THE DECEMBER 2001 AND JANUARY 2003 SIMMONS-MINGO TRIPS
by Kelly Davidson
My name is Kelly Davidson. I have been involved with the PSC since October 2000. I organized the January 25, 2003 Simmons-Mingo trip because I very much enjoyed the December 30, 2001 Simmons-Mingo trip I went on last year.

THE DECEMBER 30, 2001 SIMMONS-MINGO TRIP

The crew gather for breakfast at the Cardinal Inn. Copr. - E. Suitor, 2003
The December 30, 2001 trip was led by Lewis Carrol and attended by Dave Roberts (now working for the Peace Core in Vanuatu), Susan Posey, and me. My recollections and notes from that trip show that Lew and Susan had done the Sinnett-Thorn through trip on December 29 and were somewhat tired on December 30. We all stayed at the PSC Fieldhouse both the night of December 29 and the night of December 30. Because we stayed so far away from Simmons-Mingo, we did not enter the cave until noon, December 30, and we exited the cave at 8:30pm, December 30. In retrospect, we made great timing. We were able to eat a big dinner at Snowshoe before it closed for the evening!

The camaraderie and team-spiritedness was excellent and Lew made an excellent leader. We left a truck at the lower Zarathustra exit and entered the cave through the upper entrance.

The cave was also spectacular. I remember a magical grove of large ice stalagmites and stalactites at the steaming upper entrance to the cave, curley-que gypsum crystals growing deep in the cave, a whitewater stream that we followed around a corner then left, and immediately afterwards a challenging, exposed climb done with wet boots, and finally a long mud crawl during which we could feel cold air a half an hour before the exit.

Roxanne Shiveley among ice formations at the historic entrance to Simmons-Mingo. Copr. - E. Suitor, 2003
Throughout most of my time caving with the PSC, including my December 30, 2001 Simmons-Mingo trip, I have caved in jeans and a sweatshirt, with a basic hardhat, canvas gloves, boots, and several extra light sources. Although certain compulsive cavers may disagree with me, caving in jeans and a sweatshirt is perfectly safe and not problematic for your average three to four hour tourist trip that does not involve difficult climbs. Moreover, caving in jeans and a sweatshirt allows new cavers to try caving without making a large financial investment in an expensive cave suit. As for longer trips involving difficult climbs in winter conditions, I found that cotton jeans become waterlogged and cling to your skin making climbing difficult because you can not bend your legs because of the clingy jeans. Also, wet cotton is extremely cold when you exit the cave. During the long mud crawl a half an hour before the Zarathustra exit that I mentioned above, we all tended to get soaked. When we reached the Zarathustra chimney climb exit out of Edigar’s Dome, we discovered that Zarathustra acts as a natural breezeway drawing howling, cold wind into the cave. My canvas gloves and my fingers inside them froze and stiffened during the chimney climb (which is probably a simple climb in the summertime). I did not wear knee pads at all.

Also, I was not yet using LED headlights during my December 30, 2001 Simmons-Mingo trip and I had a sudden, unexpected battery failure, that was not anticipated by dimming prior to the failure, during that very exposed difficult climb after the stream that I mentioned above. I was able to complete the climb safely because Lew, Dave, and Susan helped by shining their lights on the handholds for me. After that I decided to find a headlight that didn’t require battery changing in the middle of a trip.

Exiting the cave, I remember sublimely beautiful moonlight on new falling snow. Dave and I were first out and we had no problem finding Lew’s car and his keys--although we did drop his keys in the snow because of our frozen fingers and had trouble finding them again. Generally, we were all so cold that we ended up changing in our cars with our heaters running and we had difficulty removing our boots for about 20 minutes due to frozen leather shoe laces.

THE JANUARY 25, 2003 SIMMONS-MINGO TRIP

As I said, I organized this year’s winter Simmons-Mingo trip because I wanted to repeat the great experience I had on my last trip, but do a bit better equipment-wise. Because of my keen awareness of the many difficult climbs in the cave and their ability to slow large groups of people, I strictly limited the trip to 10 people and took names on a first come-first serve basis. Surprisingly, there was much more interest than there were spaces and I regret that a large waiting list was formed and many truly interested people were unable to go. The trip this year was led again by Lewis Carrol and the participants were Carl Pierce, Earl Suitor, Dave Smith, Roxanne Shively, Vitas, Bob Robbins, Maryanne Robbins, Shannon Bentz, and me. This time we stayed in the Cardinal Inn on Route 219 in Huttonsville. This bed and breakfast is a sumptuously appointed, gorgeous old victorian house and the hospitality of the innkeeper, Eunice Kwasniewski was above and beyond the usual--we got a late start due to a number of factors and entered the cave at 1pm; we exited the cave after midnight and returned to the inn around 2am and, nevertheless, she had beer and sandwiches waiting for us!

David Smith on the cable ladder climb above the bathtub. Copr. - E. Suitor, 2003
One of the factors that I mentioned that caused us to get a late start was Lew’s truck spinning on ice and getting stuck in a snow bank on the way towards the cave. Another was the unexpected impassability of the private access road to the cave which forced us to hike 45 minutes through deep snow to reach the upper entrance (depleting our energy before we even began caving).

Despite these and other frustrating difficulties, we had a wonderful trip (we all survived, no injuries, no finger loss, no pneumonia) and, although the group dynamic was different with this larger group, we stuck together, watched out for each other, and helped each other out. I think that everyone, including our two semi-novices, did an excellent job and is to be commended for taking in good stride a cave trip the duration and difficulty of which none of us anticipated. However, above all Lew is to be commended for his excellent leadership, knowledge, positive attitude, and patience. Roxanne expressed our gratitude best:

ROXANNE SHIVELY: "My belated thanks for a memorable experience. Kelly - you got us all there and Lew - you got us all out!! Thats a tribute and don't know how you put up with all us draggers, this one in particular. Lost my cave legs about hour 8 and any reserves were gone during that last cold climb. Lew, you must have antifreeze for hemoglobin ...you must have been frozen waiting down there. Glad I did it and thanks to you both and will never forget the pleasure of seeing that entire span of cave and then rolling into the snow at the top of Zarathustra."

We left a truck at the lower Zarathustra exit and entered the cave through the upper entrance. Again, the cave was spectacular. Large ice stalagmites and stalactites had formed at the steaming upper entrance. Those of us who reached the upper entrance first, after our 45 minute hike through deep snow, had time to explore a bit while the others caught up and we found deposits of large, fetid bones. Deep in the cave we observed weird, curley-que gypsum crystals and a profusion of fine, gypsum angel hair. We waded through the whitewater stream again and this year it seemed much longer than last year. The many climbs bore up to my expectations of difficulty and delay and time stretched. By the time we reached City Blocks some of us were seriously exhausted and we took frequent breaks to accommodate all members of our party. Because of our slow pace, the mud crawl was longer and colder than before. Finally we reached Edigar’s Dome and left the cave one by one. Some of us who exited the cave first became lost due to the fact that, because of the snow, we had been forced to leave our cars much further away from the cave’s lower entrance than last winter. I wandered around in the snow for 15 or 20 minutes before those who had reached the cars first brought them closer and I saw the headlights.

Vitas in a low spot. Copr. - E. Suitor, 2003
Because of my experience in Simmons-Mingo last year, I believe that I was generally better equipped for the strenuous winter caving conditions. I wore a nylon flight suit that I bought at an army surplus store over two sets of synthetic fabric long underwear, with canvas gloves for most of the trip, but I had packed polartec gloves and a polartec cap which I donned when we began to feel seriously cold during the long muddy crawl before Edigar’s Dome. The polartec gloves prevented my fingers from stiffening in the Zarathustra climb and the polartec cap fit well under my hardhat. The flight suit was cheap and worked great--it also had plenty of pockets for backup light sources. Shan’s and my cheap Home Depot tiling knee pads worked ok for most of the cave trip but pretty much shredded and would no longer stay on us by the end. At Lew’s suggestion, I unzipped the leg zips of my flight suit before leaving the cave so they would not freeze. My leather boot laces froze again this year and this time Shan cut my as well as Roxanne’s laces to get our boots off of us. I used a 6 LED headlamp which worked like a charm for the entire trip and was plenty bright. Shan used the Cabellas LED headlight and his also worked wonderfully for the entire trip and was plenty bright. I believe most of us ended up changing clothes in our cars with our radiators running. I had covered my seats with black trash bags in anticipation of the cave mud. Extra dry wool and polartec socks stowed in easy reach in my car for to change into were great too!

Prior to our trip, I warned the rest of our party regarding the strenuous winter caving conditions, and they all took precautions with respect to their equipment. After the trip, I asked the rest of our party for their comments on what special equipment they brought and how well it worked for them. The following people responded:

Earl Suitor wades through the stream canyon. Copr. - E. Suitor, 2003
CARL PIERCE: "Neoprene gloves were wonderful to help fingers withstand the cold. However, they were absolutely terrible when it came to ropework such as the several body rappels which we encountered. Since the cold conditions were only present during the final leg of the trip, I would recommend wearing leather gloves (or other gloves suitable for misc. rope work) for most of the trip, then changing to the neoprene if/when your hands get cold at the end."

"Also, it was wonderful packing a spare polypro shirt & balaclava for the exit out Zarathustra. The large room just after the crawl, before “the slot at the end of the trip, was a perfect place to don this extra clothing. This would be a good place to don neoprene gloves also (if you were wearing leather gloves for the cave trip)."

"Oh yes, Lew was a VERY competent leader for this through trip!"

VITAS: "For the caving trip I brought a rope walker system with just in case, because there were a lot of ropes to be climbed and I wasn't sure of how experienced everybody was. Or someone could have easily have been hurt enough to make climbing difficult, as I almost was when I sprained my wrist. Lew did use the figure eight to belay someone. What really came in handy with that weather at 1:00 am, with the temperatures in the 20s, was a cheap vynal rain jacket from Walmart. It only weights a few ounces, though it does take a lot of room in my pack. I think I was the only one who wasn't cold in the end.

BOB & MARYANNE ROBBINS: "As far as equipment goes, I was wearing my alpine weight fleece undersuit under my nylon Lost Creek caving coveralls. That would normally be too hot for a tourist trip, but we were moving slowly enough with our large group that it wasn't a problem. I was wearing polypro glove liners under fairly heavy rubber gloves for my hands. On exit I put on a lightweight balaclava I use for surveying and put the hood from my coveralls over that. Once I made it through the occasionally hip deep snow to the road I was reasonably warm."

"The only problem I encountered was getting my coveralls off - forgot about the hood since this was the first time I had used it. I had a heavier fleece balaclava that I wore for the trek up to the cave, but I didn't use it later. I did take time to wring excess stream water out of my wool socks a while before we exited. Basically what I wore out was my normal caving attire, except that I normally wouldn't have been using the balaclava and hood at that point."

"Roxanne loaned Mary Anne some thin rubber gloves partway through the trip that she wore under her leather gloves. Before we exited she changed to a dry pair of cotton gardening gloves over the rubber gloves and reported her hands were quite warm. She also used the hood from her Meander coveralls for the exit and that seemed to work well. Feet apparently were more of a problem and she wishes she had brought a dry pair of socks."