Sunday, March 1, 2009

Outta Site's

Above the day is bright, sunny, warm while below is one hundred and fifteen feet of nothingness; a lone caver shaking uncontrollably, out of breath, sweat soaking through layers of polypro. He is begging her to let him go, and once again stares up the stony throat of Site’s, suspended between safety and the voices of five cavers drifting up from below. The rope is not sliding through the croll ascender yet again. He yells, “PULL!” He spins slowly in the air. What the hell have I gotten myself into? he thinks. Finally, feeling the rope tighten through the ascender, and mustering as much strength and sheer force of will, he draws his legs up underneath, grunting loudly, stepping down in his foot loop and drags the chest ascender up just a few more inches toward the surface…
For being a trip leader, I am setting one hell of an example …

I grew up in the hills of Virginia about three hours east of Franklin, and became familiar with the area once my grandparents moved to the area when I was about 12 years old. My grandfather worked for the George Washington National Park Service as a groundskeeper, and he found a small crack blowing air with a creek flowing out of the bottom. He took it to me and I was hooked.

So, when the trip to Franklin, West Virginia lost its original trip leaders, I felt somehow obligated to step up to the plate since I knew the area fairly well, though it had been about 15 years since I had ACTUALLY been caving in West Virginia. I knew I was going to need some help. Being from New Hampshire and a fairly new member of the Boston Grotto I didn’t really know anyone in the group. Keluo Yao, who also signed up for the trip, was naturally a good choice for a co-trip coordinator, and if it wasn’t for his help, this trip would not have really happened (so Keluo, I am in your debt).

Eventually, through both of our efforts, ten people signed up for the trip and six people confirmed that they were going on the trip. Made mostly of current and former MIT students, the trip group was made of: Amy Lin, a grad student from MIT, Genita Metzler and Darren both former MIT students, Madeleine Sheldon-Dante another former MIT student, and then Keluo and me. Amy and Keluo met me at the student centre at MIT at five o’clock on Friday the 13th (auspicious day to begin a caving trip). After miles and miles of familiar territory, we arrived at the Thompson’s Motel around 6:30 PM. We ate dinner, poured over maps, and turned in for our seven o’clock meet time for breakfast in the restaurant.

After breakfast and catching up with Genita and Darren, we arrived at a small and non-descript jeep trail leading up the side of an equally non-descript mountain, and started the hike up to the entrance of Site’s Cave. The day started out cool and beautiful. For directions that followed the typical country instructions not including the innocuous phrase, “Up yonder”, they were excellent! We spotted the memorial plaque for Richard “Dick” Sanford, and then the nearby impressive maw of the cave entrance leading into the depths.

The group had doubts about how well the 250 feet of rope I brought, all snake wrapped, was going to unravel as it was dropped into the cave, but after its 185 foot trip to the bottom, we heard a satisfying thud as it landed somewhere below us. After buddying up and double checking each other’s gear, Keluo turned on his radios, and giving me one (since I was going to be the last to descend), he went on rope and began his slow drop to the bottom. What seemed to be forever, the radio squawked to life, and Keluo announced that the rope was free and ready for the next person to go down. Next was Genita, followed by Darren, then Amy and then finally it was my turn. I bid adieu to the sunny day, crossing myself, began my backward walk to the bottom.

Watching how the walls changed from jagged rock to smooth and then eventually hanging in free space was absolutely incredible. The rugged rock gave way to smooth walls bearing fossils of chrinoids, and then I touched down on the dirt and leaf slope twenty five feet from the bottom. Here, right at the drop, was an interesting obstacle, barely large enough to admit a human body through it. Finally, wriggling through something the size and shape of a public toilet-seat, I continued down and joined the rest at the bottom. Here we left our gear, and worked our way to the very bottom of Site’s.

The owner, Diane Zimmerman, had asked up previously to document the bats for any sign of White Nose Syndrome. We immediately began taking pictures of the bats, and looking for any dead ones on the floor. We found nothing. The bat’s glittered grey from the ceiling from the condensation on their fur. All seemed to be resting peacefully. We headed to the west toward the Big Room. For many in the group this was their first experience in a “big” cave, big at least on New England terms, and unlike many of our New England caves, this one also had plenty of formations for people to gush over. There is virtually no evidence of damage to the formations. It could simply be described as exquisite.

Once in the Big Room, Darren and Genita found a series of small passages leading downward at a steep incline, and after some debate, they rigged fifteen feet of webbing as a hand line to assist with the trip back up. Meanwhile, Keluo was working with Amy on time exposure photographs, light painting the room. Genita announced that there was a room at the bottom of their climb down and said it was worth coming down. Darren worked his way down, followed by me and a few embarrassing photographs, then the other two followed. Even with five people crammed into this small space one could still feel cool air blowing past us into something further, whispering that there was something yet to be found, but by this time we had reached the one hour mark when we were to return to the surface and call our contact person who was anxiously waiting for us to call that we were safely out. But we still had a lot more cave to go.

After climbing back out and returning to the main trunk passage at the bottom of the drop, we decided that it would be prudent for us to quickly check the rest of the cave. Amy and Genita went on ahead toward the Mud Room at the Eastern extent of the cave. We did have a brief moment qor panic when they were out of earshot and we felt it necessary to fetch them out. They did not quite make it as far as the Mud Room, but we felt that it was necessary to exit the cave promptly since we did have a sixth member who was also expecting us for lunch back at Thompson’s.

Being the last to descend, I was to be the first to ascend up the rope and then be the surface support person. I geared up, had Keluo check me over, attached to the rope and began my ascent. I started out strong, though I was having a little difficulty with the rope not passing easily through my croll ascender. With the assistance of the four to follow me up, I began up until I reached the strange body sized slot that the rope passed through. There is no graceful way to get past this, you just push off with your feet, jam a padded knee wherever possible, and work your way slowly and methodically up. I made it to the debris slope at the bottom of the 117 foot section. The entrance was far above with the warm bright inviting day beckoning. I tried to continue, but again came the difficulty of the rope passing through my croll, but this time because of the debris slope, my body naturally wanted to spin so I was facing away from the wall back to the people below me. I began to struggle, and my body was beginning to let me know that I was exerting myself. I stopped frequently. Sweat began to pour. What the hell have I gotten myself into? Can I do this? I practiced ascending many times over the summer while I was getting myself back into shape for doing vertical work. I KNOW that I can do this. The others started to call from below to ask if I was ok. I called back to them that yes, everything is ok, I am just getting tired. I continue my ascent. The entrance seems further way now. The rope continues to not slide through my croll. The first thoughts that began flowing through my already admittedly strange internal monologue are Oh my god, what if I get stuck on the rope? How are the others going to get out? Calm yourself! You’ve done this several times, you are just out of practice! You can do this! The others somehow were on a similar wavelength and started shouting words of encouragement from below.

Grunting loudly, and occasionally giggling I made my way up to where I could touch wall, and finding ledges, the ascent became exponentially easier. The entrance lurched closer and closer with each step upward. Grunting, I hauled myself out onto terra firma. Laying on my back in the bright afternoon sun, I picked up the radio and announced that I was safely off rope. In what appeared to be about one third of the time, Amy finally came into view, and eventually the rest. After making a drive back to the main road, and finding the elusive cellphone signal to announce our escape from the cave, I returned to the cave entrance, and the first thing out of my mouth was, “So who wants to go again?”

Sites Cave is on private property and the land owner MUST be contacted prior to the trip. It doesn't matter if you have been given permission before, you must inquire before every trip!