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!

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

Caving in the UK – Part 2 – Dales

The first day in the Dales was rainy and gray, but after a breakfast at Bernie‘s (a Dales tradition) and meeting up with Tony we headed up to Gaping Gill. All together, there were five of us: Tony, Hat, Becky, Kevin, and I. We went up…and up….and up. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked that long for a cave in my life. I think it took about an hour and twenty minutes to get the entrance. For those of you familiar with TAG, about 2-3 Surprise hikes is about the distance.

We entered the system via Bar Pot. It has two pitches to get down to Gaping Gill. The first pitch has a tight squeeze at the top, but a little wiggle and I popped through managing to not get any bits caught in my rack. It’s an awkward approach too, a 90-degree sideways bend. Lay down on your side and wiggle the feet over the edge, slide out while aiming down, clear your head of the above boulder, right yourself, and go down!

There was passage and climbing down and a handline for a slick angled boulder that I realized would be heck of a hard time getting back up later…and eventually the next drop. The first drop had been about 50-feet and this second one is about 100-ft. Tony expertly rigged the traverse line across boulders that reminded me of the land bridge in Surprise, except much more open to the floor below. At the end of the traverse was the rig point. Again, a nice easy pitch without a rebelay. I was quite happy with my decision to bring my standard climbing system, a Bungee-and-a-Half along. It would do fine for both drops without issue, and I already worked it in my head for how to approach the top of the first drop on the way out.

Now there was a lot of crawling. Luckily, hands and knees, and rather nice floor, so it wasn’t hard crawling, just a lot of it. “Follow the draft!” Tony said. And follow it we did. The airflow whipped its way through the tunnels and as it got stronger the noise of the massive waterfall in Gaping Gill main chamber became louder. Popping out into that from such a small crawl was amazing! The flow as crazy, and I can see why they rarely drop the main chamber itself. It would be rappelling in a massive waterfall for the entire time.

The top is kind of keyhole shaped, and this day it was just a wall of water. I couldn’t even see daylight as there was so much of it pouring in! I managed to get some photos although bits seem blurry due to the hurricane conditions. Water was everywhere in the air. We checked the time and realized we needed to be making our way out. While it would have been cool to watch it even longer, we probably would have gotten cold!

Climbing the 2nd drop was easy. The handline for the sloped rock though…that was a different story. It’s awkward, tight, nothing to push off from, not really easy to SRT climb it, really odd angles no matter what way you look at it. I made it up about half way and then having nothing left to hold/grab/push from, Tony jumped in behind and so I could push off his shoulders to the next bit to grab. Lots of effort for such few feet of progress!

Eventually we reached the first (entrance) drop. I was doing fine temperature wise so I let quite a few others go ahead, knowing I could be up and out in a zip. I made it to where it starts to narrow in one set, not bothering to rest. But here is where I had to plan things a bit. I went into the narrow part about 5-6ft, and then in a spot I could still turn sideways and bring my feet up (it is a slot) I detatched my foot ascender. I went up to the lip and then popped off my roller. Now for the most awkward part. Having my knee ascender on the tether actually makes maneuvers like this easier than if it were a croll and I was so closely attached to the rope. Being in a slot that barely fits my hips means there is definitely no way for me to invert so I climbed up as high as I could, letting my upper ascender get a lot of slack, trying to reach the approach line with my cowstail. Unfortunately the shape of the super-awkward rock in the way (as if a 90-deg slot bend isn’t bad enough) prevented me from going over top, and the cowstail wasn’t long enough to go underneath. So I unclipped and down-climbed slightly. I basically just jumped for it! I got partially into the horizontal slot and had to detach my upper ascender. Tony offered to clip into him for extra safety so I did. The two of us together definitely were not falling anywhere as we are both wedged as it is! Pulling myself in using him as a meat anchor worked, and my hips broke free and I was out!

The hike downhill seemed as long as uphill. You may laugh, but when going down seems to take forever and a day, just as long as uphill took, something’s wrong! Down should be faster! Becky and I booked it as fast as we could as it was late and there would likely be no place to eat but we still couldn’t keep up with the guys who started to literally run down the hill. I’m pretty sure that physiologically we are not meant to go that fast. Our strides are shorter, center of balance different, and we were almost falling over as it was! A local caver came to our rescue for food, inviting us over to her house for frozen pizzas, tea, and cookies.

I only had two days in the Dales, so the next morning was my last. I was tired but I wasn’t about to miss Alum Pot! The best view in all UK caving, I’m told. So, off Tony, Hat, and I went.

The hike was much better! We went down through Dolly Tubes which puts you out on this ledge part of the way down. The pitches are short and easy, I probably could have frogged it but I just used my Bungee-and-a-Half. I watched Tony rig intently and asked questions and chatted in general. One of the pitches was a drop to a rebelay onto a “real” traverse to the second drop. I was actually the most nervous about keeping my feet under me and not slipping off the traverse!

It was indeed a marvelous view. I stood on the ledge for about five minutes, just staring. Apparently that is a typical reaction to this view! I honestly think it’s better than Stephen’s Gap, although that could be simply due to it being new, and Stephen’s Gap I’ve seen quite a few times at this point.

You may want photos, but bad news there. I am gutted that my camera somehow got turned on in my pack, and the padding of it must have kept knocking the shutter button, as a fully charged battery managed to drain itself in an hour or so. I found bunches of short 1-2 second movie clips later, so no wonder it drained so fast. However, there are plenty of photos on the Internet already of this view. So, I decided to ingrain the view into my memory as best as possible, to draw it upon my return home. It ended up rather accurate, with only the “Greasy Slab” being on the wrong angle. Not bad for a month after seeing it in person!

Tony had to make it back home, and so we didn’t spend long. I was curious as to how my system would hold up to the very alpine rigging (somewhat basic alpine rigging, but way more than you’d typically see here in TAG!) as Gaping Gill had been straightforward. I could tell Tony was watching me, curious as well. I will note that for all this vertical stuff in the UK, instead of having a QAS I had cowstails. I had the upper ascender running for safety as ropewalkers do, just not that 2nd QAS.

I climbed up the rope to the traverse, clipped in my cowstails, unclipped my foot and knee ascenders and popped off my chest roller, swung myself onto the traverse, took off my upper ascender. Moving along the traverse is simple with cowstails so no worries there. Approaching the rebelay I attached my upper ascender first, pulling out the slack . I then unclipped my long cowstail and attached my knee ascender. At this point I was past the rebelay, just still clipped in with the short cowstail. So I unhooked that, letting myself out. After three texas-cycles with moving the knee ascender up, standing in that footloop and pushing up my upper ascender, I had enough space to attach my foot ascender and popped on my chestroller and in seconds I was up (it wasn’t a far drop). My climbing system worked very well for their rigging, and my decision to ditch the QAS in favor of cowstails was indeed correct.

All in all, it was a brilliant day. I wish I would have been able to stay longer in the Dales and seen more of their vertical caves. Tony from Starless River was an awesome guide and great to discuss varying vertical techniques and rigging with. I’d highly recommend caving with him if you ever go to the Dales!