Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Virgin Cave Ahead! Trip Report - Bethany Widmayer

Coach Trip Report 5/30/21

Participants: Brian Devine, John Sies, Bethany Widmayer


1) Rappel into a newly opened hole at survey marker II 40, 

2) Check for bats and note their locations.


Trip synopsis:

 During our approximately 11 hour trip we bolted the initial drop into virgin passage after finding the hexcentrics we brought were just a little too large to be used as temporary anchors. We surveyed just short of 60’ of passage at the bottom with a little more that can be easily accessed needing to be surveyed. There is a promising lead going down but it will require some modification of several rock ledges to permit access to humans.

No bats were seen in any portion of the cave that we traveled through.

 All pictures thanks to Bethany Widmayer.

 Perspective: This trip was a follow-up trip after finding a new pit had formed at the bottom of a known depression deep inside Coach Cave. The trip also came after an almost 2 year absence from Coach cave and limited caving for all of us participating in this trip due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 We really started this trip with low expectations and a number of potential issues. The common thought among all of us was that we likely would be dropping a nuisance pit into a single room with little or no new passage. We also were all tired from leading trips for Speleofest in the days previous to this trip, had been warned by Charlie that we would likely have issues removing the plate that protected the lock due to rusting resulting from limited use in the previous 2 years, and had at least some worries about the state of wetness in Spring Avenue after a couple of days of rain just previous to this trip. Thankfully, in the end, none of these issues/worries played any real role in our trip.

 Report: Sunday morning May, 30 2021 was a comfortably warm, dry day in central Kentucky. We arrived at the Coach entrance around 10 am local (central) time and proceeded to gear up for the long trip ahead while exhorting each other sarcastically other about how “great” this trip would be. This talk was capped off when I offered both Bethany and Brian some prophylactic Ibuprofen for the aches and pains we all knew would be coming long before this trip had ended.

 The gate was reasonably easy to open (for Brian), steel plate notwithstanding, as Charlie had previously removed the more difficult of the two locks. We did take some time to clear a significant amount of dirt, debris, and leaf litter directly in front of the gate to make it a little easier to open and close. The sleds were parked in the usual spot just before the bathtub and ready for the long grating journey to Lea’s Loft (and Used Sled Emporium) over a reasonably dry Spring Avenue that was only wet in a 12” ring at the very lowest spot inside the bathtub. No bats were seen anywhere near the entrance or throughout Spring Avenue even though we saw a great deal of roost stain.

 In a change from previous trips, all of us brought large volume packs filled with vertical gear, survey gear, a drill, rope, multiple means to rig the drop, and other group items. In spite of the larger packs that we dragged not only through Spring Avenue on sleds, but also through the sand from Lea’s Loft to Cross Canyon, we made good time to our objective at survey marker II 40.

 Reaching Cross Canyon, I got turned around briefly and tried to go down the IX survey rather than the II survey that we should have been following. Brian scouted ahead in the correct direction while I looked in the wrong direction just far enough to both realize I was going the wrong way and that there were, indeed, no bats in the room where we most commonly have found them in that part of the cave. There were, in fact, no bats seen anywhere in the cave during the entire trip.

 Brian got us back on route and moved far ahead of Bethany and I, stopping around a corner to comfortably repose with his 6’+ frame across nearly the entire passage, feigning sleep. Coming on this sight, I did my very best narrator voice for a wildlife program and started talking about finding the rare and elusive “Subterranean Sasquatch”. Bethany giggled and Brian quickly moved back into full crawl/drag mode towards our objective that was only a short ways ahead.

 A handful of stations away from II 40 Bethany stopped in front of me and said, “So. Many. Spiders!”. I crawled up to find a spot where there were no less than 3 spiders all with webs and one of the with what appeared to be a large, white egg sack that it (she?) was guarding. Bethany also noted what appeared to be many discarded spider legs on the sandy floor of the cave beneath each of the webs. Bethany captured a number of photos of the spiders at this stop and more of the same were seen a little further on in the same passage, again at the actual opening that we were to drop into and also inside the newly entered passage at the bottom of the drop we completed. Bethany managed to grab a few pictures of the arachnids.


Not long after we reached survey marker II 40 and our hole that we had not seen in nearly 2 years was still there. Not only was the hole still there but the overall depression in which it was located had become larger in diameter and looking below we could now see that a very tight canyon passage floored the drop that had looked relatively smooth on our previous trip.

 Everyone opened their packs and started to get gear out. I removed the roughly 80’ of rope I brought and a set of hexcentrics normally used for anchoring by rock climbers in hope of using them as a conservation friendly way of rigging what might be only a quick drop with no really passage below. Brian removed his rock hammer to be used for slightly enlarging the opening to make it as easy and safe as possible to get into and out of the narrow fissure of an opening on rope. Bethany had her camera at the ready to document what we were doing.

 The first thing I did was grab Brian’s rock hammer and comment, “You’ve got a cute little hammer there!” (I normally use a 3# sledge in cave). Since it was in my hand, I started to pound away at the ragged edges of the entrance to the pit where it was narrowest. Leaving Brian hammerless, he started to scout around for where we might rig using the hexes. He found a likely spot and traded me the hammer back for the hexes. His spot was a no-go as my smallest hex was just a little too large. I found a second spot close by but it also was just a bit too small to fit a hex. In the mean time, Brian was going to town on the rock projections with his hammer raining small sparks as he worked.


Realizing there was no place to use the hexes for rigging I put them away about the same time that Brian got out the drill and Bethany produced the battery from her pack. Brian picked a spot for a bolt, explained why he thought it was a good choice and asked Bethany and I if it looked good. We concurred and helped to make sure he had the correct angle from our disparate angle of view and the bit started to sink into the rock.

 As Brian worked on our anchor point with Bethany’s assistance at various points in the process, I got the rope completely untangled, fished a ‘biner from my pack and sorted my personal vertical gear out. I also grabbed the descender from my pack that Brian would be borrowing form me for this trip. By the time I had my gear completely on, the two of them had set the bolt and hanger in place and were rigging the rope.


An interesting side note about our gear was that a good portion of what we used for this particular trip is designed for and/or used in canyoneering rather than caving. The packs that Both Bethany and Brian brought were large and tubed shaped, made from PVC,  and featured grommeted bottoms to allow for the drainage of water which is pretty typical of canyoneering packs. My pack was a Lost Creek Gorilla pack that I had custom built with a PVC bottom, also with grommets in it for use on a trip to the canyons in and around Zion National park a few years previous. To save weight, the rope I brought was a very low stretch, 8.3 mm rope made from polyester that was purchased from a canyoneering site. Rather than using relatively heavy, bulky,  rappel racks for what appeared to be a short descent I brought an aluminum Sterling ATS for myself, lent Brian a Petzl Pirrana - both canyoneering descenders - and Bethany brought a small aluminum figure 8 which is also very typical of canyoneering.

 I clipped into the rope with my QAS and threaded my ATS for descent and called, “On rope!”. Even though we had widened the entrance to the drop it took me a moment to wiggle my body through the opening to fully bring my descender into play. It took all of 10 seconds to do the nuisance drop and then I was down. Calling, “Off rope!” I started looking around, I had dropped into a canyon passage that was about 5-6’ across and I could see that it stopped at a rock wall 20’ to my right (roughly south) and looking around the corner the other direction I could see there was perhaps another 30’ or so before the passage ended (roughly north).

 The really interesting part was that I could see through the crack in the floor to multiple small ledges below me but I could not get my light into the right place to see a bottom. I finally took my helmet off and angled it into the crack deeper than my head would fit and I could see what appeared to be a slightly sloped mud bottom about 30’ below me. I dropped a small rock near at hand and heard, “clatter, clatter, clatter, ……. thunk!”. I could not see where the rock had landed and there had been a considerable pause after the clattering sound had ended. I could hear Bethany and Brian were getting their vertical gear on above me and they were taking their time so I grabbed the extra 50’+ of rope and carefully fed it down the hole where I could see the “bottom”. The rope hit that and then continued to disappear while being gently pulled out of my hands by gravity. I have no idea if the rope ever reached bottom!

 My companions were now fully geared for the drop and the Brian got out his trusty Disto-X and together he and I searched for a spot where he could take a shot from an existing survey marker in the passage above and get us onto something that would start things off below from a good spot. Luckily, the nearest survey point was almost dead on above our hole and a good sized rock that rose about a foot off the true floor of the canyon I was in was in line for the shot. I marked our new survey point and Brian booked it and then they both descended to join me.

 Upon getting down, Bethany took over the job of point and picked the next station. Brian’s immediate question was what we should designate the survey. Bethany and I quietly discussed this matter while Brian started to setup his book for the sketch. We decided on the designation DSW for Devine, Sies, Widmayer. Brian, concentrating on his book misheard us and Bethany repeated it and I added that we were busy shopping for shoes while he was taking his time setting up for survey. The joke was lost on Brian as he kept scribbling away.

 We only set a total of 4 points for this quick survey. Our first point was the drop from the passage above at survey marker II 40 to a boulder wedged into the crack on the bottom of the new passage for 20.1’. With an estimated passage height of roughly 7’ in the overlying passage and the boulder at the bottom standing about 1’ off the floor, the drop is only about 14’. We also took 2 shots roughly to the south that terminated the passage in that direction and one shot to the north that will allow us to complete the survey with only another shot or two in that direction but that will also allow us to get into a short crawl just below where we were surveying. Total survey was 59.4”.

 It is not clear if the crawl below the newly surveyed passage will allow us to just move laterally below the current survey a short distance or if we might be able to drop below another of the ledges. I suspect the real payoff for this new passage will be removing enough of the rock projections form several shelves below this passage to see where the rocks we dropped end up. While Brian sketched, Bethany and I pulled up the rope from the first spot that I had fed it into and fed it into a new hole that she had spotted that also went to the lowest spot that could be seen from our vantage. This hole had the benefit of being in line with the natural hang of the rope from the bolt above. The rope, again, pulled via gravity out of my hands and hit no discernible bottom after only a brief hang up on a small ledge. My best guess is that there is a pit of unknown depth that is slightly offset from the narrow canyon passage in which we were surveying.

 No air movement was felt from the crack in the floor but it is rare that we have felt air movement anywhere in Coach.

 After our short recon and survey we ascended back into the upper passage where most of our gear was located. We took our time getting out of vertical gear, stowing what we would not need for the trip out, and getting a quick bite to eat before heading toward the surface.

 The trip out was relatively uneventful. We made a brief stop just outside of Cross Canyon for a breather and a snack. We stopped at Lea’s Loft where I made sure to drink the better part of a bottle of Powerade to stave off leg cramps I had suffered on a previous trip through the 1000’ foot crawl of Spring Avenue. I paced myself on the crawl as I was exhausted from 3 days of caving. I think my two friends probably appreciated this as they also were exhausted. Brian entertained us by keeping a running count of how many drag cycles of the sleds it took us to reach the bathtub, letting us know the new total every ime we stopped to rest. Final tally was 325, ugh!

 We exited the cave just before 10 pm local time for a trip of roughly 11 hours total in cave.

 A return trip to this area is being planned for Labor Day weekend. I (John) may drop some supplies at the far end of Spring Avenue in support of this objective in early August while working with Mammoth Cave Restoration Camp/James Cavers to remove wood and other debris from the cave.