The Opening of Dennis Mitchell's Cave

(or Dave and Traci's Virgin Experience)
July 26, 1994 As reported in the June 1994 Potomac Caver, Dave Crenshaw and I had begun digging at a small fissure shown to us by Pendleton County resident Dennis Mitchell. Dave, his son Chris, Traci Kammer and I returned last Sunday and began working on the few remaining inches of rock that kept us from the sizable passage we could see below. Using a 40 pound axle rod (handy item) we were able to peck away two lips of stone to a point that the slimmest of our crew (Traci) was able to squeeze down a webbing ladder for a look. Dave and I grew more and more excited as Traci gasped and cooed at all the pretty sights that we could only imagine. When she finally reported it was to tell us of a "room" eight feet wide, twelve feet high, thirty feet long and wonderfully decorated. She spotted three leads but hesitated to go further due to the pristine nature of the floor. Dave and I summoned her back out so we could continue our efforts to widen the entrance.

After stashing Chris at Jan Day's nearby residence, and hearing many of Jan and Carla Adam's admonishments to protect the cave I was back at the entrance with Dave, Traci and all the caving gear we thought we could use for a preliminary exploration. Dave and I quickly pecked out a few more inches of rock, just enough to get us in (keep this point in mind).

With all three of us in the cave we had a look around that first chamber. It was indeed as beautiful as Traci had claimed. From the bottom of the entrance mud slope the floor extended away covered with budding popcorn and sprouting a line of small but pure white stalagmites. Along the walls the popcorn crept up and met with flowstone formations issuing from various fissures. Selecting specific spots to place our feet we traversed the room, sacrificing the smallest amount of popcorn possible (never thought I'd be fond of that stuff) and got a close up look at the real pretties.

Four leads led off, one left, one right and two straight ahead, high and low. The right quickly petered out, the left led into an alcove adorned with fantastic, growing popcorn, white stalactites, stalagmites and columns. The lead appeared to end at a large wall of orange flowstone surmounted by white columns but upon closer inspection it continued just beyond. Seeing the passage partially blocked by formations and heading toward a sandstone formation some hundred feet downhill we left that area and went back to the main entrance room.

We re-evaluated the entrance room taking note of the large, dead stalagmite on one wall with a beautiful, white stalagmite seemingly sprouting from its side. Ducking into the low lead we found it quickly ended but looking up to the high lead we saw one of the most curious formations I've ever seen. On one side of the room was a clump of tree roots hanging down from a locust tree we'd seen on the surface, typical. A few feet away was a second clump of roots, but all that could be seen were the first inches of root as it issued from the rock above. The remaining eighteen inches or so were covered in layers of white calcite. The roots were becoming a stalactite! Or more correctly acting as the frame over which a stalactite could form. Truly strange and wonderful.

Looking into the upper lead we could see even more pure white stalactites and columns as well as small bacon rind or tapestries that alternated between pure white and translucent in areas. Having only been in the cave fifteen minutes at this point, Dave was feeling his oats and volunteered to climb up and check that high lead. He got up the initial climb and found the lead to be a low, painful crawl over virgin popcorn. I continually heckled him to stay low to avoid the delicate formations just inches above his head. Working without a helmet Dave progressed 12 feet to an apparent mud block. He reported a potential lead on the other side but that it would have to be dug before proceeding. Not wanting to crawl through there on another trip I encouraged him to do what he could while he was there. Dave cleared enough mud in 15 minutes to get a good look beyond and could see a going crawl. Exhausted, Dave backed out and I took over the push.

Finishing Dave's dig I was immediately confronted by a beautiful formation. In an alcove on the left was a matte of the most intricate helectites I've ever seen. These looked as though someone had ripped up tufts of sod, shaken the dirt loose and left the white roots there for display. Very pretty and worth a return photo trip in their own right.

Pushing beyond this I found a small hole with an incredible echo issuing from it each time I spoke. Through this hole I could see a going lead curving around out of sight. Getting to it, however, was tough. I tried head first on my right side and feet first on my left side. Both times I stopped before I got so jammed up I couldn't get out. With a cold pool of water waiting in the floor of that lead I didn't want to get stuck halfway through. After long contemplation I made the best choice I could, and wonder why I hadn't thought of it sooner, let the skinny person push it.

Traci squirmed forward, cooed at the helectites and promptly popped through the squeeze. An approach I hadn't tried, head first on your left side was her solution. Dave caught up just as Traci went into a hyper-ventilating panic of the pretties. Dave and I exchanged knowing glances as we listened to deep, throaty panting and squeals of delight issuing from the crevice Traci had just disappeared down. Either Traci had some really pretty passage or she'd met up with an amorous Hodag. When she calmed enough to speak she reported lots of pristine flowstone, rimstone and soda straws.

Dave jumped through the squeeze next and with a feeling that we should turn around soon I followed. Through the squeeze, one hand and then your feet in the pool of water, around a tight bend and lay down through an even tighter squeeze and I could see the reason for Traci's emotional outburst. The chamber was not large but vastly more comfortable than what we'd been through. The walls were beautiful, clean flowstone, the ceiling laced with translucent soda straws and the floor pocked with rimstone. If any part of the cave merits a name it would be here, not for what it holds but for it's effect on Traci, naturally we'd call it "Traci's Climax".

All of us felt drained at this point and stopped to rest. Agreeing that it was time to leave I took a peek at the far end of the chamber before going. What I saw looked promising. The floor sloped up to within two feet of the ceiling and the passage narrowed to less than a foot and a half wide. A slight breeze blew into my face giving relief from the fetid stench of sweating caver. Regrettably two columns grow right in the middle of the passage. With a wistful glance we all turned and headed out.

Fifty feet from the entrance we could hear Dennis Mitchell himself hollering salutations down the entrance. It's a good thing he showed up, in our haste to get into the cave I'd failed to consider the difficulty we would encounter getting out. Tight going down is easy, tight going up is impossible. Traci squoze out fairly easily. Dave almost pulled a Floyd Collins move, pinning one arm low while Dennis gave him a ranchers assist (pulled) from above. Dennis stuffed Dave back down the entrance (I would have used my boot) and I took my turn. Instinct took over and as Dennis (a strapping fellow) pulled, I wiggled (I'm not that rusty). In short order we were all above ground and sipping cold Coors Light in the shade.

We briefed the land owner, Dennis's father Everett, on the cave, and he was delighted to hear of our find. We got permission to return for a survey and photo trip. We also discussed other caves in the area. One, a pit just behind the ridge we had been in, had been "throwed full" some years ago by the neighboring rancher. Another pit took all the rain runoff from a local valley after thunderstorms passed by (also throwed full). Even a few places where "air comes up in the winter and melts the snow". A cave down in Sugar Grove that the owner says "goes in a ways and then drops off real deep, ain't nobody been past that point".

Other items of interest Dave and I learned from the land owner is that Terry Thrasher from Reading, PA comes down and ridgewalks the area about once a year when snow's on the ground. Thrasher mapped and photographed George Eye cave back in 1991. The land owner was quite pleased to receive copies of the photos and a print of the map and readily allows cavers with Thrasher to hike across his one thousand acres of karst. In contrast the land owner later allowed a group from D.C. grotto to enter the cave ostensibly for a photo trip. He relates this with some bitterness as he found the group "sneaking in on" him (trespassing) and attempting to access the cave without his permission. He led the cavers to the entrance and, after they left, never heard from them again. He complains loudly that he was used. I know this man well enough to say that a simple thank you from the cavers involved would have guaranteed their future access. But there's not a chance in hell now.

The land owner is very concerned over traffic in the caves and won't readily grant access, this is a good thing as both George Eye and Dennis Mitchell Caves are actively growing and very delicate. Future aspirations for Dennis Mitchell Cave are photo and survey. Possibly a surface survey to tie into Thrasher's map of George Eye. I want to get someone small in to squeeze past those columns in the last lead and see if it is worth going after. We also have a lot of ridge walking to do, the Reading PA people couldn't have covered it all (they missed this little cave). I've also uncovered another intriguing dig, horizontal passage poking out of the side of a hill. Obvious arched entrance that's slowly slumped closed over the years.

One last footnote to this "hole" weekend is that both Dave and Traci had fewer than twenty four hours of experience underground when they got into more virgin passage than most avid cavers will see after years of caving. I think this was facilitated by the good relationship Dave and I have worked to build with the landowner these last few years.

Devin S. Kouts
PSC 580
NSS 19524