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Learning a Lesson in McBrides

The date was February 17, 1990, and I was running out of air.

Yes, I decided, it was definitely getting harder to breathe. My body was acting as a dam, backing up the flow in the crawlway. I lay on my back, mouth against the ceiling in the rushing water, desperate to get the rope around the chockstone that would serve as a rigpoint before it was too late. The current tugged relentlessly at me, threatening to pull me through the crawl and down the pit on the other side. One foot kicked free in the open space beyond the constriction as I struggled to hold my ground. With both ears under water, I could hear only the muffled gurgles of the flow.

Finally! The rope was doubled and fed around the chock, and not a moment too soon. I tried to retreat, but my foot slipped and the water took me forward.

I was going through, like it or not!

The eighth drop in McBrides is an awkward place under the best of conditions. Although short (only 23 feet, with a broad ledge eight feet down) the drop opens right in the middle of a low crawlway, the kind of place that can--and does--sump during floods. The irony was that Otis Farmer, Rick Hill and I had come to McBrides because our original objective had been deemed too risky. At McBrides, we reasoned, we could look carefully at the water coming out the lower entrance and judge whether the cave would be passable. Wrong! We didn't know there is another spring nearby which greatly reduces the flow out the entrance.

"Going through the cave today?" Mrs. Lloyd had said when we'd asked permission. "Good luck!"

The series of pits just inside the upper entrance, normally just a bit damp, were raging. The top of the third drop, a forty footer, looked like the inside of a washing machine gone mad great fun. After pulling our doubled ropes down behind us, we laid on our backs and floated through a crawlway, then descended the fourth drop of about twenty feet. At this point, water pours in from an adjacent dome, almost doubling the volume. We took off our helmets to cruise through a belly crawl with six inches of air, then emerged into the breakdown chambers at the Hartselle contact. Here, for a few moments, we were away from the rush of air and water, in relatively dry passage.

Soon we were crawling down into the breakdown, moving towards an ominous roar of water. Not far ahead, in a beautiful scalloped passage, we came to a six foot climbdown above a ninety foot drop. This is usually a fun spot--people often land with a splash in the plunge pool below--but today there wasn't a pool at all, just a torrent of water that would sweep anything in its path down the 90 footer.

For the past couple of years, Otis and Rick and I had delighted in doing tourist trips down wet caves, preferably just after heavy rains. Even in our overconfidence, we were aware that there is a distinct line one you can't always see until you've crossed it between what's fun and what's frightening. When the water seems to be shaking the very walls of the cave with a low rumble, when you find that you can't stand upright in a waterfall, much less climb against it, you've probably crossed that line. Unfortunately, on this day we had already committed ourselves to a pull-down. There were no ropes hanging in the pits above us and literally no going back.

We rigged the short climbdown and the 90 foot pit directly in the water, unaware of a drier rig point above us. Rick descended, his red coveralls and helmet swallowed by white rushing water. After a long time, his weight was still on the rope, and this concerned us. Had the doubled rope snagged on a projection, halting his rappel? Or had the water pounded him senseless? Communication was hopeless over the roar. Finally his weight was gone from the rope, and I rigged in. Eyes closed, miserable in the freezing, pounding water, I definitely was no longer having fun.

The sixth and seventh drop followed in quick succession, but these were mostly out of the water. I was anxious to see the conditions at the eighth drop, so I clipped my pack to my side, and slipped in on my belly to peer ahead. The crawl, two feet high and fifteen wide at its start, narrowed to about a foot high and three feet wide just before the pit. The airspace above the rushing water was virtually nonexistent, maybe a couple of inches, maybe less.

I tied a short safety line to a column, took off my helmet, and eased into the crawl on my back. And that, dear reader, is where we started this tale, just as I was about to be swept away to my doom.

As the water took me forward, I closed my eyes and grabbed the rope with both hands. Was I going to drown in the crawlway, or fall down the pit? I was surprised to find there was another option. In an instant, it was over--I was lying on my side at the top of the pit, blinking in the open air. As the water cleared from my ears, the silence suddenly gave way to the deafening noise around me. I rigged in my rack, and descended eight feet to a ledge, where I unclipped and waited.

I was shivering from the cold, nearly hypothermic, hoping only that Rick and Otis would get safely through that horrible spot. Finally a pair of boots appeared in the waterfall above me, followed by two legs, then a helmet dangling by a wheat lamp cord. I could see Rick's lower body, but I couldn't help imagining that the rest of him was still under water. Then the helmet was pulled up and I was reassured. Yet Rick seemed to make no progress. He began edging himself further and further down the drop, although he wasn't yet attached to the rope. I tried to help but he was just out of reach. His pack fell and bottles washed out; I bent down to get them. Just as I straightened up, Rick fell to the ledge. I grabbed him by the shoulders as he stood up and we stared at each other.

"Couldn't find the rope," he said. "Got a mouthful every time I tried."

Rick went off to one side to get out of the waterfall, while I watched another pair of feet appear overhead in the water. Like Rick, Otis was obviously struggling to find the rope.

"Rick!" I yelled. "Give me a hand!" I thought maybe together we could reach up and help.

But Rick was disoriented. With his visibility obstructed by the waterfall, he had never realized he was on a ledge, fifteen feet above the actual floor of the pit. As he rushed over through the water to help, one foot went off the edge and he disappeared, grabbing for the rope as he fell.

It was a bad moment. Above me, Otis was probably drowning in the crawl. Below, Rick had just fallen down the pit. I stood shivering on a ledge between them, not knowing who to try to help first.

The short end to the story is that Rick dropped into a four foot pool of water and was unhurt. Otis finally got the rope in his rack and came down, teeth chattering. There was a slightly delay as we searched for the other rope he had been carrying. We found it in the depths of the boiling pool at the base of the drop. After one more short pit and 2,500 feet of stoop and crawl passage which thankfully was not sumped shut, we emerged from the lower entrance into the open darkness of the night.

It had been a seven hour trip--long for McBrides--but I felt like I had aged ten years or more. All of us agreed we'd had our fill of wet caving for a while.

Epilogue: Although this trip report was published in the Speleonews and discussed fairly widely, another group got into trouble exactly the same way just a few years later. In 1997 one of the original explorers of the cave led a trip and experienced even more difficult conditions. He fell down the low-airspace drop, broke his leg, and was eventually rescued in a massive effort... all of which convinced me that Otis, Rick, and I were even more lucky than I had thoguht. McBrides is a wonderful cave but like any wet system, it deserves proper respect and is no place to be in flood conditions.

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