On Saturday, March 19th, 1988, I led a Nashville Grotto trip to Vast Caverns, a classic 224 foot pit in Jackson County, Alabama. No one attended.
At twenty minutes after eight, there was just me and one other guy (obviously not a caver) waiting at Shoney's. Pretty soon another guy came along and the two of them drove off together. I waited another five minutes, then put the Cave Pinto III in gear, turned up the stereo, and headed south. The Lone Wolf was on the move. The weather forecast had been for rain and cold temperatures, but the Lone Wolf doesn't rely on forecasters. The Lone Wolf looks out the truck windows and sees for himself: sunny, warm, blue skies. Cavers who had planned on lying around the house because of the weather were probably rolling out of bed about then, looking out their own windows and cursing themselves for listening to the meteorologists rather than their caving conscience.
I had mailed maps to the Vast Caverns parking lot to two other people, Dependable Brady and Reliable Randall, so there was some chance that they would be waiting for me at the power lines. They weren't, which was no surprise. I shouldered the expedition pack containing rope, vertical gear and the faithful survival kit, and headed down the mountain at 10:50 AM.
The rules say thou shalt not cave alone, and it's not something most people enjoy, anyway. I wouldn't advocate solo caving to anyone, but the people who are going to do it are going to do it no matter anyone says. Let's be clear: a solo caver needs to be tuned in, to make every move with only the greatest of care, and it doesn't hurt if everything you do is second nature to you. A mistake would be embarassing or worse, but to me the caving was probably the least dangerous of aspect of the trip. While it was still years before it was common to carry a cell phone so you could call from help from anywhere, I fully believed I was more likely to break my leg or get bitten by a snake while out in the woods. Instead of a telephone, I carried a space blanket, matches, and a snakebit kit.
When I was 20 years old I had read about Ed Yarborough riding a bus down from Nashville for a solo trip to Surprise Pit, and one rainy day in 1981 when I had nothing else to do I drove down from Vanderbilt in my Ford Pinto and did the same thing. I didn't own a rope that was long enough, so on my first solo caving trip I tied two of them together. Instead of sports figures, my heroes were people with names like Bill Torode, Richard Schreiber, and Marion Smith, and all of them caved alone when it was necessary. Now, at the still-invincible age of 27, I recalled a story about a young turk named Ray Gregory hanging a boom box down the pit while he did Vast Caverns solo. I didn't have a boom box, but darn it, I was leading a trip to Vast Caverns whether anyone showed up or not.
I had first been to Vast Caverns with Torode himself not long after it was discovered, when the cave was virgin enough that you could hear rocks rattling behind you after you passed, and in fact Torode had almost been crushed by one of them. More recently I had returned for a tourist bounce, so the faint trail down the mountain was familiar to me. The pit was soon reached and I began to rig the rope.
Something strange happened immediately. The rope would not go down into the pit. Even the constant of gravity seemed to have stayed at home; as hard as I flipped the rope into the pit, it refused to descend. Rappelling down to unsnarl the mess, I found the problem: The PMI had slipped, each time, into a small slot that prevented the rope from feeding properly. With the drop finally rigged, I descended into darkness, my wheat lamp turned off. There was just enough light filtering in from the small entrance to see the cathedral walls of the shaft. Nearing what I sensed to be the bottom, I switched on my lamp to see the end of the rope swinging off the floor. By untying the knot, I was able to just barely get off rope.
I climbed with my lamp off, too, reaffirming how beautiful a pit can be under natural lighting, when the eyes can adjust and one sees beyond a mere circle of light from the headlamp. I climbed the mountain easily, knowing to follow the cairns and old flagging tape absolutely, to move from one definite marker to another and thus stay on the ellusive trail.
The time was 12:45 PM as I commenced my regular monthly visit to Valhalla (for at least a year, I made it a point to visit Valhalla at least once a month). The mudholes on the road were damp with tracks, and I imagined that a group might be up at the pit. As I should have expected, however, the area was deserted. I rigged a new spot on the far wall, my purpose being to hit a gaping ledge about twenty feet down which looked like it might contain a couple of leads. Alas, one passage ended immediately and the other was a death ledge to nowhere. I continued my descent, pausing to clear rocks and place a rope pad. I pushed off one moss-covered rock about a foot in diameter, watching it fall two hundred feet to vanish in a small cloud of dust. On the bottom (again, with no rope to spare), I found the point of impact and saw that the rock had literally vaporized. There was nothing much left, just a few scraps of moss and the sharp smell of freshly broken rock. That is not an odor one enjoys on the bottom of Valhalla, where large rocks have been known to fall and crush luckless explorers.
I did manage to recover Rick Hill's rope pad, which we had forgotten and left rigged in February. The pad's tether had been cut by some ski rope fiend, the pad itself thrown into the pit. I also pulled out another abandonded pad, this one a floor mat from a car.
Back in the truck, I spent some time exploring one of three four wheel drive roads I eventually attempted. This one was headed up to the top of the mountain, but after moving one fallen tree with the winch I found two bigger ones just up the road. Back down I went, heading for Goshen Hollow Cave, an well-known cave I had first checked out in October. Just inside the log jammed entrance, the cave had enlarged to a walking tunnel that looked like it was going somewhere, specifically to the legendary big cave that must drain the area. A hundred feet in a breakdown collapse had been clogged with debris (leaves, mud and logs), with air coming through in a couple places. This time I grabbed the shovel out of the truck, and hoped that high water during the winter might have improved the situation.
The situation was definitely worse. This time the entrance itself was clogged with debris. I moved enough to get in, then arrived at the breakdown to find more debris and no airflow. After poking around in the pile, I retreated, picking up some trash at the entrance. Apparently someone had eaten lunch (Nacho Cheese Doritos, a sandwich, and a Coors beer) there recently. I hiked overland in the direction the cave ran, and sure enough, found a big sinkhole right about where the collapse would have been.
Next I drove towards Tumbling Rock Cave, passing several other cave entrances on the way. Despite the fact that Tumbling Rock is probably the most visited cave in Alabama, there was not a soul there. At the Dolberry cemetery, I stopped to admire a large sign that read: "All Dolberrys and Relatives can be buried here. NO ONE ELSE." The message was signed, "The Dolberry Family." Continuing my scenic drive, I stopped at Robinson Spring, the resurgence to Blue River Cave. Having been up to my nose in water at the sump in Blue River, I was curious to see what the other side of the passage looked like. Robinson Spring was large, beautiful and full of cold, fast moving water. Someone had eaten Doritos there, too; I picked up the bag and added it to my growing pile of trash in the front seat. People in Jackson County are not careless about where they throw their trash; they very deliberately throw it all over the place. Several times during the day I picked up a beer can or a Coke bottle with some sense of satisfaction, then felt like a fool as I found a virtual garbage dump around the corner.
The final event of the day occurred at one of the largest trash depositories, a small quarry near Skyline. While admiring the garbage, I spotted a sinkhole and investigated to find a recent, dirt-lined hole with a crawlway sloping off at the bottom. The slope opened immediately into a nice, twenty foot long dome. At the far end was a tiny lead that continued out of sight. I considered the situation. The cave was virgin, obviously took a considerable amount of water, and could potentially lead to something big. I crawled back outside and got my shovel.
The digging was fairly easy, at first. Soon I had enlarged five feet of the lead into a nice crawlway. Unfortunately, the hole I had dug was filling up with water. I was lying on my side in my little hog wallow, trying to work the shovel in front of me, unable to see anything through the steam from my sweating body. There wasn't a great deal of airflow. I retreated in a state of disgusting muddiness. Outside, the sun was down and the temperature was rapidly following, so I did not enjoy being soaking wet and covered in slime. Finally changed into cleaner clothes, gear thrown hastily into the truck, the Lone Wolf headed north for home, heater and stereo blasting.
Photographs:Author after bouncing Surprise Pit, 1981.
Looking out the dry entrance to Fern Cave, 1981
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