The morning was crisp and cool as we stepped onto the dewy grass after sleeping in the trunk of the Highlander for the third night in a row. Even though the temperatures in Tennessee compared to that back home in Texas, the cool, dry air and the thrill of being at our first NSS Convention had us ignoring our hangovers, aches, bruises, blisters, and fatigue.
After a slow sluggish start to our morning, we rallied and met up with our assigned group set for a locally famous pit called Jive Hole. We had previously heard about it from a group of very friendly TAG old-timers who had all been caving together since college many moons ago. We maintained a great friendship with them throughout the entire week and had many more great adventures on other trips at TAG. With just an informal introduction, I could immediately sense that this was going to be a great group of cavers.
We had Aaron, a West Virginia caver, diver, and SAR specialist. Kevin an outdoor recreation professor at a small state university and Sarah, his student and girlfriend (go Kevin!). Jackson Fulcher, a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate from Colorado who was working with CaveSIM. David Lyons, a California caver, outdoorsman, and fantastic leader. Drew Little, one of my closest friends, a fellow ASS caver, lethal human being, and all-around legendary person hang out with. And finally, Clinton, the handsomest prince charming to ever grace any underground dwelling in the Land of Ten Thousand Caves. Period. Jokes aside, he was an absolute unit who had an aura of bravado surrounding him (he also had a kickass old-school standard Subie Forester that was shredding down the muddy trails on the way to the cave).
Following a scenic drive though the meadows into the privately-owned mountainous land where the pit was located, we split up into 4x4s and proceeded to follow the Tennessee ranchers on their ATVs until we could only proceed by foot up a steep grade. The old ranchers proceeded to guide our way riding their nimble mechanical mountain goats. In hindsight, the muddy terrain and rolling thunder should have hinted us to the impending disaster that was about to trigger a chain reaction of bad juju.
As the wet compacted mud beneath us already structurally weak from recent downpours, both the ranchers ended up losing traction and barrel rolling off their ATVs down the steep, rocky mountain side. Being as both were well past their sixties and maybe even seventies, we were rightfully concerned and immediately checked for any head injuries or fractures. With Oztotl’s divine blessings, they walked away relatively hurt free, living to tell a wicked tale. As they proceeded back to their vehicles to apply basic first aid, we followed Clinton to our destination.
Upon reaching the pit, Clint took a small group of cavers and cave photographers into nearby Skagnasty, a cave widely recognized for its beautiful formations and artistic rooms. This is when things really get exciting. While the remaining seven of us had solid caving experience amongst us, none were expecting to do our own rigging. Especially since this was a virgin cave for all of us. With Aaron and David being mentors, Jackson was in charge of the rigging. Although this was literally his very first vertical cave, he had plenty of experience rock climbing and was even a climbing guide in the Rockies in high school. Quite impressive for any teen to accomplish. With two very stiff, very dirty ropes and just a single rope pad we were off to the races. With a nasty storm brewing in the horizon, we had no time to waste.
Our first obstacle came along when we realized we had two sharp lips contacting the rope with only one rope pad to spare. Heavy raindrops reminding us we have no time for caution, after some brainstorming, some self-sacrifice and innovative rigging, we were able to use Drew’s backpack as a makeshift rope pad. With his phone keys and wallet still in it to up the ante of course. Kidding aside, it was a total mistake that made for a nail-biting and hearth-clenching executed ascent for the eight of us later.
We were later faced with our next misfortune; our initial rope wasn’t long enough. This one was a mind bender as we were rappelling a 120-foot pit with a 150-foot rope with an anchor point dangerously close to the pit (in theory leaving little dead rope). David handles the situation right away and rigged a second rope to another anchor point nearby using a 200 foot rope with the idea of doing a rope transfer on the ascent to save time by having two men on rope at any given time. Now came time to rappel. The entrance itself is a four by six pit leading to a small half dome about eight foot in depth before dropping into a massive clearing. The crater like rubble underneath and the massive water formations spanning the ceiling gave out a breathtakingly eerie energy as we descended into the dark.
While the cave itself was sparse, we explored some of the biology and but by the time the fourth person dropped the pit, we knew that it was pouring outside. If the caver’s wet clothes and the sudden, deadly temperature drop didn’t give it away, the tiny waterfall created at the entrance did. In tune with the overall luck we were facing that day, the waterfall situated itself right along our ropes. How fun. As I fought to move around and retain as much body heat as possible, Drew thought it appropriate to take his sweet ass time during the rope transfer. To his credit, he was basically swimming up rope with how much water had been pouring down on us and he made the rookie mistake of bringing his glasses with him, which soon completely fogged up and rendered the little vision he had left completely useless. After watching him pathetically get ragdolled by the elements, I took pity and gracefully rescued him off rope and out the pit. At least that’s how it played out in my head, I was told that it was much less graceful and much more NSFW. In my defense, it’s just two dudes, chillin on rope, huddling together to stay alive and survive.
Sarcasm aside, these series of unfortunate events brought out the caver’s spirit and each of us ended up feeding of the collective energy and powered our way though the mud, sweat, and last night’s beer’s to finish our pit bounce. The rain didn’t let up until we hiked back down the slippery mountain and caught up with Clint’s crew, but made for a gorgeous drive back to the main road. Although not a single thing went according to plan on this trip, not one of us would have changed a single detail as it allowed us to come together and make the best of times out of the worst of times.
By: Karthik Lella