and nearly became tangled in the TR anchor they were using. Finally, we reached Upper Broadway and everything was okay. We had a disspiritted hike out and spirits didn't really improve until we were lolling in the frigid Swimming Hole admiring the discarded carapaces of crayfish (at least in my case. Amy was more of the "Eww! What is that?" school.). Back to the car and then the long, sleepy drive home.
All in all, a decent Seneca trip. The caving was great but the climbing could have been better. Ah well, there's always a next time!
The Wilderness Journal