Return to the Notwurst Passage (01/19/2002)

by Bob Robins

[Note: this is a sequel to "Mapping the 'Notwurst' Passage on November 17, 2001"]

With snow in forecast, it was time for another bimonthly (more or less) Gangsta Mappers survey trip to Cassell Cave in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Carpool arrangements proved simpler this trip, with Miles Drake, Ralph Hartley, Bob Zimmerman and I all meeting at Bob's house just off I95 in Beltsville, Maryland.

We arrived at the train depot/Senior Center in Durbin, staked out a sleeping area, and proceeded directly to milling around. In short order I was assigned to Ralph Hartley's team for a return trip to the Notwurst passage we had begun surveying during the last Cassell weekend in November 2001. Before long Patricia Bingham had also been recruited and the team was then filled out with Edgard Bertaut who was expected later. By the time I was ready to turn in for the night we were set for our return to the Notwurst Passage with the same team we had in November.

We rose in the morning to find two to three inches of snow on the ground, with more falling and a forecast of 5 to 10 inches total accumulation. While eating my traditional high cholesterol Gangsta breakfast at the local restaurant, our waiter and local EMT asked if we still intended to go to Cassell Cave despite the snow. Upon determining that we actually were that crazy, he informed us that if we went up onto Back Mountain Road in this weather we were on our own if we found ourselves in need of rescuing. Undeterred we finished breakfast and returned to get loaded up for the trip to Cassell Cave.

Back at the depot, the weekend count had risen to twenty, despite a few drop-outs due to the weather. Regrouping due to the weather, we managed to find enough vehicles with four wheel drive and/or chains to get all of the teams to the cave. Our team loaded the gear in Edgard's car and headed out. We managed to be the first to arrive despite getting slightly lost on the way up. The roads were snow covered but passable thanks to the cable chains on Edgard's front wheel drive VW wagon.

As we dressed in the snow, another crew arrived and soon the ropes and pads were dispatched to the entrance. Due to the slippery conditions, the main rope was rigged high on a tree on the slope above the pit. This allowed access to get on rope without risking the exposure of the lower access point on the lip of the pit. Once the rope was rigged and the redirect positioned we descended, stowed our vertical gear and headed down into the Miseries to make our way back to the Big Room. The only problem I encountered on the way down was getting a rubber glove trapped in my rack. Fortunately it only sucked in the tip of one finger and I was able to unweight the rack and free the glove when I reached the ledge, suffering only a small hole in the glove.

The trip through the Miseries was wetter and sloppier than I remembered, though really no worse than the last trip. Selective memory is clearly a gift for cavers; otherwise sanity might dictate better uses for a weekend. Ralph found a shorter route through the Miseries this trip, so we made good time as we headed along the North fork to the Big Room and on to the 2nd Waterfall. The scary traverse to the beginning of the Notwurst Passage was easier this trip, though I still wouldn't try it without the hand line rigged there.

Once we were all safely into the Notwurst Passage, we began moving upstream and promptly hit the pool at the base of the waterfall, where we inevitably filled our boots before struggling up into the crawl above.

We continued through the crawl, stopping just before walking passage to allow Edgard to work on a dig on the left that Ralph had given up on last trip for lack of appropriate tools. The dig was apparently successful but didn't yield much additional passage. From there we moved on through a section of meandering, walking height passage with one tight spot and several deeper pools that required some chimneying to avoid. Finally we reached our last survey station from the previous trip.

As we scouted ahead to determine the best spots to set stations, Pat and Edgard checked out two small leads a few feet up on the left, heading back in the direction we had come. Neither appeared to go, but Edgard's went far enough that Ralph labeled it a lead that a later crew would have to survey. We surveyed to the first of two small domes that intersected a higher-level passage on the right wall.

Ralph's sketch

Ralph's Sketch (Source: Bob Zimmerman)

Edgard went up a fairly easy climb on the downstream side of the dome and was able to get into the upper passage, which he checked out for some distance before returning. He was able to look across to the upstream side of the upper passage but there was no way across, and the other side of the dome was too overhung to be easily climbed. Edgard climbed down and we went to the next small dome upstream where with a little help he was able to climb up and return to first dome. The climb was challenging because many of the "rock" handholds turned out to be brittle, light gray sandy clay of some sort.

Since it would be very difficult to get a decent survey shot up into the first dome, we decided to survey to the second dome, and then survey back and across the first dome into the passage beyond. While we were extending the survey to the second dome, Pat checked out two more crawls along the left wall. Our survey plan worked well, with Ralph and Edgard climbing into the passage segment between the two domes to set an intermediate station with a clear shot across the first dome, while I climbed up the other side to set the next station. As I was climbing, Edgard warned me to watch out for a large loose rock on my left, but at that point I was more concerned with the large loose rock on my right. Both proved sufficiently stable, rocking just enough to keep one alert.

From there we surveyed through a breakdown-filled canyon passage--we were in a wider upper section while segments of a narrower canyon were visible below us. Much of the breakdown was a heavily sculpted, light gray limestone with sharp edges. Some of the breakdown showed very clean fracture surfaces, looking very fresh. In fact, everything in this area looked quite clean, and nearly everything one touched in this upper passage seemed to move, evidence of the limited traffic through this area.

The passage ended in a room with some large breakdown blocks. Edgard explored a passage that went around the room on the right while I checked out a void under the far end of the room that was accessible from two points in the breakdown. The void proved to lead to a continuation of the canyon passage and I was able to follow it to a wide domepit, climbable and with passage continuing beyond. A pile of very fresh-looking breakdown on the floor of the pit served warning that this area was somewhat unstable.

Returning, I struggled up out of the tight hole in the breakdown that I had dropped down through with relative ease. I was surprised to hear Edgard calling me from nearby. I looked over and could see him looking through a window in the side of a narrow domepit that separated our two leads.

Since it was past 7:30 I suggested that we finish the survey of the room and leave the leads for the next trip (Ralph has a reputation for going until his team rebels so it seemed like a good time to instigate a rebellion). We set a fast pace out, especially as we could hear others behind us as we left the Big Room. By the time we got into the Miseries I was ready to crawl because my coordination was too far gone for walking.

We made it to the pit and found we had the rope to ourselves--Barry Horner, Bob Alderson, Rick Royer, and Kevin Mulligan had already left with Barry and Bob leaving via the pit and Rick and Kevin heading out the Gunbarrel entrance. Rick, by now a veteran of the Gunbarrel, used that route to get Kevin into the North Fork without having to do vertical, and cut their exit time as well by splitting the team.

We assembled our vertical gear and Edgard was quickly on rope. The Bratwurst party (Charles Danforth, Dwight Livingston, Mike "Tiny" Manke, Tom Kornack) caught up before Edgard was off rope, but we already had our position in line. Pat went up second and I took third position, sufficiently rested by then. The climb out was not bad but I did have a little trouble getting around the large pad at the ledge. The redirect posed no problem this trip, and I got to the lip in reasonable time. The climb from the lip up to the trees was slippery from the snow and my Croll objected to the rope's angle, but the end was in sight and Pat had hung around to encourage me.

Once I was off rope I grabbed my pack and a bag full of winter clothing stowed nearby and headed quickly for the car, wondering how long it would take my muddy, thoroughly saturated clothing and water-filled boots to freeze. Changing behind the car, a sheet of plastic kept our bare feet from direct contact with the snow on the ground but provided no insulation. I changed hurriedly and got into the warm car as quickly as possible.

We returned to the depot in Durbin at midnight to find a hot meal waiting thanks to Charles Danforth and Amy Rosenberg. Pat Bingham then pulled out a large peachcake she had brought along for dessert. After dinner, Pat read off our survey data to Bob Zimmerman as he entered it into his computer and Bob informed us that we had surveyed 254.1 feet--about right for the twelve stations we had managed to set between explorations of the many leads we found in the Notwurst Passage.

Looking at a plot of our data and the Bratwurst data the next morning it appeared that the Notwurst is still heading for a possible crossover of the South Fork, while the distance between the Bratwurst and Notwurst passages appears to be greater than indicated on the old map. With at least four going passages and several side leads to clean up, there will be plenty left to do the next time we can get into the North Fork.

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  Last Updated: February 12, 2004