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

E is for Esslinger

It was a good weekend for alphabet caving, Dunham on Saturday, Esslinger on Sunday! It was a longer hike up than I anticipated, but the weather was pretty nice for it. We thought we had found it only to turn out we discovered a false little hole, apparently this confuses many. Eventually we found the proper hole, and there was dancing for joy with the rope!

It may not look like much, but that’s where we are heading!

We rigged to a tree higher up on the mountain, and where the pit splits into two we let the rope go naturally through the narrower side so it avoided some of the sharp rocks we would have had to contend with otherwise. I wasn’t too concerned, I’ve been in tighter spots on rope. I was, however, happy to have my ropewalker with me as I had debated only bringing my frog. For me, narrow spots on rope are easier on a ropewalker.

Tight fit, but not terribly so!

Once in, it turned out to be a pretty cool pit. Flowstone lined the walls, and there was a pretty little pool. Troy and Doug climbed up into one of the domes, finding Bill Torode’s name scrolled in the mud. For those who don’t know, Torode is a famous local caver who has discovered lots of caves and done lots of mapping projects. Sometimes, he would find the nastiest, craziest, oddest little places in a cave he figured no one else would ever go and put his name in the mud. While some argue this goes against conservation to scrawl a small name in mud and is not recommended by cavers these days to do, it is still interesting to find one of these historical marks that are relatively non-intrusive in rare hidden areas and not permanently marring.

One of the pretty flowstone pools.

I climbed up into a different dome, almost breaking my foot! The rock seemed a bit crumbly so I was testing holds before committing, and a hold I thought was good broke off a 15-20lb chunk when I committed my hand to it, falling and almost hitting smack on top of my foot. So I didn’t luck out with finding a famous Torode mark.

We started to ascend back out of the pit, and I grabbed a quick shot of a little tiny carved hole in the rock, with a beautiful crinoid fossil inside.

A is for Anderson

My new project is Alphabet Caving. In the next year or few, I will be visiting caves in the TAG region I have never been to, in alphabetical order (as best as possible with regard to access / permission). In the Alabama Cave Survey alone there are plenty to choose from.

I started this journey earlier than planned with Anderson Cave. It is one of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy‘s properties. Ray from the Birmingham Grotto lead the trip, a good thing as Anderson is a huge boulder maze and he was the only one along who basically knew the route!

Anderson is extremely muddy, as in, up to my hips in the deepest sections! I am sure there are many lost boots in the thick of it. There are neat deep lakes past the muddiest passages, however.

If you brave the muddy slopes and pick the right holes to poke into, you may just find some lovely formations as well!

We did the through trip, so the way out was climbing up 20 feet just to go down 20 feet, and then back up again! Up-down-up-down winding through boulders and corkscrews covered with inches of peanut butter mud. Slick enough to make traction to climb a challenge, yet sticky enough if it was a slanted squeeze to just hang there awkwardly like a beached whale unable to move forward yet not sliding backwards!

By the end of the trip I was past ready to be out of there. It was an interesting cave and I am glad I went, but I think it makes the list of “been there, done that, not again!”

Before and After: Colorful to Mud

It took about 2 hours of scrubbing and cleaning to get all the mud off my gear.

On The Go

I recently asked some of my followers on my facebook page what topics they would like me to blog about. One of the requests was about how to decrease the time spent taking a photo underground, perhaps not for “professional” shots but for decent snapshots of the trip.

Firstly, I should explain part of the speed is about understanding your photography kit and working with a lot. Eventually you just know what setting your camera needs (and you should have it programed already – most decent cameras will remember last settings, and/or have custom programmable options) so potentially it’s all set before you even pull it out of your bag. It also has a lot to do with who you cave with – do you have a regular helper or helpers? Do you explain how to fire a flash to someone before you go underground, or, more ideally, use the same person every time? The more you work together with your cave buddies, the faster these things go.

Not to be overlooked should be how you pack your kit. If you put your camera and such on the bottom of your cave pack, how are you supposed to get to it quickly? It should be on top for easy access. When in an area with many photo opportunities, I won’t even repack between shots, I have a carabiner on the outside of my cave pack to clip my camera case to for a short jaunt.

Additionally, I use a simple kit. I have a flash gun. A. Singular. One. I don’t even mess with slave flashes on a normal trip. I have a buddy fire it for me on the count of 3. So long as no one close to the shot has their light on, it won’t pick up their ambient helmet light. A 1/2 second or second exposure is plenty long enough with a well timed partner. No tripods, no muss, no fuss.

Light painting, on the other hand, is something I use for close up shots, shots to cut through fog, or huge pits. It will be more time consuming typically, as there is painting variance shot to shot. In addition, for the long exposures of light painting one must set up a tripod or set the camera somewhere, which takes extra time and effort. The flash gun method I find by far to be the quickest. I don’t even mess with changing settings on the flash, if need be, I change my aperture or ISO on my camera if it’s too bright.

My standard rule of thumb is if I am not seeing what I envisioned within 3 shots, it’s time to move on. Some days, the angle just doesn’t work, or the fog is getting in the way too much, or <insert reasons here>. I just don’t see a need to fiddle relentlessly. If I can’t get the shot, clearly I am lacking the skill at that time and day to achieve what I vision. Simple as that. At this point, usually the first shot is what I wanted, or it’s close, and a few tweaks and few shots later is correct. This just comes from experience and understanding your particular photo gear. Still, I’d recommend if you aren’t seeing the results you want in 5-10 attempts, change your approach completely or move on.

For Example:

This past weekend was a trip to Roaring River. It was not a photo trip, so certainly not one to spend a long time taking pictures. However, it is a very limited access cave on private land that takes a long time to get access and permission to. I definitely wanted photos! The cave itself is not very decorated in the way of formations, but the name is very accurate, there is a river, and it does roar! (For my UK readers, it reminded me of the streamway of OFD1. There was one spot I had some déjà-vu!) What interested me most was the structure/layout of the cave, and the lovely scalloped limestone. The beauty was in the rock and water itself rather than standard formations.

Luckily, Mark was along on this trip, and he dabbles a bit in photography and understands how to use a flash. There was one area in particular he commented on, and I agreed it would make a lovely photo. Keep in mind we are towards the end of a group of eight people, sloshing through cold knee-deep water with decent current.

I quickly pulled out my flash and handed it to Mark, and we grabbed Tina to model in the shot. We took two photos. The first didn’t light up the crevasse above us to my liking, so I yelled (it was a ROARING river) upstream to Mark to point the light upwards more and hold it up closer to the crack. Fired a second shot. Satisfied, I quickly repacked and we were back with the group within a minute, we were delayed not more than 2-3 minutes in total. The result?

I rather like it! It’s probably my favorite shot of the entire trip. Daresay I would categorize this as a “professional” shot even. But yet, it took a only a few minutes, and didn’t delay us or the group in the slightest. I don’t know if anyone even noticed we were gone!