Author Topic: Gary Hollow Cave, Appalachia.  (Read 796 times)

Offline Kenilworth

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Gary Hollow Cave, Appalachia.
« on: July 26, 2016, 04:37:57 am »
Gary Hollow is only a small gulley that drains a few dozen acres among the long track of hills and hollows stretching from Pennsylvania to north Georgia. On a map, the Appalachians look like a claw mark across the country. Before the base of Gary Hollow reaches the larger, perpendicular McGuire Valley, all of its waters, when it has any, sink underground. A small entrance to the underground waterway sits dry on the side of a large sinkhole. The passage does not lead immediately to the stream, which falls considerably as soon as it sinks. Instead, it leads away from Gary Hollow, following the main range. It is narrow, arrow straight, and modestly decorated. Within 200 feet of the entrance, a few ledges appear, and a narrow crack in the floor. The crack is a door, 56 feet deep, to another place. Whereas the upper level has entered into the culture of McGuire Valley, and has been entered (and degraded) by that culture, the passage below is yet a natural place of some integrity. Being seldom visited, it is intact in all its systems.

The lower level is not untouched though, and it bears the marks, individually decipherable, of every human who has traveled it. There are three sets of boot prints made by two cavers over the course of two trips in 1983. There are cylindrical divots where these cavers pushed their carbide cap lights into the clay banks as survey markers. There are a few smoked survey markers. There is a cigarette lighter left beside a single carbide dump (was his striker broken?). There is a pile of clay spoil from an unnecessary dig (an easy bypass is just around the corner). Next to the spoils, the product, I assume, of boredom during the dig, there is a clay penis.

After the two trips in 1983, no one entered the lower cave, and no new marks were made until 2013, when I made a solo descent and explored something like 1200 feet of large stream passage. In my excitement, I did not see the old survey markers or footprints. I reported this cave to the Virginia Speleological Society, who informed me (incorrectly) that it was completely undocumented. So I zealously began a survey. During the work, I have become aware of the previous exploration, and have learned some of the details of it. Since the survey was never completed, since no map was drawn, and since the original data will not be shared, we are finishing our own survey. And we are adding marks that will become part of the story of humans in Gary Hollow Cave: There are now three more sets of boot prints (of myself, my wife, and my brother) on those clay banks whose texture is not reset by drips or by flood. There are a few stone cairns used for survey stations. There is a stump of rebar hammered into a drilled hole as direct aid to an upper level. We could not remove it, and so broke it off.

These human traces within the cave are certainly noticeable to a careful eye, but I do not believe that they reveal anything dishonorable about the cavers who left them. Intent and utility are saved in them, and as long as they are clear, the marks are a history that adds something and takes away very little. But this is mostly a fragile history, and every instance of travel over it threatens to obscure and erase it. It would take only a few careless trips to turn the unique record of individuals and their work into a slick and unknowable run. Since the lower level of Gary Hollow Cave is not aesthetically stunning, its cultural aspects assume a higher value. And since its banks are fragile, it may be that it can give the most by giving wholly, but rarely, through accidents of discovery separated by decades.

But what is Gary Hollow Cave like? And what is the status of its current exploration?
Immediately at the bottom of the pit, the cave continues as a straight, narrow joint, floored by cobble and clay. The roar of the stream is soon heard, and within a few hundred feet, the passage widens to around 20 feet, and soars to between 60 and 100 feet high. Here, on the right-hand side of the passage, is a noisy meeting of waters cascading into a deep, round sump pool. From the direction of the entrance is the trickle from Gary Hollow, and from deeper in the cave flows the larger, steady stream that is a main feature of the cave until it terminates in massive breakdown 4000’ upstream. The source of this water is not confirmed. The trend of the cave suggests that it takes localized drainage from the next ravine to the east, but the volume of water suggests that a larger area, likely a portion of McGuire Valley (which has no surface stream), is drained through this conduit. Where the water goes is also unknown at present. There are only 100 vertical feet between the sump and the place that the water must rise, somewhere along the Clinch River, one mile distant at its nearest point. To answer the questions of this cave’s hydrology will be a joy reserved for wintertime.

Upstream of the sump, the cave continues; high, straight. In fact, a straight line drawn on the plan view from entrance to terminus would barely run outside the cave passage. After 1100 feet of lofty corridor, with a winding stream between soft clay banks, two domes of more than 120 feet (the limit of my laser) mark the point at which the massive joint is, by means of false floors and clogs of breakdown, intermittently divided into separate components. Travel then requires climbing up and down, into and out of the stream, for close to 3000 feet before reaching the collapse that marks the end of human travel.

There are no known divergent passages of any significance. Several steep, dripping, “domes” lead from the north side of the passage. These can be climbed for some distance, but each one leads to indeterminate vertical cracks which continue upward and parallel the main cave. These cannot be free climbed to a definite “end” and cannot even be approached safely in a group since any progress upward is causes avalanches of cobble.

But there is one passage after all, that is the source of much interest and anticipation. What I originally believed to be a stray loop of the main stream was, on our last survey trip, found to be an entirely separate infeeder leading from a parallel passage. Following this stream for 200 feet led to the base of a waterfall 38 feet high, at the top of which a sizeable passage appears to lead sharply away from the dominant trend of the cave. The walls in this area are rotten rock, covered in inches of buttery clay and an attempt at a rebar aid-climb was a failure. This passage cannot be ignored, though, and on my last visit, with my grandfather, I lowered an extension ladder into the 56’ pit. We left the ladder without descending ourselves.  I will return with my brother as soon as possible and we will carry it upstream and attempt to gain a useful ledge from which to continue the climb to the top of the waterfall. Whatever is above has never been seen, and no matter how modest the discoveries of our next trip, attached to them will be the profundities and responsibilities of original exploration.

Offline Kenilworth

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Re: Gary Hollow Cave, Appalachia.
« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2016, 04:49:11 am »
On Thursday we visited GHC again. This was an impromptu trip; our plans for a weeklong camp on a Tennessee hillside were cut short after three particularly miserable nights, and we retreated home by way of Virginia. So while we were without much of what we needed to really finish the job, we went in, my brother and I, to do what we could.

Carrying the ladder 1300' upstream wasn't a terrible job, and took about a half-hour. Getting it into place was difficult though, in the falling water. Eventually, we were able to climb to a point 25 feet above the base of the waterfall, but this left us still 8 feet short of access to the lip. The ongoing passage looks more grim from atop the ladder. It is definitely passable but probably uncomfortable. It appears to be 1.5 feet wide and 5 feet high. The walls here are very slimy. We tried to cut steps into the thick clay that coats the little waterfall shaft, but these melted away when weighted. There is no way to safely free-climb to the top. So I reckon it is time for me to make my first attempt at a bolt climb. Probably only two or three will be needed.

Despite the rain and the fact that the cave was more drippy and slippery than I've seen it, the stream level was much lower than I've seen it. The sump pool was two feet below normal, and several alluring alcoves gave me false hope that a passage might be appearing. While levels are low though, we should physically swim the perimeter of the room and be absolutely sure. Other objectives:

Plumb the depth of the sump pool.

While we have the ladder down, check another high, steep-angle lead noticed on the last trip (thanks to my brother's new, ultra-bright lamp).

Survey an extremely tight, sinuous loop of passage in the entrance level. Only 200' or so.

It is meaningful, to me, that a cave less than a mile long can hold my interest and elicit so much activity and speculation and study. I confess to dreaming about the discovery of huge caves, but I know from my own experiences in exploring and surveying in huge caves that I am easily overwhelmed by their complexity, the volume of questions that they raise, and the mass of responsibilities they present. It seems that I am best suited to little caves and I am thrilled to realize that, in this bit of the world, there are countless little caves left to be found and understood and cherished.