On Sunday, August 28, Reginald White (21) and three companions entered Cass Cave in West Virginia with the intention of doing a three day camp in the cave. When they arrived on the 27th they encountered a Sligo Grotto group, leaving, who advised them of conditions in the cave and against them camping there. Only one of White's group had been in the cave before and they had only one set of ascending gear between them.
They proceeded to the 175' drop and rigged a Perlon rope directly in the falls. One declined to descend. The others rappelled without incident. Several hours were spent exploring. At about 6 p.m. they were returning and beginning their ascent of the drop. The first man up was forced to momentarily de-rig from his chest Gibbs to get past a ledge. He continued his ascent without incident and lowered the ascending gear to the next man.
Between 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. White began his ascent. As he was trying to pass the ledge he dropped a piece of equipment and then fell backwards, hanging by his knee and foot ascenders, unable to hold himself up against the strong force of the water. After 90 minutes White ceased to respond to attempts at communication, and at 8:15 the companion at the top left the cave and called authorities at The Greenbank Observatory. Greenbank in turn called the local rescue squad and the Greenbrier Grotto. Meanwhile locals returned to the cave and decided that the victim had died.
At 12:00 a.m. Greenbrier Grotto personnel entered the cave and rigged the Belay Loft for rappel and hoisting. A medical student wearing a wetsuit descended and rigged White into a Neil-Robertson Stretcher so that he could be lowered to the floor. An accident nearly occurred when load was applied to the line in lowering. The medic was pulled off the ledge and fell 20 feet on slack in his belay line. The lowering was completed. Meanwhile telephone wire was laid from the entrance to the Belay Loft to keep things organized.
At 4:45 a.m. the hoisting rig was completed and the two companions to the victim were taken up. When the body was lifted the stretcher fouled in the telephone and rappel lines at a narrow spot near the top. A man had to jumar down to free it. The body evacuation was completed by 10 a.m. The med student was exhausted by his efforts and was also hoisted up the pit.
NSS News, May 1981 (Part 2) V39N5, Page A30-A31.
R.D. Barlow "Cass Cave Fatality" D.C. Speleograph 33:11 Nov. 1977 p 3.
James McCloud "Occurrence at Cass Cave" Subterranean Sun 7:11 nov. 1977.
Carole Sneed "Accident in Cass Cave, Virginia" The Underground 21:7 Oct. 1977.
The victim's party was not familiar with the cave and had planned much more than they were capable of. It appears they did heed the advice of other cavers and scale down their aims or this might have been a bigger accident. In serious vertical caving such as this it is foolish to rely on just one set of gear. The ascending rig would have been better with the ascenders safety-rigged to a seat sling so that one is sitting rather than hanging upside down if the chest support fails. The survivors are lucky one of them had gotten up the drop and was able to go for help.