23 Dollar Pit
I'd had an urge to go to Twenty-three Dollar Pit for a long time. So I bought a topo map and plotted out the location, then made arrangements to meet Rick Hill in Kimball on the morning of April 1st, 1989.
We stopped in at the TAG Restaurant to ask Marion Smith for some pointers on the cave. "I haven't been there in years," Marion said, "and I'm not sure I can even tell you where to look. Lots of people have had trips there and spent the whole day just trying to find it. Maybe I can draw you a map." He made some tentative squiggles on a napkin, then shrugged. No matter, I told him. We would make the attempt, whatever the cost.
An hour later, the Cave Pinto III was nearing the head of the Paint Rock Valley. Sure enough, the old 4WD route to the cave was blocked off, the property posted by a hunting club. We tooled down to the Hall's Pit parking area instead. The road was muddy, but the Cave Pinto climbed expertly up the hill. We did make one stop to maneuver around a rough spot, backing into a tree in the process, but soon continued to reach a major intersection. We took the right hand turn going steeply up the mountain. Soon forward momentum was halted on a long, muddy hill. Winch time, Rick said.
For the next half hour we winched our way up the mountain. Things would have gone quicker except that Rick, who was orchestrating the effort, directed me to high-center the truck on rocks, not just once, but twice. A four-wheeler with two hunters came along while we were stuck, which was sort of embarrassing. They didn't know much about any caves on the mountain, or were playing dumb.
Eventually we parked at what seemed to be the approximate elevation of the cave, and set off walking around the mountain, topo in hand. Here we made our mistake. Thinking the cave was just a bit higher, we climbed the slope just a bit before continuing around the bench. As a result we walked just slightly above the entrance, missed it, and did an extra mile of hiking. Had we stayed at the elevation, the pit would have been just a quarter mile from the truck.
After doubling back, we rigged my 160 footer down the 83 foot entrance pit. The rope wasn't really long enough to rig the pit correctly, because there were no large trees near the edge, but we improvised using two fairly small trees and with a larger stump for a backup. We knew that if we were to reach the bottom of the cave, our ropes would have to be carefully rationed. I was first to descend, which I did with some apprehension. It was here, I knew, that a group of cavers had encountered falling copperheads in 1978. According to legend, snakes were falling everywhere, and the cavers dared not exit for some time. This time, no serpents were seen.
The entrance pit was followed immediately by a 20 footer, which the end of the 160 just barely rigged. A hundred feet down the passage was a 62 foot drop to a ledge, followed by a 139 foot drop, both of which were rigged with Rick's 230 foot rope. Some impressive domes and waterfalls were found on the bottom, along with about 200 feet of horizontal cave (mostly walking) that led to the next pit. Part of this passage involved squeezing through a canyon around hibernating bats, which was not an easy task.
The next pit was a 34 footer that I hadn't counted on. It was marked on the map, but I had assumed we would be going around it. This pit was rigged using Rick's 50 foot rope (with not a foot to spare). Now we were one rope short. The next pit, an 80 footer with a thundering waterfall, was just around the corner. We rigged this pit with Rick's 120 foot rope. The waterfall was impressive, but the drop was dry. On bottom, a short squeeze led to the final drop of 24 feet to the lowest point in the cave, some 442 feet down. The only rope we had left was a 25 foot piece of 5/16 PMI that Rick was carrying in his pack. For a few moments it looked like we weren't going to make it.
Desperation turned the tide. By tying the 5/16 to the end of the 120, the little rope stretched out just enough to reach the bottom of the last drop. I was first down and signed in at the register, noting that it was current from 1973. No one had been to the bottom, it seemed, since of July of 1988.
One by one we climbed the seven pits to the surface. We walked back to the truck without encountering any problems or copperheads, pleased and tired.
83/20 foot pits: 160 foot rope
62/139 foot pits: 230 foot rope
34 foot pit: 50 foot rope
80/24 foot pits:120/25 foot ropes
This is probably the absolute minimum amount of rope (585 feet) one could take and still safely reach the bottom!
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