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DDBC and Spring VAR Planning

Grotto members Hunter Wyatt and Emma Buchanan, now living outside of the area, recently visited southwest Virginia and we took the opportunity to continue the long-standing survey project in DDBC, and to do some Spring VAR trip planning. DDBC is not really well suited to a VAR trip, but it is a very interesting cave, and at about 4,000 feet, one of the longest in its immediate vicinity. There is a stream and several nice formation areas. It is horizontal, but travel through most of the cave is somewhat awkward and strenuous. The survey was started by a group of VPI cavers in 2010-11. Later, Hunter, Emma, and I obtained the notes and have been trying on and off to get the project wrapped up since 2015. On this trip, we headed out toward the upstream end of the system and worked on systematically checking off leads marked on the 2010-11 sketches. We only found one lead into passage warranting additional survey, where we added 60 feet in a crawl accessible from the top of a 15-foot high canyon. The crawl led into a nice little virgin room, but all routes out of the room are definitively blocked off by breakdown. Elsewhere, I poked into a promising wet lower level lead and found it sumped. It’s recently been wet in the area and there is a chance it could go in dry weather. Beyond this, the only leads left in this area are potential digs, though we did not detect any air movement to motivate us. While exiting, I was pushing my pack ahead of me in a low crawl and foolishly allowed it drop into a deep hole. It splashed down ten feet below me. When I eventually got down there to retrieve it, I found the bottom of the canyon was flooded to a depth greater than my height and I had to swim to my pack, fortunately still floating. At this point, we expect we will finish the project in one more trip where we intend to push/survey some exposed high leads in the entrance canyon. A photo trip would also be worthwhile.

After our brief survey trip, we reviewed our maps and discussed plans for a Spring VAR cave trip to be led by Hunter and Emma. The plan is to visit Blacksburg #1 and Cave Springs, both featured in the event guidebook. They are somewhat difficult caves, but this trip is proposed to be a beginner friendly trip which visits only the easier sections of each cave and highlights the interesting history and hydrogeology of the area.

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Blacksburg #1 Entrance Gate

Just outside of Blacksburg #1, a small surface stream sinks and feeds the underground cave stream. This stream eventually emerges at Cave Springs, almost a mile away. In Blacksburg #1, visitors can see a series of 19th and early 20th century signatures, some of which we speculate date to student groups from the early days of Emory and Henry. Nearby at Cave Springs, the underground stream emerges and is backed up behind an entrance dam built to feed an old stone spring house which still contains a 1915 model ram pump. This was the water source for Colonel Byars’ plantation, dating to before the Civil War. The entrance passage leads through wall-to-wall knee deep water into a good sized room. The adventurous can continue through a low airspace duck under into a smaller room where the initials “AHN” dated 1902, can be seen in a mud bank. This is presumed to be from A.H. Neff, who also signed his name deep in Blacksburg #1 in 1903, along with W.N. Neff, for whom Abingdon’s Neff Center is named. We were unable to connect with the Blacksburg #1 landowners that day, but we expect this will make a very interesting outing for the upcoming Spring VAR meeting.

Caving with the Tri-Trogs

I had a great day of caving with friends from the Triangle Troglodytes last Saturday. After meeting up with Ken Walsh, Dave Duguid, and Emily Graham at Tanya’s house in Marion, we headed out to Cave Ridge. First, we mapped Dutton Cave, a small cave with a short vertical drop, near Dead Air. This one taped out at 434 feet and Ken Walsh is drawing the map. We then walked over to Radon Cave and completed the in-progress survey there. The hard work was already done! Dave, Emily, and I got to survey the impressive big room, which is around 300 feet long, 50 feet wide, and up to 75 feet high. Ken did not quite fit through the entrance crawl initially, but he dug it out further while he was waiting for us and it is now much easier to traverse.

Ken and Emily have posted more thorough trip reports over at the Tri-Trogs blog: Dutton Cave and Radon Cave.

If you are coming to Spring VAR (April 27-29 in Marion), you might be able to visit these caves. Both require some basic vertical gear. We used a cable ladder Saturday, but conventional single rope technique would work just as well. They are adjacent to Dead Air and Boxwork Crystal, both featured in the Spring VAR guidebook and described in previous posts on this site.

Brass Kettle Hole

Brass Kettle Hole is a Washington County cave that I heard about often over the years, though I never heard locals refer to it by that name. It’s well known in the immediate vicinity, though does not seem to have seen much traffic in recent years. One of the stories I heard was about some kids entering the cave by descending a rope hand-over-hand, then being stuck at the bottom, unable to climb back out. The entrance is a near vertical slope dropping 80 feet. When Steve Ahn and I visited, we found some spelunker’s old clothesline and a dog chain tied off to a tree at the entrance, dropping into a secondary hole next to the main drop. Safe entry requires rappelling.

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Aaron Napier at the entrance (Steve Ahn photo)

A 1967 map and survey shows about 1100 feet of stream passage. Steve and I started a re-survey of the cave in November, 2016. We discovered that a large chunk of the 80-foot entrance drop can be avoided by swinging into a side passage about 30 feet down. From there, a long easy slope can be descended with at most a handline – it can be slick – to the base of the main drop. The entrance still requires basic vertical gear, though (minimally, a descender to enter and cow’s tail and ascender for self-belay on the exit).

At the bottom of the drop, a medium-sized stream is encountered. Big trunk passage goes downstream, which we surveyed over several trips. There are a few side passages and some interesting springs/pools where water enters at sumps and overflows, feeding into the main stream.

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One of the infeeder sumps (Steve Ahn photo)

Further downstream, another infeeder enters on the downdip side of the passage and feeds a pool at the bottom of a funnel-shaped mud-walled pit. There is no apparent outlet, but the water evidently seeps or flows out into the main stream, near a sharp bend with an impressive eddy. On our first reconnaissance trip into the cave in 2015, a strong chlorine odor was present from here to the downstream sump. The smell slowly dissipated over the next several months and is no longer evident.

On our second survey trip, we discovered a “new” section of cave, several hundred feet in extent, not shown on the old map. At least part of this, if not all, was clearly virgin. Mapping this area, plus the main stream passage, occupied us for a total of five trips in 2016 and 2017, with help at various times from Aaron Napier, Bill Grose, and some students from the Holston High School Karst Club. Since we began our initial survey at the base of the drop, we had still yet to survey the somewhat complicated entrance area.

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The Chlorinator (Bill Grose photo)

Steve and I returned on February 11 of this year hoping to complete the map for inclusion in the Spring VAR guidebook. Our trip followed a couple days of fairly heavy rain. We took a survey line down the main drop and swung over into a small side passage opposite the ledge where we usually get off rope. This leads to a small room with some formations. An un-climbable hole in the floor drops to stream level. We closed a loop in the entrance area, then pushed upstream. The water level was quite high and we made little progress. We’ll have to return and push upstream in drier weather. Our next lead was a flowstone climb a few hundred feet downstream. We completed the climb, but water was pouring in and through most of the passage it was like standing under a showerhead. It was quite pretty up there, but the conditions did not bode well for a productive survey or dry, readable notes. We decided to save this area for a drier day, too.

We quickly dispatched with the one remaining lead near the bottom of entrance drop, a narrow canyon that looped back to the main passage. After that, the only other lead we had was back outside, at the small secondary entrance hole with the spelunker’s clothesline and dog chain. This led into a section of about 120 feet of passage, basically a nicely decorated enlarged joint, following the steep dip of the limestone beds, choked with breakdown and cobbles at the bottom. It is parallel to and partially overlying the main passage, but the only apparent connection is through a very narrow fissure near the top. The connecting passage is much too tight for traverse and there is no real reason to push it.

We added 400 feet of survey on our trip, rarely outside of the daylight zone. Just like when we started the trip, the survey is “almost finished.” The length is now at 2,124 feet and the depth is 111 feet. If you’re attending Spring VAR, we hope to offer a trip to Brass Kettle Hole. It’s featured in the guidebook, and while we did not finish the survey as hoped, a comprehensive, detailed working map is included.

June 17, 2017 Perkins Survey

The most recent survey trip in Perkins was very productive, as described in Amy Skowronski’s trip report below. I’ll try to add a few more details here, mostly on what my survey team found.

We got into the cave at 10:30 am, and travelling as a group of eight, it took us about 2.5 hours to reach the far side of the 800 Foot Crawl, where we divided into three teams and took off in different directions. I went with Steve Ahn to station EFC46 from the last trip, in the top of a large, exposed canyon traverse, headed northeast toward the Renegade Survey. While we expected that this might require rigging at a least a handline, we crossed the canyon without any difficulty and left the chunk of rope we brought along staged here for future rigging projects. After the exposed traverse, the passage continues at about 15 feet wide and 10 feet high for 150 feet to a complicated junction. This whole is area is quite nice, very dry, with many old formations, gypsum, and fossils. We spent quite some time surveying through the junction area, closing a loop, and setting tie-in stations for each of the going leads. I soon gave up on orienting ourselves to the 1973 map, since what we were surveying simply did not agree with the old map.

We continued northeast to another junction and doubled back to close another loop. In this area we entered a nice virgin crawl and turned back in going passage, to continue in the main trunk. Two major passages continue northeast from the second junction. We took the right fork, still heading toward what the original surveyors called the Renegade Survey area. We climbed a 10-foot dome in a side passage into another small virgin section, this one consisting of about 50 feet of nice, gypsum-crusted hands and knees crawl, which emerged in the ceiling of the main passage 50 feet before the dome climb, allowing us to close another loop. We then proceeded to close yet another small loop on the south side of the passage, before calling it a day at yet another junction, with the main trunk continuing with major air, and small, but promising canyon leads on either side. Our survey total was 1,155 feet.

Meanwhile, Nick Socky, Amy Skowronski, Carlin Kartchner, Elliot Edling, and Janet Manning had headed toward a junction near the Shale Passage, at the end of Carlin’s last survey in March. Amy and Nick took the left branch and surveyed 1,037 feet, as described in Amy’s report. They surveyed almost to the very end of this passage, as depicted on the 1973 map, nearly reaching the area shown as having a sound connection with the Renegade Survey.

Carlin, Elliot, and Janet took the right hand fork, and ultimately reached the Second Stream, which they followed upstream to close a 1,700 foot loop at the canyon junction where Steve and I started our survey. Carlin posted a trip report over at the Tri-Trogs site. Carlin’s team’s 1,039 feet gave us an impressive 3,230 feet for the day between the eight cavers. The trip out took only 1.5 hours and we arrived on the surface at about 12:30 am.

Back on the surface, I was able to reconcile the section Steve and I surveyed with the Roeher map. The old map is correct in its general orientation, but in the area beyond the first junction, a large loop is shown that doesn’t exist. What is actually a fairly narrow passage proceeding north is shown as a very wide section which branches and forms a major loop (it does not). But it appears this is drawn over a generally accurate line plot with the correct overall trend and location of subsequent cave features.

The line plots below show the June 17 surveys in blue (click the image, then choose “View full size” and zoom in for a better view). Current (resurveyed) cave length is now 30,017 feet (5.69 miles) and depth is 232 feet (Carlin’s team set a new low point in the Second Stream).

Nick Socky and Janet Manning provided some pictures from the trip. Thanks!

New T-Shirts

Our new T-shirts are here! They are Gildan cotton shirts in assorted colors with the Grotto logo on the back and “Walker Mountain Grotto” printed on the front. Available in medium, large, and extra large, $15. You can pick up one up at a grotto meeting or see us at one of the events we frequent, like Abingdon’s Earth Day celebration, OTR, or VAR.

New T-Shirts

Two new Washington County caves

Back in November, 2014, Steve Ahn and I were cutting firewood on a large Washington County farm in an area of very dense sinkholes. We located a cave already known to the VSS and previously mapped by Bill Balfour, but did not enter it, due to the presence of a bloated, rotting cow carcass (it appeared ready to explode at the slightest provocation). The area seemed to have the potential for more cave, though, and we eventually returned and did some digging in a crack that looked promising to Steve.

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Not a cave

That dig never panned out, but a bit more ridgewalking, and some direction from the landowner, turned up another promising lead, one that was said to have been a den for a fox years ago. This possible entrance was among some boulders on the edge of one of the many sinkholes. While it was not passable, a little work rolling large loose boulders away opened it up. My feeling is that the entrance was closed deliberately at some point in the past. Our initial foray into the cave took us about 50 feet down a steep slope to a point where we were stopped by a short vertical drop. Our children who were out with us that day enjoyed checking out the cave, but were disappointed that they could not do the drop.

We returned with rope and rigged the drop on February 15, 2015. It turned out to be a mere 15-foot nuisance drop. We surveyed about 200 feet of passage below the drop that day. Steve did the sketching. While he caught up on sketching in the details, I did a little digging at what I thought was the most promising lead. The passage below the drop goes in two directions: back upslope toward the sinkhole, where it ends in breakdown and fill, and downslope continuing in the direction of the main passage above the drop. This eventually levels out and the flat dirt and clay floor meets the ceiling, still dropping with the same slope. We noted quite a few bones in this area, those we could identifying being cow and raccoon. A pair of long, small diameter wooden poles or logs seemed out of place lying on the floor (possibly the remnants of a primitive ladder?). The dig was a low opening that seemed like a drain (though this area is dry). I followed the ceiling down for a few feet, but never reached any continuing void and gave up. Time constraints that evening prevented us from completing the survey and we climbed out with just the short section above the drop yet to map.

In the meantime, the landowner called our attention to a small hole elsewhere on the farm that had opened recently. This one looked quite promising! The hole was not big enough to enter, but it appeared to open into blackness below. Not much effort was required to make the opening body sized. Luckily we thought better of climbing in unroped: it quickly bells out into the ceiling of a 30 foot high room that to our eyes appeared completely virgin. Lacking any reliable natural rig points, we tied off to the bumper of Steve’s farm truck, redirected off a jammed webbing knot in a crack, and dropped in. At the bottom of the 33-foot drop, passage appeared to go in four directions. We poked briefly into each lead. Nothing seemed to go far before pinching, but we did not push or survey that day.

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Entrance #2

We finally returned to complete the surveys on New Year’s Day, 2016. A quick few shots were all that was needed to complete cave #1. It taped out at a final length of 266 feet and depth of 63 feet. We then moved over to cave #2 and mapped 274 feet there. The main passages of this cave are aligned along perpendicular joints, meeting in the room reached from the entrance drop. The most interesting direction is to the west, where a high passage and a low crawl converge in a tall canyon. While it looks like it could really go, it shortly terminates in a narrow perpendicular canyon with a tiny drain between clean washed bedrock walls. Our last lead remained as a high chimney on the left, just before the terminal drain. With some grunting, a 20 foot climb up a steep sloping chimney, at points less than a foot wide, led to a bit of upper level. The climb up was something like a vertical belly crawl and fairly strenuous. This upper section terminated in breakdown from which a noticeable draft of cold surface air was entering.

Both of these new caves are now in the VSS database. I recently drew the map of the second cave, shown in part below. Steve is working on the map of the first one.

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Plan view of cave #2

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Profile views of cave #2

Perkins Cave Project Weekends: June and December, 2016

There have been two project weekends since the last Perkins survey update.

During the Appalachian Cave Conservancy board meeting on June 20, 2015, Dan Henry returned to Perkins with Michael Rhinehart and newcomers Noah Landreth and Jennifer Daigle. They continued surveying in the maze of lower level passages beyond the Antlers, adding over 400 feet and identifying the first of what will probably be several connections back into the 1400 Foot Walk. While he was underground, Dan was elected to the ACC board, as were project regulars Bill Grose and Buford Pruitt. Congratulations, all!

The next day, Terri Brown, Buford Pruitt, and Janet Manning joined me for a relatively short trip into the cave, with the current definition of a ‘short trip’ being one that stays on the entrance side of the Torepeter Tube. We traveled quickly to the low junction room where the passage branches at the beginning of the 200 Foot Crawl and the Torepeter Tube and began our survey into a nice hands-and-knees passage headed south (that is, we made a right turn off the main route, rather than heading into the Torepeter Tube). The pleasant passage soon got small. We spent the day on our bellies in uncomfortable, but well decorated passage. We eventually tied back to the Forest Trail near the fallen formation room en route to Ghost Town and also to Bill Balfour’s 2007 DOM survey into one of the side leads off Forest Trail. Unfortunately, due to tight time constraints, we had to leave one decent looking lead unchecked.

Between the two trips, 1,041 feet of total survey (921 feet of cave length after some deductions) were added to the resurvey total during the June project weekend.

Following a summer and fall occupied with mostly non-caving activities, I was more than ready for a return to Perkins when the next project weekend was scheduled for December 5-6.

On Saturday, December 5, Janet Manning, Bill Grose, Eric Cueva and I entered the cave around 1:00 pm, planning a relatively short eight hour trip. We began by wrapping up some loose ends near the entrance in the Square Hole/Shale Crawl sections surveyed in June, 2014. While Eric and Bill waited in the lower level B-survey, Janet and I headed around to the Shale Crawl and made our way into the upper part of the canyon overlooking Bill and Eric. After some time wasted trying to find a reliable B-survey station to tie into, we were able to close a loop between the two levels. Processing the data later showed that the loop closed well, which is satisfying as it is a fairly long loop with survey segments done over a period of almost 10 years with many different cavers participating. The new survey standards and redundant backsights are definitely helping with overall accuracy. Bill and Eric met us back at The Ledge and we climbed into a segment of upper level passage overlooking the main canyon. Three splay shots in this upper passage segment completed this part of the cave. We continued out to the main travel route via the Shale Crawl and Square Hole and then proceeded to the lead left from the last survey in the low passages between the Torepeter Tube and the Forest Trail. It did not go far. This area is now finished as far as the resurvey project is concerned and should be avoided, due to its unpleasant nature and easily damaged formations. We exited to Forest Trail via a tight bit of passage that pushed the limits of what Bill and Eric could fit through. Undeterred, we followed the full length of Forest Trail to its southern end and scooted through the low passages connecting to the DOM Section. On the way, we noted the too-tight hole in the floor which was blowing strongly and is supposedly connected to the STP Room below. After identifying a suitable tie-in station in the main DOM canyon, we started surveying in the lower level of the Tight Place canyon, heading north toward the Tight Place, but at an elevation well below. Finally in decent sized passage, we quickly racked up a couple hundred feet of survey, ending at a junction with a perpendicular canyon that we assume will lead us to the STP Room next time. At this point, in theory, exiting the cave by way of the Tight Place and Historic Section should have been quick and easy. However, Bill did not fit through the Tight Place crawl, which necessitated a much longer route to the entrance, at least for him. He started out while I guided Janet and Eric through the Historic Section to the entrance. The route is easy, but too confusing to navigate on your own if you are unfamiliar with it. Then I doubled back and caught up to Bill at the Forest Trail junction. We made it out around 10:30, about an hour later than Janet and Eric. Bill and Eric headed for home, while Janet and I spent the night on the mountain.

Steve Ahn, Ryan Halsey, Zachary Taylor, Hunter Wyatt, and Emma Buchanan arrived in the morning. While we were waiting for them, Janet and I checked out the Poplar Tree (Wilson) entrance. Like the main entrance, it was blowing an impressive steam cloud. I used the opportunity to double check the entrance location with GPS. The coordinates will be used to tie-in Jim West’s 2006 era survey of this part of the cave to the main. The connection route was surveyed in 2007, but there are problems with the data and it will need to be redone.

We got off to a bit of a slow start and spent some time pre-rigging Swiss seat style harnesses for folks without a caving harness available in preparation for the rope climb up to the 800 Foot Crawl. We entered the cave at about 9:30 am and traveled easily to 1400-Foot Walk. At the Kidney Stone climb, we cleared some loose rock and rigged a piece of rope for use as a handline to descend to stream level. This is still an area with much loose rock and caution is required. We headed downstream to the climb up. This is an exposed 50-foot climb rigged with rope and everyone self-belayed up the climb using an ascender or prussik. All trips to the 800 Foot Crawl and beyond go up this rope. The minimum gear recommended is a harness and ascender with tether, plus a rappel device (we have also used Munter hitches, but these seem to be hard on the rope). The drop can be free-climbed, but going without a connection to the rope (as we did last time) seems an unnecessary risk. We entered the 800 Foot Crawl and followed it to the last survey station from May. The plan was for Steve’s team (Ryan and Zack) to enter a lengthy side lead on the left, while the rest of us continued in the main passage. As it turns out, Steve’s team ended up taking a left fork further along than we thought. My team had to survey a few hundred feet to tie-in to where Steve started, but also tried to pick off any little side leads on the way, knowing it would be hard to get motivated to return to them later. One of our side leads ended up going to such an extent that we finally had to quit or risk running out of time to tie into Steve’s survey. The passage is low and not particularly fun. It is also very pretty and quite delicate. We left our last station at a junction with passage going two ways. After we completed our section of the main 800 Foot Crawl to the other team’s first station, I went crawling along ahead to find them. They went left, but I went right, hoping the passage made a loop, which it did. Along the way, I noted a nice tall side canyon dropping off to the right. This apparently marks the end of the infamous 800 Foot Crawl and is the point where future trips will finally exit the endless sand crawl. First however, we will have to close the loop with Steve’s survey through several hundred feet of miserable belly crawl. No one ever said resurveying Perkins was going to be easy.

Moving at a rather fast pace, except for a bottle neck descending the rope, and using the stream passage to exit, it took us a bit over two hours to return to the surface, for a total time underground of 11.5 hours.

Our total survey for the weekend was 1,620 feet, of which I am counting 1,522 as cave length. This is presumably our last trip of 2015, which has been the biggest year yet in terms of survey footage, with a total of 6,400 feet. Current resurveyed cave length is now 4.54 miles. The line plot above shows the new survey added during the June and December project weekends.