Into the Airblower - and Beyond!

Indy (naturally)
Skeeter (for his ability to tap a keg)
Twerp (aka, among a number of other monikers, Squeeky, Malorkis and Butt Girl - Indy never did really ascertain where the origins of 'Butt Girl' came from...)

[insert dramatic theme music here]

(a photo or two will be linked in later when I get a copy of the pics; be patient)


A couple days after the Christmas of '98 Indy led a couple of friends to the John Guilday Cave Preserve, to take them into two of the three caves in the area (Hamilton and Trout, but not New Trout - there wouldn't be enough time). While in Hamilton Cave the trio came across the infamous 'Airblower'. Indy had heard horror tales from other friends he knows who have gone in, and rumors that some folk never return once entering that dreaded 30' tube. Indy never felt a desperate need to prove his manhood, and has never had a desire to even seek out the 'Blower. However, as Fate would have it, he came across it with the other two, and there they discovered an airflow experiment over the 'Blower.

The idea of this experiment, which was being conducted by Bob Hoke and Arnie Weisbrot, was to measure the strength of the airflow coming out of, or going into, the 'Blower. There was a protractor suspended above the 'Blower, with a string hanging down to measure the deflection. Off to the side was information on the experiment and a chart where other cavers could enter in data as they visited that area of the cave. While Indy entered the data they had collected on that day, Pete ('Skeeter') declared that another pilgrimage would have to be made back here, for the 'Blower called out to him. He also cited 'Rite of Passage' in his caving career as a reason to enter the Airblower. Indy thought hard about who he could con into going through the 'Blower with Pete, but everyone who might be willing to had already done so and they weren't going to lose their sanity any time soon. Indy looked at the hole and just did not feel inspired to force his way into/through it. He would try later to find an unsuspecting or unbalanced soul to accompany Pete.

In any event, Indy noted the email addresses of Bob and Arnie and once back in the 'civilized' East Coast Cities, dropped them a line about the experiment. A dialogue proceeded, with the theory coming forth that there might be a possible (however slim the chance) connection between Hamilton and either Trout or New Trout cave, or both. The theory held with the current data collected (both temperature readings and airflow direction measurements). Now all that was needed was some intrepid (or foolhardy, not completely there) adventurer(s) to penetrate the Airblower and scout the passages beyond for more airflow. This would have to be done, according to theory, in the winter, as the airflow came out from the back of the cave towards the entrance. For some reason Indy momentarily lost his sanity and volunteered to take a small team in. He sent out a call for victims, er, volunteers to undertake this endeavor with him.

He received a number of replies. Skeeter/Pete lept to the forefront, and volunteered his housemate Twerp to come along (Twerp had never before been caving, but was eager to test herself against the formidable dauntingness of the 'Blower; she's been dying to try this ever since reading an article in a National Geographic on caving several years ago). Several other people responded, but eventually all backed out (most very quietly, never mentioning going again). Mayhap they weren't taken to losing sanity as fast as Indy (although one person opted to go ice climbing instead; there is a well-known study going on to determine whether or not it is the cavers or ice climbers who have less noodles in their noggins - the jury is still out on this).

In any event, the plans were set. January 16th would be The Day. In the meantime, Indy pried from his friends any beta he could get on the Airblower and what lay beyond it. He learned that the Airblower is a helmet-less push (ie, too tight to wear a helmet and crawl along with any hope of seeing; you have to push/'throw' your helmet down the tube ahead of you). He also learned that there is a 'ditch' in the 'floor' of the 'Blower that one must be cautious to not allow an arm to be in for it abruptly ends and, well, you are stuck fast, forcing you to back up - using only your toes for movement - until you can get to a spot in which you can trail your one arm behind you (the other is in front; cannot go forward with both arms because most people's shoulders are too wide to fit). He was warned that there were two more 'mini-Airblower' tubes, not quite as tight as the Airblower itself, and just a few body-lengths rather than 30' in length. He was advised that there really wasn't much past the squeeze tubes/airblowers: mostly small rooms with lots of crawling hands-and-knees passages. One didn't generally go back there to do sight-seeing. He was told that the Airblower itself is angled ever so slightly down, so going in is just a bit easier than coming back out (and he was advised to bring a length of rope to assist in hauling oneself back out of the 'Blower; also, the rope will help get one started into the 'Blower from the far end, since it is rather high up on the wall - about 10' off the floor). He also was advised of the 'bottomless pit' that one comes to at the end of the Airblower - and that the 'Blower terminates quite high in this pit room, so be careful in emerging from it (an adventuring Viking he knows went through the 'Blower once and unknowingly throwing her helmet in front of her, caused it to tumble down into the pit). He was assured that the bottom of the 'bottomless pit' was a body length and a half down, and that there were a couple of shelves to awkwardly use to prevent one from falling to their hurt. But bring a rope for the crawl out.

Indy was starting to reconsider this trip...

Into The Airblower...

The night before Indy triple-checked his lights (all of them!), discarded old batteries, nonworking flashlights, and burnt-out bulbs, and loaded up the ol' Indymobile. The next morning he headed down to DC to collect Skeeter and Twerp (whom Indy had heard tales of, but had never met; Skeeter had boasted of the Twerp's backrubbing skills to Indy in the past). He arrived at the Vienna Metro station 3 minutes late (dammit!), where they were waiting for him. Twerp proved to be a really tiny person: a slender 5'0-1/2" bundle of contained energy. If the tight spaces didn't get to her, she was going to be a trooper in this cave (really, she so small she would have far less problems than Indy or Skeeter would!). But she was way-psyched for this trip. Wasn't going to let a small part of a cave deter her. Quickly they moved gear from Skeeter's jeep into the Indymobile's spacious trunk, and off they zoomed down 66. Destination: Hamilton Cave, West Virginia!

A bit more than 2-1/2 hours later they had arrived at the parking area. There were two other vehicles already there: an Expedition and a pick-up. More people than Indy has seen at these caves in a while. The trio suited up and began the trek to Hamilton cave (which is, of course, the furthest one from where one parks). Twerp was way excited - she finally was going to get to try this caving stuff out!

Upward they trudged through the glazed snow and leaf-encrusted mud path, and up into the entrance of Hamilton Cave itself. Indy had furnished Skeeter and Twerp with copies of the archaic and blurry (10th+ generation photocopy) map he had acquired from a ragged traveller in Tim-buk-three many years earlier. The idea was to go in, push the Airblower, go as far as they could in the back part of the cave, trace any air movement in other tubes/rooms on the map, and report their findings to Bob Hoke. Anything other than this, such as general cave exploring, would be icing on the cake. Thus armed with their lights, rope, anchors (for the rope), extra batteries, food (power bars for Skeeter and Twerp; nothing for Indy as he managed to forget all his food in the car - doh! - but he hadn't realized it yet), and thirst for adventure (or would that be lack of sanity for what they were about to get themselves into?), the trio entered Hamilton Cave...

Looking out the entrance of Hamilton Cave

A short way in they came across a group of three other cavers. They exchanged greetings, and Skeeter gave them his copy of the blurry map of Hamilton to the other group, as Indy and Twerp still had theirs, and there was at least one more map in the car (fat lot of good it would do them there ;). The other cavers were very happy to have this very unreadable paper, as it was more than they had before. They headed out as Indy and crew headed in.

A couple of false turns, however, made the trip down to the Airblower longer than it need have been (Hamilton, for those who have not been in it, is a serious criss-cross maze of passages). But they found it, soon enough, and the group set up the rope to string into the passage for the trip out. It was at this point that Indy realized his food was all in the car (ugh!!). Twerp graciously shared one of her Mocha powerbars (her fave) with Indy. Indy ate some of it, just to get some food into him, as he pared down his gear to the essentials he would be taking with him into the back part of the cave. Indy's D cell lights were giving him fits (damn Caldor things!), so Twerp lent Indy one of her two scuba lights she had brought along. This thing kicked butt! Indy's gonna have to find hisself one of these...

Indy stalled a while longer while he took an air deflection reading for Bob and Arnie's experiment, then finding no further excuses to not go into the Airblower, took off his helmet, and threw it into the tube. Followed by his sidepack, and then the wad of rope. And then...his own self.

The trip through the Airblower is something to be experienced; words cannot adequately do it justice. Suffice it to say that Indy was given the advise to go through with one arm forward, the other trailing behind (it was supposed to be that tight), but Indy managed to somehow keep one arm forward, the other partly forward, and squirm ever so slowly into the tube, inchworm style. When his feet finaly entered the tube it made going a LITTLE easier (he wasn't relying soley on his arms and chest to move), but still it was a slog (Indy was of the opinion his trip up Borah Peak in Idaho was a hair easier - but at least he was moving!). Pushing the helmet, sidepack, and bundled non-coil of stiff rope ahead of him was no picnic (Indy belatedly vaguely remembered at this point that the last group of friends who went through this sent the tiniest person, Jen-Vader, through with the rope; Twerp was hanging back in the main passage, patiently waiting her turn, and Indy was barely 1/3 of the way in; too bad for Indy...). Skeeter and Twerp did periodic checks on Indy's progress, and called forth encouraging remarks ("You're not quite halfway; go man!") as he grunted and groaned.

Indy noticed as he was going through the tube (well, if you can call it that!) that there was a squarish trench in the 'floor'. Hmmm! This must be the 'ditch' he was warned about. Oh well, his arm was well in it, no pulling it out now. Besides, he needed both his hands in order to push his stuff ahead of him.

Slowly...slowly...oh, so damned freaking slowly he crawled through this hell. Skeeter would occassionally pipe down the tunnel with "Yep, you're just past halfway now!". Ugh! Grunt!! Groan!!! Man, this sucked. But happily, before too many hours elapsed, Indy saw that the tube...ended in nothingness...and that in the distance (oh, about 8-10' from where the tube 'ended') there was a wall. He was almost there! Only another 12' to go...<grunt!> <groan!> <grunt!> Fortunately for Indy the trench never turned into the 'ditch' he was warned about getting stuck fast in. He informed Twerp and Skeeter that the ditch-warning he had wasn't a worry. Little did Indy know...

With the forewarnings which Indy had been given about the bottomless pit that wasn't, Indy managed to not throw his helmet into the room to have it crash below. In fact, at the mouth of the terminus of the 'Blower it was wide enough for Indy to get his helmet back on! And as he exited the Airblower and climbed the 10' down into the pit room, he was able to not drop his sidepack but still toss down the rope, and not fall to the ground himself. There were just enough mini-shelves and close walls to work with to enable him to deftly manuever (well, as deftly as anyone can after being cramped in a tube for 30' and two hours). Once he was clear, he called back to let Twerp and Skeeter know he was out and they could come through.

Twerp was there in 2 minutes. She almost did the whole thing on her hands and knees. Man, must be nice to be small sometimes.

Skeeter, a stockier fellow than Indy, managed to bull his way through the tube a short while later. Everyone seemed to go through it faster than Indy. Yeesh. Once in the room, the three gathered around one of the maps and looked where to go next...

...And Beyond

The trio then moved on into the next 'room', and studied the hole in the ground before them. It looked tiny. Ugh. Another freaking 'Airblower' (well, air was flowing out from the other end). Fortunately not as long as the main one; this one was maybe 12-15'. And there was just a little more room to manuever inside it (though not by much!!). Once through Indy called back and Twerp shot through like a bullet. Then Skeeter pushed his way through. A quick scan around this small room and then they moved on to the next hole they came to. Again, airflow as expected (noticeably strong and coming out). With an audible groan Indy went first, with Twerp chasing on his heels and Skeeter bringing up the rear.

Now, Indy had been told by Bron the Viking that there were two more 'mini-Airblowers' after the first. Her memory was just slightly faulty (prolly in overload from dealing with the Airblower itself), for it turned out that there was a 3rd hole in the ground they had to contend with. Indy was not a happy camper! But he forced his ever-growingly battered body into this new hole. This time at the end it turned 90-degrees upward, and Indy found it necessary and easier to spiral as he went through the first part of this tunnel until he was inverted and on his back, staring up at the hole above him, which led to an obvious room. Clawing his way up he managed to pull a small mountain of dirt/mud right onto his face <sputter!> but also managed to wiggle free and collapse in the room.

Whoa, this was a kinda large room! (well, with everything being relative, and considering the 4 hell-tubes he had just finished dealing with, this was a massively large room!) The Star Chamber (although at the time with the blurry and ancient map they weren't exactly sure if they were in the room or not yet). Twerp and Skeeter popped into the room next and the three looked around.

Twerp popping out of the 3rd hole

Hey.....there were a bunch of different passages to explore here! After looking around for a while, it was decided that Indy would check out the high groove that led up to a hole in the wall up high and right from where the mini-Airblower deposited them, Twerp would check a low passage off to the left, and Skeeter the middle passage off to the left (Indy thought something wrong here; those two left passages were large, whereas his was small!).

Indy climbed and clambored up the mud-groove and then ended up crawling (again!!) as he entered a congested vertical fissure passage. He went as far into the fissure passage to see that it continued on freely with no more boulder obstructions for 30-40' before hitting a wall. From his vantage point it wasn't clear if it just ended, or took a 90-degree turn, or what. But as he was way out of contact with Skeeter and Twerp, he opted to head back to the main room.

Slot Canyoneering in Hamilton's

A few minutes after his return he heard Twerp and Skeeter talking from two different passages, and as they determined where they were connected into the same passage, Indy joined them by scouting out yet another passage. From there they followed the main trend of the passage up, poking into fissures and rat-holes as they came upon them (note: noticeable airflow ceased to be after they had entered the Star Chamber). After quite a while of this exploration (and finding many leads that died or squished down into ugly crawls with no apparent ways of easily getting back out again), the three adventurers retired to the Star Chamber.

There were still a couple more passages from there to check out. Skeeter decided to push the fissure passage the Indy had originally looked at, while Indy and the Twerp were going to poke through a hole in the ceiling above the mini-Airblower. Twerp, being a twerp, scurried up easily into the ceiling hole. Indy, being somewhat more massive, started to follow and had his main footholds shear off out from under him! He managed to not fall by being in 'chimney mode', but it was a bit disconcerting. Twerp at that point determined that this lead just led back to the main part of the Star Chamber, so Indy decended and joined her the main part of the Star Chamber. From there Twerp scurried up the other mud-groove to see if that hole led anywhere, but it ended up being a dead-end. In the meantime, Skeeter had determined that the fissure passage Indy had started to explore earlier actually was a 4-way intersection - with one of the ways being another tight tube like the Airblower, and the remaining two hands-and-knees crawl passages. So Twerp and Indy joined Skeeter to check these leads. Still no real noticeable sign of airflow.

First they went right from the fissure, Skeeter in the lead, Indy bringing up the rear. They pushed forward a bit, then the passage took a hard left, then petered out into something so tight Skeeter didn't want to push it. Great. That way was out. They turned around. It was about at this point when Indy's Caldor-special rollerblade elbow pads started to fail on him.

Back at the junction they studied the map. Indy suspected that the main room they had been crawling out of was the Star Chamber. But he wasn't sure. So they decided to push the opposite passage from the one they just did, the left tunnel from the fissure. This kept going...and going...and going...and going! Sometimes they could stoop (rare), mostly hands-and-knees crawl, and sometimes it got tight and nasty (not often, but often enough to be a pain). Indy led for a while, then Twerp scurried to the front. Then she found a register.

A register, way back here in the cave?? Weird. No matter, they signed in. As Twerp, who signed in first, turned to see what was next, her voice began to echo! Echo?? Big room??? Indy looked up...and his light barely reached the far wall - a BIG room!! WAHOO!! Bigness!!

Indy and Skeeter signed in themselves and joined Twerp in the monstrous chamber. High above them were a collection of bats, and the room, full of huge boulders, echoed with their talk. Wow...big room...spacious...what a concept! Skeeter decided to push the Big Room for a ways while Indy finally determined that the other room they had been in was the Star Chamber. Indy and Twerp sat in the Big Room while they waited for Skeeter to come back, just drinking in the Bigness (Indy has no idea what the name of this room is as the words on his decrepit map read '(something) by (something)', so they decided to just call this The Big Room).

Skeeter eventually came back, and Indy decided, now knowing where they are, to push some of the side passages here, still hoping to find airflow motion. He found inconclusive air movement in the side passages, but he did see some neat swirls of rock hallways, and found more passages, but it was late, they all were tired, and so Indy didn't fully explore as he would have wanted to. Ah well. Maybe someday he will lose his sanity again and return to this part of the cave...

Once back with Skeeter and Twerp they checked the time. 6pm. They had been doing this cave stuff for 6 hours. The entrance was a long, long ways away, and they had to not only deal with the crawls out from the Big Room, but the 3 mini-Airblowers and the Main Airblower. Indy shuddered at the thought, not looking forward to it.

There, and back again...

The trio made their way back to the Star Chamber. Indy was really starting to hurt now; his already high-mileage body accumulating many more on this trip. And granted, he's not in great shape, but this was silly. After getting through the crawls and fissure passage and back into the Star Chamber, he just collapsed there, waiting for Twerp and Skeeter to show. Which they did, in short order. They rested, thankfully, and did battery changeouts.

Now it was time to tackle the first of the 3 mini-'Blowers. Going head-first into this one was not an option Indy was at all relishing or looking forward to, so he opted for feet-first.This proved to be 'the way' to get through this particular tube-of-hell. Awkward, but he eventually squirmed his way into the next room, with his elbowpads falling off. As he looked up and was going to let Twerp know he was clear, she was poking her smiling face out from the wall. "What's taking so long, Indy?".

Grumble...damn tiny little people...grumble...

Skeeter came next and they moved to the next hole. Indy opted head-first for this one...and managed to get himself stuck when his pocket got caught on something! He had to worm his way out of his side pack in order to get his left arm around and behind him enough to free his pocket. This...took a while. Skeeter and Twerp just chuckled.

"Mrphml mrml phmlmr!!" - Indy

Once free Twerp and Skeeter dashed through and then it was on to the next tube. Indy went first again, and once through, collapsed on the other side. Twerp took about 7 seconds longer this time than the others, which gladdened Indy's heart - she does have limits! Skeeter even took an extra minute, which allowed Indy to rest and mentally prepare for....The Airblower.

The trio moved into the pit room with the Airblower looming 10' above them. Indy looked up at it in dismay. Man, this is gonna suck...

Indy stopped stalling, and prepped to go. Twerp and Skeeter cheered Indy on ("Now don't get stuck, we want to get out, too!"). Indy stripped off his now-all-but-useless elbowpads off, and worked his way up the wall to the mouth of the Airblower. Peering in, he shuddered. Man, this was gonna suck... Indy, balancing himself up on the wall, managed to rerig his sidepack so it was tied to his right ankle, and tossed his helmet into the gaping maw before him. Then grasping the rope, he hauled himself into the Hole from Hell.

It was awkward to figure out the best way to move through this thing. Indy finally settled on having his left arm in front to pull on the rope, his right hand bent forward underneath him in the trench, and, well, feet behind him, flailing in the air at first, but then pushing in whatever way they could once in the narrow confines of the 'Blower. He began to inch-worm his way along, at an abysmally slow pace (throw helment, struggle, grunt, groan, struggle, grunt, throw helmet, repeat). Inch by inch Indy pushed along, pulling on the rope at first with his left hand, then his right. His left foot/leg had managed to 'swing' up into the narrow 'slot' portion of the 'Blower in order to give a little bit of extra leverage (and in this thing, every bit of leverage counted!). He was making progress when suddenly...'thunk'. His right hand/arm was stuck!

"Ahhh, #%*&! Dammit!!" he shouted out in frustration. The 'ditch' he had been warned about - his arm was square in it! There was no going forward from here, not with his right arm bent forward under him the way it was. Crap, now he was going to have to back up. Mannnnn, this sucks....

In a small fit of desperation, Indy decided to try and see if he couldn't work his arm from in front to behind him. He had only backed up a couple of inches at this point. Now, Indy's forearm measures 13" from elbow to wrist. The passage is barely 12" 'tall', with no option of turning sideways in the tunnel as the rest of his body filled the passage. You do the math.

Somehow....somehow Indy managed to squirm his right hand so it now trailed behind him, underneath him. He doesn't know how he did it, just that he did. Now he could go forward once again - woohoo!

Repeat the above: throw helmet, struggle, grunt, groan, struggle, grunt, throw helmet. Now instead of pulling on the rope with his right hand, he had to either push backwards with his right wrist, or push against the rope with his right hand. Either way, it was slow going. He was only 1/3 of the way through the tube.

Periodically Indy made 'progress reports' back to Twerp and Skeeter. Skeeter had a good memory of the 'Blower and reminded Indy of a constriction in the tube that is ~12' from the end. And if Indy was past that he was golden. Indy realized he was just getting to it. Grreeaat. The tunnel gets smaller...

Indy pushed forward again, and soon came upon the constriction. Yep, it got smaller, the passage did. Sighing, Indy discovered he had to turn sideways in order to get through this thing. And breathing...forget it! He couldn't breathe. That would mean expanding his chest, and that meant filling the tube more than what it could hold. Great. This is soooo much fun. Grunt, groan, struggle, throw helmet...    Indy struggled sideways with this thing, and then...he was past it (well, his chest was, at any rate). Only another 10 or so feet to go! Indy pushed wearily on.

A few minutes later (for details of the crawl, see earlier-mentioned descriptions :), Indy fell out of the Airblower and collapsed on the ground. He called out that he was free, and immediately heard the Twerp running (!) through the 'Blower. Indy had barely enough time to stand up and get out the camera to take a picture of her as she neared the end of the 'Blower. Next Skeeter started into the 'Blower. And being of a stockier body, pretty much filled the holes in the tunnel as he dragged his way forward. He was actually tired, too, as he requested a pull on the rope to help him get through a couple of sections. MAN that is a tight passage! Indy gave it his all to help pull him through, but felt that his efforts were inadequate (however, it did help Skeeter struggle forward enough to resume under his own power once again).

Skeeter emerging from the Airblower

A while later Skeeter pushed into the room and out of the Airblower. There they rested, ate a snack or two, and took down the rope. Repacking everything, they set on their way back to the entrance. A short while later they made it to the entrance. It was now 8:03pm. It took them barely 2 hours to exit from The Big Room.

End of the Long Day

The three weary adventurers made their way through the darkness back down to the car. The air temperature was chilly, but not as chilly as they had thought it was going to be (it was maybe 32 degrees out - actually comfortable after heating up so much getting through the cave). The three changed out of their muddies, and Indy then learned first hand why Skeeter had boasted to him earlier about Twerp's back massage skills (Indy definitely wanted to take her home at that point). Once changed the three piled in the car and headed home. Twerp took a nice long nap in back, while Skeeter entertained Indy up front. Gassing up in Harrisonburg was great - $0.78/gallon! A couple hours or so after leaving the cave area, they arrived back at the Vienna Metro. Skeeter and Twerp retired to their home. Indy returned to B'more an hour later, took a long, hot shower, then fell into bed. Laying on his back he reflected on how tired he was, and what a long day he would have come the next day. As he turned over to go to sleep, he felt a massive pain in his hip bone. Great! Turning over to the other side, the other hip bone also was extremely sore. Wonderful. Bone weary and bone sore. Indy figured he was going to sleep on his back tonite. Taking a deep breath, his ribs rebelled, also being extremely sore. Great, not going to breathe much this night, either. Indy dropped off into an exhausted sleep.


A few days after the adventure Indy attended the DC Grotto's January meeting at the invitation of Bob Hoke, and gave a brief report of the air flow (or lack thereof) in the back portion of Hamilton Cave. There he also learned of a number of other projects the DCG was involved in, such as the resurveying of Bowden's Cave in West Virginia. A very active group, they are!

Indy also decided that the next few caves he goes in will be ones with large walking passages; he's had his fill of squeeze-tubes, thanks.

Return to The Adventure Library