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Catawba Murder Hole


On April 5, 1958, thirteen members of the Grotto went to Catawba Murder Holeto explore the cave, and to participate in rappelling, prusiking and rock climbing practice. One car, carrying most of the club's rope, left early but missed a turn and did not arrive at the cave with the rest of the party. While waiting for the car with the bulk of the rope to arrive, the trip leader, Jim Quinlin entered the cave with several members to supervise rigging of a handline inside the cave.

When Quinlin returned to the surface, he found that two lengths of 150-foot 9/16-inch manila rope had been rigged by David K. Spencer and two others. Spencer, weighing 165 pounds, put on his rappel pad, tied his prusik safety to the second line, and started down the 125-foot drop. He was feeding his rappel line slowly, and was In free space as soon as he was fifteen feet below the edge of the sink hole. At a point approximately 25 feet below the edge, his rappel line suddenly snapped, and Spencer fell 100 feet to the rock and log-strewn floor of the sink hole. He did not survive. Uppermost in everyone's mind was why this had happened. Investigation by the cavers revealed that the fibers of the rope had been weakened by traces of hydrochloric acid. The source appeared to have been in a closet at the Student Activities Building at VPI where the grotto had a small room for equipment storage off a larger area for janitor equipment.

--Dr. John W. Murray's files.

Saturday, February 12, 1966, five members of the VPI Grotto:

Carole Noble , Rick Keener, Joe Kreck, Glen Davis and Bob Williams entered Catawba Murder Hole, VA, late in the afternoon. It was a cloudy, dark day, with misty rain falling. The group explored for several hours, and then attempted to exit. Joe Kreck, a trainee and the oldest of the group, climbed out first. His prusik knots slipped repeatedly on the water--slick rope and his light went out. At one point he told the group below that as soon as he de-rigged, he would go for help. Rick Keener, also a trainee, told Joe not to panic; as soon as he had made the climb, they would assess the situation and decide whether extra manpower was really needed. Rick climbed out with no problems, but while he was on the rope, Kreck returned to the car to change his clothes. While there, he decided to issue a call for help. Instead of calling back to VPI for caver assistance, Kreck called the Salem Rescue Squad, none of whose members were happy to be called to the cave on that chilly, rainy night.

Because the road to the cave was deep in mud, snow and water, the rescuers had to walk and carry a 100-pound gasoline-powered generator, two stretchers, ropes, first aid kits, blankets and other equipment. At one point, the generator ran out of gasoline and the rescuers had to return to the truck for more.

"In time, the remaining three cavers were brought to the surface. Near the top of the pit, Carole slipped and stumbled in the mud against the rocky side of the pit. 'Let her fall,' someone said, 'It'll do her good.' When a reporter asked her name, she replied, 'Forget it!' Later she informed Deputy Sheriff J.A. Wood of her name, and stated that the water dripping down into the cave made the ropes slick and they couldn't climb out alone."--Jack Chamberlain, Times Staff Writer, ROANOKE TIMES, February 14, 1966.

In actuality, the remaining three cavers were able to climb unaided to the top of the entrance pit. However, they did accept the Rescue Squad's rope to assist themselves up the steep mud- slicked slope to the "surface". Because of the bad publicity which resulted from this incident against cavers, VPI Grotto members instituted a grotto call-down list for members and other area cavers to use in case additional manpower were needed. At all costs, cavers generally prefer to avoid entangling rescue squads, police and reporters into cave rescues.-Anne Whittemore, 1979.


On March 16, a group of eight people with the Explorer's Club of Pittsburgh entered Cass Caveat about 2:30 PM. They were David Walsh, the trip leader, Rita Ernst, Phyllis Gable, Mike Adams, Norm Snyder, Sandi Zubritzky, Ray Enyeart and Denny Callihan. All the group had some climbing experience; five had been in caves previously.

The 200-foot drop into the big room was rigged with a cable ladder and belay. Two members of the party remained above while the other six rappelled down in front of the waterfall that drops into the room. Due to recent rains, the streams and waterfall in the cave were moderately high, causing everyone to be soaked by the time they reached the bottom.

The events of the next 12 hours are confused. The six that had descended did some exploration and finally returned to the ladder. One person ascended on belay in about a half-hour; a belayer descended, and then he and three others ascended in times ranging from one to two hours. Difficulties were experienced with signalling (whistles were used); exposure (the spray from the fall drenched and chilled everyone); entanglement of the ladder and the belay rope; and fatigue. Finally, at 2:30 AM (March 17) only Enyeart and Snyder remained at the bottom. The ladder and rope were pulled up to disentangle them.

The two at the bottom checked now and then, until 6:00 AM, for the ladder and rope, and finally moved away from the falls and got some sleep. Snyder also spent some three hours exploring while Enycart tried to sleep. At 11:30 AM, the ladder and rope were lowered. Enycart tied in to the belay line and proceeded to climb. Despite signals given by Snyder, the belay line remained slack. Enyeart noticed this when he was 15 to 20 feet from the floor, started back down, slipped and fell. Enyeart attempted again to climb, receiving tension on this time, but was unable to proceed. Inspection showed a bad bump on his knee and it was decided that he would have to be pulled out. Snyder tied into the belay and ascended, planning to arrange the necessary rescue.

Meanwhile, after the ladder and rope had tangled and been pulled up, those on top decided that help was necessary. The three girls left the cave and contacted John Payne and Mike Balister from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Snyder found them there when he reached the top of the ladder. Payne and Balister, not having block and tackle available, suggested that the Cave Rescue Communications Network be called. Either Payne or Balister descended to keep Enyeart company, while everyone else left the cave for assistance, leaving one of the Pittsburgh group at the belay point. A rubber bag containing a sleeping bag, stove, food, and a "walkie--talkie" were lowered but were never received, as it tangled with the ladder.

The CRCN was contacted at 4:15 PM, arrived at the cave at 8:OO PM removed the tangled rigging, and Tom Vigour rappelled in with food, extra clothing, and the harness. All three were pulled up without incident and all were out of the cave by 1:00 AM Monday morning (March 18).--AMERICAN CAVING ACCIDENTS, 1967--1970.

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