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!

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!

M is for Moses Tomb

A divergence from the more rarely visited or forgotten caves, I went to Moses Tomb on January 1st! It is arguably a TAG Classic and it has been on my “to-do” list for a long time. The whole mountainside got hit bad by tornadoes a few years back, and it took a while to create a new trail. Still, surrounding us everywhere was massive damage. We finally made it up to the entrance…which with all the downed trees has a pretty nice view.

Rigging to TreesThe pit entrance is so tiny but I’ve been in tighter. I was amazed at all the flowstone and other speleothems that appeared once inside. The tiny hole bells out and gets to be a nice size area.

Annette Coming out of Moses TombAnnette negotiating the tight entrance.

There is a lovely little side area that we had some fun with. Brian was the first down, followed by Jen aka Google (we have many Jen/Jenny/Jennifers here, nicknames are starting to appear!). Then I rappelled. There is a small hole at the floor level in this decorated spot, and we shoved the rope down it to play a prank! Google hid around the corner, and Brian and I told Ty once he arrived to just stay on rope, and check out the nice lower level. He went over and looked at it…and said, “nawww.” So I egged him on with, “Oh come on, I fit! I didn’t even get that muddy, see?” Of course that made it so he *had* to try to check it out! All in all we had him going for a few minutes, and then he saw Google hiding above where he was. We attempted to prank Ken and Annette as well, but it didn’t work as well.

Ken in the TombThe side room with decorations.

Google hopped on rope first to climb out. While she was busy making her way up, I started to set up for some pit photos. Classic sort of lighting here, and you get an idea of scale with Google about halfway up the pit.

Moses Tomb PanoramicI really prefer higher contrast though, I feel it enhances the sense of being in cave. So I decided to try a second photo with different lighting to develop this style I am loving. I’ve started to trend towards it in my cave photography and am now actively trying to evolve my technique for it. And check it out…the flowstone towers come alive!

Moses Tomb Contrast LightingIt was a fun day with fun new friends, laughs, giggles, pranks, and good food. I can’t ask for a better way to start 2015!

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.


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.