“How far does this shitty crawl go, Nathan? I thought this cave was all walking!” “Don’t worry guys, I think I hear the stream and there’s airflow.”
It can be hard to keep up a crew’s morale when you take off down a long crawlway in a cave filled with mud. This was the scene in the SSS-Fuller section of the Culverson Creek Cave system, my absolute favorite cave passage so far. It was Jerky Pre-OTR 2013 and an all-star goofball crew of Erica Light, Joe Armstrong, Dr. David Mahony, Brian Barton, Mark Whittermore, and myself parked at the edge of a farm field, in the hills of West Virginia gearing up for a cave trip. Putting on wetsuits in the summer heat is never much fun, especially when they’re wet and funky smelling from prior days caving. Once geared up, we made our way over the barbed wire fence to the belly-crawl-sized hole that was the cave entrance.
After a short belly crawl, the cave opens up while becoming a labyrinth of tubes and 30 feet deep canyons. Navigating the entrance passages can be a bit tricky, with some routes requiring chimneying across slot canyons with no belay, and others requiring crawling through mud or hitting dead ends. After some hairy chimneying and crawling we reached a pleasant 15-foot diameter tube passage, with a slot canyon winding its way along the floor. From here it’s a bit tricky reaching the stream passage below. One must drop down into the canyon and look for a small hole to the stream. There are at least two ways to do this; the way I found required some chimneying and squeezing, then a long sloppy crawl in sludge. It’s easy to get deterred by places like this, not knowing if you’ve picked the right way until you hear the rumble of the rapids underground. Luckily, the constant breeze and distant rumbling sounds were enough to get people to follow. Once we reached the stream we were covered head to toe in mud, but from here things got amazing. For over a mile the cave is a clean washed stream canyon, wide enough to spread your arms and always tall enough to walk upright. The water is crystal clear, flowing down a constant cascade of rapids, plunge pools and small waterfalls. The rock is smooth, shiny and very colorful. Different layers of rock become gray, brown, purple, blue, yellow, or green.
In older areas, mud cracks were preserved in the limestone from over 300 million years ago. This preservation is a feature known as prismatic jointing, where the rock has a hexagonal pattern. Despite this beauty, there is still the looming danger of rainfall, sticks and leaves that adorn the ceiling, and the lack of long stalactites means the floods here get very scary. After about a mile of pure joy as far as caving goes, you reach the top of a 35-foot waterfall. A few of us brought our harnesses and a long rope, so we rigged up and headed down. The edge of the plunge pool at the bottom dumps off another 10 feet, a climbable but soaking drop. Being able to look back at the cascade series from below is a truly amazing sight. Then another 35-foot drop, a short crawl in the water, and an 8-foot waterfall to climb down. Below here the cave keeps dropping down rapids and small cascades. Thousands of feet downstream, the cave begins to flatten out, with bus-sized boulder piles blocking the passage. Here organic debris accumulates, and you can see blind white cave crayfish. This particular species is endemic to about 20 caves or so in southern West Virginia. They don’t have functioning eyes, but they know you’re there, scurrying backward out of the way when you step into their pools.
We turned around at this point, but if one were to continue on there is a complex maze that leads to climbing over and under huge boulders. Frequent floods ensure there is rarely a trail of footprints to follow through. After hundreds of feet of this, the passage becomes a 20-foot diameter tube, half filled with mud for nearly a half mile. Next, you hit the junction with the main stream of the cave, a chamber 120 feet high, 150 feet wide by 900 feet long. The space is so immense all you see is an empty black space and fog. Upstream goes to miles of huge passage, while downstream the combined flow of Culverson Creek and the Fuller Stream pours into a huge black lake. From here, the cave goes completely underwater, re-appearing at a few caves 2.5 miles away. No diver has ever traversed this distance yet.
Back where we were before the breakdown choke, we began retreating upstream. After climbing the waterfalls we de-rigged the rope and continued upstream, passing by the crawl we came in from. About a mile upstream from here is another entrance we were going to, a through trip. Not far ahead the passage widens and lowers to several hundred feet of crawling in the water. It then becomes a tall canyon. Progressing can be tricky at parts, requiring climbing over logs and boulders wedged in the passage by floods. Once you see pitchforks and tires you know you’re close. The Fuller Entrance has a truck in it; years ago someone’s truck rolled down a hill and dropped into the sinkhole. The rotting rusting frame is still there, perfectly vertical! We climbed up a rope tied to a tree and hiked past a few abandoned farmhouses to the cars. A few of us were rather exhausted from caving for miles in wetsuits while carrying ropes.