Sunday, April 13, 2008

[trip] Briery Mountain Weekend

This weekend I assisted John Chenger with relocating and exploring several caves in the Briery Mountain area of Preston County in order to look for bats. We met at noon on Saturday, April 12, in Kingwood. I loaded my gear into his truck, which was equipped with a GPS and laptop showing our live location on a topo map, and we headed off.

Our first stop was Briery Mountain Pit, which we easily found in a large sink on the side of the road. A culvert feeds water into the sink, which falls 25 feet and then sinks as a spraying waterfall into the cave's entrance. We rigged a cable ladder, but I found that I was able to free-climb the 10 foot deep entrance pit - a 2 foot wide vertical slot - without getting too wet. Once down in the 8 foot high entrance passage, you must dart back under the waterfall to continue; nothing like getting soaked on the way into a cave! The cave consists of a couple-hundred feet of walking and stooping passage, stream passage that zigs and zags across joints, with occasional dead-end side leads. The floor was extensively littered with broken glass, cans, plastic, and all sorts of washed-in debris. The walls and ceiling were covered in a thin layer of filth, the rock of questionable character, and there was silt and mud caked into every corner. The strata dips 10 to 15 degrees back into the hillside (under the road) and it's difficult to walk very far before something new drips onto your head. I eventually came to a 4 foot tall, 12 inch wide vertical slot where the stream disappeared into; a squeeze that I was warned about by veterans of the cave, and I decided at that point that I'd seen enough of Briery Mountain Pit. Bat count: zero.

That water was cold! Climbing down into the entrance of Briery Mountain Pit. Photo by John Chenger.

Unfortunately, John was feeling rather ill at this point, and with my cave gear entirely soaked, we decided to call it a day. He got some rest, and I headed back home to Morgantown, where I had just enough daylight left to dry out my cavesuit and do a bit of rock climbing. I received word in the morning that John felt much better, so we met in Bruceton Mills at noon on Sunday and set off for a second day of Preston County caving.

First up was Kelly Quarry Cave, a cave which literally stunk... Located in the walls of an old quarry, this cave appears to be formed in the Savage Dam member of the Greenbrier, a series of sandy limestones and red shales, and in the top of the Loyalhanna. We both entered the Kelly Quarry Crawl entrance, the right-most and highest entrance, which consisted of a body-sized crawl through a rather odd passage for the area: the walls are coated with a 2 inch thick crust of Aragonite, some of which has had popcorn deposited on the ends. Sadly, all the crystal is stained an unflattering mud-brown color. This passage continues as a small crawlway for around 75 feet until a junction is reached (with air), which was too small for even me to fit through. With considerable effort, I was able to turn myself around, and we both crawled back out to check out the other entrances. The main entrance and second entrance are stacked on top of each other. Flowstone is visible above them, and there are slickenslides on some of the exposed rock. The fractured limestone, probably unstable from quarrying, has collapsed these main entrances, and one cannot enter the "largest room" in the cave without crawling through some very sketchy-looking breakdown. We chose not to push our luck, and did not enter these collapsed entrances. Bat count: zero. Dead skunk count: two.

Aragonite crystal in Kelly Quarry Cave. Photo by John Chenger.

The collapsed main entrances of Kelly Quarry Cave. Photo by John Chenger.

As we were heading away from Kelly Quarry Cave and "ridge-driving" the area, we spotted what appeared to be a pit on the side of the road. Sure enough, it was a 6 foot diameter sink filled with karsted limestone chunks, with a roaring stream audible down below - John dubbed it the Roaring Rift as I climbed down 15 feet into tall and narrow virgin stream passage. After scooping around 250 feet of walking passage in cleanly-sculpted Loyalhanna limestone, the ceiling narrowed, and I decided to save the remainder for a future survey trip. This is surely an area in need of ridge-walking, and it was quite a treat to find virgin walking passage in this county - a personal treat for me because it was my 100th cave! As you would expect, this un-planned cave had the highest bat count of the weekend, eight pips.

Climbing down into the "roaring" stream passage below upon discovering Roaring Rift. Photo by John Chenger.

Just a short distance from this new cave, we spied an abandoned mine which wasn't marked on the topo map, which John called Roaring Run Mine. We decided that it probably wasn't limestone, but headed in to investigate. While we didn't find many bats (only two), we did find an unexpected resident: a quail or pheasant who didn't appreciate our headlamps pointed at her.

Roaring Run Mine, in obviously dipping strata. Photo by John Chenger.

Continuing on to the last cave on our list, we headed to the tiny town of Orr to find Orr Cave. We spent a great deal of time just trying to find some limestone, let alone the "shallow sink" that Garton describes. Eventually, on our way back to the truck, we finally located the entrance hidden in a small outcrop and covered with a few logs. I climbed down in and started crawling... on my side... in water... until the cave ended in a drippy dome. While this is an area that should be looked at (we saw a few very interesting springs on the way), Orr Cave is not one that I plan on visiting again. Bat count: zero.

Recording data at the entrance to Orr Cave. Photo by John Chenger.

After parting ways with John, I headed South for Thomas, where I met a group of cavers at the Purple Fiddle to hear Doug McCarty play some amazing music. The drive home was interesting, as the Spring weather turned back into Winter, and the roads were covered with snow and sleet. Overall, it was a fantastic weekend caving in a rarely-visited part of Preston County.

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