Real Caving: Curry Chasm
"These guys," Dennis Curry said, waving the book for emphasis, "are doing real some real caving! How come we never go on any real caving trips like these guys?"
At the now-defunct TAG Restaurant in Kimball, Tennessee, the proprietors kept a book, a diary of sorts, where cavers could write about the caves they'd just discovered, or planned to discover. On any Saturday or Sunday morning, you'd find folks like Marion Smith and Alan Cressler eating at the TAG Restaurant. Dennis was having a late breakfast there, reading the book, when I came in that Sunday morning. We were planning on taking a wimpy tourist trip to Go Hole, a 145 foot pit. On Friday night, Dennis and Beth Elliott and I had made a tourist trip to 155 foot Sawmill Well. On Saturday, Dennis and Dan Twilley and I had made an easy tourist trip down Fantastic Pit from the Attic. We'd been satisfied with our accomplishments. But that night, camping at the Blue Hole resurgence to Ellisons, we had encountered Pierre from Montreal, a member of the Speleological Society of France. Pierre drove a little French car with a sticker on it that said simply, "K2, 8,610 meters." Yes, Pierre admitted, he had been to K2, a mountain only 800 feet shy of being taller than Everest, and acknowledged to be considerably more difficult.
"I planned to fly my paraglider down from the summit," Pierre shrugs, "but conditions would not permit it."
We nodded in sympathy, as if flying a paraglider down a 8,000 meter mountain was routine for us, but clearly Pierre wasn't just from a different part of the continent, he was from an entirely different world.
"These guys are out finding tough new caves, and we're going to the same old tourist pits again and again," Dennis said now. "This year, I'm going to do some real caving."
I tried to explain the disadvantages of real, as opposed to tourist, caving. First of all, I said, undiscovered caves rarely have a trail leading to their entrance, making access difficult. Maps of unexplored caves are darn rare, and as any caver knows, entering such caves can be risky. You might crawl a long ways down an unpleasant passage, expecting to a big reward, only to reach a dead end. You might get wet and muddy and miserable for nothing.
It was too late. By October of 1988, Dennis had already developed the insatiable appetite for virgin cave that would serve him so well in the future. It wouldn't be long before his truck would be permanently bottomed out from the weight of all the sledge hammers, eight foot pry bars, and five gallon buckets in the back.
Hank Moon and Vivian Lane arrived at the restaurant, and we loaded into the Toyotas for the trip to Go Hole. Our plan was to reach the pit via a new, secret route. Across Battle Creek we bounced, up a 4WD road past the infamous Logging Camp Cave, into unknown territory. Blocked by an impossibly steep hill, the Toyotas plowed through five foot tall thickets. We might be tourist cavers, but Dennis had a new truck and we were sure enough going to explore every overgrown 4WD road we might find. Finally, another steep, rutted hill confronted us. On foot, we split up: Hank to the right, Dennis to the left, me up the middle following an old logging road, with Vivian remaining with the trucks.
I had only gone a few hundred feet when I found a cave entrance right in the road. Had we still been driving, we might have dropped a wheel into the hole. Climbing down about ten feet, I threw a rock and heard it bounce from wall to wall for a considerable distance. Back at the trucks, I nonchalantly mentioned the hole to Hank and Vivian. Taking a wheat lamp, we went back to investigate further. Sure enough, there appeared to be a pit just inside the entrance.
Dennis soon appeared, whereupon ropes and gear were obtained from the trucks. I jammed a log in the passage to route the rope properly into the pit, and descended despite warnings of doom from Dennis (he was right--the log was more of a danger than a help). The pit was slightly offset, a bit wet, and about 65 feet deep. A two foot high solution tube exited the bottom, carrying a small stream. Expecting others to follow momentarily, I entered the tube and soon found myself on my belly, dragging my lower body through five inches of sludge. Dennis would be pleased, I thought. We had found real caving at last.
I followed the passage for about 200 feet, encountering two 30 foot domes and getting progressively more covered with slime. Soon I found myself peering over a chert shelf down an 11 foot drop that looked unclimbable. Wet passage seemed to continue down two slots in the floor; dry walking passage seemed to continue around a corner. I searched for any signs of a bolt, or some indication that anyone had been down the pit, but found none. Perhaps this cave in the road was a new find. If it was, I decided we should find a way to name it after Dennis. Maybe, I thought, we'll call it "Curry Chasm," or perhaps "Curry's Kinda Cave." I slithered back to the entrance pit, singing the theme song from "Rawhide."
No one had descended. Above, Dennis was pounding in a bolt, routing the rope over projections, doing anything to avoid using my log. As I went down to the truck to change into cleaner and warmer clothes, Dennis and Hank went down into the pit. Vivian and I stood around in the rain while they climbed out.
The short end to the story is that Go Hole was never reached. We had spent most of the afternoon standing around a hole in a jeep road, and still didn't know where it went, if anywhere. We didn't even know for sure that it was a new cave. There was just one thing that all of us were certain of: this was no tourist cave.
Was the day a success or a failure? That's the trouble with real caving. Sometimes you just can't tell.
Return to Curry Chasm
November 8, 1988
"Tell me it doesn't get any worse," Dennis moaned. "You can lie to me if you want. Just tell me it doesn't get any worse."
Dennis Curry and I were jammed into the Terrible Torture Tube in the cave we'd come to call Curry Chasm. The passage was a scalloped solution tube one foot wide and three feet high, floored with six inches of mud and water. The rest of the expedition--Beth Elliott and Doug Parker--had stopped at the bottom of the entrance pit, a wet 60 footer. It was Tuesday night, November 8, 1988.
The Torture Tube, fortunately, lasts only for about fifty feet, and we soon popped into Dennis Dome, a 30 foot high reprieve from the mud and water. Climbing up the far wall, around several death boulders, I explored about fifty feet of new passage, which led steadily upwards to a dirt ceiling complete with tree roots.
Dennis and I were soon back in the stream, negotiating thirty foot long Curry Crawl to reach Dennis Dome Number Two. From this point, thirty feet of stoop passage brought us to the mysterious 11 foot pit, the limit of previous explorations. With some effort I rigged to a natural bridge over the pit. Using the rope for a safety, I bridged the drop and chimneyed down the other side. On the bottom, the water fell into a plunge pool and disappeared down two adjacent slits. Ahead, dry passage led for fifteen feet to a hole in one wall. I peered into the hole and was shocked to see a large, dry pit.
While Dennis started putting bolts at the top of the 11 foot drop, I exited the cave to get a longer rope and a wetsuit top for Dennis. At the trucks, Beth and Doug were sitting around a fire in lawn chairs, eating popcorn.
"We're tired," they said. "Leave Dennis in the cave and let's go home."
It was a good suggestion. We were tourist cavers with homes and families, not fanatics who would push a wet cave late on a weeknight. Yet over the logic of Beth and Doug I heard another voice, as if from deep underground. "Fulfill your destiny!" the voice said. "Descend the virgin pit!" Like it or not, I realized, the dangerously thin line between tourist caving and "real" caving had been crossed; we were committed. I headed back into the cave.
Back at the pit, we rerigged the 11 foot pit and then tied the longer rope to it to rig the deeper drop. The small window opened into a void that was twenty-five by sixty feet wide--huge in comparison to the rest of the cave. Peering up at Dennis from the bottom, I guessed the drop to be about 95 feet.
A large passage seemed to beckon from the bottom, but Dennis and I cautiously climbed a steep slope of loose rock to see it end after just sixty feet. A passage off the other end of the pit led twenty feet to a squeeze down through a layer of chert. I began to maneuver myself feet-first through the hole, feeling for the floor I had seen three feet below...then hastily retreated after getting a clear look down. The "floor" I had seen was a five foot wide ledge of suspended chert; below me was a 27 foot drop!
We dragged the end of the rope over and found that it did reach the bottom. I descended into a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The only possible passage from this room was a low, wide lead about ten feet up one wall. The climb was slick and tricky; I finally backed down and left the lead for the "next generation." Dennis and I dragged ourselves slowly out of the cave, emerging about 1:30 in the morning.
The next Saturday, Marion Smith and some others went to Curry Chasm and measured the drops, which turned out to be 60, 11, 106 and 27 feet deep. It's a nice little wetsuit cave--one with some small passages, as Gerald Moni will attest. Curry Chasm is not, however, a good Tuesday night tourist trip, and it will be omitted from the Wimp List of Preferred Roadside Pits-even if it is in the middle of the road.
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