Author Topic: Deepest in Alabama, USA  (Read 1565 times)

Offline Amata

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Deepest in Alabama, USA
« on: June 27, 2012, 08:43:36 pm »
We met at 8am at the old National Speleological Society office. Excitement ran high...this was months in the planning and gaining access permits. We were headed to Surprise Pit in Fern Cave, Alabama. The deepest pit in Alabama, and it is in-cave. Single pitch. Freehanging.

Surprise Pit entrance of Fern Cave is owned and managed by Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) and was closed for years to follow the Fish and Wildlife closures of Fern Cave, which has multiple entrances, in response to the White Nose Syndrome outbreak.

The cave closures have proven insufficient, and actually dangerous for the caves, as without knowledgeable conservation-minded and law-abiding people (aka cavers) in these remote regions, the vandals have had full reign with no one to stop them. The very bats Fern Cave was closed to protect (endangered Gray Bats) have seen destruction from these vandals. Additionally, White Nose Syndrome has been scientifically proven to be spread by direct bat to bat contact, something that is impossible to stop. Nature will run its course and bats are already showing signs of immunity.

In light of this SCIENTIFIC evidence, the SCCi decided to re-open Surprise Pit, a part of the Fern system (although it does not directly/easily connect with the rest of the cave, it requires a near impossible sump dive, the connection was made decades ago after many years of drought and has not been done since). Hopefully their logical scientifically-sound policies will help drive off future vandals of this beautiful place. And hopefully, the government will soon follow suit.

We stopped for second breakfast at the HIG (aka Hardees in Gurley) about a half hour out from town and then continued to the Kenemeer Preserve parking lot, another SCCi property nearby the mountain Fern Cave is on. Here, we condensed into our 4x4 vehicles (a Jeep and a pickup truck). Being low on seats, Chris rode in the back of the pickup with the gear, and young Nick sat on the Jeep's tire and held on to a rollbar. The road from here was for off-road vehicle types only, and was much fun as we drove along this old logging trail at the base of the mountain.

After another 20-30 minutes of this off road driving, there is no more further to go. From here, it is a looooong hike up the mountain. We set off from the vehicles at 10:10am with all our personal gear, hiking gear, rigging gear, two 600ft ropes, and a 160ft rope to rig the traverse. An additional 600ft rope was left in the truck, a backup emergency in case we needed to small-party rescue or something.

Our team was:
Brian - Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit (HCRU) member, V-Bat vertical long rope rappel team, and caver.
James - HCRU, long time caver, was on the first Surprise trip after re-opening
Chris - Some dude from Tennessee who likes to tag along with us :P
Nick - "the kid", only 18 but a damn fine caver with more rescue experience than most of us have, HCRU, Huntsville Emergency Medical Services High Angle Rescue Team (HEMSI-HART), and long list of credentials
Larry - trip leader, on the first Surprise trip after the re-opening, HCRU, HEMSI-HART
Billy - A spot opened up and he had a jeep, and we needed a jeep :P (kidding, he's actually matured a lot with vertical work the last few months)
Dave - Larry's brother, likes to hike with heavy packs to stay in shape. Why anyone would want to carry rope and not cave is beyond me, but cool!
And of course, ME! (HCRU, V-Bats, etc etc)

The start of the hike was not to horrible, a steady upward slope not too steep. Then we had to turn to go UP the mountain. The hike itself is about a mile in length total, but the rough part is the large sections at 45deg angles and more, but all in all it was about 500ft elevation change over 1/4 mile for the worst bit. Overall was about 650ft elevation change.

Still, in 90 degree weather and 55% humidity this gets tiring fast. We were very happy to reach the sinkhole where the Surprise entrance of Fern was, ahhhh Nature's Air Conditioning.

Entrance to Surprise by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Even I went topless! It's only fair, if guys can I can too! It felt great to cool off some.

Me in Front of Entrance by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Larry and Dave, shortly after a few others, entered the cave. We went in groups to prevent choke-issues (I'll talk about that in a bit) but upon my turn I realized why people loved the entrance so much...the view outward after climbing down behind the waterfall is amazing.

Surprise Pit Entrance - Looking Out by Sunguramy, on Flickr

The first bit of the cave is narrow water-carved passage. Then you reach a crossroads and go over a boulder to the left into a crawl. This is the "choke point" so no use lots of folk being there at once. A traverse line is rigged as you do a belly crawl on a smooth slippery ledge, nicely tilted pit-side, for about 40 feet. I actually didn't find it anywhere near as sketchy as what James and Larry were leading me to believe. In most places it was plenty wide enough, it was only the spot where you have about 8-10 inches a few feet down to step on as you belly-leg-hop-crawl across a gap that drops off over 400 feet below you. Oh yeah, did I mention this whole traverse section is along the deep bit? There is a rig point somewhere over there (i think) from that section, which is a 437(?) foot rig point. It's in the waterfall though so it's not used much.

You pop off of this crawl into a nice standing area, like a large platform of rock and mud. I was warned to still be careful, and stay atached to the traverse line (which was rigged across it to the 404ft rig point) as much as you could/wanted to because those holes, they go down. As I scampered around in this section, indeed...there were holes (usually no larger than a Frisbee) that just went straight down over 400ft! You drop something you loose it! Brian, Larry, and James were busy rigging two ropes for today.

Rigging Surprise 3 by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Over to a safer non-holed section I detached from the line and made my way over to a shelf that caught my eye. Apparently lots of folks while waiting for time on rope get bored, and what's more fun to do than mud formations? They were AMAZING. Lots of great detail from dinosaurs to cave scenes and rappel devices and, well, really anything one can imagine.

Mud Formations - Most the Shelf by Sunguramy, on Flickr

We had a plan for rappel order. There were a few special cases such as myself, and Larry. I needed time at the bottom to get shots. Larry needed lots of time on rope. I'll explain why shortly. Brian was the first to rappel. He went down on a 14" rack with a French Wrap as a safety as there was no one down there to belay. We listened until the zipping of the rope through the rack left our ears...then watched until his light disappeared into the mist. It was like he just...disappeared. A crackle came over the radio and our hearts caught in our throats, hoping it went well. We heard "Hey guys...(pause to long to bear despite it being a nanosecond in reality) much rope stretch do you think there is on 400ft?". We all immediately knew his worry...he wasn't at the bottom yet...and was feeling the rope sway. See, rope on the ground and rope in the air has a different feel. James radioed back, as it was his rope "for this rope? maybe 5 feet or so." Brian radioed back "How about eight feet?" We held our breath as we waited for the word...finally the radio crackled to life again and we heard the comforting words "Off rope".

Being a steep scree slope of unstable rock, Rope 2 was almost short-roped. It was flicking off the ground and depth perception coming in from the fog is basically zilch, and until he was basically on the ground, Brian had no way of knowing if it touched, or if when he got off rope, if it would zip out of his reach. Luckily, Rope 1 was on the ground with about 20-30 feet coiled in a pile so even if Rope 2 was short, it wouldn't have been much concern (and could have been re-rigged to get the extra 10-20 feet from the pigtail, as it it was a midline rig by those still above). It simply would have been funny as Brian had rigged Rope 2, and to shortrope yourself on a 404ft drop only a few feet from the bottom gets you teased for life!

Brian then belayed me down Rope 2. I used my 18" rack and went without a French wrap as I was able to start on all 6 bars because of the longer frame. Also, I had a belay. I was more nervous than usual at the top. I always have respect for rappeling. One mistake is easily your last, after all. But this was different. This was Surprise, the DEEPEST PIT. I got selected out of many many people, hundreds, technically, for this 2nd (?) trip since the re-opening. Not only that, but I was the very first female to venture here since the closures years ago. In a man's world like this, I must admit I feel extra pride to get invited on trips such as this. I even carried the 170ft rope up the mountain. I have learned these little things help prove my worth to "the guys". Although I must admit I was slightly surprised at the top of the hike when I asked who had taken bets that I would pass the rope off before reaching the top, everyone said it hadn't even crossed their mind. Perhaps I am more accepted than I perceive.

I quadruple checked my system. I had James, lip attendent for Rope 2, check my gear a second time now that I was rigged in and ready to go. Test rappel done. Rack is working properly, all systems go. James squalks over the radio for me "Amy is on rappel". I hear a "copy" from Brian echo from the radio as I carefully cross the lip. It was an easy lip, and for any other cave, at this point I would feel that wash of relief as I'm fully committed and in my seat, weight on the rope completely, smoothly sliding down. This though...this was different. Even my 250 lumens of light from Bif's custom duo couldn't cut through the fog below. I watched the walls bell out and disappear from sight. All I could see is my rack, my rope, and Rope 1 about 10 feet from me. There was a slow spin....rope....there's the rope again....and again....time seemed to stand still. It was just blackness. I watched the lights above me for reference, but soon they grew dim and disappeared as I entered the first cloud of mist about 100 feet down. It was just me, my rack, and my rope.

It's really weird and dizzying to have absolutely no frame of reference. No rock face to see. Just a slow spin, only the sound of the rope screaming through the rack for guidance of speed. I found myself fully breaking to a stop multiple times, just to assure myself I wasn't going too fast. I had no way to tell. Time stood still. How can one judge time without a single reference point? Just floating...floating on rope.

Eventually the cloud lifted, or rather, I passed through the cloud. I heard water now, I must be to a level were one of the falls comes in. It was still misty, a bit of spray in the air, but not a dense fog. I could see the wall again, about 40 feet away and hard to judge speed still in the dimness but the cave was my friend now, I wasn't alone on rope. I couldn't see to the far side of the pit though. A small break in the mist, and I stopped again, and spun around a bit. Here in the clearing I could get my light to touch the opposite wall. No light from above, and no light from below, yet. I continued on in the clearing and then saw some rock rise to meet me. In reality it was still a good 20 feet way, but such is hard to judge sometimes, coming down to it. The rest of the light fog lifted and I saw clearly a new section, narrower than the rest of the pit I had just come through. I saw a towering slope of boulders and peered into the darkness, looking for the bottom. Shortly therafter, I saw it. About half the way down the large boulders gave way to a stone scree slope and I saw where the ropes touched the bottom. I was actually coming in rather slowly, so having a good frame of reference again I spread the lower bar down with the touch of a finger, zip! I slid in for the landing. I worked fast to get the rack off, knowing on long rope it can heat up to glaze the rope if left on too long, but I needent be worried for one as little as 404 feet. It was still cool to the touch even with the fast zip at the end!

It took me a minute to get my land legs back again. It was if I had been to sea for months! The scree slope didn't help matters but I made my way upwards to where it was more stable. I pulled out my radio and called "Off Rope 2".

Larry and Billy were the next two down, Brian belayed on Rope 1, I on Rope 2. I actually had my camera set on long exposure just testing what it could capture of the pit and ambient light from ours and theirs coming in.

Coming in for Landing by Sunguramy, on Flickr

As soon as they landed, we started planning for climbing partners. Larry was going to be completing his Classic 8. This is an award in the Huntsville Grotto for vertical work. One must complete 8 rappels and climbs, 5 over 100 feet, 2 over 200 feet, and 1 over 400 feet, climbing on knots. No mechanical devices allowed. Larry was going to take about an hour to climb this on knots, and Brian prefers a slower climbing pace himself. Also, Brian is my lighting assistant. I took a test run for lighting the pit from the ground. The mist and clouds proved much challenge however I liked how well the colors in the layers of bedrock showed:

Surprise Pit - Try 1 by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Sunguramy, my cave photography and blog website

Offline Amata

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Re: Deepest in Alabama, USA
« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2012, 08:43:54 pm »
In watching the Larry and Billy rappel, I figured the only way I'm lighting up the pit and cutting through the mist clearly, is to light from on rope with specific angles. With Billy and I at the bottom to belay and manage things from there, Brian got on Rope 1. The knots would slip with the weight of a person under them, necessitating him being the top on this tandom climb. It also gave someone with Larry in case of trouble (although he also was carrying his full ropewalker with him in case). In this time, Nick completed his rappel as well. Nick is a frogger and no one likes tandoming with a frogger (too bouncy!) and he would be slower as well. As Larry climbed onto Rope 1 below Brian, Nick got on Rope 2 to climb. For the first 300-feet or so, they kept pace with each other. During rests I would call up to Brian on the radio for lighting directions for my shots.

Climbers On Rope_1 by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Around 350 feet up though, Nick started to speed up. He beat them to the lip by about 10-15 minutes. (taken about 350 feet up)

Climbers On Rope 2 by Sunguramy, on Flickr

With Nick off-rope, the next rappeler made his way down. This time it was Chris! Billy belayed as I was still busy with some shots

Helping Chris get off-rope by Sunguramy, on Flickr

In watching Nick, Larry, and Brian climb, Billy and I had staked out tracts of land (so we called it) in which the angle was perfect to lie down and light-gaze. Not star-gaze, it's a cave, there are no stars. Only pecks of light from helmets (which are easier viewed from bottom than when on rappel). Still, helmet lights are soon too dim, but for the photography, Brian would kick on his 3000 lumens and light up the level he was at. It was truly an amazing show that photographs cannot possibly capture, one can only experience first hand. Between shots when he'd turn on his 650 lumen helmet-mounted light, we'd still get a brilliant show.

When Chris joined us, we decided to seranade them. A round of Bohemian Rhapsody started up! Larry was actually in a rock band in his younger years, Chris is a good bass, and I'm not a bad singer myself ;) We had it all...the singing and vocalizing for the instrumental parts. The pit gave AMAZING acoustics and we had a blast. Sadly the echoing is way too horrible from far away, and over 300feet up at minimum, no one else understood a word, just heard noise and wondered what the hell we were doing!

As Brian and Larry successively reached the lip and cross it, I was quickly getting ready to climb again. I had gotten a bit cold even with my warm fleece and was ready to get on rope and climb. I've tandomed with Billy in the past on 200ft stuff, so it was decided since we had a good climbing partnership before we would partner for this climb as well. We waited until James rappelled down before getting back on rope ourselves.

James Coming in for Landing by Sunguramy, on Flickr

The last four of us were down there, and getting back on rope. I asked which lip was easiest. I had checked out the lip from Rope 1 from above, and noticed it went into a "v" crack that seemed narrow for my hips, and very undercut, just a small V'd rock jutting out nothing underneath. I thought this could be a problem for me, rather challenging of a lip to cross especially after a 404 foot climb. Rope 2's lip, that I had rappeled past, was longer, but flat and even the undercut part had some nubbles to put your feet against underneath to push off the rock while passing it. Lip crossing similar in the past, had been easy for me, and there was no where for my hips to get hung up on. I radioed up top and asked for opinion from Larry et al who had seen/done both lips. I was told Lip 1 was easier. So, I just went with it despite my hip-fit-through-it concern.

Climbing up I realized how freaky the land bridge was that we were on, and rigging from. People had been calling it a land bridge, but as I approached it you could really see the holes! Light filtered down from people on it through the holes. It was really just boulders and mud, stuck into a bridge 404 feet above the pit. I will note the actual rig points were bolts in the wall, backed up on a BFR. Stable and used for decades, just a bit scary to see!

Billy and I kept good time, making the climb in about 25 minutes. We were the fastest climbers of the day, although perhaps not totally fair to say because James had a bungee issue about 20-30 feet up and so he and Chris went back down to fix it before climbing again which set them back a few minutes. Our climb was smooth though. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 "resting!" I'd feel the rope jiggle below me as Billy climbed up his set, then a tap on my foot for me to climb. Eventually we were doing sets of 16 or so. A set counts from one foot, so a count of 16 is really 32 steps total. Only three longer water breaks at around 150 and 300 feet, and one right before I crossed to the pigtail for the lip crossing.

Oh the lip....F**k. My concerns were correct, my hips were a bit wide for it and coming from a tiring day I did NOT have the patience to deal with it! Such a shame too with a beautiful smooth textbook rope to rope weighted changeover to get to the pigtail. I noticed my voice getting whiney and trying to not yell as I said "This is EXACTLY why I was SPECIFICALLY asking about the lips, because I did NOT want to have to deal with this. My hips to NOT fit through this and I am getting jammed up. I wish you would have paid more attention and confirmed that the Rope 2 lip was better for me. For ME not for YOU!" I guess I get a bit pissy when I think I'm being specific to avoid an issue, am told something, and then have the exact issue I was trying to avoid! In the end, I did what Billy described as "I'm not sure what you did, but it was sure as heck something I could never do!" as I swung a leg behind me, circled it up and around swinging myself out of the "V" poping half my hip above it as I did the vertical splits in one crazy smooth upward motion. From there I got out easily. It took a good few minutes to figure out this was how I'd have to do it! But I did it!

I Just Climbed 404 ft! by Sunguramy, on Flickr

Bill crossed with much fewer difficulties. Ah men, you and your skinny-ass hips! (Billy on the left, happy to be up, Brian who served as Rope 1 lip attendent after climbing on the right)

Billy & Brian by Sunguramy, on Flickr

We rested, drank some water, Billy ate his chicken (he seems to always bring along fried chicken!) and we waited for James and Chris to re-appear. James crossed the lip on Rope 2 worse than I did, I mean, they were calling him a little girl and all sorts of teasing so it must be worse because I was just a damn woman with child-berrin' hips! He made the air so blue with swearing...I'm not sure a lady such as myself is meant to hear all those words.... LOL

The de-rigging then commenced and we made our way back out of the cave, Larry last and de-rigging the traverse line behind us. We emerged into the evening sun and were back to the 4x4's at 7:10pm. After the hot hike back down the Jeep ride with the wind blowing around us and splashing through mud puddles was most welcome. =)

Right now I'm not up for a return trip, it was rather grueling! I'm sure some day I will go back though...Until then.

Surprise Pit by Sunguramy, on Flickr
Sunguramy, my cave photography and blog website

Offline ianball11

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Re: Deepest in Alabama, USA
« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2012, 09:01:18 pm »
Wow! It must have taken almost as long to type as the 404' climb!

Great photo, the last one! It looks colossal

Offline RobinGriffiths

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Re: Deepest in Alabama, USA
« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2012, 09:50:21 pm »
Great write up and great pics.

Offline Brains

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Re: Deepest in Alabama, USA
« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2012, 06:40:34 am »
Stunning rock scenery and a good trip.
Lighting that huge shaft must be a nightmare
Thanks for sharing