Unexpected Caving

March 12th - 17th
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Life Update

First the big one: Kelly and I broke up about a month ago. Before you hurl your computer across the room in disbelief, we're still on good terms! Long distance proved to be one kind of adventure we're not good at, and we thought it best to call it a day before we actually reached the bitter end. We both have quite a lot going on in our lives (a quick look at her website will make that pretty clear on her end), which ended up being very different. We've gone our separate ways, but I still am looking forward to more adventures together when our paths cross.
Now for the less big one that I've been cooking up for a while: I'm spending the summer in Norway! I've been committed to the idea for a few weeks and digging around for an itinerary and opportunities there. I ended up finding a workaway opportunity with Team Hallingdal Husky, run by Evelyne De Boeck (Eef), a super badass adventurer! I'll go to Norway right after the semester ends in May, hang about southern Norway until mid June, when I go to Nesbyen to meet Eef and the dogs, spend a month with them, then hitchhike my way north until it's time to come home.
And that's the extent of my plans for the summer! I'll document the adventures here of course, but the next post I make very well may be the first of my Scandinavian adventures, so don't say I didn't warn you!

The Rafting

Ok, on to the story! A whole mess of climbers from UNC were planning to make the pilgrimage to the New River Gorge to climb over break, but most everyone was planning to arrive on Sunday after the brutally cold, single digit temperatures expected on Saturday night. I wanted to do a bit more than just climb though, so I planned to raft the New River before hitting the climbing. I wanted to drive up Saturday morning, raft for a few hours, camp near the river, then raft the rest of the way to a town near the gorge proper. Two of my friends, Phil and Katie also wanted to join on the watery fun and assured me the cold would be no problem, so we tracked down some kayaks for them and headed out Saturday morning!

Wells was packed to the brim with a kayak on the roof, a kayak hanging from the ceiling, the garage totally full, AND bags on the floor in the kitchen. Wowee!
Katie pictured with Wells

We drove the 5-ish hours to Hinton, where we planned to put-in. It got steadily colder and colder until we were driving through falling snow and driving winds. Nothing to do at this point except hope we'd packed warm enough gear! I knew I would be fine with my Alaskan packrafting setup, but I was starting to get a little worried about Phil and Katie being able to stay warm, as they didn't have dry suits.
We made it to town and we unloaded at the put-in. After making sure we had all the gear we'd need, I drove Wells to the nearby wilderness supply store that I'd arranged a place to leave Wells at for the night and walked back.

A chilly day for some rafting!

A view of the New River from a bridge near our put-in

We loaded all our stuff into our kayaks or packraft (respectively), then hopped in the water. The wind was brutal, at times stopping us in our tracks, but we made progress nevertheless. We hit a few big wave trains and everyone did really well. Katie was fairly new to watersports like this, but every time I looked over to check on her she was killing it! The cold wind caused the water that splashed onto us to ice over and we were all covered in a thin layer of ice after about 20 minutes. As we got further along though, it became pretty apparent that we had the wrong gear. Namely the kayaks Phil and Katie were using were not made for the class II rapids (or perhaps any rapids at all), and were slowly taking on water with each wave train. Ultimately, Phil's kayak couldn't take it anymore and just keeled over, spilling him into the icy water.
I turned around to see him holding onto his kayak that had listed all the way over to the side, breathing purposefully through his mouth. I quickly paddled back to him in a small break between wave trains and grabbed onto his kayak. I turned to Katie who was closer to the center of the river and saw her hit a wave head-on and a good bit of water splash over her.
What the fuck had I gotten them into.
I shouted and gestured to Katie to get to shore, and she hightailed it in that direction. Now to get Phil there too.
He was doing his best to kick and swim his kayak to shore, but wasn't making a lot of progress with his booted feet. I hung onto his kayak with one hand, propped my paddle against the back of my neck and used it to paddle us one handed closer to shore, even as the river continued to sweep us towards more wave trains. Soon, though, we came to rest among some branches on the shore a stones throw from where Katie had washed up.
As soon as we had all the kayaks pulled ashore and everyone on dry land the stress-induced nausea hit me. If I hadn't convinced Phil to bring a life jacket when we were packing, he seriously might not have made it.
I lay in the underbrush for a minute or two, breathing deeply, trying to get my guts back under control. Eventually they did, and we set about regrouping and getting Phil into some dry clothes. Phils backpack had been soaked as it was strapped to the back of his kayak (somehow he didn't lose anything!), so we cracked open Chiquita (my packraft) and dished him out some of my clothes.
We discussed next moves, and both Phil and Katie wanted to press on after organizing our things again. I made the call to end the trip there, as seeing my friend swimming about in freezing cold rapids wearing several layers was far too close for comfort. Furthermore I saw with abrupt, far too late clarity how unprepared they were in terms of gear (in their defense they were high spirited, motivated adventure partners). We all should have had vessels appropriate for running rapids, equipped with spray skirts and water tight gear for each of us. I also abruptly realized just how much responsibility was resting on my shoulders by taking friends into such an adventure, as the knowledgable party, and how unprepared I was for such a responsibility. I can, and have, drag six inexperienced climbers up a two pitch trad climb safely and as efficiently as possible, but a winter storm, multi-day river trip with up to class III rapids? Hell no.
I was out.
I made sure Phil was comfortable and not hypothermic, then hiked the few miles back to Wells (yeah, we only made it about 3 miles), drove back to the group and set about getting wet gear packed up and everything moved into or near Wells. We spent the night huddled up together on the bed parked at a pullover, as the temps got to around 7 degrees farenheit, and dusk chased us into bed!
The next morning dawned, we loaded up the kayaks and the rest of the gear, and headed for Fayetteville, WV, climbing central.

Loading up a kayak on the roof of Wells

I debated whether to even put that story in this post or to just cut it out and talk only about the climbing and caving. Eventually, I realized the main reason I didn't want to post it was that I'm embarrassed. I should have known better, and known more about the challenges we might face and what we would need in order to face them safely. I was irresponsible for putting Phil and Katie into the situation they were in, and I have an even higher respect for the power behind water. Furthermore, I got too used to being able to take anyone climbing pretty much anywhere in the southeast and for some reason thought that hopping on a river would be a walk in the park. I don't know nearly enough about rivercraft to lead others, and I should have known that.
We were EXTREMELY lucky that we got away with it, but "getting away" with something should never be on the table. I learned a valuable lesson, and I'm very lucky that having people read this post is the only price I have to pay for it.

Hanging Around

We showed up to the campground quite a bit earlier than planned and set about putting our gear up to dry and getting comfortable! I'll forgo with my usual chronoligical style of writing because this part is honestly not all that interesting. I injured two of my fingers about 5 days prior and was still healing up, so I couldn't climb. I helped teach Katie and another friend, Justin, about climbing outdoors as this was their first time climbing outside of the gym and generally stuck to the ground. I knew I would be tempted to climb, so the second day of climbing I let them go without me and went for a hike instead. Even then I ended up doing some mellow scrambling in a cave! I guess you can take the man out of the climber but you can't take the climber out of the man.

The campground had goats!

A picture from where I was scrambling (below where the overhang hits, don't worry mom)

A beautiful sunset, one of several!


Around the campfire one night, I got to talking about adventures and a couple friends and I had the idea to go caving! It was perfect for me, since I couldn't climb with my fingers, but caving wouldn't be too hard on them. Furthermore, there was rain on the forecast for the next day, which would hinder climbing, but not change the caving experience in the slightest! (assuming the cave isn't a flood risk, anyway). I did some digging and found Lost Cave an hour and a half away from Fayetteville, which doesn't require any ropework to access or explore! Perfect.
The morning of the caving trip arrived, and the forecast relented and only reported rain in the evening. A few friends bailed on caving in favor of climbing, leaving the caving group as just me and Katie! I didn't mind, while I was looking forward to spending time with a few friends I hadn't seen in a while, a smaller group was also quite welcome.
We beat it to the cave as quick as we could, parked on the shoulder of the highway adjacent to the cave, then bushwhacked the ~30 yards to the cave entrance. I'd done extensive research to find how to access the cave, but the West Virginia Caving Conservancy was keeping the cave survey (a map of the cave) controlled so I didn't have access to it. However, I knew this was a fairly straight forward cave, so I knew we would be okay with following the tracks of other cavers and keeping note of important landmarks to keep our bearings.
The entrance had a waterfall flowing into it from a creek, but we were able to slip past it into the cave, and was luckily our last encounter with running water for the entire cave! There were tons of graffiti in the cave, some of which dated back to the 1800s (the standard write your name and the date graffiti). We saw some bats napping, tons of cave crickets, and some tiny milipedes! We followed the main tracks of other cavers into the cave, and eventually found our way to some breakdown (a portion of the cave where the roof collapsed at some point, leaving huge rubble strewn about), which required us to squeeze through some small gaps to continue. We snaked our way through the breakdown until we arrived at a dead end. Turns out we made a wrong turn and had just found the terminus of a different branch of the cave! The cave proper extends for some 3,000 ft from the cave entrance. We found where it actually continued, which turned out to be a loooong (too long to see the end, which was quite a ways) belly crawl. This was after we'd done quite a few squeezes and thrutching about in the breakdown. I wriggled my way through to try to see a bit further, but neither of us were highly stoaked for such a proposition, especially since we couldn't find the survey to know exactly how long the crawl would be. We ended up finding a comfortable place to sit, turned off our lights, and just sat quietly for a time.
Sitting in the dark in a cave is pretty much a requirement for your first caving experience, and Katie ended up taking quite a liking to it! If her parents are reading this, I'm sorry, but I might have converted your daughter into a caver.
After a while of sitting quietly, we heard a pop kinda like that sound Donkey was making in Shrek while they were in the Onion carriage. We got a bit freaked out from that, but we got ourselves under control and continued our meditation.
Then it happened again. I, having read Ted the Caver, decided it was time for us to go! We scooted out of the cave into the balmy air, one of my favorite parts of a caving trip, and made our way back to Wells.

The long belly crawl deeper into the cave. (there's a bat in the upper left corner roughly three inches long, for scale)

The first room upon entering the cave was massive!

Me crawling about the breakdown

Another tiny bat. We saw at least 5 in this cave and they were all so precious, I would die for each of them

A gif of me doing the smallest squeeze we could find in the breakdown.
A taste of what it's like to cave!

As we drove away from the cave, we passed a restaurant with a giant, home-made hotdog topping the sign for the restaurant. We had to see if the actual hotdogs were like this massive, weird looking monolith. Turns out this place has some of the best food either of us have had in a long time! The hotdog was easily one of the best I'd ever had, and my bacon cheeseburger was to die for. We both ate ourselves into a bit of a food coma on the drive back, but it was so worth it.

Katie with the giant hotdog

After the caving and one last campfire, we headed back to real life the next morning.
I'll make another post if I end up having an unexpected adventure between now and when I set off for Norway, but I'm bent on making enough money to make that happen comfortably, so it might be a while until my next post!


I give a little life update, and I spend spring break 2022 at the New River Gorge, WV, doing pretty much everything but climbing. I briefly raft the New River in 20 degree weather, do some very mellow climbing, do part of a cave, and generally hang about!

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