Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Fog and vapor hangs thick in the air as we drive westward towards the rugged, veiled peaks of the Blue Ridge that shield the view of the highlands beyond.  Long sleeves and pants wear heavy in the summer heat.  Threatening clouds stall on the horizon, but weather doesn’t matter when your destination is underground.

    David Small, student government and outdoor adventure teacher at Fluvanna County High School; three Fluvanna grads, Travis, Chris, and Small’s daughter, Erin; and I exit a road-seasoned Subaru at the “trailhead” for the day’s adventure around midday.  After a two-hour car ride, we are ready to mobilize.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Packs are filled with food, water, extra batteries, maps, first aid supplies, and cameras.  Headlamps are double-checked for functionality.  Boots are laced, and some tape their ankles and wrists.  Hardhats and gloves for safety and tact are distributed and donned with firmness—a muted excitement and acknowledgement of the risk involved with venturing underground.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    “The most dangerous part is getting to it!” Someone exclaims. 

    At the foot of the short foot trail marred by mud puddles and root systems towers a rock face.  Only a small opening of about two feet offers advancement.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Wriggling through the cave entrance, “breakdown”—a collection of chunk rock indicative of the cave’s mouth crumbling—greets us.  It is clearly visible in the twilight zone, making footing easy—mere practice for what’s to come. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Deeper we advance.  Daylight fades.  The ceiling drops.

    “Three points of contact,” Small announces encouragingly. 

    The ground becomes slick with mud; the footing, technical. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Hand.  Hand.  Foot.  Swing.  A mental checklist becomes subconscious.  Footing is not hard to come by in most circumstances, but lose balance or place a foot too far and you may take a hard fall or break a leg in a hole.

    Small is comfortable with his knowledge of the passages—comfortable enough to navigate pitch dark with just a headlamp and a map.  However, for safety, we leave a bread-crumb trail of yellow marking tape, placed directionally on visible rocks at points of intersection.  There are countless opportunities to get lost here.  Even more in the dark.

Small checks the cave map.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Such is the allure of caves.  Unlike the first cave I ever explored, the entrance to this cavern is tight.  I have seen holes of equal and larger size in my wanderings in the mountains on multiple occasions.  Only this one is a portal to miles of underground passages, and there are countless more within the cave, presumably unexplored.  There is great potential for virgin, unexplored territory.

    We reach an intersection.  The main passage swerves to the left.  A crag steeps to the left.  A length of mud-crusted para-chord used for navigation extends into the crag, limp.  Where does it lead?
    We proceed without discovering the answer.

Freddy the Cave Frog.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    If I had any prior inkling of the bowels of the Earth where we tread, I would be referring to these sights with reference to specific locations, officially dubbed on the map.  But I am a newcomer in this venue.  Each new encounter is a hard, muddy, and slippery obstacle and I love it.  It’s a physical challenge to the other half of the body’s muscles—the ones not used on an everyday basis.

    “The Pit.”  That toponym does stick with me, if only for its blatant expression of struggle.  The main passage extends up, through a tricky tunnel of boulders and sharp rocks.  A pack will catch, and must be thrown or handed up.

    As is the case in many spots, the map indicates two possible routes to the same end.  The one that Erin and I choose is an underground creekbed that travels underneath “The Pit,” but requires a tight initial squeeze that soaks you to the bone with spring water. 

    On the other end, we are met with what now seems like a foreigner—a plump toad positioned at the mouth of the creek.  The troglobite—or cave dweller—was assumed blind for its habitation deep in the dark zone of the cave, and for its lack of hopping reflexes when confronted.

Chris Markham attempts a tight squeeze.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Checking the Cave Map at Short Man's Shortcut.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    As we pushed on, the passage began to tighten.  Eventually we found ourselves at what seemed to be an impasse—“Short Man’s Shortcut.”  A dead-end offered only a 9-inch tall tunnel for advancement.  None of us fit, and none wanted to push their luck nearly a mile from daylight and under hundreds of tons of earth.  But as we sat there in resignation, headlamps fixed on the cave map, rumors of an underground river accessible through the cave and the tight passage before us fueled our sense of adventure.  There is always more to discover.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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