What better way to kick off the Memorial Day weekend than a cave trip to McAlisterville Cave in central PA on Saturday May 24th. Kudos to Kerry Speelman for arranging the trip. Other participants were Sharon Fairchild and Jeff Jahn from Front Royal Grotto and a few other MAKC members and friends including, John Shero, Mike Schirato, Mike Kern, Courtney Garcia, and Ben Gorman.
It was a picture perfect day with weather cool and sunny. Meeting time was 10:30 AM. Most arrived on time but a couple were a little late so the first group suited up and headed in with plans to hook up later on inside the cave. John led the first group which included me, Sharon, Courtney and Ben. Everyone was in a good mood and there was excitement in the air especially since this was Ben’s first wild caving experience.
The entrance is on a side hill and requires entering a pipe that is on a 45 degree angle. The pipe is about 8 feet long with two hand/foot holds. No problem getting in but coming out might be a different story when covered with mud.
From the entrance pipe one enters a rather expansive room that dips steeply downward. After carefully working down and traversing back and forth down the slope about 100 feet or so the passages going forward begin to level out. Along the way down John pointed out an innocuous little hole on the right side saying that’s where we’ll end going later on to get to the more challenging part of the cave. I looked at that hole going by thinking that it looks pretty tight and wondering what lies beyond.
John then led us down the Bourbon Street passage; a mostly walking and stooping passage. Some nice pools and formations are encountered along the way and then before you know it, a mud sculpture area at the base of passage on the right is encountered. Lots of variety of sculptures here and as is typical of this cave, the floors and passages are all coated with soft and sticky buff colored clay with just a touch of dampness throughout. Ben was smiling and having a good time, already catching a bad case of cave fever.
Rather than going forward to the flowstone slope, we turned around and headed back to the passage intersection where we met up with Kerry. Kerry was waiting for the two Mikes to arrive. In meantime, we headed down the Clastic canyon section. After crossing over a large table rock and skirting a pit, we came upon some large breakdown with a downward tube passage. I went down to check out what was below. The tube led to another shelf where a tight gnarly vertical crack could be observed. I guessed this was one of the passages heading down to the Wind Chamber area and where at a minimum a hand line assist and probably vertical gear would be necessary to continue on. After reporting back to the group and we all decided to let this section go for another day.
So off we went to back track to the “innocuous” hole near the entrance drop. Along the way, we met the remaining members of our group. After a short visit, they headed off to Bourbon Street and agreed to meet up with us at the Voo-Doo dome.
The entrance to the fissure passage was not as bad as it looked. Feet first with back on floor allows a nice slither under the tight spot to an open area going down to an s-turn. Speaking of which everything in this cave goes down which means getting out requires everything going up so reserving energy for the push out is a must.
Working from the s-curve to the Voo-Doo dome requires maneuvering along a fissure crack with feet on one side and back against the other. The sides are wet and muddy so care must be taken to assure the contacts points are secure. A slip anywhere along this passage would result in a fall of about 8 feet or so don’t look down! Here height is an advantage and a few times I heard Sharon say “if only I was three inches taller!” After a couple of hundred feet the Voo-Doo dome room is reached by climbing down about 25 feet into a massive room. The signature part of this room is a garage size chunk of breakdown wedged in about half way up the room looking like it’s ready to come down any second.
After a short rest we began to hear the other members of our group getting close. With our lights off, it created a surreal image as their lights began to cast shadows into the dome pit as they arrived! When our entire group was intact at last we continued on down the passage where once again the character of the cave changed. No more fissure cracks now but more crawling and walking passage around breakdown to areas where other pits are avoided. At one point a feet first body length tube is entered where the exit is a blind feel for the floor. Here you stay left to avoid a pit on the right. It’s only after you’re in the room you realize the floor is just a pile of rocks to shorten the drop!
Another interesting point is the mail slot where a short climb up is required to enter a body length slot on either side of a center support. More difficult for taller folks, Kerry definitely needed a couple of expletives to get through the slot. But then just as quick, also heard him say how neat the passage looked on the other side.
Beyond the mail slot, the passage becomes narrow with serpentine turns and the floor covered with soft clay. This passage ended with a view of one of the numerous pits that require vertical gear to explore further. From here, we all headed back out of the cave. Ben commented on what a great time he had so I’m sure we will see him underground again soon. We made good time getting to the entrance and while waiting near the exit, I did explore one final side passage that goes for a little over 100 feet. It is a nice crawling passage with breakdown and some formations that eventually narrow down to where it is too tight to go further.
We all exited with the weather still as good as ever and all looking forward to enjoying the rest of the long weekend. McAlisterville is great cave because of the variety of passages encountered along the way. Next time I might just bring along my vertical gear to explore the lower levels of this cave.
By Jeff Jahn