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Midnight Phantoms

Submitted by passthepitonspete on 2002-02-27

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We were a party of two. The cave was on private land. We didn’t have permission.

They didn’t approve of us. They wouldn’t loan us a rope. They told us we had to leave the expedition.

Emphatically, we were not sanctioned.

It seemed like a reasonable request to us. What was all the fuss about? Dick, Chris and I returned to the CRF expedition at Hamilton Valley around 3am after our trip to Bibble Boulevard and to Heel Spurs and Fringey Things. Chris and I knew we weren’t up to more hard caving, and thought it would be fun to join an easier CRF trip the next day. We put our names on the board with a note asking if we could please join a group going into the park.

The next morning, our note was ignored, the trips were organized without us, and Chris and I were greeted by stern and unsympathetic faces. What the…..?

“Look, you can’t just expect to plan your trip of the day when you sit down at the breakfast table!” we were told.

“What a preposterous idea,” they said.

I felt as though I were being lectured by my ex-wife, the schoolteacher. I was vexed, but bit my tongue. I wanted to explain how I had been doing precisely that for a quarter-century, examining and evaluating our resources each morning before deciding which caving objectives we would attempt that day.

I wanted to tell them it worked, too. Extremely well. But I still bit my tongue.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, yet Chris and I were effectively unemployed. Sadly, it seemed to us that a couple people took small but perverse delight in our dilemma.

OK, we thought, on to Plan B.

“I know what we can do,” I said. “Let’s go phantom 20-20-60 tonight. I’ve been wanting to get back to that cave for twenty years! We’re both feeling a bit trashed right now - we can rest up this aft, join everyone for supper, then go caving. By that time the expedition will have finished, so we won’t be breaking any rules.”

Perfect, except that when they learned of our plan, they wouldn’t loan us a rope.



We crept down the road towards the edge of the ridge, then turned south on the final laneway which runs along the crest of the escarpment. Below and to our left, the lights of Cave City spread like a phosphorescent blanket warming the Sinkhole Plain, resplendent in the crisp evening air. Above us the stars winked conspiratorially, listening without comment to our hushed whispers.

A sliver of a moon guided our footsteps as we skulked quietly over the frozen stubble of last season’s tobacco. We stumbled at first until our night vision kicked in, but soon we became one with the night. Every now and then, we would pause to cautiously illuminate our map, vigilant to remain unnoticed. Not a breath of wind disturbed the silence. We were invisible phantoms.

On the west side of the barns, we stepped carefully over electrified fencing wires, then descended the gentle grassy slope of the sink towards the woods. We dumped our packs and ropes on the ground near a tiny pond just inside the treeline. As long as we remained near the bottom of the hill, we were out of sight of the house only a few hundred feet above us.

“I don’t know exactly where the cave is, Chris,” I whispered, “so we’ll split up here. You check to the north and I’ll head south. On my map the entrance is marked inside the trees just below the field, so whatever you do, don’t go too low into the sink.” Without a word, Chris slipped into the darkness. I was alone.


I dropped beneath the pond, then started working my way back toward the barns while remaining parallel to the slope. The going was tough with tangled lianas and stubborn brambles clutching at my clothes. This would be next to impossible in the summertime, I thought.

After a couple hundred yards, I could see the shadows of open forest ahead of me, but no cave. Have I gone too low? I think so. I clawed my way back upslope again, battling the vines nearly every step of the way. Damn, these things are a pain! Hey, what’s that just above me? Ouch! Another bramble tore into my flesh.

All of a sudden, I was there. A seventy-five-foot-wide entrance pit materialized before me. You might say it gaped, but I wouldn’t. Pits only gape in the morning. This one merely yawned - it was well past midnight.

I returned to the field little more than fifteen yards above the cave to find myself perhaps twenty-five yards south of a lone cedar tree standing on the grass near the verge. One hundred yards north of the cedar I returned to the packs next to the pond, but only after I first walked right by them.

Where was Chris? Ahead and to the left, I could hear branches snapping in the woods. “Chris!” I shouted as loudly as I dared. “Chris!” No answer.

The crackling of twigs continued, seemingly loud but probably barely audible. I risked a couple flashes from my penlight, then a couple more. I saw a brief glimmer returned to me, and after two or three minutes Chris joined me.

“I’ve found it,” I told him. We felt relieved. It would have been too embarrassing to have missed my mark twice in one weekend.

On the downslope side of the entrance, we stomped down enough of the bushes to lay out our gear and get dressed. We felt safe here, and resumed our conversation in more normal tones. “I can’t believe I’m finally back,” I said. “It’s about bloody time.”

I took a thirty-foot piece of 1” tubular webbing and belayed our 150’ 11mil PMI rope to the tree. We adjusted the knot so that it rested just above the lip, thus extending our reach downward as far as possible. The slope down to the pit was treacherously slick, so Chris attached his rappel device to the rope before hand-over-handing it down the webbing to the knot. He rappelled down the 20’ entrance pit to land with a clatter on a heap of rusty cans.

“Off rope!”

I slid over the edge and dropped down to join Chris. “Geez, what a mess,” I grimaced. The base of the pit was a veritable scrapyard, a true Kentucky classic. “This place is a disaster.” Above me, the rope dangled from the edge of a massive and menacing-looking inverted slab cantilevered at an impossible angle far into space. Looking around my feet, there was barely a spot we could stand on solid rock, the trash so packed the cave.

After a false start down to the north side, I located the second drop in the southeast corner of the room. Rusty paint cans and twisted pieces of metal crunched underfoot as I carefully ran the rope over top of the junk and around the side of a huge misshapen refrigerator. It would have been easy to tie a rebelay at the top of the second 20’ drop, but we were unsure if we would have enough rope left if we did. After Chris adjusted the angle of the rope over the lip of the entrance drop, I passed the rope over a gently rounded edge of rock and descended to the top of the third drop, the sixty footer.

Suddenly, the cave changed character for the better. Behind us was the mountain of garbage - ahead, a beautifully-fluted free-hanging shaft perhaps ten feet in diameter. This was more like it - what a pleasant surprise!

We skipped the rebelay yet again to save rope, instead opting to run the rope over a smoothly-worn groove. At the base of this third drop, I clambered up a bouldery slope about fifteen feet following the draught to the final pitch, probably free-climbable and perhaps twelve feet deep. With thirty or more feet of extra rope, I rebelayed it through the jug handle perfectly situated above.

We landed on the flat muddy floor of a small chamber. To the north and on our left, a small stream entered from a low muddy crawlway - an unchecked lead. I led the way straight ahead following the stream about sixty feet through a ten-foot-wide flat-out crawl. It was tough to keep our chests dry in one spot, and Chris ended up getting a bit damp.

We gathered on the right in a small “sit up” room perhaps a body-length long, barely large enough for the two of us. I slithered on my stomach another twenty feet up to the edge of the final pit and peered down. It was impossible to sit up here, but there was a pretty decent ledge three feet lower where it looked as though a belayer could sit if he were tied in. With any luck he’d be out of the frigid draught that was getting sucked into the cave and which was beginning to chill me through my waterproof boiler suit. The only rig point was a decent-looking pothole in the floor, but it needed a backup. I returned to Chris.

“Jim said something about a couple bolts in the Sit Up Room,” I said. “Can you see anything?”

“They’re right behind you on the wall, but I sure wouldn’t clip them,” said Chris. “They look like total crap.”

“C’mon, they’re not that bad, are they?”

Chris reached out and pulled on one of the hangers. It disintegrated in a shower of rust.


We uncoiled our second rope, a hundred-foot hunk of 11mm static that John sometimes used to tow his pickup. I first anchored it round the pothole next to the lip, leaving a clip-in loop on the end of a short tail. Next, Chris fed the rope to me while I dragged its other end back out the crawlway to an obvious anchor in the mud-floored chamber. Here I stretched it tight, then tied it off. For good measure, I joined the end of John’s rope to the bottom of our PMI using a “Euro Death Knot”.

Chris crawled ahead of me to the pit, then clipped into the tail of the rope. I used a second locking crab on Chris’ harness to attach him to the tail using a clove hitch. Chris swung down onto the ledge, then adjusted the clove hitch to the precise length which allowed him to set comfortably. A comfortable belayer is a happy belayer. My turn.

Yet again, I lay on my belly scrunched at the lip of the drop. I clipped Dick’s 50’ hunk of 8mm dynamic rope into our anchor using a couple of oval carabiners with the gates opposed, careful to ensure that the rope ran over no sharp edges. You don’t get a second chance with rope this thin.

I showed Chris the climbers’ trick of attaching the figure of 8 to your harness by its larger hole when you’re not actually rappelling - this way you can thread the rope through the 8 without unclipping it from your harness. Once the rope is fed through, you unclip the rappel device, rotate it a hundred and eighty degrees, and clip it back in through the smaller hole. This way, it’s impossible to drop the thing since the only time it is unclipped it is also threaded. After double-checking the carabiner gate was locked, I whipped a couple wraps of rope around the 8 before swinging out into space. With such skinny and slippery rope, you can find yourself making a pretty darn fast descent if you’re not careful.

I slowly lowered myself down the elegant elliptical shaft. It was perhaps thirty feet long east to west, and about fifteen feet wide. Despite the halogen bulb in my Duo, I could see no passages on this, the near side of the pit. I lost the draught about halfway down. Once on the muddy floor a couple stories below Chris, I was relieved I didn’t have to push the drain. I knew it didn’t go.

“I’ll have to come back up, Chris, and try to traverse across the top of the pit. There’s nothing to be seen here.” The fifty-foot jug warmed me up, and I squished onto the ledge next to Chris.

It looked possible to traverse across the top of pit while lying flat on a ledge, but with no natural threads to use as runners, it appeared prudent to drill a hole for pro. It’s never polite to fall directly onto your belayer. After installing the bolt, I clipped it with a short sling to allow the rope to run freely beneath the overhang.

While Chris belayed, I crawled feet-first across the top to ensconce myself on a stance ten or fifteen feet past where he was sitting. From here I could loop a thread with a shoulder-length runner, clip the rope into it, and get Chris to slowly lower me. Every ten or fifteen feet I was able to sling another projection as a deviation which allowed me to pendulum farther across the pit.

The draught clearly disappeared into a narrow fissure about halfway down in the back right (southeast) corner of the pit. There was absolutely no airflow anyplace else. The crack was about eight or ten feet high and averaged perhaps two to four inches wide. The widest bit was only about a handspan. I could see about a foot to the south where the fissure took a sudden 90-degree bend to the east to head directly away from the rest of the cave. Pressing my ear into the opening I could hear water dribbling enticingly in the distance. It sounded like another dome, reasonably big, and really only a few feet away.

Too bad - there was a helluva lot of wind, and that wind surely has to go somewhere. But the only way you could follow it here would be with the assistance of a substantial amount of “bang”. My guess is it’s not much more than a body-length or two to the next dome. It sure sounded close!

With a combination of free climbing and jugging, I soon reached Chris’ ledge. It was time to escape; the sun would soon be rising!

Back at the mud-floored chamber, Chris dutifully crawled up the inlet to see where the water came from. A minute later I heard him shout, “20-20-60 Cave is dead! The water enters from a dome about fifteen feet long, ten feet wide and twenty feet high.”

“Then let’s bust outa this puke hole!

We reached Chris’ car undetected just as the first rays of dawn touched the eastern horizon. The cold air and brightening skyline reminded me of wintertime fishing on Lake Ontario with my dad.

One mystery had been solved, but another still remained. Where does the wind in 20-20-60 Cave go, and will we ever be able to follow it?


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