C is for Cemetery Pit

I lucked out with Cemetery, as it was our grotto vertical trip this month. It is a cave I don’t hear much about and I’d never been to before. It is one of the many SCCi caves on their Fox Mountain Preserve. We stopped at the McDonalds in Scottsboro for second breakfast and continued on to Georgia, parking in the designated SCCi parking. After gathering gear and ropes, including a brand new one that was way too white, we headed up to the entrance.

We rigged two ropes due to the group size and the fact that it was quite cold so we wouldn’t want to have to wait for climbers (especially as it was sucking in the freezing-temp outside air down the pit!). The rappel was interesting, not far from the wall, and ran over several ledges that the lead rappellers had to de-tangle ropes from on their way down.

Rigging Rope 1 – the way-too-clean brand new rope!

About 1000-feet into the cave is a second rappel point off of a place called Earl’s Ledge. The options there are a sketchy traverse or about a 50-ft rappel. We opted for the rappel. The route to this spot was winding sometimes-tight with a few squeezes and I quickly figured out that canyoning is harder in full vertical kit. (I had not been aware of the second rappel and did not have a pack large enough for my kit as well.)

Rappelling Earl’s Ledge

Our goal of the day was to find the Soda Straw Room without getting stuck in the 3-D Maze section. This took a LOT of route finding but I thought that was half the fun! There were many leads, but most eventually dead ended or were loops back to places we’d already been. Finally we found a hole that went and took it. Unfortunately, it popped us into the 3-D Maze we thought we were bypassing.

After a lunch break and more scouting, someone stumbled upon a large dome with a fallen column in it. NOW we knew where we were, as there is a Fallen Pillar Dome on the map. It was quite impressive, an oval cross section being on the order of 3×4 feet. (As a side note: I say column, although the room is called Fallen Pillar Dome, because a column is calcite deposit typically created when a stalagmite and stalactite join. This clearly was a deposited formation. On the other hand, a pillar occurs when the water erodes away the surrounding bedrock. It’s not a deposited formation, it is just a leftover pillar of rock. However, often both terms are used interchangeably in common speak.)

View of the column’s cross-section, the internal crystal structure is quite pretty!

From here the cave started to open up. There were still areas of massive breakdown, but the ceilings got taller and the paths wider. We followed the main trunk until it split, and some of us scouted different ways. It didn’t make a difference as we all ended up in the same chamber.

I explored a few little side areas and was getting excited as I had spotted a few soda straws, some broken, the first straws I’d really seen of any reasonable length to not just be nubs on the ceiling. I was pretty convinced we had found Broken Soda Straw Passage. As soon as everyone gathered, two of us headed off pushing the passage with the straws.

Clearly broken soda straw, and odd enough to be the passage’s namesake, right?

Coming to a right hand 90-deg fork in the passage, the way on straight petered out quickly. The bend did another hook and lead into a scary-looking passage. It looked to me as I’d imagine being inside a shark’s mouth would be like! Being late in the day we opted to not push this creepy passage and head back out. I was pretty sure we’d seen our goal and it was just less impressive than imagined.

Some soda straws and helictites coming out of a neat perfectly round hole!

Our way out went much faster because there was no route finding required. From the 3-D Maze, we climbed down to a lower section and went out via the passage one of the others had found on an earlier trip. Upon re-entering the large chamber where Earl’s Ledge is, we heard voices and saw some lights. There were three college student cavers who said they were visiting from Florida. They had rigged a different spot to get down from the ledge, and said they had managed a third rig in the entrance drop so they had their own rope. They were heading out as well and were already working their way up the Earl’s Ledge climb.

Our group organized into pairs. The climbing, and the squeezes en route from Earl’s Ledge to the entrance drop would take time, so it would keep things moving to split up. We didn’t see the other group, so we all figured they were ahead of us as expected. We wound our way back to the entrance drop. As my buddy and I got to the ropes, the first pair was already almost up so our plan had worked brilliantly. We wouldn’t have to wait long in the chill of the 0*C air being sucked in from above.

Then, to our surprise, the three college students showed up just as my buddy and I were finishing our climbs. When our last team of two got to the top, they told us of the situation. Apparently, in the other group there was only one “experienced” person, the other two had limited to no experience on rope. They were sharing one set of gear, with the classic “clip it to the rope and send it screaming back down for the next to climb” plan. This worried us. A lot. Cemetery has all those ledges, remember? Even just deploying the rope gets it caught up in several places. The chances of a mass of climbing gear making it all the way back down seemed null, and it would take heavy smacks on the way down.

Luckily we had planned for having to wait in the frigid temperatures so we all had jackets to put on and wait for them. We couldn’t in good conscious, all six of us being trained cave rescuers in the Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit, leave them. If the first person got into trouble on the climb, there would be no way for them to even get help. If the gear didn’t make it down the rope past all the ledges, we could rappel it back down and help them climb out, or even set up a haul system if necessary to get them out.

Despite a very loud Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz BANG zzzz THUD THUD zz SMASH zzzzz BOOF,  “I got it!” was heard. We were shocked the gear made it, and cringed at the beating it had taken on the way down. Somehow it even worked a second time for their last climber. They probably thought we were crazy old fogies for hanging around like we did, but we were happy to know they got out.

It ended up quite a long trip all included. We went in around 10am and didn’t leave until almost 10pm. I couldn’t resist a few night photos of the entrance and the sky above.

In the end, it turns out we didn’t quite make it to the Soda Straw Room. It was right past that snarly bit where we turned around.


How the Media Works

Cavers often have issues with news articles on caving. The press is certainly not the most accurate. From saying the World’s Most Beautiful Cave is in Sheffield when clearly it’s not a photo of a cave, and probably most people would beg to differ, to calling us Daredevils, comparing us to Hobbits and thinking I am male…I think it’s safe to say the media likes to exaggerate, takes a lot of dramatic license, and doesn’t do thorough fact checks.

But people love cool photos, and no photo is complete without a story. Buzzwords are required. THE FIRST, THE BEST, THE MOST, CRAZY EXPLORERS, etc, sells to the public, so it’s what they write.

Here’s how it generally works in my experience: A news agency contacts the photographer. If the photographer agrees to let their works be published, a few questions are emailed. The photographer replies to the email with the facts. The news agency puts together a small blurb about the photos to accompany them. The photos are then sent out to the networks. A network staff writer then pieces together a story for the photos, and the Amazing News Story of Crazy Daredevil Cavers Who Found the Hobbits True Home! is printed.

As you can see, there are (at minimum) two end stages of which the photographer has no control over what is said. Once the photos leave their hands, it’s gone. Think of it like a game of telephone, but playing it with people who of their own agenda want to create an adrenaline-rushed story.

It happens to me, it happens to everyone else. Some networks are better than others at fact-checking and not going crazy with exaggerations, but almost any mass media cave article you read will have errors. (Just makes you think: if they can mess up such simple stories where they had the facts directly emailed to begin with, how much do they mess up much more important news stories?)

So, sit back with your cuppa tea and mug of coffee, enjoy some photos of caving reported to the general public in a positive light, and have a laugh that stories can get twisted to the point where I, Amy Hinkle, am all of a sudden magically male!

Faff now, Cave Later mug from SWCC