Cave Rescue, September 13, 1986
McClung's Cave, WV


On Saturday, September 13, a group of nine cavers (early 20's) arrived at McClung's Cave in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Most had experienced only 3 to 4 cave trips but two were climbers. They planned to split into two parties. A group of five would enter the horizontal McClung Entrance and go only as far as the First Breakdown -- the other group would enter the newly-discovered, vertical Lightner Entrance and travel through the cave to join the first group.

A fine, adventrurous plan. Unfortunately, their experience in the cave was a far as the First Breakdown. None had been in the Lightner Entrance or knew the route to the First Breakdown. None had even seen a map of the cave. Of the Lightner Group, only two (the climbers) had any rope experience.

At about 6 p.m. the McClung party entered the cave, proceeding to the First Breakdown. They waited "an hour or two," left a lit candle and exited.

The Lightner party entered at 6:45 p.m. Lighter has a ten foot climbdown, two offset pits of 40 to 35 feet, a short mud-wallow squeeze, a mud bank with a 12 foot drop and the the Champagne Squeeze to Tufa Trail. As they descended the drops the party became strung out. At the 12 foot drop, Jeff Dersch climbed down and went on ahead. When the others came to the drop, they rigged it and tried to find him; they checked three possible leads but found no sign. A group went for help while two stayed there, patrolling the area.

The owner of the McClung Entrance was contacted and he in turn called Ed Simpson who notificed NCRC. Blue Ridge Grotto arrived at about 2 a.m. and four cavers rigged the drops and descended; they taught the two who were waiting to use vertical gear which allowed them to exit.

McClung is an extensive, complex cave with two main trunk passages and 16 miles of mapped passage. At 3:30 p.m. three groups of two checked three areas but found no signs of Dersch, exiting about 8 a.m. At this time a group went in McClung Entrance to sweep to Second Breakdown. Another crew went in Lightner's to check yet another area.

NCRC personnel arrived at 10 a.m. and a complex command post was set up with various functions delegated. There were about 75 cavers on the scene and more expected. They were equipped to handle the victim whatever the medical condition he might prove to be in.

Dersch had an electric headlight, a flashlight and spare batteries; he was wearing jeans, a long underwear top with short sleeved canvas shirt over it and a hard hat. He had no food, water, or pack. It was estimated that he would have light until about 6 a.m. Sunday, if he used it continuously. The probability of hypothermia was growing. If incapacitated when found, getting him out would be a major problem due to the crawls and climbs to be encountered.

The Command now had to consider strategy -- they had searched in all passages they thought Dersch could reach before his light went out, to no avail. Why? The possibilities were:

  1. He was injured and disabled in a small side lead or down a pit.
  2. He was moving around and thus eluding searchers.
  3. He had somehow got into the unstable-rock areas of the north part of the cave, not yet searched.

They were also experiencing a shortage of search leaders. More were sought; crews continued to search. At 4:30 p.m. more cavers were called in; by midnight the 80 to 90 on hand would be exhausted. Cavers would be brought in by government air transport from the Baltimore/D.C. area, Bloomington, Indiana area and the southeast.

At 9:05 p.m. a group found Dersch in the Seven Finger's near-loop. He was in good condition and was escorted out the McClung's Entrance. He had been in the cave for 28 hours.


NSS News, November 1987 (Part 2) V45N11, Page 392-293.

Chris and Bob Amundson "Search and Rescue Operation in McClung Cave" The West Virginia Caver 4(6) 12-86, p 21-24.


Dersch wandered for a while realizing he was really lost. He found a room with no air flow and a number of passages leading in and stayed there sleeping until he got cold, then traversing a loop of cave to warm up and sleeping again.

The traverse from Lightner's to McClung was a great idea but any such plan must allow for retreat when something goes wrong; apparently, since they had no knowledge of the route, they intended to explore their way through.

i think that one of the main disadvantages of a lack of experience is the tendency to let plans exceed reality. Still, it might have worked out just find except for Dersch.

This was the most heavily-manned cave search in this part of the world. Apparently, it went extremely well -- a number of different groups worked smoothly together.

Dersch's strategy, staying in one place until he got cold, then moving off to get warm was flawed in that it was the cause of him not being seen by rescuers in the first sweep at 6 a.m. Sunday. To stay in one place to await rescue is correct; If you need to excercise to get warm, do it there, don't start traversing.