Friday, February 26, 2016

Fox Hole Cave

I had been wanting to visit this cave because of the geocache that exists at the entrance to it. Kind of a silly reason for picking a cave, that is, if you're not a geocacher. There are tons of caves in this area, some of which may be much cooler than this one, but this one has a geocache in it, so it was bumped to the top of the list. If you are not a geocacher, I wouldn't expect you to understand. But silly reasons aside, this cave turned out to be pretty darn cool.

First, let me disclaim that the cave is on the Closed Caves List, but is also on Private Property, which means that you can obtain permission from the landowner to access the cave. I'm not experienced enough to know whether caves on that list are on the list because of poor relations with landowners, or other reasons, but when my friend Natalie suggested I try to get permission, I was game. It took some internet sleuthing just to find out who to call, and I called a few wrong numbers at first. Eventually I connected with someone, only to make a mistake and ask for the person's daughter first (who is listed as the property owner) and then her deceased husband. You might think that after these faux-pas I wouldn't have gotten permission, but the lady I spoke to was kind enough to allow us to visit the cave. I was STOKED!

For the rest of the week I was planning the trip, not just to the cave, but also to a number of geocaches and natural formations in the area. Those other destinations seriously ate into our below-ground time, and it was nearly 2pm by the time we were gearing up for the cave. I wasn't all that bothered by this, but I was lucky that my caving companions were also geocachers. Any other caver might have been seriously miffed. The entrance to the cave is in a 30m deep sinkhole, locally known as the Confederate Sinkhole as it was used as a hide out during the Civil War. I had brought a climbing rope, harnesses and gear for rappelling/ascending, and was prepared to bring it with us. But jsut as we were getting ready to leave the car, a bunch of "kids" (ok they may have been in their lower 20s...) walked by and said they were heading to the cave too. They had no visible caving gear, such as helmets and knee pads, and no visible rope either. We figured if they could get down the sinkhole, so could we. Plus I was a little hesitant about leaving a nice climbing rope at the hole knowing that others could take it. Not that they would.... well, I guess I was just being unfair to them. If we hadn't seen anyone else around, i most surely would have hung and left a rope while were down below. Oh well.

We got to the sinkhole a bit behind the kids, and it turns out they did have 100' rope, cheap 8mm stuff that you might use as a tow-rope for water skiing. Heck, maybe not even that good. They were slowly making their way to the bottom, and offered to let us use their line.  Then, much to my shame, they offered to leave their rope in place even after they had left, since we would probably be in the cave longer than them. Boy did I feel low, having stereotyped them as rednecks, when they were just nice kids wanting to explore. So we descended to the pit using their rope. By the time we hit the bottom they were already disappeared down the main north passage. Rather than follow in their smoky wake (who smokes in a cave?), we quickly located a sandy crawl that took us to the southern passage. The way that this cave splits like this is not at all obvious. In fact, if we hadn't known to look for a southern passage right at the bottom of the sinkhole, we probably would have gone into the main north passage, since it is big and obvious. I think this fact actually helps protect the cave somewhat, since most "spelunkers" will be drawn into the northern passage, leaving the other passage to the "cavers". This was fairly well born out by us not seeing much trash at all in the southern passage, and what graffiti we did see seemed to be from carbide lamps. No spray painting or ugly rock scrapings.

The southern trunk was pretty sporting. A short ways in there was a 3m climb up a crumbly wall, aided by a fixed rope. Further in past that was another dicey traverse by some deep pits, once again aided by a fixed rope. The rope had been broken half-way, so it wasn't immediately clear to us how this portion was done, but we figured it out and even tied the two ends together to make a nice handline for the traverse. Mostly the passage was a good walking passage, and dry. There were numerous small leads off to either side which we stopped and took time to explore. I got pretty muddy going in one of them. We were looking for the lead which had been dug out by Hal Love in the 90's and opened up 3 miles of additional cave passage. We didn't know what we were looking for though, and were never sure if we had found it. The trunk passage we were in had survey marks labeling it as the F passage, and carbide markings dating back to the late 60's. It ended at a nice little pool (and some additional muddy crawls which we declined to investigate).

On our way out, we tested one lead with a nasty, tight and awkward z-bend. Natalie was first to get through, and got excited about possibly being on virgin cave. I followed (painfully) but there wasn't space enough for us both to be at the end of her lead. Mitch deemed the tight -bend to be beyond his comfort zone. Eventually, Natalie returned saying that the lead might go a bit further on with some more digging. Something for another day. I exited the z-bend in crazy style, contorting my body in painful ways, with my head smooshed to the ground, and my hips and legs sprawled up to the ceiling. Mitch got some video which I'm hoping to get access to.

When we got to the entrance sinkhole, the sun had already set, but it was still twilight. Rather than exit immediately, we walked a short ways into the North entrance-passage. Our earlier thoughts about cave condition were confirmed, there was a lot more trash and graffiti in this part of the cave, at least near the entrance where we were looking. What's worse, we found some fresh rock scratching graffitti from the kids who had entered just before us. They even dated their graffiti. Made me kind of pissed at them, because actions like theirs is what can cause bad landowner relations. And I stayed pissed at them even after we started climbing out the sinkhole and found that they had indeed left their rope for us to use. Ok, so they are generous about sharing their rope, but they are still idiots for marking their names in the cave. Sheesh. It was good and dark by the time we got out, but we had only been underground for about 5 hours. Not a long trip, but definitely a good one. A few days later Natalie sent me a pdf of the cave map, and there is a tone more to explore to this cave. We had utterly missed Hal Love's "recent" discoveries and their appear to be miles of awesome cave left to explore. It's always fun to have something like this to look forward to.