Read Time: 8 minutes
A Journey in the Dark (with Joey & Cameron) by Nathan Roser
The 2nd weekend of February 2016 was a cold one, perfect for going south, to go in a cave. Two of my most trusted caving companions: Joey O’Reilly & Cameron Larnerd joined me on a wonderful weekend beneath West Virginia in Memorial Day Cave. The drive to it from Syracuse is a long one, but totally worth it. We arrived at the cave Friday morning & suited up in the cold weather, each of us carrying a heavy bag with spare clothes, batteries, water, sleeping bags, food for 2 days, plus a drill & survey gear.
The plan was to camp underground for 2 nights & map unexplored passage in the cave. Why camp you ask? Because the cave is so massive with so few entrances that a single day trip to the end & back would exhaust even the most experienced cavers. We were joined by Rick, a Maryland caver & de-facto guru of the cave, having been on over a hundred exploration trips since it was first discovered. Down the gully from the cow fields & to the entrance, a locked steel barrel with a strong breeze sucking in. A tiny hole to a massive underworld beneath.
The few hundred feet of the cave is climbing down tight spots, and a mix of crawling & walking. Then the cave begins to descend down slot canyons to the top of a 50-foot pit. Rappel down this pit & at the bottom awaits the start of 130 feet of suffering known as the Puppet Buster. A belly crawl sized tube with a slot canyon in the floor. Advancing forward while constantly struggling to keep your camp bag & body from getting wedged in the slot. At the end, the tiny tube pops out in the ceiling of a 100-foot tall canyon about 25 feet wide. The descent into this space is incredible, with your eyes still adjusted to the small space, all you see is darkness around as you rappel down into the huge black space beneath.
Once off the rope at the bottom, it’s about 4000 more feet of passage to the camp, but barely any of it is easy. The passage is 100 feet high & for most of its length you’re going up & down piles of boulders & steep mud slopes that go from floor to ceiling. More annoyingly there are places where massive boulders block the way, requiring one to remove their pack & slip through the spaces between the rocks.
Part way to camp we made a stop to map a small side lead. Getting to it is rather fun/hairy, you have to get on rope & traverse along a ledge over the pit beneath while taking care not to damage the formations on the wall. Then the rope goes straight up, then a horizontal part where you lean away from the wall & walk sideways braced against the rope with no floor to stand on!
This puts you in a slot canyon, our lead was a small hole in the ceiling. It didn’t go very far at all, but it took us to a window overlooking the main canyon at ceiling level, a breathtaking view.
Continuing on the passage walls become covered in sparkling white gypsum crystals as you get closer to camp.
A few more hills & breakdown obstacles, you reach a pit with a trickle of water coming down, one of the watering holes for camp. Past here is one last huge steep hill & very annoying boulder obstacle, then you’re at camp. A 10-foot diameter tube off a 3-way junction with a hard-packed clay floor. Pretty comfortable as far as cave camps go.
A stove & sleeping pads are stashed here for comfortable rest & hot meals. It never rains or snows, the temperature is 54 degrees year round, it’s completely silent except for people snoring, no bugs or critters besides the white cave millipedes, and it is 100% dark all the time. Perfect camping conditions in my opinion. Back at the junction & down a different slope is the latrine pit, and then the passage opens into a massive room. The lower portion about the size of a football field with a 20-50 foot high ceiling, the entire floor made of sand dunes. Another ceiling drip in here provides water, and many passage large & small branch off the room in all directions leading to miles of cave passage. The upper half of the room has about the same floor area, but the ceiling is 100 feet high, and the floor is a gigantic steep slope of sand & boulders as large as schoolbuses. A few places on the wall are adorned with aragonite crystal clusters called anthodites. Back up at camp, we went to bed early for a 6 AM wakeup the next morning for a rigorous day of caving.
6 AM my i-pod plays “Attack of the Weiner Man”, by 7:30 AM we’ve had breakfast & are out on our cave mapping quest for the weekend. The nice tube camp is in quickly lowers to a long flat belly crawl, broken up by a boulder collapse with another watering hole in it. More belly crawling & you have to carefully work your way through a forest of stalactites & helictites. Once through this, the passage becomes a beautiful gypsum-lined tube for thousands of feet.
The floor is all sparkling white & orange sand, the walls either white limestone or covered in orange mud. The bedrock here is sculpted by the ancient water that formed it with what are called scallops, some places the ceiling resembles the inside of a sponge. After awhile this wonderful passage splits into 2 parallel routes. The one we took was an elliptical tube just the right dimensions for walking upright, but not wide enough to spread your arms. A few places along here are pits in the floor to carefully traverse across. Then we arrived at another obstacle, the Popcorn Crawl. Three hundred feet of hands & knees crawling on a floor textured like rough coral. Even with kneepads, it can still be quite painful. After this ends the passage goes back to being a 10-15 foot diameter tube, with 60 to 80 foot deep pits in the floor. Ropes are in place to safely traverse along ledges on all but one of them. In the middle of this series is a pit spanning the whole width of the passage. One must rappel down about 50 feet, walk less than 50 feet horizontally, then climb back up the other side.
After this the passage gets drier with more gypsum sand, then you reach an area where the ceiling is an apparent boulder pile, we spiraled up the gaps between the rocks & emerged in a huge chamber above, with multiple large passages taking off from it & a floor of slippery purple mud. In the wall of this room was a rope going into a canyon, our lead for the day. We climbed up the rope & awkwardly chimneyed along the canyon to the end of the previous group’s survey. Beyond this point, no human had ever set foot, completely unknown cave. Everywhere there was a slot in the floor 30-40 feet deep, some places wide enough to go down all the way. We brought a drill for the occasion & at each of these pits I set bolts in the wall, rigged up a rope & sent someone down to check for going passage at the bottom.
We began the survey with Joey, Cameron & Rick trading off getting distances, inclinations and compass bearings while hauling the ropes & drill. I took the role of the sketcher, writing down their data, making sure it was accurate, then plotting the data & drawing a map of the passage to scale as we went. It was slow & scary work in the floorless canyons, having to listen to numbers & draw the cave while taking care not to fall down or drop the book & lose all of our work. After 8 hours of this, we called it quits, with a few hundred feet of new passage mapped, multiple going leads, some lost pairs of gloves, and a lost tape reel. But we didn’t lose the book & none of us fell down. We were ready for the 2-3 hour retreat back to camp. The return trip went fairly smoothly & we returned to camp for dinner after being out caving for 13 hours. Went to bed for another 6 AM rising & it was time to exit the cave.
One of the real kickers about this particular cave is that it has lots of big & beautiful passages, but is never easy no matter where you go or from which direction. There’s always some annoying crawl, big climb, or squeeze separating you from the next easy section of the cave. Going out takes you up & down all the same hills in the big canyon that worked you out coming in, and then you must climb the big drop, awkwardly maneuver yourself & a heavy bag back into the tiny Puppet Buster while dangling on a rope with no floor. Once out of this it gets easier, but there’s still another rope climb, some chimneying in slot canyons, and a few more short buy annoying crawls. Then you feel the strong cold breeze from the entrance, up the ladder, throw off the lid & you’re finally out. The colors & sounds of the surface seem so alien after only seeing white, orange, gray & black for 2 days. Hearing nothing but dripping water, footsteps, and the voices of your companions. We locked the cave entrance, headed back to the cars & bade farewell to Rick. It was Cameron’s first underground camp and both Joey & Cameron’s first trip into this amazing & special cave. But we still had an 8-hour drive back to Syracuse, and lots of cool pictures & stories to tell.