The MIT Caving Club and a group from Syracuse University met in Schoharie county for the second annual Speleofest. Eliah proposed a trip to McFails, a beautiful vertical cave with lots of waterful walking passages. We told our UROP advisors we were going to ‘study geology in the field’ and left after work on Wednesday to drive up to Schoharie cabin. It only took us half an hour of wrong turns and driving on country roads we didn’t have to before we arrived at the cabin.
The next morning we met up with Eliah and Luke on the McFails property. As a safety precaution in case the main entrance becomes too full of water to exit, cavers are required to rig Ack’s Shack, an alternate entrance to the cave. Eliah and Rachel went to rig the Ack’s Shack entrance while Luke and Clarion took the rest of the gear to Hall’s Hole, the main entrance which is an 87 foot repel down a waterfall. The mosquitoes were out in full force so we went and hid out in the cave while Eliah rigged. He set up a redirect with a 200’ static rope so that half of the rope would be relatively dry and out of the waterfall while the other half was in the middle of the waterfall.
We repelled down into the cave and continued on to the nuisance drops. For the first nuisance drop, we set up a short dynamic rope for the short drop of about 15’. For the next drop of about 10’ we used Eliah’s etria. We completed this section quickly and relatively painlessly thanks to Eliah’s expertise. A short while later, we reached the junction with the passage from Ack’s Shack and the main passage. We left our vert gear near a bunch of (ominous) bones and continued on into the cave.
The main passage was covered with beautiful formations - more flowstone than Rachel has seen in any Northeastern cave. After wading through water, carefully avoiding the pretty things, we came to a musical chamber that sounded different notes as we sloshed in between the limestone walls. Soon afterwards we reached the Junction room and headed up towards the Asia Dome, our ultimate goal, along the Northwest Passage.
During one of our water breaks in a nice clean, tall walking passage, we saw a tiny side passage that was full of mud. [Rachel] Clarion was like “I’m small” and squeezed through a ridiculous squeezy squeeze. We followed, why I’m not sure. After much struggling we joined Clarion in a beautiful, very narrow, 10foot tall room with a water trickle and crystals. I tried to climb up to the top of the water trickle and ripped my pants. After trying to poke around a bit, we contorted our bodies to get back to the main passage. I tried to salvage my pants, but failed. I compromised with my pants and ripped them and tied the leg around myself so it looked like I was wearing a camo diaper. Once we got out of the cave and had a chance to look at the map at the trail head, we realized that we had gone past the mapped area.
We kept walking up the Northwest Passage and came to the Northwest Dome. We climbed up to see the 50’ dome complete with an old-style rope. We also found a sign in sheet and, more strikingly, a tent. Eliah said the tent was there for cavers in case the cave became flooded. We found the remains of all the amenities of home including a cook stove, lights, digging tools and some pretty formations on the wall.
We continued further towards Asia Dome until the group, not knowing how close we were to the Asia Dome, decided to split up. Luke, feeling cold and Rachel, joining him with her ripped pants, turned back while Eliah and Clarion ventured onward. About five minutes later as the water rose, Clarion and Eliah also decided to turn around. About five minutes later, both halves of the group were reunited and continued out of the cave together until the Junction Room where Eliah and Clarion decided to go to the sump passage. Clarion and Eliah sprinted to the end of the sump and found a single live frog sitting on a pile of mud near a bunch of bubbles that had collected near where the water submerged the passage.
Despite sprinting, Luke and Rachel made it out of the cave first and were waiting for Eliah and Clarion by the cars when they got out of the cave.
The cave was fun, especially since most of the people had not been into McFails before. It was a good first vertical cave for Clarion. The Caving Club got a new rope pad (aka Rachel’s pants) that was actually put into service later in the weekend.
Day 2: Eliah (SUOC), Rachel, Clarion
The next day, we went back to the McFails property in order to try the other caves on the property. Before we were able to go the caves, we stopped by Speleobooks for permissions. We started our caving adventure by rigging the rappel to the entrance Cave Disappointment, named because it turned out not to be another entrance into McFails cave. We climbed around inside Disappointment until we found the connection to Hanor’s Cave. It was a slightly tricky climb that everyone in the group managed to scramble up. After poking around Hanor’s we walked out of the cave, out of the sinkhole and across the path to derig Disappointment. We wandered maybe 50 yards down the path to find another sinkhole, labeled with a nice sign that read “Featherstoneaugh’s Flop”. We went down to look for the entrance and discovered that there wasn’t one. After closer examination, we found two holes that could have been the entrance. One had been covered with logs and leaves. Determined to go to the cave, we started pulling the logs and leaves out from underneath us. We quickly realized the benefit of tying ourselves to a tree and then continued the excavation process. From where we had just been standing, we soon had the entrance to the cave opened. Already on rope, we rappelled in and found so many fossils- over nine thousand fossils!!! We could even see out the other possible entrance to the cave through a really pretty spider web. After exploring the 20’ of passage, we ascended back out of the cave. We continued to wander through the woods, looking for Chicken Out. We found a small sinkhole without a sign and with a large rotting tree across it and lots of debris that would have to be dug out in order to tell if there was a cave there to begin with, so we went and found Wick’s Hole instead. Wick’s Hole was a hole. With a dead fish. There. So we went back to the car and ate peanut butter and nutella sandwiches.
Down the road, Eliah knew of a cave called Sinks by the Sugarbush that had been reportedly covered with debris. We went to the landowner’s house and talked with the caretaker. He was very nice and told us that Joe Armstrong had said that the cave needed to be dug out before anyone could go in. We decided to talk to Joe Armstrong before trying any excavating, so we headed to get more sandwiches at the local gas station. They were tasty.
After sandwiches we went to the Selleck’s Preserve. While the sun was setting, we visited two of the three caves on the property: Selleck’s and Levy’s. Selleck’s was another vertical cave. Levy’s was more interesting because it had a really cool waterfall that we used to clean all of our vertical gear that had been caked with mud ever since that crawly passage in McFails. Clarion and Rachel had a ‘clean gear-off’ in which they competed to see who could exit the cave with the cleanest gear. Clarion won then quickly fell into the creek.
Feeling satisfied with the day’s caving, we decided to call up the rest of the group that was meeting us at Schoharie that night and go to another cave. We met up with Sid, Keluo, and Linda and went to Ella Armstrong. It was Linda’s first vert cave and Eliah taught her how to ascend from the bottom of the cave. There was a really cool climb in the back of the cave that led up to another 30’ or so of passage that Clarion, Eliah, Sid and Rachel climbed. There was also a cool passage that you could access while you were halfway done ascending out of the cave that led to a little room. After Ella, we were done for the night.
The next day the large group of people staying at Schoharie went out to breakfast together. Including the group that had gone to Ella the previous night, there were also a couple of beginner cavers who had come up the night before. The group split up into two groups. Eliah, Sid, Rachel and Clarion went to a cave near Bensen’s and the rest of the group went to Clarksville. The cave near Bensen’s is an active dig that was really hard to find. While trying to find it, we checked out two potential entrances that turned out to be little more than vertical holes in the ground. Once we finally found the dig, we rappelled in and went down the small passages that led to another rappel. At the bottom of this rappel there was some sort of dead rodent sprawled out on one of the rocks. From there, the real dig began with a low passage. Unsure of how deep the passage went, we crawled in and the first couple of people ended up going farther than the diggers themselves had been.
Still up for more caving, we went to Speleobooks and talked to Emily. She told us that the last group that had been to Gage had reported that the ladder had been broken. No one had been to check it out, so we volunteered to go to Gage after promising to not to repeat Eliah’s mistake of changing in front of the neighbor’s house. We went to Gage and found that only the top three rungs of the ladder were missing- just the part that had stuck up out of the cave. We went into the cave looking for the rest of the ladder. Since we didn’t see it, we went further into the cave. We came to the Amphitheatre Room, a large open room with two large mounds of cave mud, complete with two sleds. Further on there was the mud room that was full of sculptures of people and creatures and… things. We continued on to the Balls Down Crawl: a series of 4 crawls half submerged in water. Clarion got cold after the first leg, but the rest of the group continued to the end and came back. We all left the cave and made our way back almost flawlessly to the car and headed out.
Day 4: McFails/Knox
The next day we met up with more people from the Boston Grotto and split into two groups. Clarion took Linda and Eliah to Knox while everyone else went to McFails.
Knox was a nice dry cave for a change. We got down into the main area and explored a few side passages. We found a rope hanging that should have been put up so that people couldn’t reach it. Try though we might, we couldn’t toss the rope so that it caught on a rock to keep it out of the way. We made a mental note to tell the property manager, then we went down though the gun barrel and the lemon squeeze. We made our way slowly through the football room and ended up in the Alabaster Room where there were a lot of cool formations including a special kind of baby stalactite that grew sideways and up instead of straight down. We explored this room a little and saw the dig before heading back out the way we came, bypassing the gun barrel.
Since the Knox group made it back to the cabin well before the McFails group, Linda and Clarion decided to go check out Schoharie Cave, right out back of the cabin. We got back into all of our gear and walked down to the entrance of the cave. There was a pretty gate just inside the cave. Schoharie was mostly walking passages and Clarion endeavored to stay as dry as possible and was succeeding until she slipped on a pretty piece of petrified wood and got wet anyway. Linda was wearing her wetsuit, so she liked the water and went swimming when we got to the end of the walkable cave next to the dig and the sump before we headed back out and back to Boston once the McFails trip got back.
[Rachel] Sid and I joined the group from the Boston grotto
on another trip to McFail's. After a tasty breakfast, Sid and I rode with
Keluo to the cave entrance. The car leading the group to Mcfail's missed
a turn along the way, but Sid, Keluo and I were able to get there fine because
I had been learned the way there after driving around the Scoharrie the past
few days. While waiting for the other part of our group to arrive,
we met some people from the Met grotto who were also going to McFails.
After everyone finally got to the parking area, I went with Chris (from the Boston grotto) to rig Ack's Shack. To rig Ack's Shack properly, you must rappel in and drop your rope on the opposite side of a horizontal metal bar. If you rappel straight down, you will drop onto a false floor. I rigged our rope and rappelled in to the entrance and set our rope, and also the Met grotto rope which had been causally tossed in.
By the time I had rigged Ack's Shack, the rest of the group was starting to rig the main entrance. We again set up two lines, one through the waterfall and one drier. I helped rig the directional and finished the rappel into the cave on the dry line. After most of the group was in the cave, we took off our harnesses to leave at the bottom of the hall's hole rappel.
[Sid] We set up a line for the first nuisance drop, but most people squeezed down a crack on the right-hand side of the approach to the drop. The second drop was navigated with an etrier. We continued down the main passage to the junction room, where we decided to explore the Southwest passage to the sumps. This passage is mostly open and very wet, although deep in only a few places. There is a second junction room along this route, with the main passage continuing through shallow water and a side passage that moves up into extremely muddy, slippery terrain. We continued on toward the sumps. We reached the first sump, where we found a dive line and a frog. On our way out, Rachel and I explored the muddy section going as far as the first deep water. We then returned to rejoin the rest of the group, who were attempting to do some cave photography. On the way out of the cave, we explored the Well Decorated Passage and climbed up a few small waterfalls. Rachel and I were the first two to ascend out of the cave, whereupon we took Keluo's cave pack and hiked back to the car. Unfortunately, Keluo's car keys were not in his pack, so we were stuck out in the cold for an hour while we waited for the rest of the gang to get out. As we were getting changed into warm dry clothes, we partook in Tom's home-made wine. Then we drove back to Schoharie Cabin and met up with Clarion and Linda to go back to Boston. The end.
---Clarion, Rachel and Sid