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West Virginia. U.S.A April 1988

" Ere Wang" says Stumpy, ''Where's that atlas and that pin?"  'Wot do yer want that for?" replies Trebor.  "To find out where we’re going for our hols, of course." "Ah so" says Trebor.  STAB. "Ok, West Virginia it is" says Trebor triumphantly. 'Where's that?" questions Stumpy. Trebor leaves, exasperated.

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So commenced the "Pesky Critture" caving expedition to Monroe, Greenbrier and Pocohontas counties, West Virginia, USA which by this time had accumulated that varmint, Stuart MacManus. A bit of research soon threw up a good number of caves and contacts, so after some letter writing and favourable replies, off we went.

Unusually for a BEC trip, our vague plan of campaign held together and we spent days mellowing (‘moseying’ in US slang) on down the Blue Ridge Mountains, 100 miles west of Washington, heading south west for West Virginia.  Mac thoroughly enjoyed the cold night air up in the Shenandoah National Park, particularly as the Bishop had neglected to include the feathers when he sold Mac his apology for a sleeping bag.  Just as well Bish was 3000 miles away.  Mac it seems doesn't like bogeyman that go bump, rattle or roar in the night so he wouldn’t relieve himself from his tent. Pat and Trebor were snug as a bug, giving extra credence to the well known local saying that '' Virginia is for lovers".

TIPS FOR TRIPPERS. Hire a car.  They are pretty cheap and smart but insurance can be about 10 dollars a day.  Speed limit slow at 50­55nph depending on the state.  Petrol very cheap at 85c a gal.

On our way down the Shenandoah Park, which straddles the Blue Ridge Mountains, we took sideways excursions down into the Shenandoah Valley to visit show caves, of which there are numerous good ones e.g. Luray Caverns.  The Massanutten show cave was probably the most memorable as it was a little private one with the owner, Mr Cobb, as guide - a grand old man on sticks shuffling through the cave at minimal miles per hour: very proud, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  We were his only visitors.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Visit show caves.  They are well done, plentiful, interesting and often spectacular.  You invariably find you are the only customers, especially in the week, thus receiving preferential attention.

We visited the Grand Caverns Show Cave at Grottoes, south of Harrisonburg (a regional centre) and as the only spectators received a fascinating trip with the guide who asked us to tell him how the thing was formed and what this and that were, especially wonderful disc-like projections coming out of walls and ceilings.  We heard that there was a proper cave just alongaways a bit so we obtained permission from the show cave manager, obtained an indemnity waiver form and fired on down this Fountain Cave.  Obviously once very spectacular but somebody had tried to make it into a show cave at same time in the past and it didn't work out.  Our first 'proper' caving trip in the US.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS.  In show caves, if you want to wander off beyond the lit bit, you are asked to sign an indemnity form absolving the management from any liability.  Some charge dollars, but we resisted paying on principle.

Off the Blue Ridge now and heading south west'ish towards Bath County, West Virginia on our way to the main caving area.  A lovely scenic county with apparently 100,000 trees to every human.  Lovely hidden valleys, babbling brooks, nooks and crannies and cave potential.  I should have been a poet.  A good days amble, camp, cave spot and musing was had before moving on via Lake Moomaw but not before Pat shimmied up a cliff to suss out a likely hole, only to utter the immortal words - "This rock looks a bit naff".  Two tons of it promptly fell off, narrowly missing our intrepid companion.

SPIRITS FOR TRAVELLERS Bath County has respectable caves and is certainly worth a closer look and extended stay.  Local base is either Warm or Hot Springs and there is camping available.  Americans are very well set up for the outdoor life so there are campsites liberally deposited.   Visit Sam Sneads restaurant in Hot Springs, superb and cheap.  No more carbide left in Hot Springs - we pinched it!

To our initial chagrin, carbide was impossible to obtain but after the 450th attempt we decided to have one last go in this little hardware store in Hot Springs we were passing after an early breakfast.

"Do you have any calcium carbide my good hardware vendor?" says Mac.  "Gee, I had sane here waysback.  Jus' hunker down there and I'll go out back and looksee!

Bless his heart, he cane tack with a dusty old tin of the stuff for the grand price of a rock.  On now to the Greenbrier River and our caving area, centred around Lewisburg and route 219 which runs north-south through the cave region, embracing Monroe, Greenbrier and Pocohontas counties.  Sojourned at Lost World show caves - the only one we've seen totally lit up.  25 rocks for a 'hardcore' trip for cavers which is outrageous but a spectacular show cave nonetheless.  We left rapidly after Trebor did unspeakable things to a toilet in the show cave cafe, but less said the better.  Lewisburg is a pleasant hick town and we contacted Bob Liebman of Bob & Bob (cave supplies) by phone in Sinks Grove, a village 15 miles south of Lewisburg.  He said come on down so down we went and he kindly let us stay in his brothers 'house'; typically timber, pleasant, semi derelict, outside dunny and no water but it was a roof over our heads and certainly better than the Belfry.

Bob was hosting the local Grotto (caving club) meeting that Friday evening in his house around the corner so we were invited along to meet the boys and have a tube or two.  They gave us some tips on where to go, people to see, things to do and invited us on their club trip down the local mega cave, Organ Hole, the following Sunday.

TIPPLES FOR TRAVELLERS.  Not much water about in huts etc, so take the opportunity of ablutting in cave entrances, puddles etc, also cafes.  Carbide not allowed on planes so use petzl zooms until you can get to Bob's where there's loadsa carbide.  But beware you cannot get flat Duracell-type petzl batteries in the USA, so take plenty.

Armed with all the info, off we went the next day caving.  Too many to relate individually and far too many to even hope to do in two weeks but we saw enough variety in styles, picturesgueness, severity, size and dampness to whet the appetite.  Over 3000 known caves in the state and vast potential for more.  We didn't even dent the surface.  The locals can't cope with what they've got, let alone systematically look for more.  Two or three trips stood out in the first week.

BRANTS CAVE.  Not much of a cave but a little SRT entrance pitch.   Accompanied by one of the Organ Hole show cave guides.  All well until the prusik out when our American friend had trouble with his apology-for-a-rig.

"Cut the rope, cut the rope - I'm dying!" came the anguished cry.

Trebor looks over the lip and says with remarkable restraint, hoi-polloi and nonchalance,

"'The BEC don't cut rope, dear boy" .. (and under his breath, "not even at 75p a metre")

Pat and Trebor untied the belay, lowered our guide all of two feet to the floor while Dan "I'm a warden" Dare McManus descended to sort the bloke out.  First MRO overseas rescue?

ORGAN CAVE.  Some forty miles of biggish stuff, not rivettingly interesting but has to be done and of course we only did a bit of it.  A small part is a rather poor show cave but it does contain old timber vats from the Civil War when they used to leach out saltpetre for gunpowder.  The main significance was that it was our first trip with the local caving group, a great bunch.  We did a 6 hour through trip which was pleasant enough, but mainly because of the company.  The jokes and banter began to flow.  I never knew Mac had such a dirty mind.

WARM RIVER CAVE.  We had heard that this one breathed fire and brimstone from the entrance with hot Spring water frothing deep below.  It had to be checked out by these fearless Belfryites, wearing good old wetsuits in the mad dogs and English tradition.  After some initial difficulty with route finding, we promptly found the froth - hot spring water at 86F running to meet a cooler inlet.  Luckily a cooler lake allowed some respite but we only just exited before heat exhaustion took over.  Now we know why all the roots were covered with condensation. Well worth a visit.  Needless to say you can get away with dry grotts or perhaps just wet suit bottom.

SCOTT HOLLOW. One of the recent finds, a short distance from Sinks Grove, discovered by a farmer clearing his land with a bulldozer for a lake/reservoir.  Entrance series similar to Mendip, but bigger, breaking out into really stupendous river passage, bigger than Darens Time Machine with the river Thames flowing down it.  We couldn't see roof, walls or floor.  Magnificent.

Mac to local: ''What's this chamber called George?"  Local: "'That's no chamber, it's a passage!”

Mac again: ''How does it end George?"  George: "Oh. We haven't got to the end yet.  It goes on for five miles like this and still going"

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So endeth the first week. At the Grotto meeting we had met Gordon Mothes owner of the Friars Hole Cave Preserve, some 30 miles north and our aim for the second week.  He gladly let us stay on the Preserve in his log cabin caving hut - a lovely peaceful spot deep in the forest on the Pocohontas/Greenbrier County border, just off Route 219.  His 600 odd acre farm is slap bang over the Friars Hole Cave system, all 45 miles of it and one of the longest in the country. He has some 5 or 6 of its entrances on his land.

TIPS FOR DRIVERS. When passing through Ronceverte, just south of Lewisburg, beware funny junctions with strange signs which plead 'stop'.  If you don't then Officer Rudd will kick your ass.  The County Judge is not amused at 11.30 pm.  Also watch out for sneaky one-way systems which they slip in here and there when you're least expecting it.

The Friars Hole cabin is a classic - outside dunny, spring water nearby, a bunk area and a Belfresque log burning stove, plus a huge bull who conveniently stands between the hut and the dunny - a formidable sight at 3 in the morning when a bleary ex­caver wants the john.  Only a few minutes walk away are 4 or 5 of the Friars Hole Cave entrances, except the main Friars Hole entrance which is a few minutes drive back down Route 219.  Two dollars a night for the hut.   What more could a caver want?  Even an arm chair caver.

We then had three very pleasant days at the Preserve, exploring as much of the cave system as we could (probably only 10%?) via 4 of the entrances.  Mostly mega stuff, some dry, some wet and quite a bit (3 miles) of crawling if you want it, just to make Mendipites feel at home.  Also loadsa bats, SRT available, saltpetre vats - it's got the lot.  A traverse of the system, from Friars Hole to Canadian Hole is supposed to take 14 hours, for Americans that is.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Budget for white water rafting on the New and Greenbrier Rivers.  We were quoted 70 Bucks but in the proper season it may be less and different outfits will have different charges.  Shop around. Wait for a nice wet spell to add a bit of froth, spice, spills, stained underwear and excitement.

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A quick run tack to Washington, roughly along the way we had come (Pat had forgotten something at Luray) but utilising the Interstate highways a bit more.

We had a few hours to kill on that day plus a few the next morning to have a look round Washington; various monuments, Arlington Cemetery, Ronnie's house, Smithsonian etc.  Well worth it.  A good fast, clean metro.  Avoid taxis. Two feet is the best way to get around.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Common courtesy with landowners still applies.  They are very friendly and delighted that speleos come all the way from England to go down their holes.  So spend a bit of time chatting - they're usually very interesting, e.g. Mr Cobb at Massanuten.  All locals are very friendly too and only to willing to help and talk turkey.

Beware certain TV channels on Motel telly sets.  Big satellite dishes allow them to pick up hours of triple xxx fleshy coloured porn, all sweat and gore.  Certainly far too strong for Belfryites.

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A West Virginia file has been made up in the library, giving all sorts of useful and useless info such as show caves, addresses, local contacts, police cell dimensions, as maps places for plans, eateries, etc. Please leave it all intact in the file for others to use.

Trebor, Pat & Mac