Spring VAR Conservation Project

Report courtesy of Cindy Baubach

Bill Grose asked me if I l would be willing to lead a conservation project to Buchanan Saltpeter Cave in VA. Since I have participated in a few Conservation/Restoration projects in the past and am passionate about cave preservation, I was honored to lead this trip. Bill and I discussed the goals he had in mind, primarily graffiti removal. Buchanan Saltpeter Cave has had a lot of graffiti over the years. In spite of the fact that I did not have enough time to plan out getting all the necessary materials for the project, when I arrived at the Spring VAR site, I was met and welcomed by a group of cavers that were serious about keeping our caves as natural as possible. The following cavers signed up for the trip: Ken Clark, Robby Crumpton, Nick Frantz, Robert Crumpton, James Elliot, Lee Olson, Mary Davis, Bob Griffith, Roxanne Shively, Doug Duncan, John Fox, Jim McConkey, Dave Field and Richard Hand.

BSP entrance - Robby Crumpton

Photo by Robby Crumpton

When we cavers met, I asked if they had any brushes and fortunately most everyone did so there were enough brushes to get to work. Walker Mountain Grotto did supply us with several buckets and orange trash bags which were helpful. We got to the cave around 11:15am on 4/28/18. We began our hike up through the pastures and low and behold, here came the landowners on their “gator” (or some brand- off road vehicle) to greet us with open arms. The landowners (man and woman) were recently retired veterinarians from North Carolina. They were very caver friendly and were very glad we were doing a clean- up project.

When we got down in the cave (about 20 feet butt slide with a hand line rigged to a tree to get to a ladder to descend the rest of the 30 feet or so), we counted off and got a number of caver/participants and off we went. I was so moved by the passion each one had to help clean up trash (broken glass, paper trash and anything that we could remove from the cave (this did not include a good size pile of wire fencing that a former farmer had tossed into the cave). The brushes were out and cavers went to work throughout the cave. Bill Grose had requested we focus on one section by the creek inside the cave. We did that and much more! The cave appreciated the dedication from being so defamed in the past. We all secretly know this defamation will probably happen again but at least we cleaned up a good portion, if not all of the graffiti that was removable via wire/plastic brushes. There was some at the front of the cave that we could not get off that may need future attention with a pressure washer or something in the future. There were some historic signatures we left, of course.

We really had a good time completing the project. I would guess we were in the cave for a least 3-4 hours working. We decided at this time the job was complete for the day. Thank you so much for your help. You were greatly appreciated for your dedication!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Perkins Survey update – June 18, 2017. Courtesy of Amy Skowronski

Steven Ahn, Eliot Edling, Carlin Kartchner, Jason Lachniet, Janet Manning, Amy Skowronski (reporting), and Nick Socky went to Perkins Cave in Washington County, VA on Saturday, June 18, 2017. Jason and Steve went to the register room to set up a compass course for checking instruments while the rest of us set up our tents. We met up with them and after everyone was signed in, we began to make our way to our leads together.

Everyone enjoyed the Humming Room before heading towards the Forest Trail, First Discovery, the Toothpaste Crawl, etc etc. In true Caving Is Serious Business (CISB) fashion, Nick did the entire crawl after the Torn Peter Tube backwards so that when he reached the end I would sing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart (“Turn around…”) which I absolutely did because of his dedication to the joke. We soon arrived in the 800’ Crawl where, despite the amount of energy required and general laboriousness of the passage, Eliot and Nick managed to sing sea shanties almost the entire time much to the amusement (dismay?) of the rest of the group.

When we arrived at the walking canyon passage towards the end of the Crawl we stopped to have a snack, drink water, formally organize teams, and set a meeting time for the return to the surface. The seven of us decided to split into two teams of two and one team of three with a meetup time of 11pm before we went our separate ways. Jason and Steve turned and headed toward their survey in the upper canyon passage while the rest of us went the other way towards a room with passage going in two directions. Carlin, Eliot, and Janet turned right while Nick and I turned left (the first of many lefts).

It started as nice walking canyon passage with a handful of formations and slowly turned into nice stooping/hands-and-knees crawling passage with more formations. After about 150 feet, we came to an amalgamation of helectites, stactites, stalagmites, anothodites, gypsum, soda straws, and crystals – practically every kind of speleothem was represented in a four foot section of total beauty. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Frankly, we did as much gawking as we did surveying in this passage.

The next portion of our survey did require some scuttling over rogue cobbles before opening back up into passage we could sit up in. We came to a junction with more formations and a few little alcoves scattered across the ceiling that housed small groups of speleothems. We decided to continue surveying to the left. We did eventually shoot one station to the right-hand passage for the next trip to tie into so they wouldn’t have to re-sketch the junction (always a pain) – station ZST37. This lead is stooping/walking and has great airflow.

Things continued to improve; we were no longer belly crawling and the floor was gypsum sand. Eventually, the floor got less sandy and we arrived in a small room with a crawl-through followed by another small room. Both rooms and the left hand side of the crawl-through had bizarrely decorated floors: it was mostly hard mud, but there were small sections that were fragmented like fractured glass and all the cracks were filled with lines of gypsum. We stepped carefully, hugged the right hand side of the crawl, and soon found ourselves back in stooping/standing canyon-y passage with more gypsum sand.

A little ways further, there was a split in the passage. We again went left and shot one station to the right (ZST18); this lead will require moving the loose rocks on the floor to be passable but it isn’t grim, just cozy, and there is a magnificent amount of air. A short while later, the left hand passage brought us to a 20×25’ room followed immediately by a ~65×30’ room. After surveying in crawls and moderate canyon passage for so long, this was a pleasant surprise.

We enjoyed standing for another 100 feet before the ceiling diminished and sharp cobbles reared their pointy corners to lay claim to our knees, hands, and elbows. Alas, we had chosen our course and continued onward. It started as “Cozy,” quickly progressed to “Sporting,” then “Grim,” and soon it deteriorated into primarily profanity. After almost 150 feet of joyless survey, the cobbles finally ceased and we found ourselves at another junction. In an effort to maintain the status quo, we stayed left and shot one station down the right hand passage for a future tie-in. The lead still goes and it turns into crawling, but it’s by no means terrible.

The lefthand passage was mostly walking through a sandy canyon. As the meetup time drew nearer, we wrapped up our survey at a going lead in a slot canyon (ZST36) before turning around. In total, we got 1045.44 feet in the book.

After 9.5 hours of surveying, we met back up with everyone in the canyons near the Crawl to make our way to the surface. We took the soggier, sloppier stream shortcut out of the cave and exited in the wee hours of Sunday morning (all in all, it was a 14 hour trip). Gear was peeled off, notes were compiled, and beer was cracked. Every team got over 1000’ in the book, and had a combined total of ~3200 feet or ~0.61 miles and bringing the cave’s total distance over 30,000 feet. We all pored over the old map and our notes and compared them side-by-side for a while before deciding it was time to call it a day.

Summary Version: Steven Ahn, Eliot Edling, Carlin Kartchner, Jason Lachniet, Janet Manning, Amy Skowronski, and Nick Socky went to Perkins Cave in Washington County, VA on Saturday, June 18, 2017. We split into two teams of 2 and one team of 3, with each team surveying over 1000 feet for a combined total of ~3200 feet. The cave’s total distance has now passed 30,000 feet!

Updates from Amy and Jason – Perkins trip reports

Report courtesy of Jason:

That was a great weekend of surveying. Thanks to everyone for coming out and getting a lot done. We met pretty much all of my objectives, hitting the STP Room, closing major loops, completing the 800′ Crawl, and finding a viable route down to the Second Stream. Total survey was 1,959 feet, of which 1,878 counts as new cave length. Total is now 5.1 miles. I will send copies of the notes back to the sketchers next week. We also reached a new low point, bringing the cave depth to 205 feet.

Report courtesy of Amy Skowronski:

Friday, March 17, 2017

(In alphabetical order) Eric Cueva, Bill Grose, Jason Lachniet, Janet Manning, Amy Skowronski, Caleb Taylor, and Zach Taylor entered Perkins Cave (Washington County, VA) around 5:30pm. After everyone was signed into the logbook near the gated entrance, the first team (composed of Jason Lachniet, Janet Manning, Caleb and Zach Taylor) took the high route and went through the Tight Place, with the plan of meeting the second team (composed of Eric Cueva, Bill Grose, and Amy Skowronski) in the canyons below the Tight Place in the Dirty Old Men section of the cave, where both teams would survey.  The second team was only half an hour behind the first, after traveling through the scenic Forest Trail, First and Second Discovery, and the various crawls. Both teams got to enjoy a small portion of the cave featuring unavoidable, exceptionally stab-prone popcorn – splendid!

Both teams tied into station DOM 7; Team 1 went to the right and Team 2 went to the left. Our (Team 2) survey led us through a canyon with a handful of nice formations and brought us to a junction. As we worked on the lead to the right, Bill waxed poetic about reading instruments from poorly placed stations and as he wrote ‘DOM 14’ on a piece of flagging tape and tied it around a rock said, “Man, the guy setting stations really doesn’t know what he’s doing.” before chortling heartily at his own joke. We killed the right-hand lead and headed back to the junction.

We decided that the down climb at the end of the left-hand lead couldn’t be free-climbed and carried on down the canyon passage. Surveying was going quite smoothly, front sights and back sights were matching, and Bill gave us some great tips about how to accurately get measurements from a station placed on a wall: “Be a flounder!” Thanks, Bill. We found a nice little loop, but part of it would require Spiderman-esque skills, which no one on the team had. The smallest person (myself) was lowered via webbing to the bottom where I found that although I couldn’t get down without assistance, I was able to climb out in one particular spot using a Didn’t Feel Sketchy But Looked Haphazard To Everyone Else On The Team dynamic move. Since the passage died and the other folks on the team weren’t too keen (for good reason), I was passed the instruments and solo-surveyed the last part of the passage: a gloppy, watery crawlway. It was fairly bleak. On the bright side, Bill and Eric were still vaguely audible and could be heard laughing.

As 11pm rolled around, we started making our way back. Jason met us at the junction we surveyed and went down the left-hand lead that we had determined to be unclimbable where, as is standard, he climbed to the bottom and had no difficulty getting back out. After reconvening at DOM 7, the teams changed a bit because I wanted to give the Tight Place a try but we didn’t want to send Eric and Bill out with just two people. Zach, Caleb, Jason, and myself exited the cave about 30 minutes before Eric, Bill, and Janet. The trip was ~7 hours.

There was a slight drizzle outside which made for very peaceful sleeping.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The annual Appalachian Cave Conservancy meeting took place in Washington County, VA on Saturday morning in the field station near Perkins Cave – as is caver tradition, the meeting started a little late but there was good food and hot coffee! The first team (consisting of Steve Ahn, Michael Johnson, and Carlin Kartchner) entered the cave about halfway through the meeting. After the meeting, the second team (comprised of Jason Lachniet, Janet Manning, and Amy Skowronski) made their way into the cave. The commute to our survey was fun and interesting; we moved at a reasonable pace since I was trying to learn the route and Jason pointed out recognizable features and leads as we went.

We caught up with the first team after the 800 Foot Crawl – at first I thought the name must be an exaggeration but as Jason said, “Well, ‘four hundred foot crawl, twenty foot walk, three hundred and eighty foot crawl’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.” We found Carlin sketching in a belly crawl while Steve and Michael wedged themselves in a very small space that could be considered a crawl but I would describe as “abysmal.” We wished them good luck, traveled to a walking canyon passage where we ate food, and dove back into the crawl to survey. We continued the EFC (Eight-hundred Foot Crawl) survey, used the same designation, and had some fun suggesting alternate names – for example, Easy Fun Cave (and some others that perhaps ought not be included here).

Almost immediately, we ran into some trouble. I know my StenLight has a magnetic switch, but had no idea the auxiliary light I was using also had magnetic components (whoops), so we had some difficulty getting accurate readings for a couple shots until we determined that I’m a dingleberry. Luckily, Janet is a razor-sharp instrument reader so we were quick to figure out the issue. We encountered another issue later in the day, when I decided that I wanted to see some formations with proper clarity and just deal with the hassle of reading instruments with glasses. After a couple shots we realized that my frames are, in fact, magnetic. Alas, they were returned to the Pelican Case.

We closed a loop and met back up with the first team (who had surveyed the walking canyons where we’d had lunch) in a room with some great fossils in the ceiling. Janet took some pictures of the shells and crinoids before we headed down a promising lead. The passage started as a stoop-walk but it opened up the further we went and soon we were standing on a large rock wedged sturdily in the middle of a 30-35′ tall canyon. The walls were littered with helictites, making travel (and survey) a very delicate, careful process. We had some difficulty on one particular shot and were getting readings that were consistently four to five degrees off from one another, even after we tried switching places and switching instruments. Very weird. After extensive deliberation, we decided that the cave had a black hole in it and the magnetic field surrounding it was definitely the cause of our instrument issues. But in all seriousness, it was really bizarre.

We got to a part of the canyon that Janet and I were uncomfortable with since neither of us had the required leg length for the move needed to pass around a rock. Rather than risk it and plummet to the bottom, we voted to climb down – rather than across – the canyon. This proved to be a most fortuitous choice. After one particularly grueling high angle shot, we found ourselves in a decorated, sparkling area with lots of wind and audible water. Objective #2: Locate a water source — ACHIEVED! We surveyed to the water, rejoiced, and packed our bags.

Very pleased with our discovery, we retraced our steps to Carlin, Steve, and Michael who wanted to wrap up the room they were surveying before turning around. In the interest of avoiding inevitable bottlenecks on the exit, we decided to head out and wait for them on the surface (where there was hot food and cold beer). Exit fever was running high and we scrambled through the 800 Foot Crawl in about fifteen minutes and flew down the 50’ rappel – it’s so much nicer to rappel than free-climb when you’re tired – to the stream. We opted for the stream exit since it takes less time and it cools you off as you go. It was about 1am when we left the cave, making it an 11 hour trip. Upon exiting the cave, we found it was sleeting; good thing we went through the stream on the way out! The lack of trees in the field made for rather breezy changing, but those dry clothes felt all the warmer. Camp stoves were fired up, (very) cold beer was cracked, and we chatted until the first team exited the cave – about an hour after us – before hitting the hay.

photos courtesy of Janet Manning and Bill Grose

March, 2017 surveys

Passage surveyed during the March 17-18 project weekend shown in blue

Bats and Bedrock Extravaganza, pt. I

Members of the VPI grotto had made plans to come survey in Wythe County, VA over the 2017 Christmas break. I had a few caves in mind that needed surveys. (Actually, everything in Wythe County needs to be surveyed – much of the county’s database dates to the late 1960s, with sporadic updates occurring in the 1990s.) With a little less than a week to go, I contacted Andrew Lycas (the driving force behind this ambitious project) to get an idea for how many cavers were coming so I could decide whom to send, where. Imagine my surprise when he told me “twenty one are coming”! The four caves I’d planned on suddenly seemed …”inadequate” for  lack of a better word.  Most Wythe County caves are reported as under 300 feet so by my math I was going to have seven teams of three persons each, with each team completing one to two caves per day – Oh hell! I needed permissions and descriptions/locations for possibly as many as twenty caves! Back to work.

Most of the caves I had targeted were in the Crockett quadrant. I had a couple in the Wytheville and Speedwell quadrants as back-ups. I had another in the county database – Ball’s Cave – that seemed enticing. It wasn’t far from me, and wasn’t too far from the targeted area; it was all by itself, in the far northeast corner of the county. Why not, right? I made contact with the landowner (it turned out I not only knew his sister and several other members of his family, but had been on the property in the past!)

Chad and his son Derrick met me at the barn, and after some small talk we jumped in his Gator and roared off to visit the cave. Not much of an entrance, but it definitely looked inviting. Too inviting, perhaps…


I pulled on some coveralls and started in, but after almost a body length I thought, “why not see if they’d like to come? I have some spare helmets in the truck…” I crawled out, asked them, and they answered in the affirmative so we rode back to my truck, gathered two more helmets/lights and went back to the cave.  (OK, this is where I went full-on retard: you have been warned!) As we crawled in, I noticed what seemed like an inordinate amount of dry grass dragged back into the cave (warning #1 was ignored.) “Interesting!”, I thought.  Chad was pretty excited; Derrick? Nervous. Several times he said, “I think we’ve gone far enough, dad.” (Warning #2.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Derrick, in his first (and possibly last) cave trip.

As we crawled deeper I pointed out some claw marks on the wall (Warning #3.) We stopped at a spot in the cave where a large piece of breakdown was on our right. A small hole looked into a small room on the other side of the creak down. Pushing forward slightly I stepped over a large pile of dry grass (Warning #4) and saw what might be more passage ahead, and briefly considered crawling down it. Looking at the grass pile I thought (actually, I wasn’t thinking!) it kind of looked like a nest but then halfway thought “well,if it is, whatever made it has to be outside the cave because there’s nothing between it and the entrance but us.” I also saw a larger way (to the right) over the breakdown and beyond that a promising low crawl. I climbed over the piece of breakdown and headed back towards the small hole where Chad was trying to convince Derrick  to “:go on. Mr. Bill will catch you.” Looking up through the hole at Derrick I became aware of noise behind me – almost like someone moving. (fifth and final warning!) Looking back at the hole I’d just crawled through, something that looked remarkably like a black furry arm appeared. It was promptly followed by a second black furry arm, and then by a large round head with a brown snout and ridiculously tiny ears. Oh crap! It’s a bear, and he’s coming to see what the noise is all about! “Bear!” “What?” “BEAR! GET OUT! GO! GO!” I’m not sure how I got up through that tiny hole where Derrick was, but I did. OK, scratch that cave off the list. It’ll be a while before it gets a survey. Lesson learned.

one more time bears                                                                                After getting back in the gator, Chad drove us off to another cave on the property. This one was not in the VSS database for Wythe County. Derrick and I took  a quick peek and posed for a photo, but with the knowledge that bears were definitely on the property and that they were definitely active, discretion overtook the better part of valor. The cave location was photographed and marked with  the GPS for a later date.


Bertha Cave survey

Bertha Cave in Wythe County has long been known, and for many years was accessibly only by trespassing on railroad property. In 1986 the railroad donated the abandoned rail bed to the state who promptly gated the cave. While it’s been known for some time, little has been done other than to clean up some trash and then gate it. Graffiti still covers portions of the main passage. Even the VSS reports give scant attention to the cave; the whole of which merely parrot Douglas and Holsinger to say “large entrance, 200 feet in length, in Rome formation.” Being of high visibility, easily accessible, no extant map nor even a basic description, and the fact that it’s been gated for many years meant it needed some attention. As luck would have it, I discovered I had a contact, albeit ancillary. A brief phone conversation, followed by another in-person conversation secured us permission and the temporary use of a key. A BIG “thank you” to JP, TJ, and Duane for granting us permission and access.

October 21, 2016 saw three members (myself, Jason Lachniet, and Eric Cueva) enter the cave to begin a proper survey. A hands-and-knees crawl through a spider covered passage led us into big subway tunnel passage. To the right the main passage descended and ultimately ended in a pile of breakdown; to the right, the main passage climbed dramatically before turning and providing a high lead to the right that runs parallel to the crawl. Being extremely pressed for time, and having an ancillary motive of acquiring data for Jason’s math class, we began our survey at the junction where the crawl met the subway tunnel.

We were able to sketch roughly a third of the subway tunnel-esque main passage, but did manage to set stations, get our LRUDs, and plot a line through the subway tunnel. That main passage gained us 294 feet of length and 106 feet of elevation change. A second trip is tentatively planned for December 9, 2016 to survey and sketch the crawl, sketch the remaining main passage, and survey and sketch a high lead at the end of the main passage. I estimate the final cave length to be double what we have already surveyed (and thrice what was initially estimated in the early reports.)

Aside from the surprise of such large passage in a relatively small cave, we noted several instances of cave pearls. Especially pleasing to see was a wide variety of fauna in the cave – spiders, a frog, typical cave salamanders and camel crickets, and most interesting, what appears to be three different species of isopods.

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.


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.


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.


Plan view of cave #2


Profile views of cave #2