W is for Well Then Horror Hole

My friends Brandon and Troy found a new pit recently, and invited me to check it out. Apparently, I was the third person to visit. While they have not surveyed yet, Troy taped it to 186-ft deep, broken in two distinct drops.

The top is very small, not so much to be a huge problem, but tight and awkward. In fact, it is easier to switch to left hand rappel based on where the tiny bit of “elbow space” is.

Entering the SqueezeTroy entering the constriction on the first pitch, while I wait at a “land bridge”.

Once through this tight spot, the pit opens up and actually looks pretty impressive for a bit, and it looks like there are side passages to neighboring domes (so far nothing goes). A little bit of a rebelay/traverse line gets you to the nicely free-hanging second drop.

Drop #2Troy maneuvering to the second pitch.

Down at the bottom there are some nice large horn coral fossils, I am guessing based on what the limestone looks like in other caves in this area that it is Monteagle at the bottom, as there is a bit of a thin shale-y layer we passed on the second drop that is classic of the thin and spotty Hartselle formation in this region.

One side of the bottom looks like there might be going passage up high – Brandon climbed this on a previous trip and said it was another dome.

Look Inside a Horn CoralHorn coral.

Nothing much else to look at, we started climbing back up. Troy went first so I could get a decent shot of the pit, well, really the second pitch. In taking the photo I noticed there was a creepy wedged boulder right above me!

Hanging Rock DropThanks to Brandon and Troy for letting me see your new-found cave!

S is for Shangri-La…and Sofa King

Sorry for slacking on scooting to an S cave; hopefully I made up for it by making it a two-for-one day!

We are working on a resurvey project and I noticed an S cave I was interested in, not because of size but because of how pretty it sounded, was almost above our project. There are a lot of high ledges in our project cave, impossible to really get to, and the ones we have made it up to check out don’t go, but that doesn’t mean they all are duds. Looking around on the mountain, there was a second S-cave nearby.

Troy and I decided to do a mid-week trip to check them out. First stop, Shangri-La. It was as beautiful as it sounded from the survey sketch that was turned in. The land was pretty flat on the mountain above it, and the entrance unassuming. But inside was a lovely chamber with large flowstone and draperies and rimstone floor.

Big FlowstoneWe spent quite a bit of time just wandering around taking pictures, and I even got one with me in it, a rarity. There was a whole section of these long curving stalactites.

Amy and FormationsWe played with some extreme backlighting to this oddly shaped formation as well.

The Finger FormationAbove the flowstone there was an obvious shelf that didn’t appear to have been checked out. So we decided to actually “go caving” and try to explore. Troy really wanted up there to see if it went to a parallel room that might actually go somewhere, and I was curious too. There was a large solid nub we were able to lasso with a loop of rope. (Yes, we had a 120 ft rope for this 30-foot drop, plenty of extra to bring in, across, and lasso! I knew I picked right deciding to bring the longest we had!) The tail end of the rope I tied a figure 8 on a bight and clipped to my seat harness, my weight plus the friction around the nub was plenty to anchor as Troy climbed up the rope about 15 feet to the ledge.

Then we had another snag in the plan, the ledge didn’t continue smoothly around to where we wanted to see, so with some more creative rigging, I was able to belay Troy as he traversed around, practically swinging across the break in the ledge until his feet touched solid rock again. As soon as he had footing and called for slack I knew we made it! He was able to pull the rope over, and re-rig it traditionally so I could climb up.

Amy on RopeThere wasn’t a lot of space, it didn’t go anywhere. Well, I shouldn’t say it doesn’t go, but it would be a “jail-break” – lots of stalagmites and stalactites in the way, all would need broken to even see if it went, so we won’t be doing that. But I got a picture of where it ended in a choke of beauties.

High LevelAny farther and we’d have damaged formations, so we turned around to head back. I down-climbed to get back to the ground and then we got it re-rigged so I belayed Troy by rappelling him through a carabiner on my harness, so we would be able to pull the rope down after us. The entire trip was gorgeous and a wonderful exercise in creative exploratory rigging. I said goodbye to the happy green frog on the way out. It was hanging out in the flowstone ripples happy as can be.

Green FrogWe then hiked three tenths of a mile to Sofa King Dry Well. It…wasn’t worth the hike. It was tiny crack that went to nothing at the bottom. The limestone was crumbly and sharp. I actually aborted halfway down before the tightest part – I could have fit, but it would have sucked, and I wasn’t feeling like dealing with that for nothing. The entrance here was the widest section….

Amy Climbing OUt

And the view looking up makes it look nicer than it actually was. But see how many nubs there are? Half of them were fractured and just held in place by friction. I knocked quite a few loose some by accident some on purpose. Just…don’t bother with this pit. It isn’t friendly. Troy did go all the way to the bottom, it’s mud. It certainly takes water, but no one is going to ever want to dig this nasty tight crack.

Looking Out


R is for Rainbow Pit

We are hosting another UK caver! This is the fourth time people have stayed with us, it is really great fun and we enjoy the cross cultural experience both general and caving techniques and tricks. Rostam is excited to learn “IRT” – Indestructible Rope Technique, which is what they call our SRT here in the states since we use thicker abrasion resistant ropes and rope pads for edges, rather than make every hang completely free. So, after a quick trip to the practice bluff which introduces in a span of three meters a few very different edges ranging from easy to difficult, we headed to find a small local pit.

After a classic “walk around in the woods for a while looking lost” we found it. We knew the general location, however, it is a tiny hole and having not been there it is one of those very easy to walk by. Rostam is actually the one who found it, and seemed a little surprised at the size (not all TAG stuff is huge)!

I went down first, and did not realize that it was not worth bottoming, so I ended up moving the rope around and down a few different ledges and once down, realizing I didn’t want to get off rope. So a down to up changeover it is, to avoid the murky icky bottom. I did find a salamander hanging out on some popcorn, however.

Slimy SalamanderI climbed back up to what seemed to be the main level with the decorations, which involved over-climbing to get up and over a rock, and then deciding two meters was too short to bother changing over to get down to the ground level, and so downclimb it was.

Finally off rope, I hollered for the next to come down, which was Rostam. He opted to use his Simple due to the tight entrance and we were using a very clean almost new flexible rope that fed just fine. Once through the entrance he enjoyed the pit and found it quite lovely, as it is well decorated (except the mud at the bottom!)

The Far SideI took some pictures of sparkly stuff on my side of the pit (there are two sides to the chamber, divided by the path all the way to the bottom) while he swung over to the far side to check it out. I really liked a white and sparkly flow.

White StalWith him safely off rope on the far side, I thought it would make a nice picture. The far side was more decorated overall I believe. Lots of curtains and flowstone.

Flowstone ChamberI got on rope to climb up, because I could reach the rope from where I was, and pulled up some slack and tossed it to him to tie off so he could get on once I was out of the pit. He, of course, found a little hole I’d not even seen looking across, and went in to find a separate very well-decorated dome, with a lead out of the bottom you could push. Really, I found it amusing how different it is between UK cavers and here…here the “leads” we wouldn’t take a second look at because we have bigger fish to fry, but for them, even these little what we call “nerd holes” and “blind pits” seem to have plenty of dig options that they just want to push! I think it will be a generation or two or three of cavers here, before we start looking at what they see in our caves, simply because there is so much to find even ridge-walking with no digging effort, or very little dig effort for much bigger payoff, or easier  bolt climbs to much larger passage.

TopSo all and all, it’s a very nice decorated little pit, worth doing (but don’t go all the way down!) if you have an evening in Huntsville and you are bored.


L is for Lizard Hole

A small pit just over 100 feet deep halfway up the mountain is always a fun thing to do on a weekday, right? The hike up was precisely 3/10ths of a mile – up steep karst terrain. At least the hike back would be downhill. The entrance has an impressive tree, and is hard to miss if you know that landmark, despite the hole itself being small.

EntranceWe rigged to the tree on the right, because it brought it down a nice smooth rock to lead it into the corkscrew entrance. It wasn’t really that tight, just awkward. It reminded me of the enclosed spiral slides at playgrounds. A bit of a trip report from the past said they ended up using eight rope pads in this pit due to all the edges – indeed there were chert layers, and a lot of water fluting, some of which was a bit sharp.

I went in first to check it out. The corkscrew entrance meant the rope didn’t feed down, so I ended up deploying it as I rappelled. I saw a few spots a pad would certainly be needed, but it was all just a bit offset from where the rope dropped. Troy would bring pads down on his rappel, now that the rope was set and out of the way.

Troy ended up using NO pads. How, you ask? Well, the magic of deviations. A lot of people in TAG don’t do much “alpine” style SRT rigging at all. I know a bit from my British friends, Troy knows it because he does a lot of hard core caving and has a wide variety of experience, and Jon, our third musketeer for the day, knows it from his extensive vertical experience including the Berger in France. So, with all the nodules both chert and water-carved, two prussics with a carabiner each made two nice deviations. The rope ran over the smooth rock and dirt of the entrance slope, the first deviation pulled it off the rest of the spiral and hung it free, the second pulled it around the major ledge (enough space to get off rope and sit) about 20 feet down and made the rest of the about 100-feet remaining a complete freehang. The pit was small so you were still near a wall, but the rope itself was 100% free.

Amy Passing the DeviationThe fossils were neat: blastoids, crinoids, even some snailshells. There was a layer with small ones and another layer with large prominent fossils as well. We didn’t see any lizards, but there were quite a few salamanders.


I’m not sure what animal this was, probably more likely something that fell in then tried to claw it’s way out, but there in the mud was a great claw mark. It was about 2-3 inches in length, so a pretty good scratch!Claw MarkA photo of the pit. My flash decided not to work so I did my best to lightpaint and Troy did a great job staying still for a couple of seconds! It’s not the best photo but it gives a great idea of the pit and what it looked like. It seems to just be a fracture that separated in the mountain.

Lizard HoleThe wall was eroded away in such neat patterns, forming holes and sharp edges and latticework. It was so intricate I couldn’t resist taking a picture. I enjoy water-carved rock.   Wall TextureOn my climb out, I was serenaded with a song that Jon had made up on a previous trip. Troy was above me hanging out on the ledge about 20 feet from the top, Jon below at the bottom waiting to climb. The acoustics were amazing, and this is the best song I’ve heard in a long time!


That song is going to stay in my head for a long time =)

J is for Johnston Cave

There is very little information about Johnston Cave other than a very sketchy (and hard to identify Johnston from due to lack of any detail) map. The coordinates seemed somewhat accurate, and is in an area that I know some people used to cave in regularly in their youth. With a few texts and a phone call, I got the description of what they remembered to be the entrance “back then” (10 years? 20 years? some long time ago!). Basically, a small crawling entrance with a tight squeeze, that you continue crawling through for a while, then it opens up to borehole and there is a 60 foot drop to a lower level that dries out. I was warned that the entrance is at the bottom of a wash, and takes lots of debris (not uncommon in the location as it takes a lot of water when it rains). Be careful, don’t go when rain is in the forecast, and the entrance will probably need opened back up (from all the debris).

So on a Wednesday morning, Troy and I decided to do some scout work. First stop was some houses nearby to find the landowner and get permission. Some really friendly people let us park on their land and walk in. We at least wanted to find the entrance and confirm coordinates. We found this, right near where it “should be”. Seems to fit that description of the entrance, yes?

So we pulled out the logs, dug out the leaves, and went in. Air was blowing – always a great sign! But about 15 feet in, we hit a jam. The passage ducked down in a U shape, and in the bottom of the U was a boulder making it too tight. We dug some, as much of the rock is held in with mud, and got it more open than it was, but no way either of us would fit.

It’s tight in here! And we won’t be getting it open today.

So we gave up after about three hours or so, and I showed Troy another really pretty entrance I found a couple hundred feet away (I had gone looking while he took a turn digging). It in no way fit the description of Johnston, so I was thinking it might be a different cave, or perhaps one just not turned in to the survey database yet as much of this area has probably not been well ridgewalked.

Impressive entrance! Check out the size of those boulders compared to little tiny person! Oh, and did I forget to mention the waterfall?

Yes, this doesn’t fit the verbal description as I understood it at all, but it was worth checking out! We didn’t even bother taking vertical gear inside, as the entrance you can climb down. Once down we made it into a hands and knees crawling stream passage, with some large white (no pigment) catfish and a white alligator snapping turtle. Probably all were washed in at some point, as this cave clearly took a lot of water as well and the water flows through from a stream. We crawled along, hitting the annoying cobblestone crawl (in my opinion, cobbles are the worst things to crawl on!). Troy pushed it and popped back into the water, so I followed. We didn’t even bother bringing our packs through the crawl, thinking there is no way this is anything known as it didn’t match up at all and we just wanted to scout it out quick.

We came to a maze section, some junctions shooting off in five directions, with only a few feet before more turning options. I stationed at a crucial one while Troy took a few more turns – we were attempting to follow the water, but passable passage wise meant some of our twists took us out of the water and we had to re-find it again. We were at the point of no further without high potential for getting lost, and Troy made one more turn, and popped into borehole! Yay! That’s great, we can follow the water back out it won’t be too bad and we had left a few sticks as markers at crucial turns (did I mention this cave takes lots of water? there was some debris in it but by no means a choke-it-up quantity). We continued until we came upon a hole in the floor – well, more of a crack. It looked about 20 feet deep. Then another crack. And another. Each getting progressively deeper. Then a fourth crack of about 50 feet we estimated. Huh. Okay so the really bad map of Johnston, the four circles must be these four drops, because the four circles were above the lower level but from the map there is no way to know if it was a rock/boulders or a hole or what! Convinced we had actually found Johnston, and with time running late and rain was predicted that evening, we headed back out with plans to return that weekend with more people and vertical gear.

So a few days later we returned, again asked permission and got it, parked, and hiked on in. The catfish were still there (and we saw more than before!) but the snapper was not in sight (fine with me!). It was slower going through all the crawling with a rope and larger packs full of vertical gear and rigging, plus now we had four people rather than two.

Crawling, after about 100 feet of cobbles, back in the water, before the maze.

The maze was easy to find the route in this time, and soon enough we popped out into the walking passage. Borehole isn’t quite right of a name for where you enter it, but at least it is walking! If, that is, you know *where* to walk…

Ceiling rifts winding through the passage…walk circuitously or crawl on cobbles – your choice!

One could tell there was a poor rock/silt/something layer because there were huge slabs of rock fallen from the same ceiling level as the top of the rifts; there were bus-sized chunks down on the floor that perfectly fit back up to where they’d fallen from.

Once through this part it does open up into more what I would call borehole, and the stream is still present but a distant roar grows louder. The floor turns from cobble to sculpted water, with little potholes and swirling down to the lower level.

Swirls! And here is a cool video of it in action!:  Swirling Water

Onward! We got to the 50/60 foot drop; Troy brought a disto and got 62 feet. We had an 80 foot rope and some webbing, and found a BFR to rig the 20 feet of webbing around and had the perfect length of rope to do the drop. Nice high rig only needing a pad where it falls over the rock, otherwise all freehanging through the small crack in the floor.

I wasn’t kidding about the crack thing…

It was a really beautiful drop, not in the waterfall at all but next to it, and very wide open after the three feet or so of solid rock right at the top. It is the right choice to rig here, as if you were to rig a crack further back you wouldn’t make it to the bottom and then have to drag the rope down over the last tumble (or maybe more) of the waterfall, and you’d be in it the entire time. The landing zone was a bunch of huge breakdown, gnarly crumbling rock and razor sharp edges.

With all the mist in the air combining with steam rising off our bodies, it was really difficult to see much of anything. We could tell we were in a chamber, but where to go next was the question. From the poor “map” (if one could even call it that) we were now in a elongated teardrop shape that trended south. Seriously, that was the only clue. That was it. No more detail or help than the upper level had been other than a notation of “gypsum needles” in nowhere particular. So we checked the south side and found some walking passage with a rift in the floor to the water below to chimney over. It lead us to a sump. Above, there was a belly crawl. Not even army crawl, belly. On rocks the size of golfballs. You could garden a path a bit, but it didn’t really help at all. Ugh. Troy went ahead and after about 50 feet of suck there is a sandy bottom and one could sit up, so Danny and I went to join. Brian wasn’t going to have any of that crappy crawling though. We tried saying “OOOH look, gypsum needles!” but it didn’t fool him. He would wait and look around in the area he was in.

Danny, Troy, and I continued on. Crawling and crawling and more belly crawling. Most of it the use-your-toes-to-scootch-forward kind. A mix of sandy floor and the golfball rock floor. A couple hundred feet of this fun and Troy, in front, said it ended but he could probably dig out a spot and slide under the ceiling rock. He did and we heard, “Hey guys, it’s borehole!” Excited by this we, about 50 feet behind him, pushed on, making a left after the gold.

Gold! We’re rich! Okay, maybe not…

About when Danny was sliding through, we heard a “BO!”. For those not from around here, TAG cavers have long used a loud “BO” as a method of communication both in ridgewalking and inside caves. The sound carries extremely well. One “BO” is a marker, calling out to nearby people for a reply, like radar pings off of objects, to determine where people are. Two, “BO! BO!” means “I am coming to you!” and three “BO! BO! BO!” means “Come to me!” and typically means someone found the cave entrance, or the way on. And then of course three sets of three is an emergency.

Anyway, so we heard a BO from Brian! We replied. After Troy, Danny, and I got into the borehole, we were able to ping BO’s back and forth and find each other. Brian had found a really short not-so-tight crawl that went to walking passage, and just came around a different loop to us. So we didn’t need to do those hundreds of feet of terrible crawling after all! Oh well, it’s all in the adventure.

We got into large passage full of huge breakdown. Unstable breakdown. As in, test ALL of your footing as it has probably rarely been walked on, your particular rock might have never had weight on it, and it juuuust might skitter all the way to the floor or down a crack 20 feet below. On top of that, the rocks were covered in a thin layer of slimy mud. So boots can’t grip the mud as it’s not deep enough, but it’s too much to stick to the rock. We spotted some pretty helectites though.

Still looking for the elusive gypsum needles notated on the map. All the way at the back of the cave is where we found them! I have seen better ones but these weren’t bad, and they were pretty, and there were some flowers and snow-like specks too.

Needles with the dust/snow like sparkles surrounding them

Cute little flower/curl

A little further on back a section was wet, and there were some nice draperies, soda straws, and other little decorations. The undecorated crawl between the two areas confused Troy a little bit though.

Wait, is this how to crawl? I’m confused…

We turned around and headed back out, this time opting to go the way Brian had found. There was a really cool cracked mud floor with mud rimstone. It was hard to tell if the water formed the mud like this, or if it’s covering up actual formations. Some of these areas definitely see water, some rarely, some periodically, some with every rain that hits.

There was also a high level formation room, full of soda straws, bottlebrushes, and small stalagmites.

On the way out, Brian was excited to show us his amazing find! He has thought it was a shark’s tooth when he first saw it, but it has ridges and bumps, and is hollow. It is quite impressive, maybe six inches long, and in very good condition. We don’t know what it was, but I will keep searching and will update this post if/when I find out.
We know what it is! Dr. Jim Lacefield who is an expert on fossils in this region identified it as a conularid, which is really rare. It is in excellent condition except for being “smushed flat” by the fossilization process.


An amazing find! We ogled it for a bit before continuing on out. I wanted to get a shot of the drop from the bottom, but the fog and mist made it nigh impossible so I changed the plan. Troy climbed up first, I second. I could then set up for some top-down shots, Brian firing the flash from below Danny who was on rope for the photos. They turned out pretty decent; extremely well considering the conditions.

An idea of scale/size. He is about halfway up in this shot.

Looking down through the crack from the rig point, this is probably one of my favorite shots of the entire trip.

So we headed on out. There is so much more to Johnston than what is on that map. It says about 3000 feet of passage, it is easily over a mile and that’s just the downstream side. With more water crawling, there is upstream passage too that we didn’t get a chance to check out. The upstream isn’t on the map at all. It would make a great survey project if one could get permission from the landowners to do that.


Some interesting history I wish to add: Johnston cave is indeed named after Jim Johnston, the same as who the Johnston entrance of the Fern Cave System is named. It appears the original map was a classic Bill Varnado sketch after running through the cave pulling tape. The survey file has not been updated since originally created in 1957, until now with the more accurate GPS coordinates and photographs. This cave continues to give awesome historical and geological tidbits even now, weeks after my visit!