In November of 2017 I had the opportunity to make the first dive into the upstream sump of Rich Creek Cave in Monroe County, West Virginia. On the dive I explored 270′ of large passage, ending in an ascending breakdown passage. I attempted to return in June of 2018 but unfortunately the low-airspace entrance to the cave was completely sumped. After some failed attempts at freediving the short entrance sump we abandoned efforts and went caving elsewhere.
In September of 2018 I had the opportunity to return and pick up where I had left off. Joining me for this two-day effort was Jon Lillestolen, Nathan Roser, Joey O’Reilly and Tyler Baldino. Nick Shaer met us on-site and gave us the latest dye tracing and mapping efforts in the area.
Conditions were great in the cave and we made it to the sump in about a half hour. Another half hour later and I was ready to set off into the sump, prepped for big passage with two LP95’s filled to 3700psi each. I had a lot of gas. The sump descends abruptly before first leveling off at 20′ and then again at 55′. As I arrived at the 20′ level I was disappointed to see my guideline had been severed since I was last in there. I made a repair and tied in a new reel. Turning back towards the sump entrance I began ascended, thinking I had missed the way on last year. I continued up until (to my surprise) I surfaced in a large air chamber. I swam to one end and didn’t see a continuation. Coming back the other way I swam to the far end and after going under a “duck under” I was in a continuation of the room. The bottom of this room had deep water as well, and I figured this would present another diving lead. After running some line through the room I left the reel ready to go for the next day’s effort and returned into the sump. I had intended on trying to re-line my previous dive lead but instead exited due to cold and low visibility. We left my tanks and dive gear in the cave and took off for the Bat Ranch where we enjoyed a nice evening with the VPI Cave Club.
On Saturday we returned to the cave. Jon Lillestolen was to dive with me and had packed his Disto and some LP50’s for the short commute through the sump to this new air chamber. While Jon assembled his gear I set off alone with camera in hand to get some “good vis” footage of the sump before we started working in it. I also went back to the dive lead at the far end of the new room and moved my reel another 30′ into that lead before realizing I had no zip-ties readily available to secure the line to my silt-stake. I decided to just leave the reel there, I’ll be back soon enough and will just pick it up and go! This lead is trending back towards the entrance to the sump and there was no discernible flow. I suspect it may just be part of a large room to which the air chamber is the top, and the bottom is where I had come from (just 100′ over).
Jon was in the air chamber by the time I made it back. We found a good ledge to stow the gear and took our tanks off. More mobile with less equipment, we spent about 2hrs surveying and exploring the new air chamber. Jon made a scramble up one part of the room but soon had to abandon efforts due to passage size. A notable feature of this room- we could hear the sherpas from the entrance of the sump! Someone will need to do some climbing and confirm this connection. When Jon and I were done surveying we dove out in some pretty low visibility and exited the cave.
Special thank you to our sherpas who carried gear: Nathan Roser, Joey O’Reilly and Tyler Baldino. Special special thank you to Jon Lillestolen for showing me the simple side of dry cave survey!
EARLIER POSTS BELOW
Earlier in the fall I came across some pictures of a recently surveyed cave in Monroe County West Virginia called Rich Creek Cave. The cave passage was highly decorated and ended in a terminal sump with an estimated low-flow state discharge of around 3000gpm. With dreams of diving the sump and assistance from Nathan I got in touch with those who surveyed the cave, including Nick Schaer with the WV DEP. Nick was particularly interested in surveying the passage that exists beyond the sump due to a controversial natural gas pipeline slated to be built in extremely close proximity to the cave. The passage is trending towards the proposed pipeline and the start of the sump is less than 2000′ away from the intended route. In September of this year the cave was surveyed to a total length of 1607′. The survey was done by Dave Socky, Jeff Hajenga, Nick Schaer, and George Dasher. A very nice map was produced by George Dasher, which you can see here:
With permission from some incredibly supportive landowners, we scheduled a dive for November 18th. Present for the trip was Nathan Roser, Joey O’Reilly, Tyler Baldino and myself as the sump diver. Nick Schaer joined up with us for the morning and provided a wealth of information related to the endeavor.
The cave starts out with an ear-dipper in some cold (but warmer than NY!) running water. Airspace is less than 4″, requiring either a nose-up traverse or my preferred method of full submersion with a quick swim to the other side. I was wearing my drysuit during the commute to the sump, so I’m not sure why the other guys were complaining so much… I was toasty!
The cave was mostly wet, with several swims required. There was plenty of scrambling over massive breakdown but no crawling required. I did the trip wearing my CF200 neoprene drysuit and didn’t regret it a bit. We stopped along the way and took lots of photos, but easily made it to the sump within an hour. Without pausing I think this could be a 20 minute trip. The water is cold and I suggest any sherpas on future trips wear a full wetsuit, or even a drysuit if available.
When we arrived at the sump I began preparations for my dive. Due to the sump’s size and discharge rate I brought along two cave-filled LP45’s along with a bright canister light and associated cave diving gear. For surveying I used a compass and slate, leaving my mNemo at the start of the sump for use after I had obtained some solid survey data.
The start of the sump was approximately 20′ wide and had a floor-to-ceiling height of around 4′ at the entrance. There was a lot of flow, quickly washing away any silt that I stirred up. I tied off to a large rock and set off, descending down the mud/bedrock slope. I couldn’t see both sides of the passage, so I hugged the left wall. I made several tie-offs on the wall as I went, until the passage finally leveled out at 55′ depth. At that point I couldn’t see the right wall or even the ceiling, so I made a guess and continued straight through what I figured was the middle. I came across a large chert projection from the ceiling, tied off and went right. I found a passage trending up through some large breakdown with slight flow. Following this passage I went up to a depth of 43′ and could still see the passage rising. I paused to evaluate flow and noted it was present but much less than I would expect due to it’s decreased size compared to the rest of the passage. I tied off and surveyed on the way out, surveying 270′ of passage at 10 stations. I returned to the entrance and ditched some of my gear, including my large explorer reel and GoPro. I returned to the ceiling projection and tied off another reel, this time heading left to see if I had missed the way on. Unfortunately I didn’t find any new leads, and the decreased flow in this area quickly reduced visibility to near-zero. The EOL could be pushed through that breakdown, but my gut tells me I missed something much bigger and likely the way on. On the next dive (be it me or some other sump diver), I would suggest tying off to the ceiling projection and making a 90° right turn into the abyss. If that doesn’t go, try going “up” from around that area. If all else fails, get back on my line and follow it to the end. Tie-off and scoop that passage!
After diving the terminal sump, I walked/swam/dove through the passage back towards The Unexpected Room. There was a small sumped lead here that I wanted to check out. I entered the short sump (around 6′) and emerged on the other side, a small room approximately 10′ in diameter. The way on was likely on the other side but I didn’t pursue it any further. On a future trip this lead should be pushed first, since the water visibility was diminished from my efforts further into the system. I’m sure this is just a side-passage that connects back to the main passage, but it’s a great going lead nonetheless. I do NOT suggest free-diving this, despite how short it is. I’m naming the room “Joey’s Salvation” for reason’s I won’t detail for fear of my girlfriend or mother reading this report…
After I finished exploring the side lead we packed up my gear and headed out. We emerged from the cave about 4.5hrs after entering, cold but extremely happy with what we had accomplished for the day. After packing up we went to Norman Cave in Greenbrier County, then ate burritos and finally arrived back at WVACS around 10pm.
A sincere thank you to the landowners for allowing exploration in their cave, Nick Schaer for all the beta, WVACS for the lodging and Nathan/Joey/Tyler for helping sherpa gear. A special thank you to Tyler for bringing his DSLR setup through all that water and cave passage to bring us back some very beautiful pictures.