Wednesday, May 17, 2006

[trip] New Years Day Cave Push

This past Saturday, May 13, Brian Masney, Jason Thomas, Bob Kirk, and myself (Dave Riggs) made another trek into New Years Day Cave. NYDC is believed to be the still-unconnected upstream trunk of Druid Cave. The goal of this push trip was to get past a boulder blocking further progress into the cave - Bob had helped us past similar obstacles at the downstream dig, and was making his first trip into NYDC to help us continue forward.

We met in Morgantown around 9am, drove up to the lip of the Cheat Canyon, and started the trek downhill. All four of us suited up in wetsuits with warm layers over top, carried spare layers sealed up in dry packs, and packed in hand warmers, candles, and a heat tent. Armed for battle with a brutal cave, we headed underground at just after 10:30am.

Brian Masney, Dave Riggs, Jason Thomas, Bob Kirk prepare for another relaxing day in New Years Day Cave

Luck seemed to be with us; the water level was low and the moderate temperature outside meant that the cave air was relatively still. Because we were able to stay dry, we actually had to stop and cool off halfway through the sandy "beach" crawl - a wide silt stream bank with a very low ceiling. Everyone was soon soaked after trekking through the cave stream and going headfirst down into a much-loathed water crawl. From here, we did a short jog through the Mon County Borehole and made it to the rock-on-rock-slab crawl at the end of the current survey.

We went ahead and to the Whack-A-Mole™ passage, so named because the finger-like protruding shelves needed whacked with a hammer to comfortably walk through. This was my first time past the last survey station, and I was honestly impressed with the size, the speed we were able to travel, and the distance that this passage covers. For New Years Day Cave, being able to stand upright and walk forward for more than a hundred feet is a welcome treat. I expect the next survey trip to add a good bit of distance because of this passage. Notable here was a large number of shell fossils embedded in several of the limestone beds along the walls.

Finally, after close to two hours(?), we reached our destination: a narrow trench going down from an upper passage to the stream level below, blocked at the very bottom by a boulder just barely larger than the opening it guarded. Jason, Bob, and I started to work on it immediately. Jason and I each drilled a hole, but progress was slow. The passage was apparently blocked with the only sandstone boulder in the entire limestone cave - it would quickly crumble and fill any hole we drilled, while the edges would crumble under the pressure. Meanwhile, Brian suited up, grabbed a shovel, and pushed a parallel lower path in the stream. He made it forward almost to where our boulder was, but was obstructed by more breakdown.

After unsuccessfully trying to tug the boulder out of the way with webbing, it was decided that our best bet against the unwilling rock was to simply pulverize it with the hammer. We easily rounded all the corners, but it was extremely difficult to swing powerful blows in the bottom of the 18" wide slot - progress was again slow. In addition, we were very weary of some sketchy breakdown seemingly balanced on the rocks adjacent to our sandstone foe. We took turns pounding on it, gradually chipping it smaller and smaller, and keeping us from becoming too chilled.

Near 4:30pm we succeeded in rolling the deflated boulder out of the way, leaving a huge mound of powdered rock behind in its place. I squeezed through the opening, being careful not to touch the breakdown on my side, and crawled forward in the stream passage. I shouted back, "It goes... but it sucks!". I went about a body length in and could see that the tunnel shrunk up ahead to painful proportions, with no visible place to turn around. Worse still was the backside view of the sketchy breakdown... the protruding bottom rock itself appeared to be held in place just by the weight of the piles of rock above it. I squirmed out and Jason popped in to confirm that this was at best an obstacle to tackle another day, and given how unstable the adjacent wall seemed, could at worst be the end of the line for New Years Day Cave.

Everyone huddled up above to discuss the situation. Frustrated that this nasty cave could defeat us after all the trips in and out over the past two years, Jason decided to prove to NYDC who was in charge. He went head-first into the sketchy upper "passage", a pile of breakdown supported by breakdown with a roof made of... breakdown. He started pushing and shoving rocks aside, and inching his way forward - head-first, downhill, without room to turn himself around. And after at least 15 grueling minutes of this...

Jason Thomas triumphs over NYDC

...Jason had broken into a virgin room.

We clamored one after one through his wormhole, each of us prying or tossing aside a rock or three so we could fit. The room is about a dozen feet tall, one side frighteningly walled by a mudslide. You drop down to stream level, follow the stream forward a bit and the ceiling becomes lower, to stoop height. A dome, 15 - 20' high awaits, with the first real formation I've seen in New Years Day Cave. From here the stream meanders a bit, the ceiling gets lower and lower, the passage gets very very wide - probably 40' at its widest width, 2.5' at its lowest height.

A couple-hundred feet in, there is a boulder intersection, which we went around and followed the wind down a crawl. Here the passage becomes very different - fingery canyon passage, narrow but 6 - 8' tall, meandering with the water. The "limestone" has a black coating and the fingers can be easily broken off, as if composed of some rotten mud-rock. The Druid winds continued, but we turned back to save the booty for another survey trip.

Jason in the virgin canyon passage, note the rotten limestone walls

The trip back out was exhausting. The pointed shelves in the Whack-A-Mole™ passage are shaped such that they poke and grab at every piece of your suit and pack on the way out. We were all coated with sandy mud, and our packs were filled with gear (Bob measured his with a fishing scale afterwards - 50lbs). We finally exited, before dark, scrubbed ourselves off in Lick Run, then hiked back up the brutal hill with mixed emotions. Brian summed everyone's feelings up by saying "Jason, I don't know whether to hug you or kick you!"

Photos by Brian Masney


Geary Schindel said...


Sounds like you're having as much fun as one can expect in the Cheat River Canyon. It's been fun reading about Druid Cave and bringing back fond memories. I'm not sure why we didn't push upstream in the cave other than someone said it didn't go. Big mistake for not checking it out my self.

After I left WVU in 1981, I headed to Kentucky to check out the big caves. The WVUSG had been somewhat active in the Roppel Project before it connected to Mammoth Cave. Anyway, decided I had better go to grad school at Western Kentucky University. Ended up working for the Park Geologist, Jim Quinlan for 3 years while I finished my degree and pretty much got paid to map virgin cave in some of the big sinkhole plain caves just outside the park. When we were finished with Whigpistle Cave, it stood at 22 miles. Since then, cavers have connected another 6 mile long cave to it to push it over 30 miles long.

Anyway, I'm supposed to be in West Virginia this September and was thinking about stopping by for a grotto meeting. I've also emailed the geology department about making a presentation to the department.

Anyone want to take an old fat guy caving in September. If so, I'll be happy to take you to something in Texas if you're ever crazy enough to come down this way.

Geary Schindel

Doug McCarty said...

Great trip report, Dave. I almost wish I could have been there that day. At the same time I'm almost glad I missed it.

john mccune said...
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Crash Kennedy said...

If Druid is in the Loyalhanna limestone, known more for sand than fossils, and the new passages have numerous shells protruding from the walls, could it be that the overlying Mauch Chunk shales are thin in that area and the Wymps Gap limestone (which overlies that and is extremely fossiliferous) is exposed in the cave? That would be pretty cool.

Jim "Crash" Kennedy
ex-WVUSG member and Fayette County (PA) caver

Beautiful Loser said...

The limestone is almost certainly the Wymps Gap. But, the Mauch Chunk does not separate the Loyalhanna and W.G. in the canyon. A shale separates the two. The Loyalhanna + Wymps Gap = Greenbrier Limestone. The Mauch Chunk is on top of the Greenbrier. Fun.