March 23-27, 2007
Cavers: Liz, Ike (second author), Alex, Kristina, Mitch, TB, Jesse, Roxana (first author)
Thump thump thump... went the car. Thump thump thump...
"Does anyone else hear that?" asked Liz. "Yeah, I do," I said. I could hear the sound clearly, and it seemed to be coming from the rear tire on my side of the car. "We should stop. I think the back wheel is loose."
"Can you stick your head out the window and check?" Liz asked me. I stuck my head out the window and then some, but I couldn't see the tire well.
"It might be too minor to tell right now..." I suggested. But the sound was getting louder. Thump thump thump! After driving nearly 800 miles, it seemed Liz's car was fed up.
"You should stop," Alex suggested. Liz pulled over to the side of the road, and TB pulled over behind us. So there we were: eight MIT students in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere with a broken car.
The spring break caving trip has been a long-standing tradition for the MIT caving club. Every year, a group of intrepid explorers shuns the stereotypical beach trip and instead hightails it to West Virginia to explore, climb, and camp in caves. Mud is so much more fun than sand! So after 13 hours of driving (very fast driving) we ended up by the side of a winding mountain road, surrounded by nothing but woods.
Liz got down to inspect the rear wheel while Alex began to inspect the front wheel. When he put his hand on the brake disc, he discovered it was quite hotmuch hotter than the other wheels. A quick discussion between the engineers among us (basically everyone except me) concluded that the brake caliper had seized on the front wheel. By now it had probably destroyed the rotor as well, so Liz was going to need a lot of replacement parts. In the middle of nowhere at two-o-clock in the morning.
"Forget it," Liz said. "We're only ten miles from the cave. Let's just drive slow. We'll deal with this in the morning." And so we limped along to the cave. For the first time in 13 hours, I felt the car was traveling at a safe speed.
After quickly assembling out gear we headed into Sharp's cave at around 2:30am, scrambling up a steep hill to reach a dark hole in the ground. One by one we slipped into the hole. I could feel the squishy mud sinking into the jumpsuit Mariela had generously lent me.
"Careful, there's a lot of exposure here," muttered Alex.
"Exposure means a giant crevasse or death hole," Liz cheerfully explained.
As I crawled through the entrance I switched on my headlamp to see what was before me. Indeed there was a large crevasse.
"Okay, pass your gear over to the person in front of you before you cross the crevasse," Liz instructed. I handed my sleeping bag and pad across to TB and carefully climbed over.
After nearly an hour of crawling and climbing and sliding, we reached a large open chamber. This was our campsite. And boy were we tired. Fortunately, in a cave it doesn't matter what time of day it is, so we slept until noon before exploring the cave.
Above: Alex makes tea for breakfast in a plastic bag.
Sharps cave is an interesting place. It is formed of shale in places and limestone in others. The limestone has some pretty cool formations, like "The Brain", a cortex-like structure formed by precipitation of minerals from dripping water hitting the floor. Most of the cave is covered with a soft layer of clay that is perfect for sculpting. In one back corner of the cave is an entire clay city, full of animals, famous buildings, vehicles and other random objects built one piece at a time by countless cavers.
Sharps also has an underground river and a large waterfall. I was wearing waterproof hiking boots, which proved very useless when wading through knee-deep water. But it was worth it to see the waterfall, which is shaped like a horseshoe and at least twenty feet tall.
Above: "The Brain"
By 5:00pm we were ready to exit the cave.
Above: Jesse climbs out of Sharps Cave.
When we got outside, I could finally see just how dirty we were! Well, one night of cave camping was enough for us. For the remainder of the trip we planned to stay in a small cabin.
"So, Liz, how deep were we in that cave?" I asked. "I don't know. We can check the map when we get back to the car," she replied. "You left the map in the car?" I asked, a little horrified. "Yeah, we decided not to tell you guys until we got out," Liz cheerily explained.
We were all anxious to get to the cabin and start dinner, so Liz decided to try limping the car again. But this time the noise got really bad. Finally Alex stuck his head out the window and reported that the back wheel was, in fact, falling off. (Who called it?)
So, eight MIT students and a very broken car. No problem! Liz happily informed us that she changes her own tires all the time.
"Then I wonder why it's falling off..." Mitch murmured.
So there was no seized brake caliper in the front wheel. (Actually, there probably was something wrong with the front wheel but it wasn't what was causing the noise). The only problem was that the back wheel was loose. Very loose. So loose in fact, that Liz was able to unscrew the nuts with her hand. Liz and Alex started to jack the car up. They didn't get very far before the jack broke through the bottom of Liz's car.
"Umm...Liz?" "Yeah I know, my car is old and crappy. Just try putting the jack somewhere else."
Eventually the tire was tightened, which meant Liz could now drive 90mph on mountain backroads again. Spring Break!!! Wooooo!!!
Having survived the drive to the cabin, we cooked dinner and did out best to clean up. Then we went to bed early. We had a long day planned for tomorrow.
Yes, the cave is actually called "My Cave". And it's intense. Getting to the entrance required fording a fast moving river. Twice. Christina fell in and was consequently soaked from head to tow for the entire expedition.
After crawling a little ways into the cave, we reached a sign that said something to the effect of "If you proceed past this point you will die." Liz informed us that, with the aid of a rope and our vertical gear, we were going to proceed past this point.
One by one, we began to rappel off the 85 foot cliff of death. Liz went first "to make sure the rope is long enough". Good idea?
When you finish rappelling, you are supposed to yell "Off rope!" so the next person can start. Well, with all the echoes from the cavern below it was impossible to understand anything, but we could hear a lot of screaming that sounding something like "Off rope!" or "Help!" or "Spring Break!!! Woooo!!!"
"We should have used whistles instead of shouting," I said to Jess. "Like we could use three whistles in a row to mean 'off rope'".
"No, not three whistles," Jess replied. "Three whistles is a universal sign for 'help, something's wrong'."
Just then, three sharp piercing whistles echoed up from the cavern below.
"Uh, Jess, what did you say three whistles meant again?"
There was only one way to find out what it meant in this case. I leaned over the edge and began to rappel down the cliff. The rope jerked and slipped slowly through the rack attached to my harness as I fed it through. At first I couldn't see anything in the darkness below, but as I got close I could see my companions in the cavern. They appeared be in good health and spirits. And they were screaming, "Spring Break!!! Wooo!!!"
Why the three whistles? It turns out that Ike thought, as I did, that this would be a clearer communication than garbled echoes. We decided in the future we had better get our signals straight.
My Cave is a difficult cave to climb though, due largely to the massive amounts of slippery mud everywhere. At one point we had to climb up a 200ft tall mud slope. It was so slippery I could barely keep from sliding down! I eventually made it up with the aid of a pointed rock to carve out hand and foot holds.
Above: Alex signs our group into the register in My Cave. He finds our sign-in from last year which says, "Seven people in My Cave want to kill trip leader. Signed, Trip Leader."
When it came time to leave the cave, Liz told us we were going to have to crawl through a half-mile channel to reach an alternate exit, rather than having to ascend the 85ft cliff again. We gathered by the side of the stream for a snack break.
"Now, you guys have to do this fast or you'll all get hypothermia," Liz ordered us.
"Do what?" I asked.
Just then Liz and Alex jumped into the stream and began wading up the narrow channel against the current. Naturally, we all had to follow, as Liz and Alex were the only ones who knew how to get out.
At first the water was up to my knees. It was freezing cold and moving very fast. Fortunately the channel was narrow enough to grab onto the sidewalls for support. But the ceiling kept getting lower and the water kept getting higher. Up to my waist. Up to my chest. The frigid cold made me gasp for breath. It was so foggy I could barely see anything.
"I think this is a really bad idea!" I shouted. I was on the verge of panic. Was Liz completely insane?
Well, yes. But eventually she reached even her limit when the water got up to the ceiling. "Go back!" came the welcome cry from far ahead.
But the fog in the channel had completely fogged up my glasses and I couldn't see anything at all anymore. Ike had to help guide me back up the channel. Finally we made it back to solid ground. We were all soaked, freezing, and exhausted. What now?
"I think there's another exit around here," Liz said. She began to lead us up a passageway. I was so tired I could barely crawl. We were all pretty tired in fact, and Liz must have noticed this.
"Wait here while I check to see if this is the right way," she told us. She scrambled away up the passage. A few minutes later we heard her curse. "This isn't it," she called out. "Alex, can you check the other passage to see if it's an exit?"
"I'm sure that other passage is not an exit," Alex replied. Alex was very familiar with My Cave. "This is the exit. I'm sure."
"No it isn't. It's a dead end. Can you check the other passage?" Liz shouted from above.
Wonderful. So one exit is flooded. Another requires crawling over a mile back to our rope and ascending an 85 foot cliff. And Liz and Alex can't find exit number 3.
And a few members of the group are beginning to show signs of hypothermia. Alex went off to explore the other passage. Thankfully, he was wrong. It was the exit. When we emerged it was sunny and 75 degrees, a welcome sight indeed!
"No offense," I told Liz, "But I think I'm going to sit out on Roadside Pit."
Liz had just informed us that Roadside Pit was "ten times as hard as My Cave." We decided to split into two groups for the day: the mellow group and the hardcore group. I happily signed up for the mellow group.
While the intrepid hardcore group descended on ropes into a tiny hole by the side of the road, the mellow group headed off into the woods. Mission: Frisbee in a cave!
I had the Frisbee in my pack. After much traipsing around we eventually found a massive 300 foot sinkhole with a cave entrance at the bottom. This was Tub Cave. It's just one giant cavern full of hibernating bats and really cool geologic limestone and mud formations. There's a waterfall coming from the ceiling that must be fed by percolating groundwater.
And most importantly, there's a large open space that is ideal for playing Frisbee!
Unfortunately, we did not have a glow in the dark Frisbee. We all had to develop the skill of following the disc with our headlamps while trying to catch it. We also had to learn not to look at the person you're throwing toif you do your light blinds them. At our best we got 29 catches in a rownot bad given the conditions!
We emerged from the cave early and headed back to TB's car. On the way we passed Roadside Pit. Jess scratched a message into the rock next to where their rope was anchored. It said:
Spring Break!!! Wooo!
Some readers may note that the 2006 MIT Caving Club Spring Break trip to West Virginia found the entrance to the cave "Roadside Pit" while searching for the entrance to another cave, "The Tub", and were determined to explore it next year. Finding the cave entrance was easy work thanks to finding it last year, and because it's right beside the road instead of in the middle of the woods across streams and maybe down a sinkhole or something. Liz and Alex made quick work of rigging an anchor to some trees growing out of the hill above the hole.
A little about the hole: it's ireggularly shaped, but about 3 feet long and maybe 18 inches wide at its widest. If the back country road had a shoulder, which it didn't quite, the hole would be on it, and so there really doesn't seem to be any more appropriate name for the cave than "Roadside Pit." Just about the right size to get a tire stuck in if you drift too far to the right driving up the hill. As we entered, and later exited the cave, a number of West Virginians passed by driving up and down the road, on their way to or from digging for 'ramps', a local vegetable (see the wikipedia page on "Wild leek"). They were all generally friendly, and not too taken aback (or at least they hid it well) that a bunch of people from Boston had come all the way to West Virginia to jump in a little hole by the side of the road and crawl around in the mud for a while.
One by one, we eased ourselves through the hole, which proved just big enough to pass a caver, their vertical gear, and a cave pack through without much squeezing, but definitely some friction. Once through the hole, the cave opened up to a relatively short vertical drop, maybe 15 or 20 feet with mostly-smooth walls, and then down a steep slope of boulders to the bottom. A super-elite climber might have been able to free-climb it, if it were dry, but we were all glad to be on rope.
The cave went off in one main direction from the area we got off rope, but quickly began branching. I don't exactly remember which branches we did first, or which rooms led to which, though I'm sure a lot of it would come back to me if I ever returned to the cave. There was a lovely amount of variety - several rooms full of boulders to clamber over and up and down, and sometimes through, other rooms with lots of flowstone, and one big room with an occasionally flat mud floor and a big cluster of stalactites and stalagmmites off in one corner. There were several rooms with 'dome' ceilings, although "inside of a missile" might be more descriptive of the shape of the ceiling in those rooms.
Passages came in all sizes and directions with respect to gravity, with some impressive split-level sections, with a high route and a low route. The biggest of these seemed particularly sketchy - around an area called 'the waterfall room' on the cave map, the sensible path continued downwards towards the running water, while the upper path would have required a flying leap over a rather large drop onto a downwards-sloping mud-covered ledge. Spookily, it looked like the ledge had seen plenty of caver traffic; hopefully they got to it from the other side, although I don't think we found a way there.
The waterfalls and other running-water features in the cave were nice, carving some elaborately curved streams and a climbable set of nested horseshoe shaped ledges. The main underground river in the cave, whose name I forget, maybe something about brimstone, was a different sort of nice - the kind of nice where you crawl upstream in inch-deep water on your belly. It led to some interesting rooms, though, but all the wetness was causing us to start getting cold when we stopped moving, especially Kristina, who pretty much had her own private dance party to keep warm whenever the rest of the group had stopped for a bit. The effect was helped when she activated a bright green glowstick she'd brought along as a backup light source and wanted to use.
We tried to avoid the wet crawl going back to the rest of the cave by taking an upper route between a fallen slab of rock and the ceiling, slanted at something close to 45 degrees up to the left and with just enough room to put one's feet at the bottom and slide along sideways. Alex led the way, but it proved to be a dead end. On the way back to the junction with the stream we'd have to crawl through again, Liz felt something on her face. She'd just made a new friend, with a little bat! Liz was surprised, but politely moved the bat aside as she made her way through the passage. Another bat was later found gripping Liz's cave pack, and coaxed off. We'll never know if it was just coincidence or if Liz was wearing secret bat perfume that day.
Getting back to the big room of the cave involved crawling up through a narrow, bendy passage, a little trickier going up than going down, and one where you've got to push your cave pack ahead of you as you go. Liz and Alex made it back into the big room first and I brought up the rear, and as Kristina was getting up the hole into the big room, all of a sudden I found Liz's pack rolling down another hole in the ceiling to rest at my feet. She'd picked a slight less than stable position to rest it by the cluster of formations where the holes were.
After exploring some of the shorter dead-end branches closer to the entrance of the cave, with some nice domed rooms, I was getting tired, and eventually, the rest of the group too. We made our way back to the rope and sent Kristina up first. I followed, and Liz came up third, and when she made it out of the hole onto the road, she had a 1000-yard stare like they talk about in Vietnam War movies, her years of cumulative injuries from snowboarding and other activities having caught up with her ribs and back.
Liz procedeed to lie down on the road for a while ("It was warm", she said later) while Kristina and I brushed the crumbs of dirt that had fallen down the hole onto us as we exited off our faces. Alex came out of the cave, and we noticed the "Spring Break! Woo!" scratched into the rock above the hole, and we de-rigged and headed back to the car and cabin. When we got back to the cabin, we found a lot of great food in the works from the part of the group that did the Tub that day.
While I don't know if we'll ever get enough caving, everyone had certainly had enough caving *for the time being* by Day 4. Also, we didn't have anyone on the trip who'd been to any good short caves to do on the day we left to drive back to Boston. So, instead of doing a cave, we set off to find the entrance to a cave that looked interesting for the 2008 Spring Break trip, and the one we chose from the books was Flowerpot Cave.
Finding Flowerpot Cave involved driving on a lot of quiet country roads into the middle of some rolling hills of fenced grassy fields. After trying to ask about the cave at the some of the few-and-far-between houses nearby but finding nobody home, we just parked by the side of the road and set off over the hills and fields to try and find the cave. Caving the past three days had been a lot of fun, but on Day 4 it was refreshing to run around in the open air. We fanned out over the hills until one of us, finding various interesting features in the landscape that werent caves until someone, I forget who, found the entrance to Flowerpot.
The entrance is bumpy but not too narrow ~30-foot drop straight down from a hole in the middle of a flat rock outcropping with a set of trees growing all around it; between the vase-like hole and the bunch of trees, "Flowerpot" seems like a pretty good name for the cave. We were pleased to find a stainless steel anchor bolted into the rock at the top. As we started to drive back to the highways that would take us home, we found another car parked at one of the houses that Liz and Alex had tried to ask about the cave at before, and the residents directed us to a country store not far away where we were able to find out about how to get permission to enter Flowerpot cave from the landowners, a good thing to have.