Sites Cave

West Virginia

It is now 1:00am, and most other sane people are sound asleep. I, however, am standing outside of a car, in the rain, donning funny looking clothing and a mixture of bizarre looking caving equipment. The cave we are about to enter is known as "Sites Cave" — we get to it by hiking steeply uphill for about 20 minutes, and then dropping a 300′ rope into a deep hole in the ground which might just as well go to the center of the earth.

During my rappel of that distance, I am exposed to an incredible array of features and formations in the rock, and an ever growing feeling of isolation. Sounds grow more and more muted as I descend. Any light from my partner above fades into nothingness. The walls shift from jagged edges to completely smooth faces, and then to barren emptiness. At times, I am hanging from the rope in free-space with nothing to do but continue the descent until my feet come in contact with something solid again. And throughout this descent, I know that in a matter of hours I will have to climb back out if I am to reach the surface.

When I arrive at the bottom, I find that I am one of only several hundred inhabitants in the cave — though most of the others are only a few inches in length and sleep upside down while hanging from the ceiling. In some places, Little Brown bats populate the walls so heavily that the walls appear carpeted.

Sparsely scattered about the floor are pieces of wood that have fallen the length of the vertical shaft, only to be consumed by incredibly intricate fungi that return the fibers to the raw elements from which they came.

Completely unlike the sacrifice caves that are visited by thousands, this cave sees very little traffic — largely due to the difficulty of getting here. The formations throughout the cave are phenomenal. Coming down from the ceiling are simply thousands of stalactites of various types, shapes and configurations. Not just limited to simple vertical columns, the formations twist and wind about each other in all directions. It appears that the entire surface of each and every wall, ceiling and floor is alive with slender, intricate protrusions, but that the entire life- force of the cave has been frozen in suspend animation.

Traveling about the various passages, I am careful not to disturb any of the delicate structures around me. There are places where simply standing up would break part of a formation that has taken millions of years to create. Other parts of the cave are covered with mud that grips tenaciously to my feet as I move, or creates a slippery slope that can be negotiated only with the most gracious of movements and balance.

After five hours of exploring this splendor, it is time to leave. We return to the rope we left hanging, and I begin to rig the hardware to my body and harness. This is the first vertical cave I have been in, so the technical aspect of the ascent is new to me. Though I have "read" about the setup, and my partner has done it twice, I feel that I am relying on my ability to ad-lib with the equipment at my disposal much more than on any real knowledge of what I am doing. Though I know my setup is "safe", I have no idea if it will actually work. Shining my light upwards to the entrance, I am unable to even see my final destination. The idea of only being able to ascend part way up before running into some technical obstacle has become a genuine fear, but a combination of stupidity and ego keeps me from voicing this to my more experienced partner.

I begin to climb the rope using what is called a "rope- walker" system. It is a truly bizarre setup involving three one-way rope devices, some climbing webbing, a short bungee cord, and lots of faith. The first five steps seem to be useless, but they are actually tensioning the rope above me. After that, I begin to make progress. The experience bears little resemblance to rock climbing. Rather than climbing up for fun, I am climbing OUT to go home. My path is not determined by the contours of the rock, but by the path of the rope, which often hangs freely in space, or juts around a horn that drops several feet of slack in my line once I pass it.

The climb is long and strenuous. I am forced to rest at several points along the way simply to catch my breath. As I near the surface, the temperature begins to drop, and I can feel drops of spray from a fine rain. As I emerge from the pit and shine my light around the edge, several small creatures scurry off into the brush. Apparently, they had gathered to see what it was that should come OUT of such a whole. The ground is soaking wet. While in the cave, I’ve no idea what happened here on the surface of the earth, but I do know one thing — I’ll be back.

Copyright (C), 1991, by Ashley Guberman

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