McFails? Is that really what it’s called? I often get this from folks when talking about one of the most awesome caves in New York. And it is indeed called McFails, named for professor Thomas McFail, a local gentleman explorer who explored parts of it during the mid-1800’s. Then one day as he was climbing out of the entrance, he fell back down and died.
Besides the rather unfortunate fate of the cave’s namesake, it has a long history with the caving community, being the longest & deepest in NY, and a favorite place to visit for multiple generations of northeastern cavers. It’s also home to many hibernating bats during the winter, so when summer comes up, SUOCers (those part of the Syracuse University Outing Club) make sure to always get a few good trips in before winter comes again. Continuing with this tradition, I rounded up an all-star crew of Joey, Nick, Leah, Erica, Mitch, and myself and we met up on a sunny Saturday a few miles north of Cobleskill.
All entrances to McFail’s Cave are through vertical pits, and the cave has long stretches of crawling and wading in 45 degree water. Wetsuits are a must. So in addition to the usual helmets and kneepads, we had to throw on some wetsuits and harnesses and hike a bit in the heat before getting into the cool dark cave. The walk to the cave is rather nice, through a stand of large hemlocks, past a few impressive pits in the ground, and then you reach Hall’s Hole, the easy way in and out. A 10-foot-long stooping sized hole in a sinkhole brings you to the top of a 67 foot drop. This drop can be anything from just a few drips here a d there to a raging torrent that makes getting up and down rather sporting, always a nice rappel since it hangs free of the wall in an open shaft. Today the falls were only a small trickle, so we rigged up the ropes and headed down. Once off rope we headed into the 1000 ft long fissure and rigged up ropes at two small drops and turned around. Our plan was to enter the cave through the Ack’s Shack entrance and then come out Hall’s Hole, so we needed the ropes in place to get out. A quick walk over to Ack’s Shack and I headed down.
Nick and Erica with bedrock projections downstream of Ack’s Shack.
Ack’s Shack isn’t quite as pleasant, requiring you to rappel down while also chimneying sideways through a narrow slot to reach the bottom. Once off rope you then have to do a 110 ft crawl so low your head is sideways the whole time. After this you reach the junction with the main stream. Upstream is a lot of water crawling with a few interesting spots. Downstream is the rest of the seven mile cave system. We headed downstream starting with hands and knees crawling in the water, then stooping, weaving around rock projections, and crawling through cobble floored tubes.
Joey coming out of Stone’s Duck
Then we hit Stone’s Duck, name for Fred Stone who first pushed through it in the 1960’s and began exploring the vast cave downstream of it. It’s only about 50 ft long but you have to get yourself neck deep in the water, and the airspace is always low enough you get at least one eye wet. Past this the cave starts changing. You begin seeing lots of yellow and white flowstone, stalagmite, and helictite formations. The passage gets up to 15 ft wide by 10ft high, and the stream begins descending down rapids, small cascades and plunge pools. There’s close to a mile of walking through this before you have to crawl again. Along the way we hit the junction with the passage coming from Hall’s Hole and stopped to have some snacks and stash our vertical gear.
Helictites between Stone’s Duck and the junction with Hall’s Hole.
Then we were off again, easily walking downhill in a canyon carved into shiny black rock, with beautiful curtains of flowstone hanging above, plus the occasional log in the ceiling from the last hurricane to come by. After passing a spectacular straight section of passage bristling with formations, the cave makes a few more turns down some waterfalls and comes to the first of what is called the Canals. The Canals are where the ceiling gets lower and you have to crawl or stoop in knee to chest deep water, not much of a real obstacle, but doing this for hundreds of feet in a wetsuit can get tiring. After the first one we come to a room with a pile of mud-covered boulders to climb over out of the stream, then reach a little section called the Waterfall Bypass. Here, if you go upstream in the water you will come to another nice formation gallery and a beautiful series of 3-5 foot waterfalls all in a row. After a quick gander we continued downstream.
Ceiling potholes in The Canals.
Here the cave begins to flatten out, with frequent long stretches of water crawling and wide passages filled with rocks to clamber over. Eventually we reach the last canal which is mostly wading in waist-deep water. A few spots here have circular holes in the ceiling, much like potholes in a stream. The echo is nice here so humming and chanting is a must. Once beyond this passage you reach the Northwest Junction. A passage comes in from the right that goes for nearly 2 miles to the end of exploration, potential for more cave to be found there exists, but the trip is long and brutal to get there and back. Downstream the cave gets larger, up to 30 feet wide and high, big enough to forget you’re in a New York cave
Mitch, Erica, and Joey in large passage between Northwest & Southeast Junction
The Northwest Passage also has a separate stream, so from here one there’s a lot more water from the combined flows. A few hundred feet of walking down this impressive passage brings you to a second junction with the Southeast Passage, the continuation of the Northwest from when the water flowed a different way hundreds of thousands of years ago. There is evidence this may even eventually connect to Howe Caverns! From here the passage changes back to a canyon about 30-40 ft high and wide enough to do jumping jacks in. Lots of larger potholes and plunge pools here so the footing gets trickier. After winding down some more canyon there’s a quick water crawl and then suddenly the ceiling gets 40 ft tall again, and the passage is perfectly straight for 400 feet!
Nick in typical descending stream canyon found in McFail’s Cave.
Here the stream cuts down into a dolomite layer and the passage floor is a reddish-brown color. A crack in the floor lets you see down deep into a pool of crystal clear water. Quite a trip to get here but worth it. Not long after this, the ceiling lowers and the floor turn to large cobbles. Another quick water crawl and then the passage becomes a long narrow lake. Ahead you see sticks, leaves, and foam collected on the surface, plus an old string disappearing into the water.
Mitch wading through the passage to the sump
The ceiling goes down the water level, Sump 1. This here is the end of the cave except for a small group of cave divers who dove through in the 1980’s and explored almost a mile of passage beyond. Their stories can be found in some issues of NSS News and The Northeastern Caver from that time. Lacking proper dive gear or training we turned around for the roughly 2 mile uphill retreat to reach the entrance.
Joey heading back up the canyon from the sump.
Coming back up the water crawls get tougher and I spent a lot of them laying in the water and floating along. Wetter but easier. Once back at the junction we donned our vertical gear and began the trek up the entrance passage to the drop. The rest of the team exited first with two sent over to Ack’s Shack to de-rig. After pulling up the rope and stuffing it in the bag I exited to a bit of daylight left and then we all headed to Pizza Hut for dinner.