The Great President's Weekend Speleo Death March    

The Great President's Weekend Speleo Death March

Written for the SCAG newsletter somewhere around March 1997 or '98.

For the past month and then some, I had been planning on some kind of southern style caving trip for President's weekend, but wasn't sure just what form it would take. Unfortunately, Phil and Darlene were also planning a trip, and I wasn't sure what form it would take. Therefore, since it is easier to let somebody else do the planning, and I am basically lazy and unorganized, I decided to accompany Phil and Darlene on the trip that they had planned.

So it was that I left work a bit early on Tuesday, February 13th so that I could be at Phil's and ready to go by 6:00 PM. Leaving Phil's at 8:00 PM, we stopped at Darlene's and loaded our gear into her Explorer, and actually started on our way at 8:30. Thanks in part to Pennsylvania having finally raised the speed limit to 65, we crossed the Tennessee border at 6:02 AM, and headed west toward Jamestown and the East Fork Obey River Gorge. Upon arriving in Jamestown at 8:30 local time we started with a visit to French's Shoes to search for a pair of used boots to replace my deceased caving boots; after trying on about six pairs I finally found a comfortable pair which cost all of $12.95. Our next stop was the Mark Twain Diner (he was born in Jamestown, you see) for breakfast, then off to Kay's where we would spend the night.

It was at Kay's that I began to understand that I had been bamboozled, tricked, and misled into believing that I was on a simple and enjoyable, extended caving weekend. In all fairness, I was aware ahead of time that some of our caving would be work trips, which is to say that we would be surveying. I even knew that the days might be long. I could have planned my own trip to West Virginia, or joined the Central Jersey Grotto, and stayed at the Sunset Motel and eaten meals at Granny's House (see the December 94 Bat Droppings). I could have opted for an all CRF trip, stayed at the Maple Springs Bunkhouse, and let the expedition leaders cook all of the meals, which would be ready, waiting, and plentiful when I got back from caving. But, nooooo! I thought it would be easier to let Phil and Darlene make the plans, and now I was about to suffer the consequences. Despite what I had heard about all of Darlene's southern friends that we might be visiting, it turns out that we were in fact camping, and that there would be no flat, level floor or hot shower waiting when we got out of the cave; there would be a tent on a slight slope, with cold running water falling from the sky; in fact it was cold and blustery as we set up the tent before heading off to go caving.

Despite the terrible hardships, we drove down a muddy road to a parking area and changed into our cave clothes. It was time to actually do some caving now that it had been 16 hours since we left Darlene's house and we had gotten about 4 hours of sleep. We walked down the muddy road for about a mile and then began our descent into the gorge. After following the road downhill for a few hundred yards we left the road and began to descend in earnest, grabbing at trees in an attempt to control said descent. Some thousand feet lower we reached the river, and a few yards downstream we climbed back up to the entrance of Zarathustra's Cave. The trip through the cave took about thirteen hours including five or six for surveying. It would have been quicker, but at the end of the survey Phil napped for several minutes between cross sections, which he was sketching at each station. We finished the survey where some of Darlene's friends have attempted to blast their way up into what they believe will be a continuation of an upper level that ends in breakdown. Darlene and I made a few short attempts to climb up through the breakdown/blast rubble, but I decided that it was not a good day to die, and retreated to the solid stability of the passage below; Darlene apparently also believed this to be a good course of action. Until our survey data is plotted, we are not even sure that this is the only way into whatever passage may be above us, anyway. We retraced our route a ways before climbing into the upper level and following a different route out, passing through an Indian flint mining operation on the way. We exited at about 1 AM to find that it was about 35 degrees and raining lightly. This would not be so bad if we were dressed for a New York cave, or if the car wasn't an hour's march away. After a brief pause to become properly motivated, we started day 2 of The Great Speleo Death March, by trudging back up the thousand feet to the top of the gorge. By the time we arrived at the car we were thoroughly chilled and our hands were stiff enough to make changing more difficult than it needs to be. The rain had made the road even muddier and it's a good thing we had four wheel drive, or we might still be living in the car. We crawled into the tent to go to sleep at about 2:30 or so.

For some inexplicable reason, we were awake, and even functional by about 8 AM, and we began planning the day's itinerary. Darlene wanted to do a through trip in Mountain's Eye Cave, but the entrances are about four miles apart on the surface, with several hundred feet of elevation gain to boot; in cave, the distance is considerably more. Had there been another vehicle to drop us off we might have stuck with the plan, but instead we opted for simpler logistics, and decided to take a pleasant tourist trip in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave. After breakfast and a short drive we were in Grassy Cove which is both a community (one of the ubiquitous "unincorporated villages" one finds down south), and, allegedly, the country's largest sinkhole, a closed valley that is perhaps six or seven miles across and ringed by mountains that are about one thousand feet higher than the valley floor. After securing permission from the owner, we suited up and made the short hike to the entrance. Darlene has told us that this is the local sacrificial beginner cave, but we are not prepared for the sight that greets us as we reach the entrance. The small wall above the entrance is colorfully festooned with graffito created with colors of spray paint that I had not even known existed. There is of course the obligatory black and fluorescent orange, but there are fluorescent greens and pinks as well, along with blues and yellows. Few artists have such a complete selection represented in their work as is apparent here. We fire up our lamps and head in; within fifteen minutes of the entrance there is almost no near-vertical space that has not been adorned with the names of primitive, but recent visitors. There are also many names left long enough ago to be considered historic, perhaps, and there are some nice examples of fancy lettering. Despite spending about 8 hours in the cave we are seldom far from names on the wall. There is also a fair sampling of what I will agree is artwork; while the models are not Rubenesque, and although Botticelli painted similar subjects, the work is of a lesser quality - "Melody" actually has a bag over her head.

Darlene has not been here for ten years or so, and although she knows where she wants to lead us, she doesn't remember the route well, and we spend a good deal of time route finding. We are not at all concerned about finding our way out, because despite the maze-like nature of much of the cave, there are about three thousand arrows, almost all of which actually point toward the entrance. Darlene is very adamant about following a loop which will bring us to the bottom of "The Chasm", which she says will be loads of fun, although somewhat scary. When we eventually find it, it is much more than somewhat scary- it is in fact terrifying. It is also one of only two ways out. The other is back the way we have come, which includes a long and unpleasant crawl. The standard way of negotiating the chasm is to first follow an easy and protected climb to the top of a thirty foot high block, which is in the center of the chasm itself and forms a floor under most of the upper walls of the chasm, and to then climb straight up the walls to a pair of ledges that are about six feet above the block. These ledges are on opposite sides of the chasm, and are about four inches wide; they do not protrude from the walls, but are actually indentations into the wall, and they are about four feet apart. Once you are standing with one foot on each of these ledges, the object is to use your hands against the walls for balance, and traverse about ten feet to an easy slope leading up to a passage. Unfortunately, the block which forms a floor six feet below the start of the ten foot traverse ends after only five feet. This means that the last five feet of the traverse, which is the widest part of the chasm, is actually about forty feet above the spot on which you are most likely to land should things not work as planned. For some strange reason, the idea of making this traverse is not high on my list of priorities. Crawling back the way we came is also not high on my list of priorities, but it is definitely one notch above making the traverse. Fortunately, a brief inspection of the area reveals one more option that ends up far higher on the list of priorities. Somebody has left a rope that hangs straight down from a point above the block we are standing on. Itís about fifteen feet to the top, where there is a huge ledge extending the length of the chasm. Free climbing to the ledge might be difficult because there is a short stretch with few good holds, but by using the rope as one handhold it is a simple matter to climb up to the ledge. Darlene gets to go second, and she doesn't especially care for either option. She says she doesn't have the arm strength, and thinks the rope climb may be too difficult, but she is ten years older and perhaps wiser than the last time she was here, and the sound of my knees knocking against one another has not increased her confidence in tackling the traverse. Phil and I suggest that she do the traverse while I belay her with the rope so I pull the rope up from the bottom of the chasm, and Phil ties Darlene in. I should point out that I do not ordinarily trust gear that is just laying about, but this rope is a 1 1/2 inch rope of the sort you use for mooring barges, and probably still has a breaking strength many times higher than any load we could possibly generate. Now on belay, Darlene begins the traverse, but decides that the weight of the rope offsets the psychological benefit of the belay. Eventually it is decided that Darlene will climb straight up, and that by providing tension I can overcome any lack of upper arm strength that presents itself. Darlene makes the climb with no trouble and some tension. With the benefit of a belay, Phil dashes across the traverse in four or five moves, and pronounces it a piece of cake. Then in an attempt to totally demoralize Darlene, he looks at the traverse across our ledge to the passage he is in and says that it looks much more difficult than what he just did. I am already aware that our traverse might be slightly difficult, but I am also positive that even if we slip, it would be nearly impossible to actually fall into the chasm. As it turns out, there are a couple of excellent handholds that are not apparent until we begin the traverse, and it is simple and safe. Phil confirms my opinion that 99.9% of the difficulty of his route is psychological, and that if it was four feet off the ground instead of forty we would gladly do it with our hands in our pockets. With the chasm behind us we follow the wind out of the cave in about twenty minutes, exiting to a cold, but dry Tennessee night. By about 9:30 we have finished a filling dinner at Pizza Hut (where our waitress seems to have kindly not charged us for the salad bar or our breadsticks), and we head to a nearby state park to spend the night. Darlene is pretty sure that it is late enough that we can just slip in and grab a site, and not have to pay if we are quick about leaving in the morning. Unfortunately, the ranger locks up just after we pull in, and drives through to check on things (or look for thieves like us, perhaps) before leaving for the night. Tonight's lodging ends up costing $14, and we go to sleep as the snow begins to fall. We awake to about an inch, and while Phil and Darlene pack up, I head for the bathroom to try and get $14 worth of hot shower before leaving.

Breakfast consists of some cinnamon rolls, which Phil had brought from home, and coffee and cocoa from a convenience store. Using our own mugs, we are charged 29 cents for the cocoa even though I have put two packages into my mug. I also used the microwave to warm up the cinnamon rolls, which were frozen. Try finding a deal like that in New York. Forty-five minutes down the road we hook up with Darlene's friend Bill Walter and his friend Joyce, to go to Blue Spring Cave. Back in 1989, Blue Spring was a large entrance room with a tight, nasty crawl off the back. Since the tight, nasty crawl blew lots of air, Bill and some others pushed hard enough to find the end of the crawl, which overlooked a large room; several blasting trips later they gained access and began survey and exploration which have now netted over thirty miles, making Blue Spring the longest cave in Tennessee. Our goal for the day was to do some survey in a crawl that Bill knew about, but that the other local cavers weren't interested in surveying, because they are too prissy to crawl and get wet if they don't absolutely have to. Our second objective was to play tourist and see several miles of cave. Since I keep making derogatory comments about those prissy southern cavers, Darlene had apparently conspired with Bill to make me suffer and to prove that southern cavers are willing to crawl under the right circumstances.

Fifteen hours later, we exited after walking farther than I have on any two or three previous caving trips; I also stoop walked farther than I have on any two or three previous caving trips, and I crawled farther than I have on any previous trip except possibly Skull Cave. Blue Spring, like so many caves down south, has some huge passage, but perhaps the most impressive place we saw was Mega Junction. This is a four way intersection, where all four passages are at least twenty-five feet wide and fifteen feet high; Mega Junction itself is about one hundred feet high, and although not really a room, feels like one that is one hundred feet wide. At this point we had already covered about two and a half miles from the entrance, and we now took a side trip down the NA survey for a half mile of walking to look at the better gypsum displays. Besides the common needles, flowers and crusts that are found in most dry southern caves, we saw numerous fibrous gypsum formations such as gypsum ropes and gypsum beards. The trip out followed a different route, covering another three miles of mostly walking passage with lots of stooping and crawling, and plenty of formations. Again we exited to a cold night, with temperatures of about twenty degrees. This night, however, there was no wind, and it was incredibly clear and dark. I practically had to pry the car keys away from Phil, who seemed content to stand and stare at the stars while I wanted to go and get changed so that I could be warm and dry while staring at the stars. After changing we drove about an hour to Bill's house where we not only got to sleep inside, but we had the option of sleeping on a real bed, or a floor. Guess what I chose? Unfortunately, by the time we went to bed it was already about 4 AM, and we were supposed to meet someone at Roppel Cave at 10 AM. To make matters far worse, Roppel Cave is about a three hour drive to the north; allowing for packing and having breakfast with Bill and his wife, this meant that I had about two and a half hours to enjoy the nice soft bed. Fortunately, we all overslept, and didn't get up until 7:30. Then we sat around the breakfast table and talked for a while. It seems that Bill has been caving since the fifties, and has quite the resume; among other accomplishments, he did quite a bit in Flint Ridge back in the glory days when any serious trip could yield virgin cave and maybe even a big discovery, and he has done a great deal in the Tennessee area. We also learn about caving with honor. This means waiting until your friends discover something really good, and then sneaking in right before they begin surveying so that you can scoop all the booty.

We finally arrived at Roppel Cave at about 2:00 PM, only four hours behind schedule. We had attempted to call the person we were expecting to meet, but he had left just before we called. Since there was no note waiting for us, we finally found our way to CRF's Maple Springs Camp to try and find out what happened to him. It turned out that he never tried to meet us, but had instead opted to cave with CRF, which was obviously a smart move on his part. After discovering that there were a few bunks left, we decided to go do our Roppel trip and then return to Maple Springs for another night of luxurious accommodations, even if it only meant a few short hours of sleep. Once at Roppel, it was decided that if we were to follow our original plan of surveying off of Transgressions Trail we would have to spend time route finding, as our missing person was to have been our navigator. We also decided that it would be at least a six hour trip even before we did any surveying, and that meant we couldn't possibly be out before 10:00 PM, and Phil and Darlene both felt that they had to have at least a one hour nap before they did a Roppel trip. I argued that with our schedule, the one hour of sleep would be much more beneficial if it was added directly to the sleep after we got out of the cave, but they were adamant that we must feel sharp for a trip in Roppel, so we lay out our sleeping bags for a nap. Phil's alarm didn't wake him, and it was an hour and a half before Phil, with some difficulty, woke me from a deep sleep; I was surprised to find that the nap had helped more than I expected it would. It was decided that our planned survey trip was totally unfeasible, and a short recreational jaunt was much better suited to our available time, so Phil and Darlene planned a trip that would orient Darlene to a route leading to Pirate's Pot, and show Phil and I the way to the now unused old Weller entrance.

From the bottom of the entrance ladders we would follow South Downey Avenue to Upper Arlie Way, climb down to Lower Arlie Way, find our way to the Pleiades Junction and Roberta's Pass, then down the Black River, through Poker Chip Dome to Pirate's Pot. This first part was Phil's job, and then Darlene would show us the route up Kangaroo Canyon to the old Weller entrance. From here, we would head back to the entrance by a different route that split off at Poker Chip Dome. It was estimated that this loop would take about five to six hours, but upon reaching Pirate's Pot, Darlene discovered that she already knew the route, and that there was only a short section that was a variation on what she had already been used to. From here we climbed up and into the bottom of Kangaroo Canyon, which we followed upstream at floor level. Darlene had not been this way, which was named "the easy way", but knew that at some point we needed to climb up to the top of the canyon, where we would follow along just below the ceiling. The old route (the hard way, although known by a different name) stayed at the top of the canyon and crossed the top of Pirate's Pot before a climbdown to Poker Chip Dome, and our goal was to join this route at the top of Kangaroo Canyon. Although Darlene wasn't sure just where to climb up since she had never come in this direction, we figured it would be easy enough to find. After a short distance there was a tight section at floor level, so we climbed up a bit to some ledges. Continuing at this level the ledges began ascending and forced us up until I was forty feet above the floor. Where I was seemed comfortable enough, but there were wide, open spaces below us which Darlene didn't like at all. I could tell that there was no way down without retreating and that ahead I would be forced higher, so I said that I would go and check things out. I thought that Phil and Darlene were going to wait, and I could hear their voices for a while longer, until I was at the top of the canyon and a bit further along. I hollered that I was at the top, and Darlene said I should find a sign saying "Kangaroo Canyon". I cruised up the passage for a ways before finding an easy route back to the floor, which was now only thirty feet below the top. Thinking that the others were waiting for me, I descended and headed back downstream, to show them the easy route up. Lots of hollering produced no response, even when I had gone far enough that I was sure I should be under the last place they had been, so I turned and headed back upstream, and climbed back to the top of the canyon. I now had no idea where Phil and Darlene might have got to. I had been shouting regularly, but got no response, so I retraced my route along the top until I found myself descending back to the stream at floor level. I had come down a natural staircase, and realized that Phil and Darlene must have either returned to Pirate's Pot, which made no sense, or come up this way while I was down low, but farther upstream. I returned to the top and paused to think through the options. Perhaps the most sensible was to just sit and holler, but I was confident that I had some time before they would return. Maybe I had misunderstood Darlene, and should have headed the opposite direction when I got to the top of the canyon; though I didn't take this idea too seriously, I headed the other way, back past where I had climbed up the first time. I soon came to a stoopway and a sign that said "Kangaroo Canyon", but the floor showed no obvious signs of recent travel. I decided that they had passed over me while I was down low, and continued up the passage thinking I was ahead of them rather than the other way around, as I was now sure was the case. At a good spot, I stopped and used my lamp to smoke "WAIT" on a flat rock, which I propped in the middle of the passage before continuing on. I had only gone another few yards when I heard noises, and then Phil came the other way. Sure enough, they had thought I was still ahead of them, and they had been nearly sprinting up the passage, trying to catch up to me. As it turned out, they had returned to stream level and then come up the natural staircase while I was backtracking upstream of this point. Because the top and bottom of the passage become separated, we were unable to hear each other at the point were we passed. Now that we were back together, we continued on down the passage, occasionally hopping over narrow gaps where there was a drop to stream level; it is apparently these short jumps that gave the canyon its name. We were now only ten or fifteen minutes from the other entrance and we finally paused to eat our lunches. We decided that if we could get out past the gate, we could walk back to the car in about 30 minutes, as opposed to the two hours it had taken in the cave. With the thought of actually being in bed by midnight urging us on, we headed through the entrance crawls. Coming around a bend in the cold breeze that was blowing into the cave, I spotted something, began to laugh, and said "we're getting close to the entrance, aren't we?" Darlene answered yes, and asked what was so funny. I wouldn't tell her, but when she crawled around the corner behind me, instead of the small stream we had been following she found the floor covered with ice. A short distance beyond that we reached the gate; although it was designed so that it could be opened without the key from inside, it was frozen shut. Fortunately there was a space off to the side, through which we were able to crawl out. Looking back we thought how funny it would have been if we had been able to open the gate: there was ice to within an inch of the top, and we wouldn't have gotten out anyway. After a very cold 30 minute walk, we got back to the car, and changed. After another half hour, we were eating dinner at Maple Springs, although time had stretched out and it was about 1 AM when we finally got to bed.

Once again morning rolled around, and we got up to face the final leg of our speleo death march. Our timetable required us to leave Maple Springs by 2:00 PM, and we thought we had a good hour of survey to accomplish in Ganter Cave, which is a solid forty-five minute walk from the trailhead. Although we finished breakfast and got our gear organized quickly, little tasks kept us from starting until 8:30 or so, and after a short drive and the hike we entered the cave at about 9:30. It took another 15 minutes to reach the point at which our survey would start. Our last several days of caving must have been catching up with us, because it took an additional 15 minutes to get our act together and really start. Phil had told us that we just had to do 150 feet of mop-up survey in a low, wide stream crawl so that he would be ready to complete the map, and he had said that there were mud and gravel banks that would allow us to stay out of the water. He had lied. With effort, it may have been possible to stay out of the water if we had simply had to get through the passage, but we had to survey it, and that is a whole different thing. As it turned out we set 8 stations instead of the 6 he had thought would be required, and we just sketched in the last fifty feet before the passage became too tight to continue. I got thoroughly wet and muddy while pushing the end of the passage, and Darlene got thoroughly wet and muddy while trying to read the instruments. By this time it was about noon, and we would have no time for any sightseeing; we packed up our gear and headed out of the cave. Once on the surface, I told Phil and Darlene that I thought I could make the hike more quickly than they could, so I would just hike all the way back to Maple Springs and start getting ready to go. Sure enough, I got back, laid out all my cave gear, and was just finishing my shower when Phil came in to take his. After packing and goodbyes, we pulled out at 3:08, New York time, just slightly behind schedule. We made what may be record time on the drive home by eliminating most unnecessary stops and setting the cruise control as close to 75 as we thought we could get away with, arriving home just before 5 AM, slightly ahead of our deadline.

From the time we had left, it had been 128 hours, and we had probably spent a good forty hours driving about 22 or 23 hundred miles. We had also spent about 43 hours caving, which means we beat the one to one time requirements for long-distance caving, and we had surveyed about a quarter mile of mostly crawling passage in the process. We had also managed about 32 hours of sleep including naps while driving, for an average of just over five hours per night. Remember: don't try this at home. It had been a serious speleo death march, and yet we had all survived, and even had a good time doing it.