Lost and Found In Organ Cave
It's A Small World After All
Written for the SCAG newsletter in May 1997.
Back in mid April I finally got a chance to take another weekend trip to West Virginia to do some caving. Chastity and I drove down on Friday the 18th, starting out in the final winter storm of the year. Spring and sunny skies arrived a ways north of Harrisburg, followed very closely by manure spreading season. Talk about something in the air! Eventually we turned west on I-64, began climbing into the mountains and left the fragrant farms behind. After setting up camp and then having dinner at Granny's House, we were ready for a bit of caving.
Partly to start with something easy, and partly because our safety contact wanted to go sleepytime by midnight, we opted for a few hours in Acme Cave, which is entered through Acme Mine. As usual, I had minor difficulty locating the first entrance, even though I had selected the biggest and most obvious. It's funny how those unforgettable landmarks are never quite where or how you remember them. Walking all the way to the back of the adit where I thought the entrance should be, after walking halfway to the back of several adits, helped tremendously, but in the meantime I found an entrance which I had not previously discovered. I made a mental note (in erasable ink, no doubt) of where it was for some future exploration, and continued attempting to locate my preferred entry.
A quick tour of the highlights used up most of our short time, and a thorough inspection of a false floor used up the rest. On our first trip into Acme, Rob, Rich, Leanne, and I had been terrified while crawling across the narrow, muddy, sloping ledge that passed by the edge of the huge, bottomless gulf where the passage floor had collapsed. While most of us felt better returning, Rich felt just the opposite, and we concluded that it had to do with where your dominant hand was, since Rich was the only lefty. On this, my third trip, I was much more comfortable and leaned into the hole to examine it more closely. Apparently the bottomless void has filled in substantially in the last few years, because it is now only about 20 feet at its deepest, and at one end it might even be a fairly easy climbdown. After changing, and a short drive back to the main road, we called our safety contact at about 11:45. By 12:30 we were snug and warm in our sleeping bags.
Saturday morning rolled around, and once again we opted to eat at Granny's. Breakfast cost almost $7 with the tip, but it saved us the trouble of bringing cooking gear. Next, it was off to the Lipps entrance of Organ Cave. Unfortunately, the Organ entrance is closed at the moment, so we would not have the luxury of a through trip, but we would have the excellent workout provided by doing all that crawling around in the small passages of the western cave twice. After suiting up and stashing the car keys, we headed in looking for the first left, which would lead to the Rehajo Connector, and on to the Lipps Maze. The first left was easily located, and we started in. Almost immediately I was puzzled, since I didn't remember it being that tight- I mean I would have sworn it was only a hands and knees crawl, but this was a belly crawl. And it got even smaller. After a minute or two of wondering how I could forget that it was this tight, I started wondering how the hell we got Jack Parker through it. Since Jack Parker is only an inch or two taller than me, but probably weighs forty or fifty pounds more than me I quickly concluded that we had not actually gotten Jack Parker through this tiny little hole. A quick check of the map revealed that I had the wrong section of the map; I was sure that I wanted the first left, so I tried again. Could it have filled in a bit during high water? I quickly decided that the car was close enough to go get the map that had the entrance area on it. Sure enough, the map revealed that I was looking for the first left, but a first left that was about another 50 yards into the cave. Matching my memory much more closely, the next first left was bigger, more obvious, and the easier choice. After a few yards of hands and knees, it also became very familiar. We quickly found ourselves in the Lipps Maze; this would be the first time I actually intended to return from the opposite direction, so I made a point of piling up several cairns as we worked northward through the maze. None of the wrong turns we might make on the way out were very long, but neither were they very big. We easily located Skid Row, and followed it to Jones Canyon, which we followed north towards the Breezeway. Popping out of the Breezeway into Left Hand Passage, we hung some flagging tape; though not obscure, it would be important to find this junction on our way out.
Turning east, we headed to the Handley Room, where we found the Flack-Handley Turnpike and the balcony that overlooks the Flack Room. This was where I intended to get to, but the turnpike is an exposed traverse that we would not be attempting. Returning to the opposite end of the Handley Room we descended the Silo, and followed Ascending Way to the Sand Room. At this point we joined the Upper Stream Passage, and headed downstream to the Throne Room. After signing the register (we had also signed one in the Handley Room- either people aren't signing the register, or the inconvenience of the Lipps entrance has drastically cut the number of visitors; according to the Handley register we were the first ones to pass through since sometime in early '96) we headed out A Trail to the Gypsum Crawl, passed under Lover's Leap, and headed down the Old Saltpetre Route. We were now in a part of the cave I had never been to, and I hoped that the map was good enough (and my map skills, as well) that we would not have any unpleasant surprises. After a short distance, and with a minimum of searching about, we reached the Hedrick's stream passage, and headed upstream to the Organ-Hedrick's junction. As I approached the junction I could see a cairn, and noticed a shiny layer just below the top. By removing the top rock I found a quarter and a penny. Chastity suggested that it was for a phone call, with the penny for good luck; I left them in the hope that we wouldn't need it, and the suspicion that there were no phones close by. After a short distance we turned left and soon joined Slate Creek, which we followed upstream toward the Flack Room. In short order, I began to get puzzled. I was looking for a 3 way intersection, but thought we had gone too far. After a bit I began to think that we should return to a 2 way intersection that we had passed. After poking about for a bit I remembered that the book said something about one of the 3 passages, the Subway, coming out under a piece of breakdown; being only a foot high and somewhat obscure, the Subway did little to present itself as part of the 3 way intersection. With that out of the way, we took the middle passage, which looked very much like it was the left fork, and began climbing up through the Fun Room, eventually reaching the Flack Room. By this time I was feeling slightly less than positive about how things were going. Although I had gotten us to where we wanted to be, and could even see right into the Handley Room, where we would want to be later, I was beginning to wonder if it might take longer than I had planned to follow our chosen route. We probably still had some route finding ahead, and we couldn't get directly to the Handley Room, except by way of the Flack Handley Turnpike, which, as I said, is rather exposed. We were in an area which is somewhat confusing on the map, and the sections of it that looked simple on the map were turning out to be more complex in reality. Because there were only two of us we had been traveling pretty quickly, with no need to stop and wait for a group to move through a constriction, or change carbide or whatever. We had both been sweating, and we were thirsty with not much water left. I filled our lamps from a water drip to conserve what little water we had left.
To leave the Flack Room by our planned route we needed to locate one of 3 ways to enter Octopus Alley. The direct route to Octopus Alley leaves from the north side of the Fun Room, but our ascent through the Fun Room revealed it to be a series of breakdown chokes with climb ups mixed in; I also knew that there is an upper level which we had not yet located. A second route leaves the north side of the Flack Room, but the likely passage was low and filled with little pieces of breakdown, and didn't look very appealing yet. The third option was a long crawl that started from the beginning of Floyd Collins Avenue, at the far end of the Flack Room. Fortunately some poking around found me in what was obviously the upper level of the Fun Room; the floor has a network of waist deep channels cut into it. One of the waist deep channels actually drops all the way down to a lower level perhaps 25 feet down, so it is a good place to pay attention. We easily located what we took to be Octopus Alley, and after passing a junction, we were more convinced that we were again back on track. After several hundred feet we came to a left turn that again led to a junction that could pass for the map's depiction of where we wanted to be. We again turned left, and crawled through several tight spots that matched the map quite well. I estimated that we were now within about 15 minutes of being back at the Sand Room. At the end of a short crawl I stood up, and as I turned to watch Chastity crawl out of the hole, a dark spot on the otherwise light, sandy floor caught my attention. I bent down and picked up a blue wallet. The possibility of losing things and having no idea where I lost them is exactly why my car keys were stashed safely outside. This also allows my companions to change into their clean, dry clothes at the end of the trip even if my pack (and possibly me with it) should somehow plummet irretrievably to the bottom of a deep pit. I opened the wallet to see what I might find. There was no money. Certainly a consolation when its owner discovered it was missing. No credit cards. Again, a plus for the unfortunate owner. I pulled out a West Virginia driver's license with a standard, blurry DMV picture of some longhaired West Virginia hippy. I read the name: Craig Hall. Here I was, nearly two hours from the nearest entrance to a cave that is 500 miles from where I live, in a place that, according to the register, probably hasn't been visited for well over a year, and I had found a wallet that belonged to somebody I knew.
Passing a left hand bend we came to a T junction. According to the map we should be crossing the top of the T, but we were coming from the base. The passage had stopped matching the map, but I wasn't actually expecting 90 degree turns, and I wasn't finding them; left was the way to go. We traveled about 50 yards, and just as I was thinking that the passage looked awfully familiar, I noticed a survey station that I had noticed about 20 minutes earlier, while we were in Octopus Alley. I quickly concluded that it was much more likely that we were back in Octopus Alley, than that the survey station was now on the route to the Sand Room. We consulted the map yet again, and didn't see any connection between where we thought we had been and Octopus Alley; we also couldn't find any other loops that doubled back to Octopus Alley. We romped up the passage a ways just to match features to the map, and to be sure that the left we had followed back when, had been the right left. We returned to the junction that had returned us to Octopus Alley, and poked around. This junction was not on the map, and the connection that was on the map was not presenting itself in any obvious fashion. We sat down to rest, consult the map, and have a snack. I considered our options. I had thought we were about 1 1/2 hours from the entrance, but if we had to retrace our entire route it would be closer to 3 1/2 hours. It was almost 5 pm, and we were supposed to meet Mark at the campground at about 7. Our safety contact was expecting a call by 8 or 9, with a worry time closer to midnight, so that wasn't a real problem. We were getting tired, and we were really thirsty with not much water left; at least there would be stream water for the lamps along parts of whatever route we followed out. After a brief rest we retreated into the side passage to see if any other route presented itself. A short climb behind a block led to a traverse that led to either a passage or an alcove. The traverse was above a ten foot drop, toward which it sloped, so I didn't take a closer look; I didn't think I'd have any trouble, but I wasn't as comfortable with Chastity's climbing. Part of the trouble with this trip was since there were only two of us I wanted to be a little extra cautious about what we did. I resigned myself to taking the long way out, but figured we could take another look at the Flack-Handley Turnpike. It isn't that high, and it's the climb up to the low end that's awkward rather than the traverse across the Turnpike itself; when it meant saving two hours it might look easy enough to try. Besides, the landing is sloped, and fairly smooth.
We turned back toward Octopus Alley, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed faded letters on the wall. Somebody had smoked the letters "HR" and an arrow pointing up toward the traverse; it was faint, but unmistakable. The only thing that "HR" could mean here was "Handley Room" so I checked out the traverse again. Sure enough, it led to a definite passage, and from the far side I could brace myself in such a way that Chastity would have to jump over my legs in order to fall. It also turned out that the traverse is one of those things where 90% of the difficulty comes from the 10 feet between the traverse and your landing spot if you screw up. Sure enough, in ten minutes we were back at the Sand Room. A short trip up Ascending Way and the Silo, and we were back in the Handley Room, where we made a note in the register that we had finished the grand tour, and were headed out. By now we both had a strong case of entrance fever. We were thirsty, we were tired, and we were ready to be out; plus Mark was planning on taking us to dinner, and we didn't want to stand him up. Despite having already been in the cave for seven hours, we charged on out at a rapid pace. We collected our flagging at the Breezeway, turned past the Pendulum, and crawled out into Jones Canyon. Heading up Skid Row, we turned left into the Lipps Maze, watching for our cairns. Almost at the Rehajo connector, we found one ambiguous pile, and split up briefly. My route got tight and didn't look right, and I rejoined Chastity. A few yards further along we found our last cairn, and crawled through the hole, and quickly found our way back to the Lipps Stream, and headed upstream to the entrance.
The trip out from the Handley Room had taken slightly less time than the trip in (not counting the wrong first left). After changing and drinking a quart of juice, we headed back to the campground. Chastity felt that she had worked hard enough to deserve a real bed to sleep in, and she didn't have to twist my arm very hard to make me agree. We packed up the tent and sleeping bags, and drove down to the end of the road to wait for Mark, who showed up after about 15 minutes. We got a cheap room at the Super 8 (courtesy of a coupon from the highway rest area), and enjoyed a couple of nice hot showers. Instead of returning to Granny's we opted for the Western Sizzlin' across from the motel, then went back to crawl into bed.
Sunday morning we had planned on going to Buckeye Creek, but Mark had decided not to go caving, since his shoulder was still bothering him from the collarbone he had broken in February. Chastity wasn't very enthusiastic, the water was perhaps a bit too high and was definitely still cold, and we didn't want to make Mark sit around for several hours, so after looking at the entrance to Buckeye Creek we decided it was a good day for sightseeing. First we went looking for the entrance to Norman Cave, which I hadn't been to for nearly ten years. Knowing that it is about a mile north of the Bone entrance, and armed with a Forest Service map, I figured which road it had to be on; I was optimistic that I would recognize the bend in the road, but only if it actually looked the way I remembered it. As it turns out, after one bend that could have been, but didn't seem quite right, we found one that looked exactly right. A short jaunt up an obvious trail brought us to the entrance.
Our next destination was Craig's house to try and return his wayward wallet. I had been there about two years previously, at night, but knew that we had to go through Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Driving down one of those horrible, steep, twisty, roads to hell that are ubiquitous in West Virginia, I thought we were close, but when we had started up the other side without finding it, I was losing confidence. After turning around, we stopped to look at one of the posted signs, and could barely make out "C Hall" on it. We figured it must be the unmarked road or driveway we had passed part way down the hill. Sure enough, we found the house, and Craig was home. "I came for two reasons," I told him. "The first is to ask 'what kind of idiot takes their wallet into a cave?' and the second is to bring it back." Nearly two years after it had been lost, the now worthless wallet had been returned.