New Territory in Whitings Neck Cave
January 21, 2001
Whitings Neck is hardly an exciting cave for me. Having lead three beginner trips through it and participated in at least four others, it's not exactly unexplored territory and doesn't hold many surprises anymore. Never-the-less, it's one of the best caves around for a quick trip with beginners. It's got a little of everything and can be as challenging as you want it to be.
This impromptu trip was thought up late one snowy saturday night when Tim Hamilton and I were sitting around discussing various caves we'd been in in Tennessee and West Virginia respectively. Neither of us was doing anything on Sunday so it was decided to head out to Whitings Neck for a quick cave. We borrowed a 50' chunk of rope, packed the cars and set out on the gorgeous drive through the newly snowy countryside near Shepardstown. Having received at least 5 inches over the night, the roads were somewhat sloppy in the lower traffic regions near the cave. But cold temperatures prevented too much water and Rufus, my intrepid Honda Civic, had little trouble. Hah! All you SUV drivers think you're so special!
We donned cave gear and hiked, shivering noticably, the quarter mile down the road and through the woods to the cave entrance. No tracks were seen; perhaps this would be the rare time when there wasn't some Boy Scout troop, Adventure Company or posse of drunken yahoos in the place?
The sun was shining right into the entrance putting a bright patch of full sun on the wall at the top of the first pit. This made getting our eyes adjusted rather difficult, but provided a nice view back up from the bottom of the ladder. With all the recent rain and the cold snap, there was ice all over everything and icicles mimiced the flowstone around the edges. The crawl after the second ladder was wetter than usual and we immediately got good and wet. Down the slide and into the large central corridor. We progressed beyond the wedding cake and came to the top of the big drop.
Yours Truly crammed into a small crawlspace above the lunch room.
Tim poses with the big wedding cake at the main passage junction.
In all my previous trips through this cave, this 45' drop has stymied me. I've either been encumbered with too many novices or simply unequipped with the cordage to reach the bottom. But for years now the map has shown a good half of the cave unexplored and beyond my ken. But this time I had a rope and rappelling gear. Already another ratty manilla rope dangled from the column but I was loath to put any weight on such a dubious peice of cordage. But some wonderful soul had put in a shiny new Petzl bolt in the wall some ways back from the edge which provided some redundancy in anchors; my climber training was satisfied and I rigged a long anchor from the bolt and slung the usual broken off column. Redundancy, as I soon would see, is a good thing.
Tim accomplished the rap neatly and was soon reporting on the conditions from the bottom. Furthermore, the three cavers of the ratty rope appeared from the passage beyond and waited for us to clear out. I donned harness and rapped carefully down. First order of business was a slick slope which ended in an undercut lip with about an eight foot drop to a small ledge. Then two more very steep, longer slopes to the bottom. As I negotiated the undercut lip, something shifted in the anchor above and I unexpectedly dropped about two feet. My hand was pinned against the lip by the rope and I came very rudely awake. Not knowing what had happened above, I gingerly but quickly negotiated down the rest of the way and got off the rope. After examining the anchors on the way out I detected nothing out of the ordinary. I suspect my drop occurred when the rope un-stuck itself from some small knob on the slope down. Nothing dangerous, but very startling.
Rigging the drop from a very polished column.
Trying to stay out of the lake at the bottom of the drop.
The environment at the bottom of the rope was very interesting and I was excited to finally be finishing off this section of the cave. About two feet of standing water forced us to keep to the narrow ledges under a huge sheet of flowstone. The ceiling, 50' above, was covered in small, dark formations. The bottom of the room was fairly narrow and we were able to proceed bracing hands on one wall, dry feet on the other without too much trouble. At this point, the passage rose and the sump was no more. A muddy ascent up tall passage brought us to some very nice white flowstone and truncated, restarted speleothems. A spot of lunch was had (at 4:30, but what else to you call your middle meal?) and we continued on.
From this point, the map (which is admittedly a fine example of the 1940s, detail-starved, verticality-ignoring kind) showed undetailed, wide corridor proceeding about 200' from here. In fact, there were quite a lot of ups and downs to accomplish and a fine arch to stoop through. A number of short leads were found heading off here and there, but each one pinched off after five or ten feet. We found ourselves in a cul-de-sac and slid down through a quite tight, lens-shaped aperture into a small stooped chamber. From here, I lead out through a nicely-shaped but small hands-and-knees crawl in a passage shaped much like a double-barrelled shotgun. This let out into the final chamber.
We turned left and investigated a pair of high leads. To the right, a lead progressed up about ten feet before ending. To the right, a narrow slot openned about ten feet up on the wall and didn't appear to go anywhere either, but without scaling a rather unappealingly overhung wall, it was hard to tell. A three foot diameter, four foot deep hole had been dug (?) in the floor for reasons unknown to all. The ceiling was covered with mud balls perhaps made from the former hole contents.
The far end of the cave.
The Natural Bridge separates the mud puppies from the monkey-boys.
A small column. Note my boot as I squirm out through a low slot.
Tim, up near the right-hand non-lead, balanced his camera and aimed to take a timer photo of the two of us. He pushed the button and then slid down the muddy slope to stand next to me, but a miscalculation had him ending up in the hole instead so we got a good picture of me frantically hauling him out of the hole. A second attempt went better. We turned the trip at 5:15 and headed back for the climb. On the way I found a tight belly crawl near the arch. After fifteen feet or so it emerged on a ledge high above the main passage. A continuation of the crawl lead another 25 feet before ending near a big flowstone mound. The descent from the ledge looked unappealing in my tired state (rather crawl than fall), so I wormed back through and we went back to the rope.
I had brought along ascending gear, but the climb out didn't look so hard that we couldn't just Batman up the rope. Going to the right of the drop-line, was a series of hand and footholds leading to a small grotto about half way up. Not knowing what had caused my sudden drop, I decided to trust in my redundant anchors and pulled myself up about 20' to the ledge under the undercut. Tim came up and lead the way over a slippery slope and some broken-off formations (with lots of help from the rope) into the half-way-up grotto. This turned out to be an amazing place! It opened up immediately into a large chamber obviously connected on the lower level to the water below. A monstrous flowstone mound blocked our progress, but around the edge could be seen a number of tree trunk-like columns and any number of white and brown flowstone formations. This is not at all what I think of when picturing a cave as thoroughly trashed as Whitings Neck! I need to come back some time and explore this section more thoroughly.
Batmanning the rope; kids, don't try this at home!
Now for the second half of the climb. Using the conveniently placed webbing loop, I took a long step out to the edge of the lip and, using the rope, pulled myself to safety. Tim followed in short order. We took down the anchors, coiled the rope and retraced our steps to the main passage.
The air in the main passage was noticably colder, no doubt from the rapidly cooling air outside. We dropped down 6' into the cave's central pit and spent about five minutes cleaning out the remains of at least two cheap flashlights and two different brands of AA bateries. These were added to the two beer bottles (Budweiser, empty) in my pack and the numerous other detritus found even in the back recesses of the cave. After breifly trying and failing to squeeze through the slot toward the exit. I soloed up the wet slope 20' to a ledge. This damn climb gets harder every time I try it! Tim through up the rope and I rigged him a line to climb. From there it was an easy saunter to the north entrance and out into the suprisingly snowy sinkhole.
Tim and I out under the stars once again.
The time was just shy of 7 pm for a total of about 3.5 hours in-cave. Not bad. Stars were everywhere and at least three planets (yes, I can tell which is which) shown in the still air. Everything had gotten a lot colder and we estimated the temperature to be in the low 20s. With our coveralls and gloves rapidly freezing solid (which is a most entertaining feeling), we hurried back tot he car to change and warm up. Then it was a very careful drive down black icy roads to Shepardstown and Tony's Pizza Den for a much-needed refueling.
It was an unexpectedly interesting trip. The back section of Whitings Neck is quite interesting and not as difficult to get to as I had thought. Vertical gear isn't really needed, though some may prefer it. A good rope, however, is definitely needed.
I wonder about surveying this cave. A couple teams could easily do the entire cave in a day. The current map is woefully inaccurate and incomplete in a couple places and a new map would be a very nice thing. Any takers?
- Nice photos of someone else's expedition to Whitings Neck including the back section and rappelling the drop.
- The report and photos from another Whitings Neck trip, summer 1999.
- Gary Truslow's trip report with some nice pics.