T is for Three Turkey’s Plunge

Impromptu mid-week caving trip to a T-Cave! Troy and I headed out to a mountain on the outskirts of Huntsville to Three Turkey’s Plunge. We ended up hiking in on the correct elevation, a nice level section near the contact. We found the entrance without troubles and started to rig. Our original intent was to bottom the cave, so we brought extra rope and I brought my in-cave vertical system. The entrance drop is almost 170-ft, but there is more vertical to make it to the bottom.

Pit EntranceEntrance and our choice tree to rig.

It is a beautiful pit, the rappel quickly joins with two parallel domes, the other two don’t reach the surface. It was one of the prettiest drops I’ve done in a while.

Main Dome EntranceThe main entrance shaft.

Second DomeA parallel dome, complete with a waterfall!

The drop was a bit drippy but not overly wet. Right now, the weather has been dry so in the Spring I would guess one might wish a rain jacket for the entrance drop. So far I’ve shown photos of two of the three domes (the entrance shaft and a side dome), but what about the third? Well, the third had a pool in the entire bottom of it, and it was loaded with cave crawfish, more than I have ever seen before in one place. There was a lot of organic matter so they are quite happy little critters.

So many cave crawfish!There were about 30 I counted in this pool…the largest ones were almost the size of my hand, very large for cave crawfish! Even the big ones were amelanistic and had no eyes.

I’m guessing the one of my friends who hates cave crawfish will never want to go here, now. I guess they are kinda like spiders to some people. Me, I think they are cute. They just want to cuddle….with their pinchers! Obviously we don’t touch them, I’m just making a joke here 😉

We explored onwards. We didn’t like what we quickly ran into…a canyon that looked difficult to climb, and tight.

Up is the Way OnThis is a vertical pan, the slot at the top is in the ceiling about 15 or 20-ft up.

The walls were covered in a dried and cracked almost-rock that I am told is called breccia. Chimneying up is extremely difficult so we backtracked a bit, piled up rocks, and Troy got up into the canyon crawling forward. Putting together slings and prussiks, he lowered a line down to which I clipped on one of our ropes, which he pulled up rigged around himself as a meat anchor for me to climb up and join him. It would’ve worked great! Except…I got stuck. The first level you see in the above photo I made it through, but the narrower slot above it, which went to the level required to move forward, I didn’t fit.

Vertical Crack SelfieSelfie!

My chest got through, but my hips are my limitation, and I just couldn’t make it up through this vertical crack into the 90-deg bend to move forward. The photo above showed how tight it was, and to make it worse, the walls up here are covered in popcorn which just grabs everything. I tried for about 20 minutes, and then gave up and just sat there “stuck” (not stuck-stuck, just wedged) while Troy checked the way on. We couldn’t figure out how to get me into the right level to continue, and so we turned around and headed back out.

Horizontal TraverseThe way on, Troy made it to where he could sit and even stand up.

It was an exercise in some fun rigging again on this trip, Troy meat anchored my climb, then I meat anchored a traverse he did to move forward, then he hard rigged to rocks for my descent, then we re-rigged for a pulldown to get him down without leaving the rope, which I meat anchored in a bottom-belay fashion. Creativity at its finest!

So in the end, we didn’t bottom it, but I don’t think I could make it to the bitter end of this cave size-wise. I would go back to do the entrance drop though, as it was lovely!

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.


Light & Dark: Working with Angles

This past weekend I got to visit Pretty Well with some good friends. There is a very classic large formation inside, of which there are many photographs of. I’ve taken some larger panoramic shots in the past, but today wanted to take some quick snaps and as usual for these shots, only work with one slave flash (which is handled by a person manually firing on the count of three – see a past blog post for my method!).

Looking at the set of photographs I saw exactly what I try to explain to people new to cave photography – and what I sometimes must remind myself – regarding light placement. Underground we have no light, but this does mean we have full control of how we wish to light something up! This is quite the double-edge sword and learning to work with not just camera angle but also lighting angle is necessary to change a poor snapshot to a good photo to a great image.

Image One: The Good Photo

Annette at Big ColumnThe good photo is well-lit, has scale that doesn’t detract from the image, and has some shadows to show depth. It showcases a pretty area and a distinct formation that is the classic one to see in this cave. A nice photo of a fun trip, with really nothing technically wrong. Past the “foggy with ghosts and spots from on board camera snaps” this is the most common type of cave image out there. And it certainly has it’s place, there is nothing “wrong” with it, it is simply a good photo.


Image Two: The Better Photo

Annette at Big Column - contrast lightingOkay, now we moved the light source and have some very high-contrast. I like contrast, it gives the image something interesting to look at. The formations on the ceiling pop and we have a nice shadow of the model on the formation. We perhaps moved the light source too far, however, as although the negative space on the left of the formation is interesting, it is getting towards dominating of the photograph and some may not like it due to that large dark space. This, I feel, is somewhat a matter of taste, and overall I believe this image is more interesting than Image One. It makes me want to look beyond, to peer into the darkness. So I classify this as, the Better Photo. We are starting to get somewhere!


Image Three: The Great Photo

Ken at Big ColumnNow we fix what we didn’t like before. We have some great contrast lighting, so let’s change the framing! The shadows now provide depth, without being overwhelming in the image. Go back to Image One and look at how much better the formations pop out, providing interest. The only thing we did was change to a portrait to tighten up the frame cutting the shadows with our better lighting angle. Now we are on our way to a Great Photo.


Image Four: The Amazing Photo

Annette & The ColumnLet’s go a little farther. This portrait framing is nice, but let’s make it more dynamic. Ah….we are back to a higher level of contrast giving us a good bit of darkness in the image, but now the darkness is controlled, and it flows through the image at appealing locations. Having the wall behind the formation lit up makes your eye complete it, despite it being negative space. The eye moves through the image following the line of dark and light creating a tantalizing underground landscape with a discrete yet clearly visible caver for scale. Thus, I would classify this as an Amazing Photo.

Of course, tastes vary, and this is what makes artists/photographers unique. Tastes also change and develop as we find our niche; what I shoot for now is not what I aimed to achieve four years ago, or even two years ago. So, find how you like photos to look, light up theses spaces, and work towards making your vision as awe-inspiring as possible. And don’t forget to try something different every now and then, you might like it!

O is for Off Limits Pit

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.

Rock Eating TreeIt is so hungry, it is breaking the 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.

Entrance of Off Limits PitBilly 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.

Fun Side RoomThe 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.

Entrance DropBrian sitting at the entrance to the canyon – don’t worry it narrows right away!

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.

Rigging Drop 2Rigging the second drop. See? You can wedge yourself in the canyon to rig in!

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!

Drop 2 Top-down_1Hand-held light painting is hard….but you can see the waterfall in the adjacent dome!

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?

100-ft Waterfall DomeIn keeping my camera dry, we stayed in the dry dome for the photo.

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.

Canyon Passage This was a wide part! Two helmets wide!

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.

The Formations

Soda straws and flowstone

Shoes for ScaleA column too, with feet for scale. The low crawl is to the left.

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.

Main Entrance