It seems like the junior spelunkers in our family have been asking me all summer long "When are we going back to Eagle Cave?" We had explored the entrance and upper reaches of the cave on a trip back in mid-June, but had turned around when we reached a point where a rope would be necessary to explore further. This time we came prepared.
It turns out that we barely scratched the surface of this extensive and fascinating cave on our earlier trip. But first, a few points of business.
- This blog post does not include detailed instructions for locating the cave entrance. Wild caves like Eagle are fragile environments and there's no need to advertise their location. I'm happy to pass along all the information I have about Eagle via private message, just click on the Email Me link on the homepage.
- Don't even think about exploring Eagle (or any other cave for that matter) without being familiar with the basics of cave safety. For starters, make sure each member of your party has at least 3 reliable light sources.
- Access to Eagle cave is closed from mid-October to mid-April. This is to protect hibernating bats.
You'll know when you've found the entrance to the cave, pictured below. Make sure to climb the small ridge directly above the cave entrance for a wonderful view of Chimney's namesake rock formation and the distant High Peaks. That spot is where I took the panoramic photo at the top of this blog post.
Just inside the entrance lies one of the cave's more challenging features, a diagonal fissure that's 16 or 18 inches wide. It's a short but mandatory wiggle through the fissure to get inside the cave's large uppermost room, known as Eagle Hall. If the wiggle entrance left you feeling a bit claustrophobic, you'll have much more elbow room once you're inside. There's also a short drop of approximately 15 feet to down climb. There had been a fixed rope at this spot when we visited in June, that rope is no longer there.
Eagle Hall is a worthwhile destination in itself. When we visited in June, we spent nearly an hour exploring just that part of the cave. Exploring beyond Eagle Hall involves descending a 20-foot drop that requires a rope and belaying skills. As of our visit last weekend there is a fixed line and some questionable webbing in place. Do not assume that fixed line to be safe. We brought along our own rope and harnesses, and within a few minutes I had a safe line in place to lower the kids down the drop and into a huge (70 feet tall!) but narrow room called The Fissure.
In the photo above, The Fissure lies to Sylvie's right. To her left is the entrance to the "Bat Room," a large open room where bats hibernate from roughly mid-October to mid-April. The Fissure is a dead-end, but the Bat Room leads to more passages and rooms below.
In the Bat Room, mist filled the air as warm air from Eagle Hall and the cave entrance mixed with cooler air from the rooms below. The Bat Room is quite large, comparable in size to Eagle Hall. A number of passageways and chambers branched off, but we settled on a tight corkscrew-like passageway, barely wide enough to squeeze through without removing my knapsack, leading down to yet another level.
More passages and rooms branched off below the Bat Room. The air became noticeably cooler. We guessed the temperature to be 38-ish. We knew that the "Ice Room" still lay somewhere below us, where ice is said to persist into mid-October, and sure enough, as we poked into various worm holes that led further into the cave, we encountered ice still lining some of the rocks. Daniel picked up a small chunk that had fallen to the floor:
At this point we had been underground more than 2 hours. Based on the maps of the cave that we've seen, we were well over 100 vertical feet below the entrance. There was plenty left to explore deeper in, but the passageways we found that might lead to the Ice Room were narrower (think belly crawl) than we wanted to squiggle through. Plus there were other rooms and passages we had noticed on the way down that we wanted to check out. So we made the decision to start heading back to the surface.
I worried that it might be a challenge getting the kids back up the drop we had rappelled. I had left our rope in place, and planned on toproping the kids up one at a time. That arrangement proved awkward due to too much side-pull, so I free climbed up (using the knotted fixed line and the sketchy webbing you can see in the pic above, not recommended) and belayed each kid up. Our kids have been rock climbing for several years, so I knew I could trust each of them to put on their own harness and properly clip into the rope with a locking carabiner, even 7-year-old Sylvie. Some parties bring a rope ladder along to negotiate the drop (up and down), but our procedure worked quite well.
Once on top, all that remained was negotiating the length of Eagle Hall, ascending the 15' drop off near the entrance, and wiggling out the narrow cave entrance, as demonstrated by Daniel in the photo above.
All told we had been underground for three and a quarter hours. We didn't get all the way to the Ice Room, but I think we'll probably come back once more this season. The cave still holds lots of secrets we haven't uncovered yet.