When I found Off Limits in the ACS database the background story provided by Bill Varnedoe instantly intrigued me. Huntsville is home to Redstone Arsenal, which besides being home of NASA is also of course a military base for the US Army. The cave was surveyed in 1971 so some time in the early 1970’s some cavers – also US Army – were late returning from leave. Why where they late? They were out exploring this very pit. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, declared the pit off limits to all its personnel. Never mind the other thousands of pits in Alabama much less TAG!
Billy, Emory, Brian and I headed down into the cove on a cold Saturday morning. What we found was paradise. The gentleman who owns it is very friendly and has an amazing location for both his home and the wedding chapel and cabins he runs. I am actually quite surprised I have not heard of it from other cavers having weddings there as it is so beautiful with all the karst and as a photographer I kept seeing all the wonderful photo opportunities for such an occasion. On that note, I would recommend anyone interested in caving in that area call ahead and make sure there are no weddings one would interrupt.
We followed the stream up the mountain until it was time to turn and head straight up it. The hike was not bad at all, and although the entrance coordinates were a bit off Billy spotted it shortly after we fanned out. There is a very landmark tree at the entrance, happily eating a breakfast (and lunch and dinner) of ROCKS.
The tree can be seen from downhill, so it is worth keeping an eye for as one approaches the pit. The entrance itself is right behind it, and is about 10×10 foot hole with some nice old formations.
Billy sadly forgot his helmet, and Emory is new to vertical and came for the hike, so it ended up that only Brian and I actually entered the cave. Right away on rappel you see a pretty little side room, that is visible from the top but you can actually see into it better about 15-feet down. The formations are all old and dry but it still looks neat.
The light filtered into the entrance drop as the sun peered through the clouds. The shaft reminded me somewhat of Natural Well, but only half as deep. The way onward is a canyon about six feet up from the floor of the pit. It’s a narrow canyon with lots of protrusions and it required us slide through on our sides. It is nerve-wracking as it is, of course, sloped into the second drop.
The second drop has two bolts, an old homemade angle-iron hanger and a newer Petzl. The presence of the Petzl one made us feel better, but it did wiggle ever so slightly so we went ahead and just rigged both with a double figure-8. The force angles on the hangers were appropriate, they were well-placed despite being a little low! Instead of being like Mystery Falls low side, where they are high enough to rig in high and not drop as you swing off from sitting on the lip, these are at chest-height. And, unlike Mystery where you have a safety to approach sitting at the lip, here, you don’t. Although they are actually more in-reach than the bolts at Mystery, and the narrow canyon is easy to wedge yourself as you rig.
Still, my heart was beating a bit faster! Once rigged in and sliding off the ledge to weight the rope it actually was not that bad, and the rope only barely touched in two places and doesn’t really need padding. And to make it even more awesome, there is a dome with a hundred foot tall waterfall pouring right next to you, although the drop itself is dry. Perfect!
Once down, we were treated to spectacular views. The domes were quite decorated with a lot of flowstone, some helectites hanging in alcoves, and small draperies and, as one of my good friends calls, some small “jellyfish”. Oh, and did I forget to mention the waterfall?
It really reminded me of a mini-version of Topless Dome in Tumbling Rock. So…let’s follow the water! Down the canyon we go. And go. And go. And go and go. Never-ending narrow ledgy sharp jabby canyon. Take your pack off and walk sideways canyon. I wish some of its 30-foot height had been width instead.
We made it to the formations, which choked up the passage and meant the way on was a wet crawl. We decided to turn around, as it was just the two of us and there was a 20-foot drop? downclimb? coming up we didn’t have rope for. The survey didn’t make it clear and it was a Torode map so we thought it might be some crazy freeclimb! So between a wet potentially difficult downclimb and a wet low crawl to get there and it was freezing outside, we decided it was time to turn back. The formations were lovely, but they were nothing spectacular despite seeming out of place in the middle of a carved canyon passage.
Soda straws and flowstone
On the way out I stopped a few times on the second drop to view the waterfall and formations and fossils. There were a few layers with some swirly snailshells, and of course lots of crinoids. The entrance drop has a ledge about 10 feet down from the top and so I stopped off and went to the little side room, which was a dead end. I decided to hang out to get a photo of Brian making his way out. All in all it was a fun and interesting cave worth seeing once.