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!

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!

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!

I is for Ice Cave

I was itching to continue with alphabet caving; it seems like it has been a while! I had a shortlist of possible I caves, and with a holiday Monday afternoon free and with good weather we headed up to a little but interesting cave not far from home.

Entrance Slot: looking for a good spot to rig

We opted for a lovely high rig on a tree about 10 feet back from the edge, with a redirect off a tree near the drop for a nice high angle for an easy lip. Here, other than a bit of touch at the edge, it was a free-hang.

The Rig…ah I love engineering beauty!

I went down first and found a very fat salamander. It doesn’t look like quite like the classic orange cave salamanders we typically see…I am pretty sure it is a different species but exactly what I couldn’t say. Maybe a biologist will read this and identify it. Edit: Thanks Bradley Jones – this is a Northern Red Salamander.

Fat, short nubby tail, short arms without webbed feet, and spots forming a line?

There was another 10 foot nuisance drop slightly “inside”; we took the rope over to it and ended up re-anchoring off a BFR (for those who don’t know, that is Big “Friendly” Rock, you may hear folks substitute a different word in for “Friendly”!). Now we were into some neat canyoning passage with beautiful fluting.

Nice sculpted walls, the rock so thin in spots it was almost translucent.

The rest of the cave continued on similarly. We found the leftovers of a rope from a bolt climb about a decade ago to a high lead, which does continue on to a little bit more passage and another dome. But with the packrat chewed ends and no rope to replace it with if one person tried it and made it up, we opted to forget about that section and turn around.

Let’s not attempt that climb that without a good rope to replace it with…

We turned around and headed back out. We were never that far from the entrance, and with the high ceilings and relatively straight line of the passage, daylight could be seen from some of the farther reaches with the right framing…

I see green!

There were a few little side bits, one obviously taking in a lot of dirt and debris. It spiraled back up towards the surface, making it about halfway. There is a bit of a sink above it on the surface, so maybe one day it will collapse and actually be a horizontal entrance to this cave. It was worth the slip-sliding crumbling climb though, as there was the best blastoid fossil I have ever seen. It was a bit larger than a golf-ball in size too.

Best blastoid I’ve ever seen! Lovely detail, large, and complete!

So while we were at it, we looked at a second little side loop and found another really interesting fossil, perhaps some kind of coral but of what kind exactly I am unsure as I have never encountered this type. It was very radial fan-shaped and 3D, branches clearly came out from a central point. Very flower-like in that sense. It has a very weathered look but the branches didn’t seem segmented like you would expect with crinoids. The centers were a matrix look with star-shapes. There were negative impressions as well in this section of cave but sadly not in good locations for a clear photo. With help from Sabrina Simon we identified it as trochocyathus (a type of “Stony Coral”).

Trochocyathus fossil

Everywhere explored, it was time to head out. I climbed first so I could get some shots of Brian on his climb. Being only about 40 feet, we actually (gasp!) brought frog systems instead of our typical ropewalkers. The super-stiff rope that meant I was having to slightly feed and rappel at snail’s pace (on only four bars all spread out!) did make for a nice climb, I will admit.

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!