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A Historic Review of the First Cassell Cave Survey

by Bob Zimmerman

In the summer of 1965 George Jackson, member of Philly Grotto, wrote the newsletter editor of that grotto, asking "Why is everyone in the grotto suddenly having accidents?" The grotto had recently begun an ambitious project to map Cassell Cave in West Virginia, and in the first six months of that project accidents involving a twenty foot fall, a broken leg, and a serious case of flooding had all taken place. (More on these accidents later.)

Lawrence Cameron, editor of the Philly Grotto Digest, was not one to ignore a reader's concerns. "We put a lot of stock in safety, George," he wrote. "In fact, I am proud to be able to say that Philly Grotto has the safest accidents possible under modern methods and techniques." He also added, "You wish to know, sir, why we have accidents? We have them because they are there!"

As the cartographer for the Gangsta Mapper project to map Cassell Cave (pronounced "castle"), I have done some research on the cave's initial exploration and mapping from 1964 to 1969, and have discovered a number of interesting facts that clarify some misconceptions about the cave's history (as well as unveil entertaining little tidbits like the one above).

While about 2,000 feet of cave passage had been known since the 1940s, the real exploration of the cave began during the autumn of 1964. Amazingly, three different groups of cavers from three different cities all began exploring Cassell independently at the same time.

That year OTR was being held in Franklin, West Virginia and, unbeknownst to each other, cavers from two different clubs entered the cave that Labor Day weekend and discovered virgin passage. On Saturday, September 5, 1964, a group from the Potomac Speleological Club headed to Cassell Cave to visit its 96 foot deep entrance pit, dubbed Odey's Pit after the then-owner, Odey Cassell.

In those days, PSC cavers dropped the pit by rappelling in and prusiking out. After reaching what was then known as the northernmost room in the cave, Stan Carts felt some cold air leaking up from a pile of boulders in a crack on the room's east wall, where he was sitting. After moving some rocks he opened up a six foot deep crack at the bottom of which he could see a low belly crawl. Looking around, he saw Dick Sanford poking around nearby and quickly convinced Dick to check the crawl out.

PSC Crawl as shown on old map
PSC Crawl on old map
Sanford managed to squeeze through about 20 feet of crawl and come out into walking passage going both right and left. Going back to the crawl he yelled for Stan and the others from the group to come on through. Because they were late for the Saturday night OTR party, however, Stan and the others decided to head out of the cave. "We had our priorities right," Stan remembers. Their plan was to return in a few weeks to continue their exploration.

The next day, a group of cavers from Philly Grotto left OTR to explore Cassell. Doug Medville and Laurie Cameron, unaware that the PSC Crawl (as it would later be dubbed) had been discovered only the day before, pushed through and explored about a 1,000 feet of going passage to the left.

Meanwhile, two professors from West Virginia University, Doug Williamson and Paul Errington, visited the Cassell Cave entrance area on October 18, 1964. After clearing away some rocks at a limestone outcrop just off the road and right next to the trail leading to Odey's Pit, they discovered a maze-like horizontal cave they dubbed Cassell-Windy Cave. The name was chosen partly to honor the landowner, partly because of the strong wind that blew from the entrance, and partly because Windy was the name of Williamson's dog. Over the next two months Williamson began a diligent survey project to map this cave, located about 730 feet east of the known entrance to Cassell Cave.

While Philly Grotto made plans to return on New Year's Eve weekend, the Potomac Speleological Club made about a half dozen trips to the cave though the autumn of 1964, exploring the right hand passage until it became a low, wet, and muddy crawl (later dubbed Misery Alley), eventually opening out into big passage.

The three groups only discovered their overlapping projects when a PSC group arrived during the January 1, 1965 weekend to discover a Philly Grotto group already there. While the Philly group dropped the wet, freezing cold pit, the PSC group entered Cassell-Windy, the entrance of which was shown to them by Odey Cassell. Inside the cave both groups were shocked to discover survey markers, indicating that a third caving group was surveying the cave and proving that the Cassell-Windy entrance connected to Cassell Cave.

(Note: The proper name for this cave is Cassell Cave, not "Windy-Cassell" as many cavers have gotten into the habit of calling it. The Cassell-Windy entrance was only an independent cave for about two months, while the Odey's Pit entrance of Cassell Cave was known for several decades and was the cave's historic entrance.)

By February 1965 the three groups had linked up, and over the next four years they jointly mapped the cave, producing approximately 6.6 miles of surveyed passage.

Because Cassell Cave is a sporting cave with numerous vertical climbs and traverses, it represented some challenges then (as well as now) to its full exploration. The first half of 1965 illustrated these difficulties quite clearly.

The first incident took place on January 1, 1965, when a ten person Philly Grotto trip entered the 96 foot entrance pit during a sleet storm, using cable ladders and prusiks. As Doug Medville wrote, "Ropes, ladder, and everything else is coated with ice. Very miserable and cold out." Exiting the cave was especially difficult and slow, and the inexperience of one person forced them to haul her out of the pit. On top of these problems, the battery on one car died, causing three people (Doug Medville, Laurie Cameron, and Warren Heller) to sleep in a cold car or outside in the rain under a poncho. Medville's conclusion from this experience: "For larger caves requiring some degree of endurance and/or technical ability, keep the numbers down."

Next, an April trip found a group of eleven PSC cavers trapped in the cave with tons of water pouring into the entrance drop. Rather than attempt the certainly deadly climb either on prusiks or on ladder, each person was hauled out by hand, using a haul rig that had, by coincidence, been placed in the entrance earlier that day merely for practice.

The parade of 1965 accidents continued when a Memorial Day weekend trip by twelve Potomac Speleological Club members resulted in Frank Thompson breaking his foot and dislocating his shoulder in a six foot fall. His rescue took hours, and was aided by the fortunate presence of Larry Armbruster, who had a Red Cross first aid certificate.

Domes beyond Misery Alley from old map
Domes beyond Misery Alley from old map
The potentially most-serious incident occurred on July 10th during an attempt to reach a high lead in the high dome area beyond Misery Alley, resulting in a 20 foot fall. The technique used was to construct a scaling pole, half out of sections of 1 1/4 inch diameter pipe and half out of sections of 1 inch diameter pipe. The total length was 24 feet, with the adaptor at the center to link the two differently sized pipes.

A cable ladder was rigged to one end and the pipe leaned into position. Doug Medville began climbing. Fifteen feet up, the center adaptor suddenly bent slightly and as Medville wrote, "the pipe settled a foot or so." After waiting a few seconds and noting that the pipe seemed to have stabilized, Medville decided to continue climbing, albeit slowly. He would go up one rung and yell down "Does it look good down there?" After climbing five more rungs the adaptor finally failed, with the scaling pole buckling in half.

Falling 20 feet, Medville bounced off the walls several times before landing on his head, cutting his forehead seriously and knocking him unconscious. "Hardhat probably saved my life," he wrote later. After a few minutes, however, he regained consciousness, and soon after this the bleeding stopped. Eventually he recovered enough that he was able to walk to the pit under his own power, where he was hauled out.

While none of these accidents caused the cavers of the 1960s to stop exploration, the incidents did teach them to take seriously the risks involved in exploring a challenging cave. Hence, no more accidents of any significance occurred during the rest of the initial survey project.

Today we are blessed with better equipment, more experience, and a better understanding of how to handle accidents like this. We are also cursed with an equal desire for exploration, risk-taking, and just-plain-dumb mistakes. While anyone with today's modern ordinary vertical skills can easily enter the pit entrance of Cassell Cave and do extensive exploration and surveying without any significant risk, we must all be aware that the cave also has a fair share of hazards and exposed climbs. Many places can appear deceptively safe, which means they require additional care to safely traverse.

At present, Cassell Cave at 6.63 miles is listed as 321st on the World's Long Cave list, and 97th on the U.S. Long Cave list. The original survey was done, however, during the early days of cave mapping, contains little or no vertical relief, little passage detail, and appears to have left out many passages. I would not be surprised if a more accurate measure of the cave's length tops eight miles. Nor would I be surprised if a more detailed and accurate survey found virgin passage as well. Such an increase would raise the cave's ranking to above 250 on the world list and above 70 on the American list.

Because of the cave's large size and linear configuration, I am presently considering drawing the map not as a single large sheet but as an 8.5 x 11 inch booklet, with the map divided into grid sections. The booklet would include a complete map at a small scale (probably 1"=250'), with separate pages showing individual grids at larger scales (probably 1"=25'). This technique worked marvelously with the Organ Cave map, and will allow us to produce a map that will be much more useful to cavers than the gigantic, clumsy sheets we have all become accustomed to. Though almost everyone I have mentioned this plan to has approved whole-heartedly, I am interested in any comments or suggestions concerning this idea. I can be reached at 301-604-2255, or

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