"Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them."
Chris and Jamie shout in unison a microsecond – it seems like an hour – after the desk- sized boulder detaches itself from the clay bank of the hole we're in, and drops heavily onto the entrance to Lost Creek Cave. On landing, the slab of caprock breaks into several pieces, with two or three head-sized chunks disappearing into the tiny entrance hole through which a member of our party rappelled only a minute earlier. The remaining chunks slide an arm's length, and stack themselves in a neat pile on top of the entrance – the only exit for the four cavers 150 feet below.
In less time than it takes to slap a mosquito, our situation has changed. We are no longer carefree explorers basking in the sun high on an Appalachian mountainside; we are suddenly characters in a James Dickey novel, participants in a more deadly game, where survival itself is at stake.
As a Southerner, Dickey would have understood these mountains, and our situation as well. As his 1970 novel Deliverance demonstrated, he was keenly aware of the perverse manner in which the simplest of actions can alter the rules immediately and irrevocably.
We, however, are simple cavers from far north of here. We possess none of his southern gothic sensibilities. Two days earlier, we would not have foreseen this. We were all looking forward to a long weekend of poking around in potholes in the TAG karst region. And while we were aware that caving, like any adventure pursuit, carries an element of risk, we were confident that the skills of our leaders, Chris Hastie and Chris Pourchez, experienced caving guides and instructors, would minimize the danger. But 'minimize' isn't the same as 'eliminate'. Even had we considered the distinction, though, none of us would have been likely to have missed this trip. Paul, Melissa, Jamie, Laurie and myself had traveled with Pourchez and Hastie before, and we all looked forward to the excitement you feel when descending deep into an unknown realm.
Lost Creek Cave, Georgia
Spring in the Appalachians: the sun is bright and hot on a March morning, and the inside of my Kelty tent is like an oven as I roll out of my sleeping bag. Groaning I pull on my boots. Every muscle in my body is sore from the previous day's caving. Outside, a few of the others are stirring.
After breakfast, we begin to scramble up the path to find our destination for the day. Lost Creek is a 'dug cave', and only one of many caves in the TAG karst, where the states of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia converge, to carry this name. Finding 'lost' caves is a kind of Holy Grail in this part of the country.
Because of the unique way in which caves are formed, the upper entrance is usually the last to develop. Slightly acidic groundwater reacts with limestone to form an acidic solution that seeps down through faults and bedding planes, dissolving rocks as it goes. Eventually, a large open void – a cave – will be formed where this solution has pooled. The process means that the upper portion of the system, the fault where the groundwater originally began to drain off the surface, is the least dissolved. Often, this portion of a cave won't open up until a huge pocket has developed underground, weakening the structure to the point that the ceiling collapses. This is how sinkholes are formed.
But cavers searching for virgin cave are not always patient. What often happens is that ridge-walking parties discover an incipient cave, whose entrance may be little more than a crack in the surface, far too small to allow access. Blowing wind – or on cool mornings, billowing steam – can convince the party that a large cavern awaits below, and they return, armed with picks, shovels, and even explosives. Some cavers actually prefer to open and expand caves in this way, which has become a whole sub-genre of caving, known as "digging".
There are disadvantages to a dug hole. Entrances created in this way tend to problematically tight and technical, and because of the blasting, they can also sometimes be unstable.
Here, the hole is an extremely tight squeeze at the bottom of a six-foot pit just large enough for two people to crouch in. After getting on rappel, the caver must slide a short distance down a slippery passageway which suddenly becomes a sheer drop – 150 feet down on an 11 mm static rope, speed checked only by a figure-8 rappel device. The rope is anchored to a tree above: three wraps, with a figure-eight-on-a-bight at the end, with two opposing, lockable carabiners as a safety measure to prevent the anchor from unwrapping. This is vital. North American cavers typically practice single rope technique (SRT), in which there is no belay. If the anchor fails, it's game over.
It's still early enough in the morning that a thin breath of steam is escaping from the mouth of the cave, and in sequence, Pourchez and three more of our party clip into their rappel, and drop through the mist into the pit. When it's Jamie's turn, he puts his weight on a rock halfway down the pit, and it separates from the wall, dropping into the bottom of the trench and breaking into several pieces. A couple of them pitch down the hole, while the remainder settle over the entrance, sealing it – and trapping the cavers below.
We can only imagine what they are feeling, after hearing the massive boulders cannoning into the pit, and after being peppered by rock shrapnel from their sudden stop at the bottom of the shaft. Fortunately, we quickly confirm that no one below is hurt, and begin to assess the situation. For a minute or two, we debate pushing the rocks on the entrance down farther, allowing them to drop. But the idea is vetoed: the rocks could get caught up in the narrowing throat of the hole and become lodged even more securely. Our only option is to remove the rocks – heavy as they are.
First, we rig some webbing to keep the rocks from sliding any further. Then, we pull up the rope; a precaution to keep any further rocks that might fall from cutting it. Seeing the rope – their connection to the surface – snaking away out of sight can't have been too comforting to those trapped below.
We manage to shift the topmost of the rocks out of the way, but the second is too large. We anchor our second rope to a nearby tree and attach it to the webbing sling we previously secured the rock with. The three of us – Jamie, Hastie and myself -- heave with all our strength.
After two more attempts, we manage to shift the rock enough to squeeze by it, and using a hand ascender to apply tension, we secure it in position. When the rappel rope is lowered once again, it catches on a ledge partway down, so Hastie has to drop down to free it. Since he's almost there anyway, he continues down to the bottom of the dark pit to inform the others about the situation.
"We've got to get out quickly," he tells them. "There's a rock the size of a Volkswagen about to come down." The statement is perhaps an exaggeration. The rock near the entrance hole is closer in size to a fender than an entire vehicle. But it's heavy, and he's hoping to instill a sense of urgency.
Paul and Laurie ascend the 150 feet without incident, using their Gibbs rope-climbing rigs. Third up the rope is Melissa, who runs into trouble near the ledge when one of her ascenders gets fouled by a bungee, and Hastie has to climb up alongside her to clear it. By the time she reaches the top, the tension and the effort are clearly bringing her near her limit. Her face is fire-engine red, and when she snags one of her ascenders on the knot of a prusik cord holding a rope protection pad, she erupts in a stream of curses. Jamie grabs her by the coveralls and swings her from the hole.
With everyone else safely at the surface, Hastie and Pourchez ascend using the Yosemite method or "jugging". This technique uses two hand ascenders as opposed to the ropewalker method, which uses ascenders on the knee and ankle, so it's less than half as efficient, relying totally on upper body strength. It even looks exhausting. And by this time, they've both been up and down the 150-foot rope a couple of times, so I'm fairly sure they've had nearly enough for one day. By the time we de-rig the site and return to base camp, it's nearly dark. There's little question of doing another cave. Besides, the day's been just about exciting enough.
Two Weeks Later
The entire team has gathered to attend a local adventure expo, and to show each other photos from the trip. Melissa shows us her legs, still bruised at the ankles from overhanging ledges. Caving has left its mark on her, and I'm willing to bet she'll be back. For myself, after being away from the caves for a while, I always forget how much my muscles ache after a trip. What remains is a sense of inarticulate awe. With the benefit of repeated experience in the hills of the TAG area, I begin to find myself able – just barely -- to describe my feelings about caving: the challenge, the visual beauty, the sheer wonder of what amounts to an alien world, whose presence is unsuspected by those who walk on the surface above it.
The physical challenge is considerable. Even the least technically demanding mode of progress, horizontal travel, involves the caver scrambling over sharp, slick breakdown, squeezing his or her body through constricted passages, enduring cold air temperatures and colder water temperatures, and overcoming considerable routefinding difficulties.
Then, there's the vertical world. The advanced vertical caver must be proficient in: anchor selection and setup; belaying; traversing; rappelling; ascending; protection placement; haul systems; self-rescue; team rescue; etc., etc., etc.
In short, the caver must do everything the rock climber can do.
In the dark.
In the mud.
In fact, the caver's ropework skills must be superior to the climber's, because the climber uses his rope primarily as a backup – as fall protection. The vertical caver travels solely on his rope, and has to depend on it 100 per cent.
For visual appeal, caving is unsurpassed. Certainly mountaineering, with its shining slopes of ice and snow, and furious jagged peaks, is spectacular. Hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, essays, short stories and even novels have been written which attest to the dramatic impact of climbing in tall mountains. Caving, though, is an equal to any outdoor pursuit. The sight of sparkling, arena-sized underground rooms is as awe-inspiring as any Himalayan giant. A lone man suspended spiderlike from a thread of rope halfway down a 600-foot pit is as dramatic an image as the free climber dwarfed by a Yosemite wall.
But glamour? There's the difference…. Compared to climbers – often a chiseled, bronzed and spandex-clad bunch – cavers are unsophisticated, coverall-wearing geeks, covered in mud with worn kneepads pulled down around their ankles and carrying a cheap cave pack culled from an Army surplus bin. There are no big endorsement contracts for cavers.
But their obscurity is, in truth, a blessing. Given the fragility of cave ecology, hordes of fashionably clad wannabes descending into the underworld would end caving as we know it. Access to the last unblemished caves would become so strictly limited that we'd all be relegated to caving in artificial gyms.
The characters in James Dickey's Deliverance embark on their ill-fated canoe trip in order to experience a wild river one last time before it is flooded. Those of us who enjoy caving today are in a similar position; it's just a different kind of flood that's on the horizon. But with care, training, passion and commitment to conservation, we can ensure that this particular trip goes on a long time yet.
And has a better ending, too.