Trip Report: Spring Break trip to Xanadu and Sloan's Valley Caves--March 15-18, 2007
There's nine of us along on this adventure down to northern end of TAG. We carpool down to the area near Xanadu Cave through wicked weather. Oh, dread...but as we arrive, it is a balmy 60 degrees and the frogs are singing their hearts out. Is it June in Tennessee? Nope. Around 11pm, the rain comes in and the temperatures drop. Oh, yeah, and the tents leak. Most of them, at least.
We woke up to pea soup fog and begrudgingly prepared for the day's caving without warm breakfast. We started the long hike down into the Obey River valley around 9:30 am. What is generally a hike with a spectacular view turned into a slog through cold, damp fog down the soggy road. Strange to think that we'd get muddier outside the cave than in it! Finally we arrived at the valley floor and turned east up the cove where two out of three entrances to Xanadu are located. The cove has been sheltered all winter and therefore is showing early signs of spring--abundant mosses, trillium, and blooming Dutchman's Britches. Eventually, we come to the entrance area--a sheltered area with a 20' waterfall falling into a green-blue pool, mossy boulders, etc. After preparing to enter the cave, we spend some time trying to open the gate. OK, a lot of time would be more like it, as the lock appears to be broken. It doesn't help that the lock mechanism is inside the gate, requiring long arms and the ability to work without actually being able to see what you're doing. After considerable effort, and some long-armed heroics, we FINALLY get the gate open (we're talking 45 minutes here, folks). Everybody in, lights on...and we're finally off. Wind through a canyon and up into some ancient dry borehole. Tymme points out the bacterial biocrust and and dry rimstone dams on the floor as I scout ahead. It has been a number of years and I'm not sure how reliable my memory is. Oh, did I mention that our map was a piece of s***? Thoroughly worthless. A five-year old with dull crayons could've done a better job. I'm little worried that we won't even be able to find our way to the Sandhill Passage--the main trunk passage of the cave. Now that'd be embarassing. Fortunately, I come to a junction that I recognize. After waiting for everyone to catch up, we move down the passage and into the Sandhill Passage. I remember that the route to Sunday City is hidden in the breakdown there at the beginning of the Sandhill Passage, and Sean, Tymme and I scout out the area. No luck, though I think we were close. Instead of wasting time looking for it, we start off down the Sandhill Passage. The massive trunk passage--200' high in parts--is renowned (infamous?) for its 16 (yes, we counted) "sand hills", piles of breakdown mixed with sandy soil. Things don't start off so badly, but they get steeper, higher, and sandier as we move down the passage. One is rigged with a handline, but the others--up to 200'--must be negotiated without aid. Scramble uphill, ski on your heels downhill, walk a couple feet and start the process all over again. Some of the hills are longer, and you spend a bit of time within a few feet of the ceiling, only to end up staring over a precipitous drop that must be carefully negotiated back down to the floor 100' below. People end up strewn out, making for a nice effect of lights strung out from ceiling to floor and back to ceiling. Andrew and Steve poke into side passages along the base level; others just keep moving, taking frequent, short breaks at the top or bottom of the hills.
Finally, the passage opens up. Up ahead of us, on a ledge just below the ceiling 60' above, is the jewel box. To our right, the canyon passage that will take us into the other main part of the cave. We decide to visit the Jewel Box first. Tymme and I scout out the route, remembering it to be a bit exposed. It wasn't as bad as we remembered, so we had other people come up. Everyone is very careful not to hit any formations. Sean takes some nice shots and we all spend some time looking around, careful not to venture to close to the edge.
Back to the Sandhill Passage. All but two of our party decide to go to find the Fort Sanders Room and Cumberland Avenue. This could be interesting, as I have no idea how to get there and all we have is the aforementioned POS map. I've forgotten about the traverse along the edge--and then across--a 60' canyon. Doh. Fortunately everyone across safe and we head off down the passage. We take a few minutes testing our...uh...girth at a body-sized hole in a rock and then we start looking for Fort Sanders Room. It is mazey down here and the elephant tracks head off in every possible direction. But things look familiar...every once in awhile, Tymme and I see a landmark we recognize. And thus, by trial and error, we find ourselves in the very large Fort Sanders Room and then subsequently bopping down the large borehole passage of Cumberland Avenue. At the end, there's a formation room with some pretties, including some nicely sculpted anastemoses. In consideration for the folks waiting for us, we head back. After rendevouzing, we begin the trek back down the sandhill passage, and 16 sandhills later, we're back at the Sunday City junction area. Everyone's tired, so we head out of the cave, with just a bit of daylight left. The hike back up the hill on the clear night is a long haul, but we all make it back to camp by 9:30 pm. We drive to town for Mexican food and then come back to camp to crash.
We wake up obcenely early (esp after a 12 hour trip the day before!) to drive 2-hours to Sloan's Valley cave in the hope that we can hook up with the WUSSes. No such luck--we miss them by 10 minutes. Fortunately, the Blue Grass Grotto is gracious enough to allow us to join their group. It makes for a large group--17 people--and we feel rather apologetic about it, although nobody seems to mind. Jerry Dixon is our guide and plans on taking a through trip from the Post Office entrance to the garbage pit entrance. The PO entrance has a 20' climbdown, which is a little sketchy, esp for those of us wimps. Fortunately, Tymme can make a great harness from webbing and a carabiner so a few of us rappel down on a munter hitch. Everyone's down safely, though it takes awhile. Off into Sloan's Valley. I thought it had a reputation for being the area's Buckners, and was afraid that it would show similar abuse. But, fortunately, there was little evidence of that. Big passages bordered by flowstone with rimstone dam floors. At one point, we come across Roni and two member of the BGG up on a ledge and Steve heroically (and unsucessfully) trying to freeclimb up to join them. They had convinced him that they had climbed up that way...but then changed their story: there was another way up to the ledge.
This part of Sloan's is well decorated with flowstone. We come out to a ledge overlooking the Fountain of Youth, climb around to the other side, and then out into a LARGE room--we're talking Camp's Gulf kind stuff--that feels like a football stadium. Jerry informs us that this isn't the large room, but the annex to the large room. Wow. We climb down the breakdown and find another passage at the bottom leading us to a pool room. The centerpiece is a flowestone drapery--the bottom portion of what we'd just seen from above. We were at the bottom of the fountain of youth.
Aside: Apparently Lake Cumberland, adjacent to Sloan's Valley, has had its lake level drastically reduced in order to make repairs on Wolf Creek Dam. This is a good thing for cavers, since it means that many passages that have been partially or completely flooded are now dry and accessible. Good thing for us, as we started moving into lower passage of the cave that are usually places where swimming is necessary.
After a break, we head off down a canyon and into a muddy passage. We're careful in here...slipping would mean a long slid into deep water. Bad idea. On the other side, we climb up into the big room. OK, it is definitely big. Climb to the top of the breakdown and we're still well below the ceiling. The passage turns off to the right. Jerry explains that often this passage is at least 12' deep water, but with the lake level dropped, it is nearly dry, except for a few pothole-like pools. I should clarify--by dry, I mean not filled with water. Instead, the floor is covered in very slippery mud. A few folks from our party start down the passage, but it becomes obvious that staying dry might not be an option for long. Nicole slips into the water and becomes completely wet. Enventually, Jerry decides to take the group in the dry upper passage that he knows. So, back up the muddy breakdown. We work our way gradually to yet another large trunk-like passage filled with massive breakdown piles and mud. Apparently much of the time, this passage is partially full of water. Thus the slimy mud. We move off down a side passage signed as a cave crayfish sanctuary. Like the other areas of the cave we'd visited, it was relatively dry and there were no pools for the crayfish to live in. Not too much later, we exit the cave via a wooden door that opened into an open air pit about 15' deep. Apparently a creative farmer shunts the warm, humid air into his greenhouse year round to save energy costs.
It isn't late, so we decide to head back to Indiana that evening instead of camp at Sloan's Valley. We clean up and pile back in the cars and drive to the stagestop campground in O'Bannon Woods. We're treated to another frigid night and rudely awoken by a boy scout troop that had also camped there. "TROOP 271, FALL IN!!!!" Right next to our tents. Thanks, guys, we really appreciate the wakeup call, especially after two days of caving and three lousy nights' sleep. There's frost everywhere and anything wet that was left out is now stiff like cardboard. Kinda like some of us.
We've made arrangements to visit Devil's Graveyard cave at 11am, which leaves us time to pack up and grab a bite for breakfast. Right on time to DG--we gear up for the short cave trip, leaving behind packs and so forth. Part of the group goes on ahead to rig a handline for the 15' climbdown over a flowstone. The rest of us catch up awhile later--good timing, as nobody has to wait around to go down. Two climbdowns later, we're exploring the main room, generously decorated with columns, draperies, and stalagmites. Many people head down to the lowest part of the cave, but a few of us spend our time exploring the main room. There's some nice bacon up on a ledge and some other nice small formation areas to check out. Still, I get the impression that everyone's tired, and we all start out of the cave. DG was just the cherry on top of the whole weekend--a nice way to tie things up.