August 15, 2015

Entrance to Carroll Cave


Entering Carroll Cave from Dangerjudy on Vimeo.

Trip Report:

NSS Convention and visit to Carroll Cave

This year's convention was in Waynesville, Mo.   I went in a convoy headed by Dave and Valerie Howell in their rental car.  Even though it was just two cars, I felt convoy was an appropriate term.
Normally I do not go caving during convention.  There are so many things to do in other parts of the country that we cannot do here in TAG, whereas we have some of the best caves in the world here in our backyard.  So, even though I brought all of my caving gear, I had no real intention of using it.

After we arrived at the Waynesville High School to sign into registration, I picked up a newsletter for the day (a rag called, if I recall correctly, the Daily Towel) and stuffed it into my purse.  We went back to the campground and set up our tents.  Finally sitting down in my camp chair with a cold beverage, I read the newsletter, to find myself looking at the cave trips for the next day.

3 short trips a day were being led to Carroll Cave, in addition to longer trips to the same cave.  The 3 hour trip seemed like a nice idea.  "Easy" was the succint description, and then there was a paragraph or two about the challenges of the entrance, and the gear required to negotiate said entrance.

Carroll Cave's historic entrance has been closed to cavers for years.  The cave is the second longest in Missouri, at 20 miles + mapped, and cavers being stubborn, clever types, came up with a way to maintain access to the cave. In short, they blasted an entrance.  This newer entrance is a 120' deep tunnel, through solid rock, encased at the top by a metal culvert, inside the bottom of what I am guessing was a tank for holding water in a water tower, over which there is a metal grain silo repurposed to protect the tunnel entrance.

The tunnel itself is solid rock, with water dripping down the center and sides.  There is a metal ladder that runs the entire length of the tunnel, to the cave floor beneath.  There is also a steel cable with a clamp system for people who do not have descending gear.  The passage requires one to wear a harness, and either descend a caving rope, or climb down the rungs of the ladder while safetied to the steel cable.
Getting out requires climbing the ladder; there isn't room for ascending gear.  You'd just be banging into the rungs of the ladder the entire time.  Safety going up can either be the clamp/steel cable get-up, or in my case, a croll on the rope with my frogging harness.

It's quite an engineering feat, how determined cavers built this tunnel into Carroll Cave.

So, back in my camp chair, in the heat of the afternoon, I read the warnings about the tunnel, the required gear, and the necessity to climb the ladder back out.  "That doesn't sound too hard" I thought, and the trip description of "Easy" seemed straightforward enough, so I decided to go on the morning trip. 

While finding out who to tell or where to sign up to get on this trip, I met many other people, including Missouri cavers who all told me to be sure to bring my camera because the cave was so decorated.  This is right up my proverbial caving alley; I love pretties.  
I drove to the entrance location, which was in a gated field with no shade.   The morning was already hot; I believe the day ended up in the mid to upper 90's F.  The only shade was a couple of pop-up canopies near the silo.  There were about 10 people in our group.  I was sweating pretty bad by the time I got all of my gear on.   I had on Wunderwear shorts over some Chilliheads polypro pants, a t-shirt, my knee pads, elbow pads, frogging harness, croll, ascension, swago pack,and my 18" rack; I had forgotten to pack my micro-rack.   I had my new go-pro camera on for its second trip underground.  At the last moment I decided to tether the camera to my helmet, because I didn't trust the glue on the helmet mount.   I was rushing to get out of the sun, and forgot to bring the spare battery. It was hot as hell and here were some of the other people on the trip wearing shortie wetsuits.  hmmmm.  
We signed waivers and went into the silo one by one.  There was a climb-down ladder about 8-10' tall, to the floor of the steel tank.  The entrance to the tunnel was in the floor of the tank; there was a metal culvert surrounding the top of the tunnel.  
I watched someone get on rope and go down, and I had some trepidation about the whole thing.   It was just... intimidating.  
I was next on rope, and struggled to get five bars on the rope while being stuffed in the culvert; hard to describe but that 18" rack was just too big.  The other cavers had hung their packs off of a tether, but I didn't have something to tether with handy.  The guys at the top said I would probably fit ok with the swago pack on my back.   Finally down I went.
The swago pack did get jammed in the tunnel, and kept pushing my helmet up over my eyes.  There was water dripping down the tunnel, which felt wonderful after all the heat upstairs.
The rappel got easier past a bottleneck and I popped out into a wonderfully air-conditioned cave room.  
The others came down and we took off our vertical gear and proceeded down walking passage.   And this is where I started to be surprised.
I didn't research Missouri caves at all.  Didn't even occur to me.  Well, now you shall know that Missouri caves are Muddy.  Capitol M Muddy.
We had walked to a place where there was an exposed shelf that required crawling, only the crawling was in peanut-butter mud.   This was the way to some serious pretties.   I got on my hands and knees, and at times on my belly, and thanked the mud for being so sticky that there was no way I could slide off the shelf into the water/rock some 20 feet below.  And I got filthy with mud.   Suddenly this was an actual caving trip, not just a walk-around-and-photograph-pretties trip.    
After the mud crawl we crossed a stream and went into rooms with ceilings crowded with stals, a white gypsum waterfall formation, and a group of very aggrivated bats.  The bats were a surprise to the trip leaders, who said they hadn't been there the day before.  The bats flew around us as we tried to quickly take photos/video.
We went back through the stream crossing, up into the mud crawl again, and back past the entrance tunnel down mostly walking passage that contained room after room of decorations.  There was however a lot of mud and stream walking.  There was one lagoon of mud that I sank up to my knees in trying to get through.   This was hilarious to watch as people strugged to get through it without falling face first into the mud.  Coming back, I sank up to almost one hip in this mud, and wondered if I could get my leg out with my shoe attached (I did).   Visions of quicksand danced in my head.  
The pretties became over-whelming.   I can honestly say this is one of the best, most decorated caves I have ever visited, and my mind stopped processing all of the scenery.  Some breakdown climbs, some more mud, streambed walking, more mud, and every kind of cave formation.   Finally we came to a stream passage that we were assured would go chest-deep on some of us.  And I said, "I am tired and I want to stay here while y'all go on".  Two other cavers chose to stay with me, the others waded off into infinity.  Now I knew why some had worn shortie wetsuits.  I was cold.
Shake your heads at me all you want, but as the others sloshed away, I turned to the two cavers who stayed with me, and said, "I feel like we've had a joke played on us".   The trip description without any mention of getting generously slathered in mud seemed like a prank to me down there.  I also knew, the only way back was through that very same mud.  But I was grinning.   It was so worth it.
The others came back after about 40 minutes, and we headed back to the tunnel.   It was so fast getting back, that I realized we had taken a long time to go a short distance, due to everyone's photography efforts.    I put on my gear and climbed up the ladder.  I climbed 10 rungs and then rested, several times, to pace myself.   No problem.   I believe our trip was about 4 hours.   Headed back to camp and did some serious deconning and demudding of my clothes and gear with a pressure washer at the decon station.
I would love to go back to Carroll Cave and see some more of this cave.   It is fantastic.  In fact that whole part of Missouri is wonderful, with so many caves, float trips, springs, and other sights to see.   I will be back.