Jackson Gap Cave
"Rotor winds," Buzz said, looking up to watch the trees move. It was February 24, 1990. We were standing in the yard of a cooperative soul on top of Lookout Mountain, waiting for Dennis to sort out his usual mountain of gear. Dennis had just ventured that it would be calmer over at the bluff, but Buzz, a hang gliding ace who knows about wind, said different.
Buzz was right. We followed a stream to the top of a pretty waterfall down the bluff, where the wind was blowing at least half the water straight up in the air. The gusts must have been hitting forty miles an hour. For a time, as we picked our way down the bluffs and scree slopes, searching for a climbable route with the wind blasting overhead, the experience was very much like mountaineering.
A thousand vertical feet later we arrived at Dennis's latest dig, just downhill from a logging road, which he had discovered during a ridgewalk with his wife a few days before. Dennis immediately started getting out his "tinker toys" (shovels, come-alongs, and implements of destruction), but got an idea. "Why don't you walk down the streambed to the limestone," he told me. "I didn't get a chance to see how far the outcrop went."
Comparing to mucking about in the sinkhole, this was a prime assignment. I took the altimeter and was off. At 1050 feet I hit an impressive limestone pillar in the middle of the streambed. At 1020 feet I turned around to look behind me, and noticed a large crack between two sandstone boulders. The hole was two feet high and a foot wide, a slit tilted at a forty five degree angle. Two feet inside it dropped five feet into what looked like a small chamber. There was every reason to believe this hole just a random void in the sandstone that covers the slope, I thought, but of course I wanted to be sure. It's not often you find a natural cave entrance on Lookout Mountain, where many of the best caves had to be dug or blased open.
With my mighty Tekna flashlight in hand, I squeezed in feet first and climbed down into a small chamber. The floor was limestone, and I counted three bats. Good signs. But the obvious way on, a awkward hole in the floor, was just too tight. I couldn't get my waist through. Just as I was about to chalk the place up as another dig prospect, I found another, less obvious hole which was easily enlarged by removing a couple of rocks. Past a squeeze, I crawled around and found myself on the other side of the tight spot I had tried earlier, with going passage dropping through breakdown in front of me. The climb looked tricky, I was alone in an obscure hole with only a flashlight, and I didn't have to think about it long before deciding to go for reinforcements. Up the hill, Dennis was still digging away. "Forget it," I said. "I can get you into your cave a whole lot quicker."
For the next hour we worked our way into the cave. The first obstacle was the entrance, which took Dennis really seemed to enjoy. His first two attempts ended with his looking up at me and saying, "Rodger! Pull me out!" But the third was successful. Next came the climb, a 20 foot descent that left some in the group wishing for a handline. We worked our way down several more climbs through the breakdown, moving rocks in one spot to continue. Eventually, after an estimated descent of 85 feet, we found what we were looking for: a solid limestone passage, walking dimensions, barrelling off into darkness. The fun had begun.
Our feet sank into dry, friendly, untracked floor as the passage meandered under the mountain. A couple of hundred feet later, we were at the brink of an unclimbable 20 foot drop into a dome. Dennis went back to try a lower level. Buzz and I were soon listening to his groans somewhere below. Meanwhile we set about digging a ledge around the pit to continue. The digging was easy and in about twenty minutes we had a slimy belly crawl around the pit. On the other side, I followed Dennis's cries of glee into a 60 foot, well-decorated dome, which he had reached through a nasty crawl. The Wonder Dome, we named it.
On down the main passage, I found myself in a virtual easy street, four feet wide, twenty feet high, with a nice flat dirt floor. Buzz and Dennis arrived and began going crazy over the formations. On the walls, tucked back into the folds of a flowstone drapery, were tiny white crystalline helectites. "Ooooh!" one of us would say, pointing, as the other rushed over. "Look at this!" Then we'd erupt like kids watching fireworks: "Woooow! Ahhh! Look at these!"
We proceeded slowly down the passage in this fashion. Soon the floor dropped out and I found myself chimneying with a dying flashlight. The old Tekna, running on AA batteries, was getting tired. True to the code of the flashlight caver, I had run out of light. We explored another hundred feet of so of nice cave to the top of two forty foot pits before turning back. Passage continued above the pits as an obnoxious belly crawl. Dennis and I were both excited about the potential of the cave. Buzz was less impressed. "I'll tell you one thing," he said as he struggled to get out of the entrance, "This is my first and last trip to this cave!" But there was more grimness to follow. None of us was pleased with the thousand foot climb to get us back to the trucks.
Half the fun of finding a new cave, as Dennis demonstrated over the next few days, is telling other people about it. The next weekend, a massive expedition returned to the cave. Buzz, having apparently forgotten his vow, acted as a guide for Buddy Lane, Dan Twilley, and a crew from Atlanta. I was underwater in Florida; Dennis, meanwhile, was on the job doing a rescue at Sunset Rock. We heard later that Dan Twilley had descended the 40 foot pit and pushed a stream passage some 500 feet through a low airspace while others surveyed the 800 feet of cave to the top of the pit.
On Wednesday, March 14, Dennis called to invite me on weeknight return to the cave. Dan Twilley, Maureen Handler, Dennis and I met at Hardee's then cruised out through a beautiful cattle farm at the base of the mountain, driving up the logging road to within two hundred feet of the entrance. I borrowed a farmer john wetsuit from Dennis, who had failed to tell me about the alleged low airspace below the 40 foot pit. We carried five short ropes to add to those already in the cave; I found safety lines rigged down the climbs in the breakdown, and Dennis and I added to the fun by installing ropes in the dry canyon passage, even though they weren't really necessary. Neoprene clad, armed this time with a real light, I attempted to push above the top of the second 40 foot pit (a dead end, according to Dan) but found only a hundred feet or so of breakdown death passage. Hot work.
Down the first 40 foot pit, Dennis and I found that Dan and Maureen had pushed on, apparently abandoning the survey to explore. We followed at a somewhat slower pace, checking side leads. The cave had suddenly become typical for Lookout Mountain: a meandering stream passage, occasionally walking, occasionally crawl, mostly stooping. Once in a while a dome came in from the side. In one dome, I climbed a treacherous fifty feet up a muddy "slide," but found nothing; in another, I saw what looked like the most amazing fossil I had ever seen, a foot long, with a fully formed head. It turned out to be the skeleton of snake, washed in who knows how many years or hundreds of years ago.
Sometime around midnight, we caught up with Maureen at the top of a 20 foot drop. Dan was below, scooping passage. He soon returned, denying that he had found anything. However, since he left the rope rigged, we knew he was lying. We got home around 3:00 Thursday morning.
I knew it that night, as I rode down the hill: I would not be back. I just didn't feel any kinship with the cave anymore, and I had a feeling the bottom half was going to be a less fun than the top. Dan invited me to return with him and Marion Smith on March 17, but I declined. Instead I rode my mountain bike from Skyuka Spring over to the bottom of the logging road, and then up to the entrance and beyond. I ridgewalked around, looking for a newer, better cave, but found nothing except Buddy Lane, who hadn't been feeling well and was sleeping in his truck. The next week Dan and Marion reportedly went back again, bringing Allen Cressler and the rest of the gang, who eventually pushed on down another short pit, through some low airspaces to a sump.
The last chapter, for me, happened on March 28 when Dennis called to tell me about a blowing lead he had been digging on at the bottom of the mountain almost directly below the cave. I knew about this lead, having looked at it myself several months before, and I was eager to check it out. We met with Rex Clark, whose property you cross to reach the area, and Dr. King, an orthopedic surgeon who owned the cave itself, then finally got to the dig about dusk. Dennis and I finished opening up a belly crawl that turned out to be 12 feet long. The air came through massive dirt and breakdown.
I couldn't complain. Though my passion for the cave had fizzled at the end, once again hanging around with Dennis Curry had resulted in new caves and solid--if muddy--memories.
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