G is for Gourdneck

G was up for grabs as there were a few caves I was interested in seeing. Finally, plans came together for Gourdneck which is an SCCi cave but one I rarely hear about. No one on the trip had ever been to this cave before, but we had the map, and verbal directions.

Gourdneck’s entrance can be done as a climb-down, but the last little bit would be difficult to get back up that way and a lot of chimneying. We just brought Texas and Frog systems for the short 30-ish foot slot. The tree is in the perfect rig spot, and the only pad we used was around the tree to protect it. It clearly gets a lot of use, and I believe cavers as a whole need to start paying more attention and padding our rig trees so we don’t lose them!

Once down we stashed our vertical gear and decided to head downstream first, following it until it turned into a low wet crawl. According to the map, the ceiling gets lower and lower and lower until you can’t go any further; we turned back as soon as we got tired of the crawl. Some of the higher ceiling parts had neat formations and were quite wet. The recent rain meant the cave was active, and allowed for some really cool photography.

We headed upstream. I knew the first waterfall had a bypass to the sketchy climbup and we found it with ease. This bypass was the muddiest section of the entire cave. Getting up into the bypass on a higher level was slippery fun, each person slicking it up more for the next! I had heard of sketchy waterfall climb here but clearly that was for people who don’t do the bypass. There is some easy canyoning in the bypass that is slick and I can see how that makes some nervous, however.

We found the register and had a quick bite to eat before continuing on. I scouted for the route because it seemed we had drop-offs all around us, but crawling up on a dry mud ledge I saw elephant tracks on the other side, and realized I was about 8 feet above the level of the top of the waterfall. Crossing the crack got us to a easy climbdown back to the streamway.

From here on in the cave reminded me of Swildon’s (in Mendip, England). The narrow canyon passages, sometimes craggly and sometimes short smooth scalloping walls, 3-8 foot waterfall climbs, and even a few deep pots in a row to avoid, reminded me of that Mendip classic.

We followed the water, sometimes chimneying over deep pools, other times splashing right through for the fun of it. The water was rather frigid but I would have been too hot in a wetsuit, and in fact welcomed the coolness as in the drier sections I had started to overheat in my thick polypro leggings and cordura outer layer. “Cold blooded” cavers would probably want more warmth for this cave, however, as you will get soaked from head to toe.

Our first and only obstacle that slowed our progress was a tall sloping waterfall/waterslide. About 8-feet tall with water pouring down, and no holds as the entire section even the “floor” of the falls was tiny scallops. Kevin, the tallest in our group, was able to chimney up farther back and then across the passage above the falls, avoiding it all together. I found what I thought was a bypass and turned out to pop me out in a really bad spot above the deep pool at the base, but was able to toss my 30-ft of webbing to Kevin. He went up the passage a bit and got himself in a good anchored position, as there was nothing to rig a handline to, and became the classic “meat anchor” for us. Brian clambered up with the handline aid without much troubles. I was the shortest of the group and first attempted to “walk up” the falls, making it about halfway before losing my footing and splashing back to the deep base pool. It sucked to not make it but the splash was a bit fun! I attempted again but from my knees so I had more surface area for friction grip. It worked just as well, and about halfway up slid down yet again. At this point I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t have been last up, because I sure could use a boost at halfway up! But on third attempt I went sideways to the falls more chimenying up just over it rather than being in it, which worked much better. I will say this falls was much more fun going down on the way out! It was a very nice waterslide!

We made our way on until we reached the deepest pool yet, deeper than any of us were tall, and a huge waterfall. There was no bypass we could find, so we assumed this was the “sketchy attic climb” I had heard about. We could see it was doable to chimney up to a shelf and maybe get across to above the falls, but none of us felt like attempting it! So, after admiring the beautiful blue-green water, we headed back out.

It was a great cave and I hope to find more wet systems to do. TAG is great for wet, so that should be easy!

Rock on!

A Rappeller’s View: Unique Cave Photo Technique

Almost two years ago I caught a “oopsie” image during my first trip to Surprise Pit, a 404-ft pit inside Fern Cave in Alabama, USA. I was setting up for a typical shot and accidentally pressed the shutter button, capturing by complete accident a rappeller coming in for landing.

The result intrigued me. I started to wonder how I could capture a full rappel in these deep dark spaces. Not a photo of the pit, a photo of the RAPPEL.

Typical pit shots follow certain formulas. Stage people on ropes to fire flash bulbs. Have someone shine a light / fire a bulb / fire a flash at various points, often stitching images together in post process. Even flash powder! A combination of these techniques is often used as well.

The whole point is: Light up the pit.

That’s not what I wanted to do. And that is what makes this unique.

On top of the unique point of view – not the pit, the rappel – I wanted to stay true to my overarching technique of minimal and light gear. I wouldn’t be making or using any custom lights, large cameras, fancy lenses, etc. Simple is my form.

Using a Zebra Light (standard caving headlamp used by many around here, costs <$100), Lumix LX5, and a mini tripod, is all it took! It weighs under a pound. Technically, the Zebra Light shouldn’t even be on the scale, as it’s just the standard headlamp always in use.

There was no setup.

No external lighting of any kind.

No communication of where to look or what to do.

Just a rappel.

“3…2…1…On Rappel!”

I open the shutter for 60 seconds.

Brian lands and starts getting off rope.

Shutter closes.

The result?

A photo of the rappel. The streak of the rope. The spinning.The moisture and fog in the air. What the rappeller sees, you see.

This isn’t a photo of Mystery Falls, it is a photo of what it is like to rappel Mystery Falls.

That is what makes it unique.