Bats from Heaven
And Other Myths of Chambliss Cave
Dennis Curry never fails to have a hook, some catchy phrase he uses to garner interest in his latest horror hole. "It's raging air," he used to say. When we started catching on to that one, he diversified. "It's raging air," he would say, "and it takes a river of water!"
So when Dennis started calling me about his weeknight night trip to Chambliss Cave on Lookout Mountain, I was figured I was wise to his tricks. The idea of abusing my body until the wee hours of the morning and going to work with little or no sleep did not particularly appeal to me. But this time, Dennis had a new hook up his sleeve.
"Bats," he said. Bats had been observed flying out of an unexplored crawlway--and of course bats wouldn't fly out of a dead end. In fact, Dennis said, there was a trail of bat guano leading into this crawlway. One had only to follow that trail to certain glory.
I don't really mean to pick on Dennis. We all do it. In some ways caving is a series of rationalizations, of otherwise normal people talking themselves into doing things that defy logic. Like gamblers trying to beat the house, we'll just keep coming back for more no matter how great the punishment, and we'll want to drag a few friends along, too. Dennis was one of the most skilled in the game, with more winnings than most, miles of virgin cave to show for his pain. Me, I was getting tired. All the caves had started looking alike to me, and at times the thought of extending anything but the most pleasant of caves seemed pointless. "It's too long already!" I had exclaimed more than once.
"We wouldn't have noticed this hole if it hadn't been for all the bats," Dennis said as we sat at the start of the crawl, some 2,500 feet into Chambliss Cave. It was late on Wednesday evening, September 16, 1992. Dennis, Randy Lane, Doug Carson and I had already negotiated a 20 foot drop near the entrance, a 200 foot belly crawl known as the Wind Tunnel, and a muddy traverse across the top of a 60 foot dome which Dennis, Randy, and Beth Elliott had bolted the week before. The prize, the large passage that they had been able to see on the other side, had fizzled in breakdown only 150 feet past the top of the dome. Two possibilities remained: a hole in the breakdown where rocks that we dropped rolled down a slope out of sight and the "bat hole" we were now facing.
"Have a look," Dennis said. I moved a little closer. "Go on," he said, and I dutifully slithered inside. Twenty feet in was the constriction which had stopped Dennis and Randy on the previous trip, a minor technicality which they had assured me would take only a moment to remove. "Oh, since you're in there," Dennis said, "grab this hammer and chisel."
Dennis and Randy were right about one thing: at the first swing of the hammer, a square foot of the ceiling above the constriction simply dropped in front of my astonished face. The rest of the squeeze was soft mud, easily removed. This was going to be easy, I thought.
"Come on in!" I shouted back to Randy, sliding forward to pop into virgin cave. But ahead of me, instead of the spacious passage which had seemed to beckon, was another muddy squeeze. Dennis, as usual, had been clever to send me in first. Having come this far, I had little choice but to continue. Meanwhile, he and Doug could go check out the bottomless pit, which no doubt was considerably more spacious and less horrible.
Oh, Chambliss! How scattered geologic clues, a stout blast of air at the entrance, and a few idle thoughts of Ellisons can relight the imagination of the most burned-out caver. For an hour or so, I was a believer again, forcing myself a grand total of 30 feet further horizontally and 20 feet higher into the breakdown. Two very tight spots took me several tries each to negotiate, even after I had enlarged them with the hammer. By the time I had finally exhausted all leads, reaching a terminal choke, the lens on my wheat lamp was so thick with mud I could hardly see. I could feel the mud drying on my forehead, getting crusty in my hair. My bright red helmet, long since removed, was one solid shade of brown, inside and out.
For the record, let me report: I saw no bats. There was, in reality, no yellow brick road of guano to lead me to the Emerald City. The passage simply ended without hope in terminal breakdown, completely and absolutely.
When Randy and I went to check on Dennis and Doug, we found a rope disappearing down the bottomless hole. From below, we heard reports of a blind forty foot pit--but the passage seemed to continue at a higher level. "Man!" Randy said. "This thing has got to go!" I knew my three companions were desperate for success, pooling their positive thoughts in hopes of a breakthrough. I was looking at my watch and hoping secretly that this hole would end, that we could get out of the cave and I could get some sleep before the alarm went off.
For now, the positive thoughts were winning; the passage was going. I could either sit there, or follow Randy down the hole. So down I went, rappelling ten feet or so to land on a muddy ledge, the blind pit continuing below. The ledge led to a large, sloping room. Already, the other three were down in a steeply descending chute at the far end, rigging a belay line for a muddy traverse. On the other side, the chute continued down at a 45 degree angle, dropping into a stream passage. "Borehole!" Dennis exclaimed. "We did it!"
But the stream, never nearing borehole dimensions, sumped immediately upstream, and downstream was almost as grim. A dome offered some hope, but the most promising lead was a muddy canyon. With the help of a rope, Dennis and I explored an additional 20 feet of virgin cave, including a large, sloping mud ledge visible from below that went nowhere.
We turned to leave Chambliss around midnight, with approximately 300 feet of new cave explored. By 2:30 Thursday morning I was taking a long, hot shower at home, still trying to get the mud out of my hair.
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