Photo credit: Luke Mazza, Bridget Williams
“This place is a death trap when it rains.”
Not the kind of thing you want to hear when venturing into a cave, but such is the case for the Culverson Creek Cave System in Greenbrier County, WV and many other caves I have been into. However, today was a good time for a visit. A cold January day, overcast, no wind, temperatures never getting above 25 degrees. Perfect weather for a winter cave trip. After the typical getting out of bed, cooking breakfast and sorting gear, Scott Appelbaum, Luka Mazza, Erica Light, Ali Crosby, and I piled into Ali’s car for the drive from our little vacation rental house in Hillsboro to the cave. A half hour of windy mountain roads and some driving on a dirt road past the karst hills and sinkholes dropped us at the parking area for the cave. Not much there except a few houses and a hay shed where the farmer jokingly put a “Town Hall” sign. Here are a few entrances to one of West Virginia’s finest (and my personal favorite) caves, along with the home of Bill Balfour, a karst hydrologist who has done a lot of exploration and research in this cave over the years.
We stopped in with Bill for a chat about the cave and saw some of his nice photos, and heard the stories of floods that fill the entire cave with water. A little background on the cave: it’s got about 21 miles of mapped passage and 10 entrances, all on different pieces of private property, most owners will say yes if you ask nicely to go caving. The cave’s namesake Culverson Creek, drains a 44 square mile area and the entire creek flows into a 60 foot diameter entrance. This huge amount of water is both why this cave is so large and very dangerous when there is rain or snowmelt. Luckily, on a cold winter day the risk of either is low, so we planned for a good trip. After gearing up in wetsuits and helmets we walked through the snowy horse pasture to the Wildcat Entrance, so named because the cavers who found it saw a dead cat in it.
It’s a little slot at the bottom of a cliff in the side of a sinkhole with two ways to go. We picked the left path down a culvert pipe. Once off the ladder we slipped through a few small holes and got into an 8 foot diameter tube that is nearly a perfect round circle shape. A short bit of walking and it goes out into a larger 30 ft diameter tube with wall-to-wall water. Next we headed upstream through pools of water and mounds of mud to a large pool into which the entire flow of Culverson Creek pours and seeps through the floor into a lower passage. In higher flow this pool overflows and water begins flowing in the downstream “Overflow Tube.” Past this we walked in a 60 ft wide passage with the ceiling being 15 ft high on average. Past a smaller spot with a five foot ceiling the passage becomes 60 ft in diameter and then goes into a room 200 ft wide and 70 ft high. The left side is all a deep lake and the right side a huge mound of mud and bus-sized boulders. We headed up to the top of the mud and got a nice photo of a large, dry side passage with Luke’s camera. Even in this huge room the cave can fill to the ceiling with water in a big rainstorm, but it is those same terrifying floods that carve out these huge cave passages.
We then turned back downstream into the Overflow Tube, along the way we looked up and saw some tree trunks 30 ft above us in the ceiling, a friendly reminder not to go here when it rains. Some nice walking in ankle to waist deep water in 30-40 ft diameter passage brings you to “The Hairy Place,” where there is a 6 ft waterfall into a deep pool. Swimming in the cave water in the winter is very cold, so you have to do this scary maneuver where you crawl along a steep mudslope along the edge and then climb down past the deep water on some big projections of rock.
Past this spot the cave changes. The passage can be up to 100 feet high but the going isn’t easy. The entire passage consists of steep and slippery mudbanks, logs carried in by floods, and piles of giant rocks. The way this happens is when the cave backfloods to the ceiling, the stagnant water deposits sediment, then during normal flow the stream course cuts a channel between them, resulting in a constant struggle of scaling up and sliding down the mud to progress. We stopped by another landmark in the cave, “The Mudderhorn,” which is a 100 ft high mud mound, not something you’ll see everyday on the surface. We got out the camera again and took another photo, but at this point we were so muddy we blended in with the cave. Then, at the very top we found a huge tractor tire about 6 ft in diameter, carried in by what must have been a large flood. Naturally, being goofball cavers, our first instinct was to roll it down The Mudderhorn. Putting a person in it would have been an awful idea due to many sharp rocks at the bottom, but watching it roll was among the most surreal things I have ever seen. A bit more of this mud hiking and we arrived at the end of the Overflow Tube, greeted by a huge pile of tree trunks blocking the whole passage. If someone was crazy enough to haul a chainsaw down there, they could cut through and open up who knows how much more cave. Now we just had to retreat through a mile of this to get out. Once we got close to the entrance we could feel a strong, cold breeze. The sheer size of the cave causes very strong airflow near some of the entrances.
After we exited, Scott and Erica went back to the car to warm up while Luke, Ali, and I ventured in the other entrance for a trip to Death Canyon. After climbing down some ice covered walls we got into a nice sized room. Some crawling and stooping over sand brought us into another 30-40 ft diameter passage. Not far down this one the Culverson Creek water comes out of several holes in the wall from the passage above. In high water this is as far as any mortal should dare venture, but today it was shallow enough to continue. We passed a spot where there was a hole in the floor of the bigger passage that was a walking sized tube that shortly pops back into the big passage again, a cave within a cave!
Not far ahead, the water disappears under the right hand wall through what is called the Dread Pool. I went through first, and it was neck deep with a current and freezing cold. Better to come in the summer when the water is lower and warmer! Luke and Ali followed through and we were in Death Canyon, a 7 ft wide and 25 ft high canyon passage with swift flowing knee deep water at the time. It gets the name because the entire Culverson Creek drainage flows through here and the water will rise very fast when it rains. It was a very interesting passage but we didn’t venture far. The cold and swift water made the exit difficult. Back on the surface it was dark and snowing. As we were walking back to the car a herd of horses ran out of nowhere and stared at us. We walked away and they stood still for a bit, then ran after us again. They were friendly, but having a herd of horses running at you in the dark is rather spooky. They kept repeating this ritual over and over until we finally hopped the fence and returned to the warmth of the car for the ride home.