This is a brief trip report of last weekend's trip to Varnedoe Cave, SCCI's newest cave.
Varnedoe Cave July 27, 2014 Trip Report
The hike to Varnedoe starts out flat with a slight descent, although most of us, Mark, Sharon, Steven, Steve, Ken, Annette, Ty, and myself, had heard stories of the treacherous downhill trek that would follow shortly after. I remember following the markers and then not being able to find the next one. Then, I stopped and look behind me at an SCCI marker, which stood on a steep bluff. We could see the ones that followed right behind it, one-by-one, striaght down the mountain.
It goes without saying caves are accident-prone. Often times the trails leading us to them are just as dangerous. Varnedoe is far from an exception. The bluff is scattered with sandstone boulders sitting on loose soil. I can only imagine the difficulty of climbing it after a rainy day. While navigating through the terrain Annette slipped and fell to the ground. Most of us heard a cracking noise. Whatever the sound, possibly a ligament, was is uncertain, but we knew for certain there is an injury. Ken quickly began constructing a sling while the rest of us started contemplating a way to rig a traverse to get her back up the bluff. It took some time, but several improvisations later we pulled together and safely got her back up the mountain and to the hospital. I am happy to report Annette will have a much faster recovery then we had anticipated.
After walking Ken and Annette to their car, Ty and myself walked back to the car and got another rope. We decided to leave the last section of our rescue traverse rigged in prep for the hike back after bottoming the cave. The hike continues downhill and over towards a large sinkhole that is adjacent to the entrance of Varnedoe.
Walking down into the sink, you pass the dug second entrance. It is a small hole on the ridge of the sink that leads to the first drop (115’). Both entrances meet in the Fox Skeleton Room. Steve, Mark, and the others had already rigged a rope for the first drop of entrance one (73’). After getting geared up, one-by-one we rappelled the pit.
The lip of Varnedoe’s first drop is a bit tricky. Slick mud a and low ceiling can make the start of the rappel a bit difficult, especially when carrying gear to do the other drops that follow. Still, the entrance room is gorgeous. Mark, Steve, Ty, Steven, and myself started to rig the second drop (25’) which sits at the back of the entrance room while Sharon stayed to photograph.
At the bottom of the second drop, we looked around at Mickey’s Mosque, which sits right behind the sink adjacent to the cave and made our way down the canyon towards the third drop (41’) into Boston Hall. While waiting to drop the pit, you get a partial glimpse into the rain room, a very high (Maybe 200’) dome with rainfall. Assuming your rope has an extra 15 feet of length, you can walk back over and rappel into the room. It is quite a sight. Definitely one of the most spectacular views we had inside the cave. There was also a small water crawl at the back of the rain room. I did not push it until the end, but I imagine it gets too tight.
The last drop in Varnedoe gets a little more technical. After a short sidestep through a canyon, there is a ten-foot climb down that ends with passing through a keyhole and landing onto a shelf that overlooks Fox Skeleton Pit. Rigging this pit was somewhat complicated. Although, I’m not sure if would have been that complicated if the bolt didn’t look completely oxidized. It is unnerving to look at to say the least. Steve, Mark, and Steven ended up anchoring part of the climb down to the shelf to be backed-up by the rusty bolt. We cautiously swung out over the ledge into a very nice rappel. Fox Skeleton Pit is very pretty and a nice way to end the challenging multi-drop section of the cave.
I must admit, I had underestimated how much extra passage I saw following the final drop of Varnedoe. Steve and Ty stayed in the pit while I went to go catch up with Mark and Steven. I didn’t even think to take of my gear before heading into Mitchell’s Meander, a canyon traverse that goes on for several hundred feet. I eventually caught up with Mark and Steven, set my vertical gear down to the side of the passage and followed them deeper into the lower passages of the cave. Even with the map in front of me, I’m not exactly sure where exactly we were at the bottom. I believe somewhere near Domal’s Dome, Mark went back towards Fox Skeleton Pit to meet with the others. Shortly after that, Steven navigated to the clear formation room. There were lots of transparent crystals sitting on top of stalagmites, but I thought the most impressive feature of the room was the giant flowstone formation sitting in the middle. There was also a high lead coming out of this room (Maybe 15’ off the floor). This room was pristine and didn’t look as if anyone had attempted to get up there.
Steven and I started to make our way back through the canyon and began grabbing the ropes and climbing back up the pits. We met up with the other group members inside the entrance room and ascended out of the cave, where we gathered our belongings and headed out of the sinkhole for the uphill hike that followed. We celebrated our trip over Mexican food and called it a day.
All in all, the trip was a lot of fun. This is a fun, challenging multi-drop I would recommend to anyone. It was neat getting to see lots of passage between drops. The hike would probably be more comfortable in fall or winter, though.
A couple things I thought about Varnedoe:
I. I believe installing a rebalay bolt on the ceiling of the main entrance to the cave could make the initial rappel a bit easier.
II. I would highly recommend bringing a few extra ropes to use as handlines for the hike down to and back from the cave. This could make the trek much safer.
III. The bolt sitting on the bridge and Fox Skeleton Pit needs to be replaced. (Someone should contact the SCCI about this.)
IV. A through trip would be fun. Two groups of three go in each entrance and meet in Fox Skeleton Pit.