Carpenter-Swago Re-opened
Carpenter-Swago is one of those mythic cave systems I heard about when I was a young sprout of a caver. My father told me the story of how he and my older brother ran into trouble there. Brother got stuck and cold on a wet drop in the Swago entrance one winter trip in the mid 70's. And Dad got pretty chilled trying to get him unstuck and up the rope. Ah, the days of prussic knots and cotton coveralls.

The cave has been closed for over 20 years, by some accounts. However, a caver named Oak Hall recently purchased the property containing the entrances to the cave system. And to the good fortune of the caving community Oak has re-established access to the caves.

Upon hearing the good news late last spring, Jim Gildea, Bob Zimmerman and I decided a trip to the cave was in order. Along the way we picked up Dwight Livingston and rounded out our crew. Saturday, August 18th found us at Oak's real estate office where I was astonished to learn the guy was my age or younger. I had pictured a gnarly old caver.

Dwight Livingston, Bob Zimmerman, Devin Kouts & Jim Gildea return from a recon trip into Carpenter-Swago.
Oak was very gracious and with little ado bid us a good trip. We headed up the mountain, following Jim in his truck, and made a quick stop at the Swago entrance to the system. I could see why my father and brother had run into trouble. Swago creek pours straight into a capacious 50-foot shaft. As the water goes over the lip it hits a ledge about two feet down that creates a spray across most of the pit. It looked like a real soaker, and this was during the low-flow of August. I had my video camera in hand so I captured copious footage of the entrance. It was wet, but still beautiful to see.
We hopped back in our cars and drove just a couple hundred yards up the road to see another pit of which I'd heard many stories, Roadside pit. Again I pulled out the camcorder and captured our conversation around the entrance of this very unique cave. I was surprised by it's proximity to the roadside, a well placed tire would get stuck in the entrance. Fortunately the crevice is narrow enough that little else could go down.
I had always heard that Roadside was a dead bottom pit. Talking to Jim however, and looking at the map from the Pocahontas Bulletin, proved that the cave was more extensive than I had understood. In fact the cave appeared to come very close to Carpenter-Swago. I wonder what the possibilities for a connection are?
Jim Gildea, dressed and ready for the assault.
Another 200 yards up the road and we parked in a wide spot. After suiting up, the four of as walked the short distance down to the Carpenter Pit entrance. I recorded the entire process of rigging the pit and the first two people in our party to descend. The rigging is a little more intricate than many pits due to the configuration of the entrance sink. It required an offset to keep the rope away the rocks above the entrance. After all was set up, and before putting the camera away, I captured Jim and Dwight as they got on rope and descended out of view.

I was last into the pit, following Bob. It was during the descent that I decided I must come up with some form of protective housing for my camera. This was a beautiful pit and I would love to have recorded the other caver's descent from somewhere inside the pit. Sunlight lit the first 75 feet of the drop and would have made for beautiful video.

As I descended the rope in my usual hasty fashion I forced myself to look down at the floor and gauge my height above it. Happily it did not appear as high as my minds eye had envisioned. I was able to slow down and enjoy the drop then. Looking back and forth I found that I was descending a tall canyon, about 30 feet long and maybe 8 feet wide, at the most. The top of the canyon could have been completely open to the sky if it were not for the large breakdown blocks in the bottom of the entrance sink. These provided a ceiling over the canyon and narrowed the entrance to a four-foot diameter hole.

A steady flow of water cascaded down one end of the canyon and poured into the void below. That void was an offset 15-foot pit that the rope was leading me into. I bottomed the main pit and had another look up. Sunlight showed through the entrance and backlit the fluting on the canyon walls. Sun filtered down through the canopy above to find a light layer of moss on the walls and together they filled the abyss with the golden green light of late summer, fantastic.

Devin Kouts on rope at the top of the Carpenter Pit entrance.
At the bottom of the offset I found my party, and in short order we determined that continuing to follow the passage at that level would incur several hairy traverses that at least two of us did not want to mess with. So we rigged the rest of our rope and did a 30-foot drop to the bottom of Carpenter's canyon.
I found this to be a superior route with large, wide passage and only minor amounts of breakdown in the floor. In one direction the canyon opened into a large room with a high ceiling. Water flowed in from the entrance pit and filled the room with noise. I bet it would be a real sight in heavy flow.
We went the opposite direction and scouted our way to the connection with the Swago part of the system. After a few hundred feet of passage I was feeling right at home. The cave is remarkably similar to Simmons-Mingo in places.
After a bit (not really far at all) we came to a place where Jim remembered a traverse across a pit. Dwight went down the pit (a challenging looking climb) and then climbed the far side to reach our objective, the connection to Swago. Bob, Jim, nor I were comfortable with the traverse so I backtracked to see what I could find.
After a bit I had located an alternate route to the bottom of the pit that Dwight had down climbed. We all gathered there and then looked up the next climb. I took a shot at it but went into it wrong. Bob tried and found it equally challenging. Finally Dwight went up it in a completely reverse fashion to how Bob and I had tried. It still looked a bit challenging, the top lacked good footholds, but with the use of a hand line we got the whole party up the climb. I found the hand line so useful that I left it in the cave for others to use.
We took a break there and gobbled carbs. When we were once again underway Jim lead us through a neat fissure passage that almost looked like it shouldn't have been there. But thank god it was, because that one passage seemed to be the only connection between the two systems. On the other side we followed a canyon that Jim told us would lead to the first of several waterfalls in the Swago stream.
As we followed the canyon we could hear crashing water in the distance ahead. Unfortunately, before we reached the source of the sound a yawning pit opened in the floor before us. A sketchy looking traverse along a thinning ledge was the route Jim used in his younger days, but not this day. We unanimously agreed that this was the end of the trail and began our retreat.
We all had the intention of getting out of the cave somewhat early. Several of us had decided to return home that evening and not wait for Sunday. Since this was a recon trip we felt we'd accomplished our mission. We made our way back to the entrance drops and ascended as a group up the first 30-foot drop out of the canyon. Jim went first up the big drop and got wet (as we all would) in the splashy part of the offset. As he neared the top we heard Jim strike up a conversation with someone topside. It was Oak, come by to see how we were doing.

Bob and then Dwight ascended the pit. I took my time coming up last. It really was a very nice drop once you were on rope. The special rigging job we had done earlier made the rope a bit bouncy but that was less annoying than the spray at the bottom of the offset. Back on top we all emerged into a wonderful day and chatted up a storm with Oak about what we'd done and seen.

Later that evening, at the cars and over dinner, we poured over the maps and retraced our route. We had found the critical connection, but in our haste to exit had walked right past some very nice and large passage in the Swago system. But we know where everything is now, and it will be waiting for us next time.

Bob Zimmerman on rope, nears the top of Carpenter's Pit entrance.
Devin Kouts

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