Wednesday, November 22, 2006

[trip] New Years Day Cave Survey

Ben Franklin is often attributed to saying:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

Brian Masney, Dave Riggs, and Jason Thomas are insane. On Saturday, Nov. 18, we headed back into New Years Day Cave again with the hopes of making the elusive connection with Druid Cave. Once again we hoped that this time would be different, and once again the cave got the best of us.

Druid Cave, with over 2.3 surveyed miles of crumbling, muddy passage, has a much-deserved reputation as one of the nastiest caves in West Virginia. In fact, some would consider it an evil cave. When the 8+ hour travel time for survey trips finally became too taxing, the Druid surveyors began looking for an upstream entrance to the cave to make their lives easier. What they found was New Years Day Cave, which has proven to be anything but easier. If Druid was the frying pan, NYDC is the fire.

The three of us met Saturday morning at the rim of the Cheat Canyon. We packed all our gear and started the hike down into the gorge. A weeklong rain had Lick Run roaring with more water than I'd ever seen it move. We suited up into wetsuits and our caving coveralls, packed extra fleece polypro underwear, heating pads, candles, and emergency gear. We not only prepared for the worst, we expected it.

We were in cave before 11am, and were relieved to find the cave stream in the first part of the cave to be at a reasonable level. We moved fast and tried our best to stay dry on the way in. Our goal was to reach some "large" paleo-passage discovered on the last survey trip, in the deepest depths of the cave, where NYDC is known to be at its closest point to Druid Cave. We stormed through the beach crawl, down through a horrible wet crawl, squeezed through the rock-on-rock, dropped down into the sawtooth-lined Whack-A-Mole™ Way, squirmed through Jason's wormhole, dragged ourselves across a wet bedding plane parting, and made our way into another horrible canyon passage. The black rock in this section of the cave will crumble without warning beneath an unsuspecting caver's feet. Water pours in from the ceiling onto your head while the passage meanders into such contortions that it seems to be trying to evade you.

Jason's cave suit, literally shredded by the sawtooth walls before we'd even reached our destination.

After several hundred feet of this hellish passage, we climbed up to the ceiling and crawled through a very nondescript, nearly overlooked squeeze to a parallel passage with a decent-sized, dry, open room. I was amazed. Even more amazing was that this room led to hundreds and hundreds of feet of more dry, open, large passage! We had made our way into a parallel grid of joint-controlled passages, sometimes as wide as 20' with a 20' canyon incision. There were flowstone and drapery formations, the floors and walls were coated with a thin film of mud, but there was no moving water in sight. A cobble-lined stream bed lies in the canyon floor, and very large slabs of breakdown have tumbled down in places. Unfortunately, there was no air movement in this section. We pushed in the upstream direction until our first joint squeezed out, then followed a 90° connector over to the next parallel joint and pushed it for a bit, finding a 30' high dome and lots more mud. Still, no air.

We exited this beautiful passage and crawled back into our stream canyon to follow the air. At this point, the canyon follows the straight-line path and direction of its neighbor passages, as a part of this master joint set. The canyon tightens up, leaving a 12" by 18" tunnel up towards the ceiling, with 10' of narrow, terrifying canyon reaching down below. With no way to go at the bottom, the top was our only way forward. This crawl was certainly too narrow to turn around in, and the canyon below with the crumbling rock walls and floor made it especially dangerous.

I reluctantly volunteered to go in, on the condition that Brian follow me. We started in, pulling our bodies with our fingers and pushing with our toes. The canyon in the floor kept sucking in feet and kneepads, the passage was so narrow that I couldn't turn my head or put my arms back at my side. I crawled for perhaps 50' in the hopes of finding a slightly wider spot, but the passage maintained its torturous dimensions. I shined my StenLight forward and saw nothing but blackness far ahead -- if this passage parallels the larger joint-controlled passages to the side, it could stretch for hundreds and hundreds of feet. More than a bit spooked by the confinement and the thought that a rescue this deep into the cave would be nearly impossible, I decided that I would not go any further. We started the arduous task of backing out, pulling with toes and ankles, pushing with fingertips attached to helpless outstretched arms. It was a long, tiring haul back to passage of kneeling height.

Disappointed with this failure, we opted to survey for a bit in the large, dry passages. We took some time to eat and rest, changed into warmer clothes, and surveyed some nice long shots. Due to how physically exhausted we were, along with time constraints, we surveyed only about 250', leaving many hundreds of feet more to be surveyed and explored in this network of passages. These tall canyons could lead us to a more promising upper or lower level, or they could somehow bypass the nasty canyon crawl that kept us from following the Druid Winds.

On the way out, we no longer cared about trying to stay dry. We barreled out of the cave at record speed while the cave did its best to slow us down. We reached the surface one hour and forty-five brutal minutes later, but New Years Day Cave had the last laugh. The Druid Spirits were especially tough on Jason, his cave suit was literally ripped in half, StenLight was out, his carbide lamp working only in fits. My suit was torn in the shoulders, legs, and knees. All of us were physically beat, we were soaking wet and coated from head to toe with mud, and the temperature outside was in the upper 30°'s. We still had to hike up and out of the Cheat Canyon.

To say that the trip was exhausting would be an understatement. We were in cave for about 11 hours, New Years Day Cave time; this probably equates to days in "lesser" caves. The Druid connection eluded us again, NYDC proved to be every bit as horrid as it has in the past, and everyone involved was ready to swear off caving for good... but we know that next time will be different.

All photos by Brian Masney

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