This Report is drawn from an original article written by Marshall G. Homes in 1996.
"Hey Guys, The Water's Rising"
I well remember speaking those words; we were at Disappointment Syphon in Cass Cave and as I stared at the water coming out of the syphon it began to run brown. We all looked on in horror as debris began to appear in the stream and it began to visibily rise. At this point I'll go back to the beginning.
It was Halloween, October 28, 1976 and I was waiting at the Cass Scenic Railroad for Barry Ferguson, Tom Beaman, and Ben Johnson to arrive for our long planned trip into Cass Cave. It was right at freezing and although it was overcast there wasn't any significant rain predicted. We all met at the Depot and had breakfast at the Cass Country Store. We were at the cave by 10:00 AM and there was already 3 vehicles there.
We proceeded into the cave, through the canyons and the crawlway, checked out Gargoyle Domes and The Left Hand Passage for 1,000' or so. We then climbed into the Belay Loft and found a rope already rigged to the main bolts. While we were discussing our strategy, we heard voices and the group that was ahead of us began to climb out. There were about 8 persons from PSC on this trip. They would play a later part in our saga. They had their own sets of mishaps. One person was using another caver's set of Gibbs and dropped the shell down the rope, he pushed off the wall to get over the lip and the bolt he was rigged to pulled out! We were all aghast.
After talking to them for a while we began to rig our rope and another group, this time from Mountain State Grotto, showed up in the Belay Loft behind us. We told them we were going all the way to Disappointment Syphon and proceeded to rappel the drop. Lacey's Suicide Falls was mainly running down the wall and was not very impressive I thought. Little did I know then.
We toured the Big Room, went through The Cat Crawl, and on the other side I stashed my Wheat Lamp for the trip out. I was using carbide on this trip for the first and only time since I bought my Wheat in 1969. This would also prove fortuituous, if not life saving. We picked our way through the complex vertical maze. Stopping at confusing intersections, we looked at a 30' deep pit with a high dome above it and wondered what was at the bottom. We found out on the wa out. Barry and Ben had been in the cave a few weeks earlier and they had a feel for the route. Anyway, we eventually found the Lower Stream Passage and from there the way on was straight forward. Wade in knee to neck deep water upstream for the next mile or so.
After about 2 hours in the water, we reached Disappointment Syphon and we decided to eat. I wasn't real hungry so I went on into the passage to see how far I could get. As I stared at the water coming out of the syphon, it began to run brown. I yelled at Barry, Tom, and Ben to come look and as we all gasped in horror, the water began to carry leaves and sticks and was visibily rising. We were a t least a mile from (relative) safety in the upper levels. We began a headlong dash out of the cave. When we were halfway back out the water began to come up pretty fast. We had to swim in places and as the current picked up it became questionable if we could get back into the connector passage.
Luck was with us on this one and the water wasn't runnig too fast at the connection, it was real deep however. We got into the upper levels and felt that we, had it made. Wrong! We still had more than 1/2 of the trip ahead of us. The hard, wet, cold part. We passed the earlier mentioned domepit on the way out. It had a sizable waterfall pouring into it. However, it was obviously dead bottomed as it was now filled with water and was overflowing into the passage. I picked up my trusty Wheat Lamp and we went on out, The Cat Crawl was delightful, as there was also a bit of water running through it and we had to do it on our backs.
When we arrived in the Big Room, it was roaring so loudly that it was hard to hear. There were at least 15 waterfalls entering the room at various places. The shock of seeing Suicide Falls now set in. The bottom 25 - 30 feet of our rope was in the waterfalls (It was 30 feet away at the bottom on our way in). and it was making a wind so strong that no one's carbide lamp would stay lit. Big rocks were also falling along with the water and shattering on impact throwing out rock shrapnel. We retreated to the safety of the breakdown pite to wait it out.
After a couple of hours, we were getting cold and we had to move. No one had brought plastic bags or space blankets and we were out of food. I ventured to the base of the lessening falls and pulled the end of the rope out of it. The game plan as we envisioned it was to pull the rope awav from the falls, and I would clirnb up to the Solar Ledge 30' below the Belay Loft and get off on it. I would then use, my electric lamp to light up bottom for the next one to climb out. I made good time to the ledge and got off as planned. Barry Climbed out next and went on to the top. Tom came out next on Prussik knots and as the rope (a piece of limp Bluewater III) was now verv muddy and Tom's Knots would either not release or not hold. A vertical caver of less than Tom's stature would have been in real trouble. Tom and Barry and I had done a lot of vertical in TAG and we were all good vertical caeers. It did no good now.
After Tom's ordeal, Ben climbed out and I at last made it to the Belay Loft. The group that came in after us had de-rigged our rope and re-rigged it after they left. They didn't rig it right and getting over the breakover was very tricky for me. I figured we had it made! Wrong!! Little did I know that we would be here for another 8 hours. We descended the climb to the stream and discovered the crawlway still sumped out. There was a big wind moving along with the water and we climbed back into the confined Belay Loft to wait it out. We shared body heat for the next 4 or 5 hours by huddling together. After an interval, the outside two would trade places with the inside two and so on and so on. We endured this until we were starting to shake and we knew we had to move.
We climbed back down to the stream and there was a few inches of airspace. We decided to go for it. The cralway was marginal (by my standards) in a few places but we all made it to the canyons on the upper side. 1,200' to go. What had been easy climbs on the way in were now gushing waterfalls impossible to climb. We stood on each other's shoulders and climbed into upper routes. At one point Barry watched as his vertical pack began to wash downstream. He recovered it. Finally I emerged into the very loud double entrance to the cave. The upper opening was a raging torrent and the passage was still taking a goodly amount of water.
At about 8:00 A.M. we, all got out and walked down the hill. Somehow I missed our camp and walked a ways down hill before I realized that I was lost. I walked back up hill, which got my blood pumping and found our camp. It was a disaster. I had pitched my tent in a depression and my down sleeping bag was half floating in a foot of water. I managed to get my clothes changed and got my Jeep started up and the heater going. Barry brought over some Oreo Cookies and I can't remember anything else tasting so good.
At about 8:30 A.M. A bunch of cars pulled up and a rescue party was on the scene. The group behind us was leaving the cave just as the crawlway sumped shut and they drove to The PSC Fieldhouse at Seneca Caverns and told them we were in trouble. The PSC people organized a rescue hoping it wasn't to be a body recovery. I realized what was going on and got out to talk to the rescuers. They didn't have time to talk to me. People were trapped in the cave! I told them we were out of the cave and that there was no one left inside but they didn't believe me. They had to go up to the cave and satisfy themselves. In the end we managed to communicate to them that we were okay and thanked them for their concern.
As an aftermath to this debacle, I quit caving for a month or so. I was shivering so hard that I got severe muscle strain and on the next dav I was so sore that I applied Ben Gay to my legs. Big Major Mistake! There was a lot of sand and silt in the water and it penetrated my clothes and rubbed my legs raw. If vou have never applied Ben Gay to open skin, go ahead it sometime. It began to bum and I made the second big mistake of trying to wash it off. This only made it worse and for the next 4 hours I rolled around in sheer misery. When someone asked me to go back to Cass Cave again a few years later, my response was "No Thanks, Been There. Done It and got the 'T' Shirt!" I have since helped on a body recovery in Cass Cave. I managed to got myself an outside job on that one.
I learned some deep lessons from this experience, the main lessons being to always carry a plastic bag or space blanket and to pack extra food for those unexpected longer stays. Another lesson was to never underestimate the, weather on Back Allegheny Mountain and it's ability to wreak havoc on the best laid plans of cavers and cave rats.
PS: This article was written 20 years after the fact, but the impression that trip made on me was so powerful that it is still very vivid in my memory.
Fax to ER-NCRC Web Page, Marshall G. Homes, July 23, 1996.
No analysis has been done.