He's six foot five inches tall, 265 pounds of bone and muscle, with shortcropped curly black hair and a neck like a bull. He makes his living with his head down, shoulders locked against other bodies as massive as his own. He's Burt Grossman, defensive end for the San Diego Chargers, a twenty-two year old who likes to spend the off-season sleeping late and playing golf. But for three days in mid May, Burt is spending his time a little differently.
The proposition is simple: take a professional athlete, young, strong, and fearless, and plunge him headfirst into a sport completely alien to him. In this case, the sport is cave exploring, and to a man who has never before worn a pair of boots in his life, who has never been deeper in the earth than his own basement, the idea of being underground is as alien as walking on the moon. Without knowing what awaits him, confident only of his ability to overcome any physical challenge, Burt has agreed to join us for three days of exploration in the renowned vertical caves of the "TAG" region, where Tennessee, Alabama, and Tennessee join.
After breakfast at a Chattanooga hotel, a strong crew assembles outside: Tim Cahill, the writer who dreamed up this crazy idea; Buddy Lane, boy industrialist, who has organized the logistics of the expedition; Mark Wolinsky, forester and freelance photographer, and his loyal assistants, Trick Howard, Otis Farmer, and me. Of the group, Trick is the most obvious Southerner, a slight but bearded and baseball capped fellow who looks like he just came in from the hills to stock up on shotgun shells.
"Hey, Trick," Burt says. "I'll bet this is your truck, right?" Trick's vehicle is an ancient Chevy pickup that was once green but has long since faded to the color of mop water and rust, a classic caving truck. A carved wooden sign on the back of the camper shell proclaims "Deep Woods Custom Furniture." Burt is impressed by the interior of the camper; the cardboard tacked to the ceiling is loose and falling down in one corner. Not exactly like something you'd see tooling down the beach in San Diego.
Burt's introduction to the techniques of cave exploration begins at the Eagle's Nest, an abandoned quarry on the slopes of Lookout Mountain. Buddy outfits Burt and patiently explains each piece of equipment: the Petzl seat harness, clipped with a carabiner to a stainless steel rappel rack; the custom chest harness, specially sewn to accommodate Burt's 50 inch chest; the ascenders tied to each foot, with a third hooked into the seat for a safety. Burt stands with his arms crossed, occasionally spitting tobacco juice. He holds each piece of gear and studies it for a moment, never looking behind him where the ground drops away into 80 feet of air.
"Now listen to this, Burt," Buddy says. "When this equipment is used properly, there is absolutely no way you can get hurt. We're going to make sure of that."
Burt nods when Buddy asks him if he's ready, then backs slowly toward the edge.
"Piece of cake, Burt," Tim Cahill says. Cahill, a man who makes his living writing about outdoor adventure, has done rappells of thirty times this distance, but like all of us he hasn't forgotten the first time he looked below his feet and saw nothing but dizzy space. It is a time when any sane person must fight an instinctive urge to grab the rope and haul himself back up to solid ground.
"Yeah," Burt replies. "Stale cake." If Burt is nervous, he's not going to let us see it. He poses obediently for pictures, then slips easily down to the ground. From the bottom he squints up at us. No big deal. By late afternoon he has rappelled and climbed the rope at Eagle's Nest six times--a total of nearly 500 feet. Burt is ready, Buddy decides, for his first vertical cave: the Sinkhole, just a short drive away.
The Sinkhole is a sinewy canyon cut deep into the earth by a rushing stream. At one end of the canyon is a series of beautiful cascades which result in a sheer and spectacular 155 foot drop at the far end. This beautiful place is one of our favorite caves; some of us have been to this chasm fifty or a hundred times. Burt seems unimpressed. He looks around, peers into the pit, and yawns. Later, however, we learn his secret. When he's nervous, Burt Grossman yawns. Before a big game, Burt will lay on a bench in the locker room and read a magazine. That's how he deals with stress. Waiting to descend the Sinkhole, Burt is on his back on a log, eyes closed.
Nervous or not, Burt makes his first descent into a cave like he's been doing it all his life. A short time later, Mark and Trick are on a ledge a few feet from the top of the pit, photographing. Buddy and Burt are climbing on parallel ropes, stopping to pose every few minutes for the cameras. I am on the bottom with Tim, staring upwards for the electronic flashes from above which mean I must fire my own flashgun. All at once, I see a long, skinny object--a tree, I think--falling into the pit.
Seen from directly below, the object seems to float in air. That much is an illusion, I know. We have less than three seconds before it hits. "Rock!" I yell, and scramble for cover as other warnings come down from above. There is a sudden impact a few feet away, an echo, and then silence. Leaves drift down. A tree branch, some ten feet in length, lies in several pieces on the floor of the pit. Tim and I come out from the overhang where we've hidden. A hundred feet above, we can see Burt climbing furiously for the surface; Buddy is long gone. A few minutes later Mark leans over and yells. We can't hear what he is saying over the waterfall, but his arm waves us up.
Our climb is slow and purposeful. As the shaft narrows towards the top, Mark gets my attention. "Look at the wall," he keeps saying. Suddenly I see it. A spot of bright red on the wall, and then another. There is a trail of blood on the wall next to Buddy's rope.
When he sees the blood, Tim starts swearing. In all our years of caving, none of us have ever heard of such an accident. A large branch, a foot in diameter and twenty-five feet long, had fallen from the huge white oak above the pit, landing on the very edge of the pit directly across Burt's rope. The bulk of the limb stopped there, but a portion continued into the pit, glanced off a wall, and struck Buddy in the face. There was no apparent reason for that particular branch to fall. There had been no wind, no warning. Buddy hadn't even known what had hit him. After the impact, he had put a hand to his face, then pulled it back covered in blood.
Had the larger branch continued into the pit, we concluded, it would probably have killed someone. Each of us is in a mild state of shock. And what, someone asks, does Burt think of all this? Burt, who was five feet away from Buddy when the branch hit, is now laying on his back on the ground, saying nothing.
"That's a good way to get ticks," Mark warns.
"Ticks?" Burt says, cocking his head to look at us. "You hang me on ropes and try to kill me with falling trees, and you expect me to worry about ticks?"
With Buddy out of action, the plan for the ensuing days changes. Rather than continue to visit ever-deeper vertical caves, we plan to do some horizontal caving and concentrate on photography. Burt, who has not been particularly excited about lifting his 265 pounds up a rope in the first place, agrees to the new plan with great enthusiasm. That is, he doesn't threaten to kill anybody.
"I can't wait," Burt says. "Who's it going to be next time? Who's the next one to get hit by a tree when he's perfectly safe, when absolutely nothing can go wrong?"
Monday dawns bright and early. Burt seems a little disappointed in the choice of caves: Raccoon Mountain Caverns, a commercial cave where we will do the "wild cave" loop. After signing several autographs, Burt follows us through two thousand feet of lighted, beautiful cave on a paved trail, then on into the darkness. "Enough of this wimp stuff," Burt keeps saying. "Take me to the Rambo Passage!" Little does he know, I thought. Any man with some degree of bravado could dangle over a four hundred foot pit, but few have ever survived a photo trip with Mark Wolinsky. "Just one more!" Mark says, again and again and again, shooting a 36 exposure roll with Burt in one pose, then reaching for another.
As we exit the cave, Burt seems determined to prove that he can perform as well in our sport as he does in his own. With about a thousand feet of wild cave remaining before we rejoin the commercial trail, he insists that he can find his own way out. Unfortunately, the passages are fairly complex, and Burt is soon confused. "Got some tricky stuff here, boys," he says. "Better hold up while I check it out." Eventually, after accepting a few subtle hints, Burt succeeds in locating the commercial trail, and we don't catch up with him until we're outside.
Over a late dinner at McDonalds, Burt is unable to understand why anyone would go willingly into a cave. "It's all a joke, right?" he says. "I can't believe you guys enjoy this sport." Later, he gets more specific. "On the football field," he says, "there's nothing to be afraid of--except maybe getting hurt. But in these caves, you can experience every phobia: fear of heights, fear of the dark, fear of water, claustrophobia. You name it."
The next morning, the crew gets a late start. Tim Cahill is spotted sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the Chattanooga Choo Choo dressed in the same muddy jeans and tshirt he's been wearing for the past two days. Burt appears, and together they climb into Trick's battered pickup. On the highway, Trick switches on the vents--the truck has no air conditioning, of course--and out flies a small swarm of bees, who home in on Burt like trained assassins. When it's all over, Burt has been stung several times. Still further into the country he goes, jammed into a pickup truck with two bearded men and assorted insects, past dilapidated shacks where coon dogs, men with no shirts and women with no teeth stare back at him, the stereotypical jock meeting the stereotypical South.
"Just one more day," Burt says as we suit up outside Gourdneck Cave. "One more day and I'm back in California, where people live in real houses instead of tin cans and drive real cars, not pickup trucks!" He stares out into the woods, where hogs are rooting around behind an electric fence.
Gourdneck is one of the most beautiful caves in Tennessee, a place where water cascades between white, meandering limestone walls. Tim, who has experienced his share of muddy, nasty holes, thinks Gourdneck is one of the most enjoyable caves he has ever seen. To Burt, it quickly becomes a place where he is forced to stand for intolerably long minutes waist-deep in 50 degree water.
"Just warn me if you see any bats," Burt says as we move on. I have told him that southeastern bats are nothing like the vampires seen on television, but instead cute, mousey creatures about the size of a thumb. "That's a bat!?" Burt exclaims when he sees his first, looking disappointed. Still, he gives the beasts a wide berth.
We pose Burt knee-deep in a plunge pool, then move to a raging twenty foot waterfall. After every shot, we reload and go again. Soon we've been in the cave for over four hours, and Burt is using the F-word more and more frequently. Not since Al Pacino in Scarface has one man used it so often and with such sincerity. Mark poses Burt for "just one more," but the camera jams, and after three days Burt has taken all any human could be expected to take. "I'm leaving!" he sayss, and takes off for the entrance. Outside, he retrieves his wallet from the dashboard of Trick's truck. When he opens the wallet, a bee flies out.
With Burt's final test of patience behind him, one thing is clear. Cavers and football players each chew on their own brands of courage, but in the end a person is nothing more than who he thinks he is. You can put a professional football player hundreds of feet down into a black abyss, but he's still a football player, not a cave explorer. Football is his life; it is how he literally defines himself, and everything else is just what he does between games. Cavers are no different. Put one of these "professional" explorers out on the football field in a fourth and long situation, and he'll still be a caver waiting for the next cave.
I yam what I yam, said Popeye, and that's all what I yam. And after three days of mud and falling trees and bee stings, God help the next person who tries to tell Burt Grossman he's somebody else.
Photograph: Burt Grossman after the mutiny in Gourdneck.
Water | Caving | Hang Gliding | Backpacking | About
Copyright © 1996-2013 by Rodger Ling.
All rights reserved.