At about 1 p.m. on Saturday, December 1, Mitch Gubkin (20) and Kurt Harler entered Cass Cave in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
The entrance opens on a passage leading 700 feet to a 130 foot drop into the Big Room. A surface stream enters the cave, flows along this passage and over the drop. By climbing to a higher level and continuing a bit, one comes to the Belay Loft where the Big Room can be entered via a 180 foot, dry drop. Neither Gubkin nor Harler knew of this, though Gubkin had been in Cass once before (Harler).
The flowing stream was about three feet across and six inches deep, with a temperature in the 30's (Dasher). This, plus the winds created by the cascading water combined for an extremely hypothermiating situation. The two had prepared for this by wearing a layer of wool over long underwear with Gore-Tex suits on top. Gubkin had two cave packs including a spare carbide lamp and a space blanket (Morrow).
They rigged their nearly new, 300 foot rope so that it was out of the main water flow -- it appeared they would only be in the spray. Gubkin descended about fifty feet to a ledge where he got off rappel. Harler followed him to the ledge but after consideration they decided to retreat.
Harler ascended without difficulty, with icy spray cascading over him. Gubkin had some sort of difficulty, however, and called for help. Harler apparently was able to descend a bit and established voice contact. It was decided that outside help was needed so Gubkin, who had apparently tried to ascend, retreated to the ledge where he was left, in an icy shower bath. At about 6 p.m. Harler left the cave and called for help at a nearby residence. This alerted the Sheriff's Ofice, State Police, Rescue Squads, Fire Department, NCRC, etc.
Four cavers from Pittsburgh were camped in the area and heard of the problem. Upon entering the cave and arriving at the 130, they "were amazed to find three cavers preparing their gear for a ... descent , ... totally unaware that a fellow caver was in serious trouble less than sixty feet below." (Ordons) They proceeded to rig the Belay Loft and one descended, stopping level with the victim and only sixty feet away.
Gubkin was on the rope, "suspended from his climbing rope in a partially inverted position about six feet or so below the last ledge in the falls. His body was taking the full force of the frigid water dropping from the ledge and the end of his rope rose to a coil on the ledge rather than dropping to the cave floor. His body appeared limp and lifeless and ... did not respond ... to my shouts (Ordons)." This info was relayed to those above by walkie-talkie.
At about 8:30 p.m., rescuers began to arrive. At first only a wetsuit top was available. This was used by one to reach the who was determined, as suspected, to be dead. Several unsuccessful attempts, including the use of a block and tackle, were made to haul the body up the drop.
Gubkin's body was finally lowered to the bottom of the 130 foot drop, hauled up to the Belay Loft and evacuated from the cave, at about 4 p.m. on Sunday.
NSS News, November 1985 (Part 2) V43N11, Page 364-365.
Mike Dyas Personal Communications January 29, 1985 3pp.
Bruce Randall Personall Communications December 2, 1984; March 20, 1985.
UPI "Man Freezes to Death; Trapped in Cass Cave" The Inter-Mountain (Elkins, WV) Tuesday, December 4, 1984 p 1.
UPI "Spelunker dies near Marlinton" The Record Delta (Buckhannon, WV) Wednesday, December 5, 1984.
Ed. "Caver Killed" Pocahontas Times December 6, 1984.
Curt Harler "Letter to the Editor" Ibid. Thursday, December 13, 1984.
Curt Harler Personal Communications March 13, 1985.
George Dasher Personal Communications December 4, 1984; March 14, 1985 .
Dave Morrow NCRC Regional Coordinator's Quarterly Report April 1985, 3 pp.
Dave Morrow Personal Communication April 1985.
Tom Ordons "Tragedy in Cass Cave" The Explorer (Explorers Club of Pittsburgh) May 1985.
Gubkin was using a Mitchell rig and this was in good order. When he was reached by rescuers, the space blanket appeared to have been hastily stuffed into one of his packs. Thus we can speculate that he tried initially to go up, had trouble at the first lip above, possibly getting his chest block over. Undoubtedly this was compounded by incipient hypothermia. He retreated, communicated to Harler and got out his space blanket to await rescue. Harler left; Gubkin then either got cold, or (perhaps from the effects of hypothermia) lost patience or rationality and in either case, decided to "go for it." This was to no avail and he died, hanging in the water flow. As to why he was below the ledge he had been left on, witht he rope coiled on that ledge, perhaps he irrationally rigged in with slack in the rope, or retreated after a second unsuccessful attempt and, through weakness, fell of the ledge. The rope coiled on the eldge is something commonly done by ascending cavers who don't want the rope to snag when they pull it up from the rig point.
Remember the danger of hypothermia -- caver, macho and strong at the start, can be reduced to a whimpering wimp after just a few minutes in cold, flowing water. Even with a wetsuit, one hangup in your vertical gear in a waterfall such as this and you are in real trouble.
Seven years before, another caver died in this same way, in the same waterfall.