A question I often get asked by beginners is, “Has this cave been mapped?”. Almost all the time the answer is yes, since taking newbies into an unexplored cave is not a great idea. But there are still a great many caves out there to be mapped. Typically, cavers like to seek out the biggest most awesome cave systems to explore and map, passing over the numerous smaller caves nearby in the process.
Down in Wythe County towards the southwest end of Virginia are many shorter caves where no serious mapping effort has been done since the 1960’s. Back around New Year’s 2016-2017, some folks over at the VPI Cave Club in Blacksburg decided to put together a three-day cave mapping bonanza to fill in the blanks on the cave knowledge for the area. Wythe County is about 10-hour drive from where I live in Syracuse, New York, beyond the point where us northerners would be willing to drive for less than epic caves. But in this case, we were going down to spend a week visiting the giant awesome caves on Tennessee, and Wytheville was on the way.
Leah Hill and I left from my parents’ house in Maryland after Christmas dinner with the family and drove to Blacksburg on the 26th of December. After spending the night at a friend’s apartment, we headed down to Wytheville in the morning. Leah continued to Tennessee to visit family while I joined up with the VPI club people. We dropped our stuff off at the cabins at the local KOA Campground and headed over to Bill Grose’s house, the keeper of the cave database for Wythe County. In Bill’s kitchen, he had papers laid out with cave locations and descriptions for known and explored caves that still needed to be mapped.
I could sketch passage, I had my own survey gear, and I could run a survey so chose to take a crew to Dix Cave and Brush Pit, which were within walking distance of each other. Calvin Long and Jeramie Clifford joined my team, while Bill showed us the way to the cave. We were warned to watch out for bears as this far south they don’t hibernate for long. The week before Bill had crawled right into a bear while exploring a new cave. First for the day was Dix Cave, a short walk from the road to a nice walk in entrance overlooking the creek.
I whipped out my survey book and gave the tape reel and instruments to Calvin and Jeramie. Two shots in we passed a neat looking nostril like feature where a bedrock pillar spit the passage. Past this it opened to a junction with a little pit in the floor. There was black fur and dried up poop here, sure sign this cave is a bear den. We turned left down a small side passage for a few shots, ever worried we would come back to find a bear between us and the entrance.
The side passage didn’t go far before we hit a too tight squeeze to continue, but we did see a worm on the wall, and a huge swarm of crickets.
Back in the main passage, we surveyed a few more shots before the cave came to an end. Luckily no bears in sight and we knocked that cave off the list, mapping the whole thing to be 180 feet long.
Next up was Brush Pit on a nearby hillside, just a small pit that didn’t go anywhere but we mapped it anyway. A short walk up a steep briar covered hillside and we found a ladder going down a hole.
Only took two shots to map the cave, which was a simple 15-foot drop going down to a dirt slope with a bit of trash at the bottom.
With that finished, we went to go look for another cave that should have been nearby. Betty’s Trap was said to be a 60 ft pit with a few hundred feet of cave at the bottom. The cave got its name when a caver named Betty got stuck under a rock for a bit while exploring it. We roamed around where the coordinates said it should be, but found no cave in the thick bushes by the roadside. Giving up on this, we checked a limestone cliff above the creek that appeared to have some entrances in it. Only one qualified as a cave, a low tube that could be belly crawled for two body lengths before it got too tight. Not worth mapping, but we GPS’ed its location and headed back to Bill’s to report the days’ work. After checking in we headed over to the KOA and had a bit of merriment with drinks and card games before heading to bed. The next day we got up to map more caves. We had about 20 people total present for the event, which meant several other short caves got mapped the same day, and the survey started on some of the longer caves around….