A Long Forgotten Cave
By Devin Kouts
Dick Sanford has had great caving fortune with the piece of property that he owns on the Dry Branch in Pendleton County, West Virginia. Not only is the entrance to Sites Cave on those premises but so are two other new caves and one forgotten cave. The latter is the subject of this article.
Sites Cave takes its name from the family of Roy Sites, the former owners of that parcel of land. In the days of his youth Roy listened to his uncle tell stories of the caves in the hills around their home. Among those caves was one located high on the spine of a sharp ridge at the north end of Ned's Mountain. To my question regarding that cave's name Roy replied "It might've had something to do with a great horned owl"... however, try as he might, Roy could find no member of his family able to accurately recall the name they had given the cave in those days.
Years later the cavers came to town and during the Old Timer's Reunions at Thorn Spring Camp Ground this forgotten cave, high on the ridge above Dry Branch, was a popular spot to visit. It is a reasonable walking distance away and in those days it's likely the cavers had given a name to the cave, but I've yet to meet anyone who might remember what that could have been. As Old Timers moved on so did the attention given this hole in the ground and it was eventually forgotten to the cavers in Pendleton County.
The cave re-emerged when the Day brothers, Ed and Bill, who own the adjacent parcel of property, located the entrance. Active cavers earlier in their lives they took a great interest in what might lie below the mountain on which they lived. This cave was one that they found while ridgewalking and not knowing it by any other name they dubbed it "Day Cave". Unfortunately word of the cave never made it into print nor across much of the caver community so the new name never became known.
While surveying his latest land purchase Dick Sanford rediscovered the entrance and it was at that point that the cave was re-announced within the caving community. I recall the first PSC meeting where Dick stood up and described his efforts to enter the cave. It sounded like an arduous effort to work down through what Dick likened to be a 50 foot deep vertical crawl. Along the way Dick spotted a Cave Rat, voilà, the new name, Cave Rat Cave.
The entrance sink to Cave Rat Cave is round, about twenty feet in diameter and roughly six feet deep. It sits just to the west and below the spine of a very narrow ridge-top that runs up the north end of Ned's Mountain. The ridge separates the entrance sink from a very deep ravine to the east. This ravine, containing a private drive leading to the top of Ned's Mountain, runs straight down hill to the Franklin town water supply. On the south (uphill) side of the entrance sink an impressive headwall rises about fifteen feet and displays the local geology nicely. In its face one can see the nearly vertical bedding planes that occur on the steeply sloping eastern limb of the anticline that forms Ned's Mountain.
At the base of the headwall is a small entrance, re-opened in 1995 by Ed Day, that after a tight 90 degree vertical bend enters a crawl just one foot high. Fortunately the crawl is brief and after a few feet it opens up into the Square Rat Room, a chamber about twenty feet high with nicely squared off walls and corners. From the Square Rat Room a passage eight to ten feet wide slopes sharply downward toward the cave proper and the "First Room" some 40 feet below, more on this later.
Back on the surface, along the northern rim of the entrance sink, a larger second entrance has been exposed by the demise of an ancient tree. The hole, roughly two feet in diameter, gives access to a climb that looks deceptively intimidating but is actually quite easy. Halfway down however it becomes a bit more challenging and a hand line is recommended. Maneuvering about fifteen feet down the climb one gains access to the floor at the top of a steep mud slope in a passage up to eight feet high and three feet wide.
The passage heads steeply down for about fifteen feet to a low crawl at the base of the right hand wall. This crawl slopes steeply down for ten feet to a small chamber about eight feet high. At one end of the chamber a crawl leads eastward into a sizeable area of breakdown. This region is important because it represents the down stream end of the cave and has good air moving up through the breakdown in the floor. Any major new passage will likely be found in this area.
At the lower end of the small chamber an opening leads to the north and down into the first significant room of Cave Rat Cave. Along the east wall of this "First Room" an opening leads into the eastern breakdown area described above. This area is typified by incredible ceiling relief and extends for about fifty feet to the east. The walls of this area are roughly twenty feet apart and the ceiling height ranges from three to seven feet. At the far end of this region a crawl enters from the previously described "small chamber".
Back in the First Room the north wall gives access to a small alcove about three feet high and twenty feet wide. At the northernmost edge of this alcove it is evident that waters have washed an extensive amount of bat bones into a deposit against the wall. The soil is filled with bones and lifting rocks from the floor exposes even more bone.
Looking along the south wall of the First Room one sees an opening two feet high that when entered gives access to the bottom of a passage sloping steeply upward. This is the lower end of the passage that leads down forty feet from the Square Rat Room and the small crawlway entrance described earlier. If asked which is the better entrance to use I would recommend entering and exiting via the vertical climb entrance on the northern rim of the entrance sink. Entering the low entrance into the Square Rat Room can be dismal. Climbing back up to the Square Rat Room is problematic. Both taken together make it a more tedious path than the "vertical crawlway" route.
Along the western end of the First Room a pile of breakdown drops down to a lower alcove. Climbing down over the rocks allows you to reach a small hole in the southwest wall of the room. Squeezing through this hole puts you into the top end of Cave Rat Cave's Big Room.
Down to this point the general trend of the cave has been steeply vertical, even here in the Big Room it can be described as having a high and low side.
Entering on the high side, about 80 feet below the entrance elevation, the room spreads away down slope toward the southern wall nearly 100 feet distant. The ceiling relief through out the room continues to show dramatic variation due to an extensive amount of rock fall over the years. Huge boulders litter the center of the chamber creating a climb down that must be negotiated to reach the low end of the room.
Immediately to the west of the entrance to the Big Room an interesting dome appears in the ceiling. It reaches nearly 25 feet into the rock above and is partially enclosed by rock as it drops down into the space of the Big Room. Directly below the dome a pit opens in the floor and leads down through the rock some ten feet to where it emerges in the Big Room at a lower level.
Thirty feet farther west of the dome, down a small climb and beyond a rubble strewn floor, the western most reaches of the Big Room are encountered. Several small alcoves two to three feet high with smooth mud floors and occasional cobbles typify the area. To the southeast of these alcoves the main area of the Big Room stretches away. Moving in that direction, toward the center of the room, a climb can be seen and recognized as the lower end of the pit extending downward from the previously described dome. The ceiling heights in this area are about twelve feet and the center of the Big Room contains many truck sized blocks of breakdown.
Following the downhill, southern wall of the Big Room in a counter-clockwise path leads to a large breakdown block at the lowest corner of the room, 125 feet below the entrance. Crawling under this block gives access to several more chambers of Cave Rat Cave. Continuing counter-clockwise and uphill along the eastern wall of the Big Room it is necessary to climb up a breakdown slope of washing machine size boulders. This path leads back up toward the northern wall of the Big Room and passes through an area of formations in the easternmost portion of the chamber. To the north of the formations a relatively low opening offers access to an area of several smallish chambers that climb back up toward the surface. The highest survey station in this area was placed 38 feet below the entrance station.
Back in the Big Room the north wall can be followed westward back toward the point where you originally entered from the First Room. Occasional small alcoves open up along the length of this wall. The traverse crosses along the top of a large bench strewn with immense boulders. The climb down off this bench leads into the even larger boulders that occupy the middle of the Big Room.
Returning to the lowest, southern end of the Big Room, to continue into the nether regions of Cave Rat Cave, it is necessary to belly crawl under the large block that obscures the way. Beyond this short crawl one encounters a chamber with large boulders on the east wall and an alcove extending off to the western end of the room, this is very typical of the remainder of the cave. Beginning with this chamber the rest of the cave is made up of five successive rooms.
The eastern wall of each chamber is of strong bedrock with significant ceiling height. Ceiling topography varies widely as boulders have dropped from above over the eons. The center of the rooms are filled with this breakdown and the western end of each chamber is typically a low alcove one to two feet high with a mud and cobble floor. The center of the first chamber has a shallow climb-down pit located in the middle of it. It is necessary to negotiate one side of the pit to reach the cave's continuation from the south side of the room.
Beyond this chamber a second is encountered. Ceiling heights are about fourteen feet at best. A climb up to the south leads to an area along the eastern wall atop immense blocks of breakdown. From this point there is no obvious way on short of an eight foot drop down into passage below. From the original entry point to this chamber the route to the west and south leads up a slope of sticky mud and cobbles. The top of this slope is within three feet of the room's ceiling and sports a rotted stalagmite formation dubbed the Bear for its bruin similarities. Sliding down the back side of this slope leads to the south and into the next chamber.
This third room continues much as the previous two however the eastern wall is nothing but breakdown. Looking closely at this area one can look up at the top of an eight foot drop from the immense breakdown blocks depicted in the previous chamber. A little to the south of this climb a breakdown slope leads up to the south and offers a left hand turn to the east accessing another area of the chamber. This is still essentially the same chamber as before but large blocks of breakdown bisect it. I recall the first couple visits to this area were rather tricky. This is an area that's easy to get turned around in even though there's really no where to get lost. From this eastern end of the chamber it is possible to proceed over breakdown to the south and into the fourth room.
The fourth room has ceiling heights up to eight feet high and fits the pattern displayed by the three preceding rooms. It is necessary however to turn right and proceed toward the northwest end of the room in order to continue on. Otherwise, immediate progress to the south is blocked by a large rock shorn from the ceiling. Incidentally, the northwest corner of this room represents the lowest point in the cave at approximately 150 feet below the entrance. After skirting the large rock and then proceeding back toward the southeast the southern wall disappears and gives copious access to the large, final room of the cave.
This last room is over 40 feet wide and up to 60 feet long. Entering into it one can proceed toward the west and to the base of a breakdown slope. The typical low alcove forms further to the west but climbing up the boulder slope gives access to a higher area of room atop immense blocks of rock that once clung to the ceiling. This area has a ceiling height that reaches 16 feet and is strewn all about with breakdown. The western wall offers one tight lead into a narrow fissure. The east wall is stoically solid. The southern wall is solid, lined with breakdown and marks the upstream terminus of the cave.
Mapping began in Cave Rat Cave in 1995 when Dick Sanford, Miles Drake, Joanne Smith and Jim Gildea surveyed the Big Room. Subsequent trips included the author, Susan Posey, Dave West, Karen Wilmes, Rick Royer, Kristin O'Neill, Dwight Livingston, Mark Walsh, Tom Weiland and Don Phillips. The complex sketching requirements of the cave necessitated multiple trips over a period of many months. Mapping wrapped up in August 1996. Special thanks go to Susan Posey for persevering through multiple two person survey trips, all of which required that she personally perform almost every task required of a survey team, short of sketch.