Friday, October 2, 2015

The Legend Of Petty John

I don't remember exactly how I became aware of this cache, but at some point I stumbled across The Legend Of Petty John and immediately wanted to go try it out. I've done a few caches that are near caves, or some kind of man made tunnel, but never something that was a true caving experience. This cave looked pretty serious and I would have to find another cacher interested, and despite dropping the name a couple times to various local cachers, no one really seemed that interested. There was a couple from Kentucky that were pretty interested, and I crossed my fingers that they would contact me. But an opportunity came even sooner that I just couldn't pass up. I was at a recent geocaching event celebrating Wascally Wabbit's 10K milestone and ran into GISpuma, a local Oak Ridge cacher that I knew was into caving. I had briefly talked to her at a meeting a year ago, and we talked about caving a bit, but I hadn't crossed paths with her since, and I probably didn't know about the Petty John cache. She must not have known about it either, because when I mentioned wanting to do this caving cache to her, she was immediately interested and was even already planning on being in the area. I begged my wife to take off work on a Friday, and plans were made to go on a caving expedition to Pigeon Mountain, Georgia.

Now I have a lot of gear, from climbing to backpacking and hiking. but caving is not something I've done much of. Despite having been on a Technical Search and Rescue Team in New Mexico (one that specialized in cave rescue as well as cliffs and stuff), I really never got into any caves. Well, I did go into Carlsbad Caverns once, but that was so tourist friendly that it didn't feel like Caving at all. That's not to say I didn't think I could handle some pretty challenging stuff. I can scramble over rocks with the best of them, and I'm pretty comfortable descending and ascending ropes. After talking with GISpuma a bit more though, we decided to not do any sections of the cave requiring rope work. We'd just explore what could be done without technical gear. I did go out and buy a cheap pair of kneepads though, because from what I could find on the internet, we would be in a lot of low passages.

I got most of my information about the cave from a website called CAPS, where there were detailed maps of various portions of the cave. The cave system looked pretty darn big to me, with a dozen different offshoots and some very tricky looking passages. As the day of our trip drew nearer, I got more and more excited, and also a little worried about what I was getting into. You can find all sorts of commentary on the internet about cool cave trips, and also accidents that have happened there. And I was beginning to get a sense that serious Cavers shied away from this cave and considered it trashy even. To make matters worse, a huge weather system, nay, hurricane, was just off the Carolina coast and was bringing a good amount of rain to the area at about the same time we'd be going underground. I didn't have a good sense of if this would make the cave more dangerous, but my gut was that it would. After a few email exchanges with GISpuma, we decided to still go for it, but to be extra cautious about passages with water in them. This meant not trying to get to the popular waterfall feature in the cave. I was ok with that.

On the day of our trip, I got up early and drove in the dark and rain into Georgia. Aside from the airport, this was my first time visiting the state, which was kind of cool. I left extra early to allow myself some time to explore Rock Town, which not only is a very cool climbing spot, but also contains one of the oldest geocaches in the area, GC76, placed back on October 2000. Ok, so it is only 15 years old, it's not like an amazing time capsule or anything, but geocachers get somewhat excited about finding "old" geocaches like this one. And I am not immune to that. I had a nice 2 mile trail run in the rain, then made my way back to the parking coordinates for Petty John Cave. GISpuma pulled up a little after 1030am and we were soon kitted up and ready to go down into the ground.
Blurry "Before" Picture at the entrance
I was probably way overpacked for this adventure. They say to bring at least 3 sources of light, I had 6, and also extra batteries. I had enough food (well, calories is a better term) to keep going for 48 hours. I had maps, cameras, water, an emergency blanket... I even brought my GPSr along even though it would be mostly useless in the cave. I simply brought it so that we could check our solution to the geocache puzzle while still underground near the clues. GISpuma on the other hand was going light. She had a small backpack (half the size of mine) and disposable Tyvek coveralls. I was already feeling like a rookie, but then, I suppose I was. After the obligatory entrance shot, we went down, and immediately met our first cave dweller, a Cave Salamander.
Entrance Greeter
The entrance Room, as the map calls it, has a very high ceiling and is broad as well, but does not have a nice even floor. Instead there are jumbles of fallen rocks and pits to negotiate. I learned that Cavers call the jumbled masses of boulders "breakdown" or "break" for short, and that often finding a way down through the break is what leads to other passageways.This was indeed the case for us on our way to our first destination, the Pancake Squeeze. Once we made it down through the break, we got a bit confused about where we were. We were looking for specific clues for the geocache, which had descriptions of natural features we should see in certain places, but the clues weren't quite matching up nto the map we had. We went through what we thought was the pancake squeeze, only to then find the Z-bend passage on the wrong side of the outlet room, suggesting that instead we had been in the Flat Room.


While not knowing where we were exactly caused us to slow down, and take out the map frequently for consultation, it also added to the sense of exploration, not really knowing what we were going to come up to next. We ended up squeezing our way through the Z-bends and came out on what appeared to be the outlet of the pancake squeeze. The clues for the geocache were not making any sense, and we debated crawling back through the pancake squeeze right then. But the lure of more cave further on won out, we opted to continue exploring for a while and try to figure out the geocache clues on our way back.
GISpuma in the Z-bends
While heading south along an easy passage I learned a bit more about what makes a Caver versus a Spelunker. I had previously used the terms synonymously, but apparently that is a big mistake. A Caver is someone who takes caving seriously, usually a member of a local Caving Group, and follows a Code of Ethics while in cave systems. Aside from what seems like basic common sense ideas, like leave no trash and don't disturb any animals, it also includes not touching any cave formations, not defacing the walls and never taking anything out of the cave. Spelunkers on the other hand are just people that get excited about going into caves but don't really know to treat them with care and respect. They are more just going in for an adventure, are often not well prepared, leave spray-paint markings on walls (sometimes as graffiti, but also for directions so as not to get lost) and also a fair amount of trash.
Caver or Spelunker?
It is easy to see how Cavers would look down on Spelunkers, because Spelunkers includes the people that deface formations, leave trash (and human waste!) all over the cave, and are more likely to get hurt or killed. Then again, there are probably Spelunkers that behave well, but you'd never hear about them. You do see the effects that the less respectful Spelunkers leave behind. We saw a good amount of trash everywhere in the cave, as well as broken cave formations, and spray paint. I thought some of the spray paint arrows were actually pretty useful, but GISpuma assured me there are better ways to mark your route without defacing the walls.
Broken stalactite
We almost hit a dead end before reaching the Raccoon Room. We could see on our map where it was, but just couldn't see how we were supposed to get there. The room before the Raccoon Room was very tall and had a lot of deep pits and break-down in it. There were several ropes leading down beneath the breakdown but we think those led to the Stream Passage and aside from not wanting to go there because of flooding concerns, none of the descent ropes looked very safe. We finally found a very tight squeeze high up on the west wall that led us to a narrow crawl and over to the connecting passageway to the Raccoon room. The funny thing was, we saw a lot of signs that people came through the Raccoon room pretty frequently, but it just didn't seem likely that they came in the way we found. There must have been a better way, but we just didn't know where it was.

Once we got to the Raccoon Room, the cave passages beyond were much easier to follow. Not as many side branches, or confusing junctions, just muddy crawl-ways and cool cave formations.
One of the nice formations past the Raccoon Room
Nice Formation of a small pool. I especially like the drip captured

The only real challenging passage was a short crawl called the Freeway, which was only slightly taller than a foot high, and very muddy. But it was still easier than the Z-Bends which we had done earlier, since it was mostly linear. Another interesting room we came to was the Bridge Room which had a very deep pit in it where we could hear the stream below. The Bridge Room was also a junction with some passages that led north and would make a potential loop route. However, we decided to press on to the Over 'N Under Room, which was only a short ways beyond.
GISpuma on the far side of the pit of the Bridge Rom
Cave formations in passage leading up to the Over 'N Under Room
It was 2:30 by the time we reached the Over N' Under Room, which seemed like a good time to turn around. Not that I really wanted to turn around. GISpuma had mentioned that it was really easy to completely lose track of time in a cave, and I can see why. All the normal cues about passage of time are gone, and the amount of passages to explore is very tempting. From the Over 'N Under Room there were passages leading to a waterfall, or to other far reaches of the cave system. But if we were to tackle much more, we would most certainly get back out very late, and I didn't want to do that, it would make my wife worry too much. And GISpuma was going to be going into Ellison Cave the next day, which is a pretty serious and exhausting cave involving multiple rope descents, some as long as 540'. There was no reason to push further other than this primal urge to keep on exploring.  It will have to be another day. The Over 'N Under Room seemed like a good turn around point too, since it held one of the cave's registers, at least one that is marked on the map. We opened it up to find that it only held one very soggy sheet of paper, an old cave map printout. A handful of signatures were on the sheet going back to April 2014, but I'm guessing that not many people bother to sign it. It isn't in good shape. But I added our names.
The Register at the Over 'N Under Room
Our return trip was quite a bit faster which is understandable because we knew where we were going now. We found the "easier" way that led into the Raccoon Room passage, a steep climb up and around some blocks and with high exposure and slippery mud. The way we found was tighter and not for everyone, but probably a whole lot less dangerous. We encountered a second cave salamander on our way back to the Pancake Squeeze, which I thought surprising since it is pretty far from the entrance. I thought that these salamanders lived in the "twilight" zone near cave entrances, but GISpuma told me that they can be found far from the entrance. They must be much better adapted to living in the dark than I thought they were.
How is this guy not covered in mud like us?
When we made it back to the Panacake Squeeze we went through it this time. It was very tight, but also wide, so it didn't feel as bad as the Z-bends. But then, I'm a relatively small guy, perhaps for someone larger they would be pretty constrictive.
GISpuma coming through the Pancake Squeeze
Once out of the Pancake Squeeze we went back to the Flat Room to try to verify the clues for the geocache. Kind of funny that going after this geocache was the "main purpose" of our expedition, but that it was treated as an afterthought to simply exploring the cave. Still, we wanted to make the find on the cache.
Myself coming out into the Flat Room, another belly crawl
After a bit of debate, and theorizing about what the CO was thinking, we finally settled on some answers for the geocache and computed the coordinates. I took out my GPSr and put the coords in, and they seemed reasonable, so out we went. We just had a short climb back up to the Entrance Room, then an easy walk back out of the cave.
POsing at one side of the Z-bends

Interesting floor ramp formation on the way up to the Entrance Room
We emerged into daylight a little past 4:30, after 5 1/2 hours in the cave. The rain had stopped, and the even the dull grey skies seemed impressively bright. And I must say, I can easily see how one catches the Caving bug. While we had explored a lot of this cave, there was so much more we hadn't explored, and I felt myself wanting to go on, and see what all the other rooms and passages are like. And there are oodles of caves in the area, many a lot closer to home. GISpuma was an excellent caving companion, and she hinted at trips to other, cleaner caves, that I could come on, maybe even with the kids (ones not as dangerous as this one). And I think I would be very excited to do so, even if there isn't a geocache to lure me there. But for now, I am just happy to have had this wonderful adventure.
How is GISpuma not completely covered in mud?



So after all that, did we even find the geocache? ....
You Bet!
Post Script: During the trip, GISpuma kept mentioning how she disliked getting wet and muddy, and I kind of poo-poo'ed her sentiments. I mean, we knew it was a muddy cave, why not just embrace the mud and grime and have fun. Well, there is a good practical reason to keep clean. The clean up is not only time consuming, but also very vital. This cave is known to harbor White Nose Syndrome, and not only do you need to clean the mud off of everything, you also need to do careful decontamination of all your equipment, at least if you think any of it will be used in other caves. I spent a few hours already cleaning off mud, and am still not even close to getting things cleaned up and decontaminated. GISpuma was wise indeed. Next, time, hopefully I will be a little wiser as well.