“Get up! It’s time to go caving!” is not always good news to people who have driven 10+ hours from the Northeast to West Virginia and then gone to bed at 3 AM. But something about going caving makes getting less than 5 hours of sleep not feel too bad.
I was down at a caving project weekend near Lewisburg, West Virginia with Mitch Berger, a friend from Boston. We had just driven from our respective cities, slept a bit, and were ready to go caving. We acquired a third victim, Jenn McGuire, to join our survey team. I say “victim” because Windy Mouth, the cave we were going to, has at least 3000 feet of crawling to get anywhere good in the cave. We loaded up our stuff in Jenn’s car and drove on down to the parking spot by the Greenbrier River. There had been a massive flood in the area two weeks prior, and the parking area was liquid mud. Acrobatics involving climbing around on the car to reach grassy areas kept us from getting dirty before we got underground. On the way was a sign in the mud to not drink from or swim in the river; the flooding had overflowed all the sewage plants upstream.
We began the march along the river to the cave, noticing the mud of the tree leaves twenty feet above our heads. Typically, high water is bad for going to this cave– at one point the trail leaves you with no choice but to traverse along an underwater ledge in the river. It’s not bad when the water is low and clear, but it can be a bit scarier when it’s four feet deep and smells like cow crap. The only upside to all this was that the flood debris in places had flattened over all the annoying bushes along the path. After the ledge, we reached the spot where you climb up about 80 feet to the cave. Even this far away, we could feel the cold air blowing out of the cave (hence the name Windy Mouth).
We got up to the entrance, wrung out our socks a bit, and headed in. The entrance is standing height but immediately lowers to a hands-and-knees crawl lasting 900 feet. Past this initial nerd filter the cave becomes walking again– for the most part. Traveling through here is easy; there is breakdown but lots of flat-floored sections and many more crawls. All the crawls on the main route are easy, but the distance adds up. In a few spots the passage forms a nice keyhole shaped tube, easy to walk fast through but not large enough to do jumping jacks in. Formations are sparse in this cave, with the exception of frequent clusters of black Aragonite crystals on the ceiling. Then we walked through a section of sticky mud, the Peanut Butter Junction. Past this was some more easy walking and crawling, and we encountered First Canyon. It’s a narrow slot in the floor but still too wide to jump across, so climbing down to it and carefully stepping across is required.
Shortly after is Second Canyon, and we climbed all the way down this one. At the bottom the passage opens into a 15-foot diameter stream passage with breakdown, heading upstream the ceiling rises to 30 feet high. The entire floor is a pile of boulders, in some places you can walk or crawl in the stream beneath while other spots you have to carefully move on top of them. There was a junction we took a left at, we followed through on a bit more big breakdown passage and we were at the spot to start surveying.
Windy Mouth had in the past been surveyed to 18 miles of passage, but the quality was poor. No clinometer readings were taken, so the cave’s depth was unknown, and some loops in the cave closed with hundreds of feet of error. A re-survey effort is underway and will likely take many years to finish. It will also likely turn up new passages, and maybe even connect to a nearby massive cave called Scott Hollow. On our trip we were definitely re-surveying known passage, but it was quite nice. A 10 to 15 foot diameter tube with a stream, minimal breakdown, and a few formations. Weirdly though, the water was red, probably from something gross on the surface feeding the stream.
Surveying up this was easy, nice long shots and easy sketching for me. Jenn and Mitch’s compass and clinometer readings were within the 2 degree error limit on the first try for all but one shot: talk about an optimized team. With all that we still progressed rather slow, I put a lot of detail in my sketches. Trying to draw individual rocks to scale and represent the shape if they’re big enough to show up on the map takes time.I’m still getting the hang of sketching, so I can’t do it fast yet. After a few hours we were nearing our planned exit time, then suddenly the passage turned into a large breakdown room. I knew if I didn’t draw the whole thing now I’d have to come back a month later and finish it. So we kept surveying up onto the boulder pile and I drew as much of it as I had room for on the page. Then we packed up the survey gear and began the journey out.
Between the three of us, we each had an annoying ailment on the way out. One of us had a hurting left knee, the other a painful right knee, and another a charlie horse in the gluteus maximus. Our exit from nearly two miles into the cave only took an hour and a half, but the entire way out was an endless chorus of groaning and grumbling. Once we reached the entrance crawl we stopped for a breather and some water. Then it was back out through the 900 foot crawl to daylight. After spending 8 hours underground with over a half mile of crawling we were ready to get some dinner. But first, we still had to hike back and traverse the ledge in the gross river water.
Once back at the car, we did some acrobatics to get changed and avoid dragging the liquid mud in. We all took different spots hanging on to the car and passed gear from the ground over the roof and into the trunk. With the sun setting, we headed back into Lewisburg for Mexican food at Carlitos, then back to the WVACS cave house for beer, campfires, and sleep. The next day before heading back to Syracuse and Boston, Mitch and I–along with many other cavers– put in a few hours of flood cleanup work in White Sulphur Springs. The entire town was underwater from when it rained 9 inches in one day two weeks prior.