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Clarks Cave Trip Report- April 12, 2014 Doug Duncan (reprinted with Dougs permission)

Perched on the steep slope near the rappel anchor I was wondering, a bit apprehensively,
how big the ledge was where we would land after our 50 foot rappel down the sheer cliff. Darryl,
the trip leader, had warned us that losing our footing on the slope above the cliff might result in
an uncontrolled tumble down to and over the cliff lip, so I had my butt firmly rooted to the
ground and feet propped against a tree. One by one we were rappelling down the steep slope then
over the lip and out of site. Suddenly a motion caught the corner of my eye as something
accelerated down the slope. Just as suddenly the helmet caught up on a downed tree and avoided
a longer plunge. My nerves a bit on edge, I hooked up to the rope and started down the hill and
drop.

The scene was breathtaking spring just touching the mature forest slope, the moss-and-
lichen covered cliffs, and the swollen Cowpasture River running close against the cliff bottom.
And soon I was down on a wide landing area and off rope. The group of 13 gathered just outside
entrance # 3 and safely out of the drop zone. Darryl explained that the cave was a maze
developed along intersecting fracture trends with multiple, numbered entrances along the cliff
bottom. The walk-in entrance led to easy walking passage owing to the grooming by saltpeter
miners during the 1800s. It was clear where steps had been engineered with strategically placed
rocks, where low overhanging roof rock had been chipped away to provide ample headroom, and
where fill was placed to provide a gentle pathway.

The cave walls were very dark, covered with soot from the smoky burning wooden
torches used as the only light. It is hard to imagine the awful working conditions with choking
smoke compared to our quietly efficient LED lights.

At one spot a crevice in the floor was spanned by boards for 20 or more feet, which were
original 150 year old planks, and which we straddled to avoid contributing to their wear. There
were more burned out and unused faggots (heartwood pitch pine) than I had seen in any other
cave and digging sticks with sharpened, wedge-shaped ends were common. At one narrow spot
with a smooth rock slope on the side, there were hundreds of tally marks scratched into the rock
again more prominent than any I had ever seen. Immense quantities of nitrate-laden dirt had
been removed, more than 20 feet deep, and the active digging faces left behind when mining
stopped looked fresh, as if mining had stopped yesterday. Some dirt excavation had unearthed
large, 20-foot high boulders, which were propped in place by timbers, most with bark still intact,
looking a few years old rather than 150 years old. We treated them as if they had just been
installed, and walked right under these perched boulders. All of this was explained by a running
commentary from Darryl, who was extremely knowledgeable about not only the cave layout, but
the history of saltpeter mining.

After less than an hour we had completed a loop tour of the old working part of the cave
and we took a break for a snack. Next to me was a rock that had thin, hair-like crystals sticking
out from the host rock. I have no idea what they were but would like to return with a macro lens
camera to record its beauty.

Next was a more strenuous and sporting exploration of the unexcavated part of the cave,
including several additional entrances along the cliff face. Heading further into the cave along a
miners trail the group started to negotiate a climb down to a room about 12 to 15 feet below.
While waiting my turn I noticed that Mark, the second caver ahead of me, stopped his descent
and pulled back. Im hurt said Mark, very calmly, Its about a seven level pain right now.
That got my attention. I think I dislocated my shoulder. This totally did not fit my image of a
cave accident no fall, no impact, nobody crying out. But there was no doubt that Mark was
hurt. As David and I helped Mark back to a more secure spot in the cave, Roxanne moved ahead
to the edge of the drop and told Darryl and the rest of the group that we had an injury situation.

Darryl came back and about five of us did a rapid evaluation, with much assistance from
Mark, who knew what information was important to relate. He still had use of his hand with no
tingling or numbness, which was a critical observation. Darryl, with Marks permission,
attempted to reduce the dislocation, but was unsuccessful. It was clear that the dislocation was
extremely painful and that it needed to be managed. David found Ibuprofen from Marks pack
and gave it to him. Roxanne, Darryl, Adam, and I combined our resources and fashioned a sling
which kept Marks arm in a least painful position, aided by active stabilization from his good
arm. Darryl called the trip and announced that we would all be exiting the cave. Fifteen minutes
later, aided by Adam and Jeff, and the path fashioned by the miners 150 years earlier, Mark and
the rest of the group emerged into the daylight.

A couple of parallel activities commenced at this point. Darryl, Roxanne, and I worked to
immobilize Marks arm in a way that did not require use of his good arm. A SAM Splint was
fashioned into a framework to hold Marks arm in the least painful position about six inches from
his chest. In first aid you are commonly taught to strap the injured arm to the chest but that was
clearly impossibly painful. As we worked to further immobilize Marks arm, we assessed the
evacuation options. Darryl and Mark agreed to attempt a walk-out, rather than a call-out to cave
rescue to rig a vertical rescue up the cliff face. Darryl provided an honest description of the
difficulties of the walk, which allowed Mark to make an informed decision. Mark is athletic and
fit, which aided in the decision for assisted walk-out. This required crossing some property
without permission, which we all deemed to be justified.

As an aside, I had completed orientation to cave rescue in Harrisonburg two weeks


before. Greg Jones took the same class and was on the Clarks Cave trip as well. Roxanne
likewise had taken the class previously. It was a good to know that we had a core group of
knowledgeable, fit, trained cavers to collectively work to affect the rescue. Because of the class I
just completed, I put my SAM Splint into my cave pack only the day before. Mark himself had
taken a wilderness first aid course several years before and was also carrying a SAM Splint in his
pack. He told me later that he had recently considered leaving it behind as he had never needed
it. One of the lessons learned here is to keep carrying such rudimentary first aid supplies, like
splints and tape, because the most common cave accidents are fractures and sprains.

At the same time, as I was to learn later, another of the party climbed the cliff and
rappelled back with his vertical cave rescue book from a class taken a year before. He and
another of the party strenuously argued for a vertical extraction of Mark using a pulley and one
of them as a counterweight to hoist Mark up the cliff face. I strenuously objected on numerous
points, Darryl and others rejected the idea, and Mark was having none of it.

Soon Mark, Darryl, Jeff, Adam, and Carl headed down the steep slope towards the river
and were out of sight within five minutes. Darryl told me where to bring a car to meet them after
they had scaled the steep slope back up to the ridge top. Using my recent cave rescue training,
we repeated back to each other the plans to make sure we were all clear. Mark was tethered to 50
feet of webbing, the team groomed the path ahead of him, and he was aided down, along, and up
the steep bluff. I remember distinctly predicting to the vertical rescue crew that Mark would
probably beat us to the top and that is, in fact, what happened. As I gained the top, with two more
people left to ascend, I could see Marks party moving slowly through the woods toward the
road. I cant begin to imagine the scene of Mark being drug up the cliff face, vulnerable and
unprotected, on a single rope with no belay, screaming in pain at every bump and lurch of the
rope. Needless to say I will not be caving with the unnamed cavers who were vocally quite upset
with the walk-out choice.

The rest of the story is boring. There were missteps and snafus along the way, mainly
owing to inadequate communication. But the main result was that I took Mark back to RASS
where we got great support from Steve, who did a quick medical evaluation of Mark and gave us
directions to the nearest hospital. Mark and I then went on to Warm Springs where he received
excellent care. Our conversations and interactions with the doctor and staff are worthy of another
trip report.

I credit the VAR staff for putting the hospital information in the guidebook, which none
of us thought to check. In this event, it made little difference to Mark because his injury was not
particularly time-sensitive. But had his injury been more severe, it would have been good to
know ahead of time how to get to the nearest hospital. On the other hand, if he had suffered a
more severe injury, we would have immediately dispatched a team out of the cave to get help.
We were aware that 300 cavers were half an hour away. We discussed this at the time and made a
conscious decision to do an assisted self-rescue, which turned out to be the right decision.

Lessons learned:

Take the National Cave Rescue Coordinator Cave Rescue class. It is only a weekend and is
immeasurably helpful.
Carry essential first aid supplies. A very stripped down list is duck tape/Gorrilla tape, absorbent
material, SAM splint, and pain medication.

That length of webbing that you wonder why you keep carrying? Keep carrying it.

Have a GPS other than a cell phone so you can get to a hospital.

Stay firm when presented with dangerous evacuation options.

Clarks Cave Trip Report Mark Boland Perspective

Doug does a good job describing the trip as a whole. Ill fill in from the injury to the
completion of the rescue.

As Doug mentioned we were heading from the miner improved portion of the cave to the
wild portion of Clarks. I followed the group as we headed towards a down climb into a crevasse.
At the edge I surveyed the down climb and decided to place my right hand on a rock over my
head to steady myself as I took a step towards the crevasse. Next thing I knew I was falling
forward and much to my horror I had nothing but air under my right hand. In a move of
desperation I stood on my tip toes and managed to get my right hand onto the overhead rock and
push. The push arrested my forward motion and stopped the fall into the crevasse. Unfortunately
it also caused my humerus bone to roll out of the shoulder joint and cause a painful dislocation of
my right shoulder. Later in the evening back at VAR David told me he saw the whole incident as
it unfolded and that the fall appeared to be very minor in nature. The pain level I felt was
anything but minor. Almost immediately I had a level 7 unrelenting pain. David and Doug helped
me move back to a more secure location where I could lean on an angled rock. Two things struck
me at once, the trip was now a rescue, and I was the victim.

After a few minutes I attempted to get up and the pain was nearly unbearable. At this
point Darryl offered to attempt to put the shoulder back in joint. I was in so much pain I was
willing to try anything. Unfortunately the reduction didnt work and I was afraid to try again for
fear of blacking out from pain. At this point I wasnt sure I could walk out since the only position
I was comfortable in was to use the good arm to hold the injured arm. I figured I could negotiate
the improved part of the cave without use of my hands. However, I knew Id need my good arm
to negotiate the steep slope outside the cave.

The trip out of the cave went fairly quickly. The only challenging spot was a small climb
up and over a low rock. At the mouth of the cave I felt Id won a small victory since I was no
longer underground. The group rigged the Sam splint and the sling to help stabilize the arm. In
the interim we discussed the option of self rescue or rescue call out. I was bound and determined
to self rescue but not sure if I could pull it off. Darryl asked the group for webbing and explained
how the webbing would be used to belay me down and then up the slope. At this point I wasnt
completely sure I could negotiate the steep slope. I was afraid Id fall and jar the arm and then
pass out from the pain.

A steep slope led from entrance # 2 to the beginning of the up climb. Darryl decided it
would be best to ascend to the river, travel along the relatively flat river bottom, and then the
start the climb up the cliff face. Darryl belayed me down the slope while the other guys did their
best to clear the path ahead. My confidence level in rescue rose as I realized that the belay would
solve the slip and fall concern I had at the start of the rescue.

The trip down the slope and along the river went fairly quickly. When we got to the up
climb Carl took over the belay, Adam spotted from behind, Jeff cleared the path ahead, and
Darryl directed where to go. The distance up the steep slope was intimidating to say the least.
The group solved the problem by breaking the climb up into smaller pieces. Carl would climb to
a secure spot where he could perform a seated belay and where Id have a good place to stand.
Once Carl was seated Id start to climb with a minor assist from Carl. We made good progress
breaking the climb up into small sections and in a surprisingly short time we crested the ridge
and got onto relatively flat ground. From here it was a short walk to the road where Doug
brought the car over to pick me up, took me back to the RASS field station, and then on to the
hospital. 4 hours after the accident my humerus bone was back in the shoulder joint, my pain
level was down to to 1 level, and Doug and I headed back to VAR. We arrived just in time for
dinner.

My final logistics problem was solved on Sunday when Amanda, Tara, and Taras
nephew volunteered to help the truck home. From beginning to end of my misadventure the
caving community took care of and looked out for me. Many thanks to all that helped both
during and after the accident.