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The Top of Incredible

November 20th, 1987 was a cold night at Ellisons Cave. Cavers stood around the campfire, shifting from foot to foot as they warmed themselves, talking about caves and cavers.

"Yeah," I remember saying, with just a bit too much confidence, "You want to go in the Incredible side and come up Fantastic. Otherwise you'll end up soaking wet on the wrong side of the mountain, facing a steep climb up the hill and an extra mile of hiking just to get back to the Dug Entrance."

Twenty hours later I was at the top of the 400 foot shaft known as Incredible with Rick Hill, dripping from our tandem climb and cooling rapidly in the air moving through the passage. It's a not a large passage, there at the lip, just a stream tube that occasionally allows enough room to stand. Rick and I were barechested, trying to wring the water out of our shirts. In my mind, I was already reading the accident report: "On impulse, the cavers decided to exit by the Incredible Pit route. Unprepared for the wet ascent, the chilling waits at the top of each drop, and the intense cold that awaited them on the surface, they were found not far from the entrance, frozen solid."

At times like that, it's impossible not to have sad, hopeless thoughts about ordinary, domestic things: warm showers, electric blankets, a hot bowl of soup. I'm reminded of what Mark Miller, founder of the Speleo Terrorist Organization, said one freezing January evening as snow began to fall on us. "I wish it was summer," he sighed. That's the kind of futile, dreamy wish you find yourself having at the top of Incredible.

We'd planned the trip for months. Buddy Lane had volunteered to lead a group of Nashville cavers through the bottom cave of Ellisons, and nine of us had responded. Twenty others from across the South had showed up as well. These kind of mass pilgrimages to Ellisons are fairly common, and for good reason. Ellisons is a world class cave, containing the country's two deepest pits, over thirteen miles of passage, and formations to astound the most glazed-over of caver eyes. The cave runs along a fault from one side of Pigeon Mountain, where 586 foot Fantastic Pit is found, to the other, where 440 Incredible Pit eventually leads back to the surface. The trip between the bottom of the great pits involves something around two miles of fast caving.

Our day started with a mile long hike to the Dug Entrance (actually, Torode's Dug Entrance has long since become obsolete, since a real entrance collapsed next to it several years ago). Once in the cave, Bill Bussey and I quickly ran down the 1,000 feet of walking passage to the 125 foot Warm Up Pit, rigging it with two ropes. As I carried the 600 footer over to the 18 foot Nuisance Drop (Long Trip Rule #1: Always carry the rope in, so you won't have to carry it out, I found ropes hanging helpfully from the Attic and down the Rectum climbdown. I've sometimes had a nightmare (I suspect it is a common one) in which I walk unwittingly into a den of snakes. Rigging the Nuisance Drop, I was spooked several times by short ropes that lay coiled on ledges all around me. I guess if you must litter a cave, litter it with PMI.

From the bottom of the Nuisance Drop it takes only a few moments to pop through the keyhole and crawl around a ledge to the Balcony overlooking Fantastic Pit. We rigged two ropes there, hanging a Coleman lantern 300 feet down on a third. Eighty feet above, others rigged the Attic drop (586 feet). The lantern proved to be worth the trouble, lighting the pit dramatically.

The tourist trip through the bottom was long but exhilarating. I'd been through before, but the ice-like epsom formation known as the North Pole and the room called (for good reason) Angel's Paradise still continued to amaze. Another group of cavers passed through, coming in from the Incredible side. Knowing then for sure that Incredible was rigged, Rick was determined to climb it, and together we came up with a plan. In thinking about the great distance we had come through the cave, it seemed logical that the fastest way back to Fantastic might be to exit via Incredible, then jog overland the 3/4 of a mile back to the Dug Entrance to make a sort of round trip.

Later, as I recounted the tale of how we ascended the pit (swinging only occasionally under the waterfall), bravely surmounted additional 80 and 90 foot drops to exit the cave, then climbed an endless forty-degree slope of leaves to eventually arrive back at Fantastic, I did my best to remain modest. Rocket Rick, not having enough sense to be tired, descended Fantastic again and made a 15 minute climb. Unfortunately, Buddy and the other cavers there smelled the smoke on our clothes. Yes, I had to admit, we had stopped to build a fire and dry ourselves. And yes, Ray Gregory had given us junk food and a ride across the mountain in his truck.

My story diluted, I shouldered a rope and left the cave (Long Trip Rule #2: Never carry a rope in, because you'll end up carrying one out, anyway). The last of the Fantastic folks got down the mountain about 3:00 AM, while those who derigged Incredible returned to camp around dawn.

I was washing the muddy jeans and t-shirts I’d been wearing a couple of days later, and the smell of cave mud and smoke still lingered. The question came to me then, as it had at the top of Incredible. Why? Why shiver at the tops and bottoms of pits, nurse knees through crawlways, force yourself to dream of warm showers and soup? Why not just sit at home and watch television like a good American? Well, maybe we’re all just crazy. Or maybe we do it because we want to see what’s around the corner, to prove to ourselves that there are still a few places on this planet left to discover. Maybe just to feel, for better or for worse, that we’re still alive.

Philosophy can be a useful thing when you’re shivering at the top of Incredible Pit.

Photograph: Jacknife Cravens at the Attic Climb in Ellisons.

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