July 31, 1993
The two men were obviously inebriated when they arrived at DeSoto Falls, a 70 foot waterfall which is the centerpiece of a state park near Fort Payne, Alabama. Since it was still early morning, they had apparently been drinking all night. Members of H.A.R.T. (Huntsville Area Rescue Team) were also up early that morning at the Falls, rigging a tyrolean traverse or horizontal "high line" across the canyon. When the two men announced their intentions of jumping off the highest point of the bluff into the pool below, the Huntsville cavers tried their best to talk them out of it.
There wasn't much more they could do. The cavers had originally wanted to put up barriers to keep people away from their ropes, but the park rangers had disagreed. This was a public park, the rangers had said, and no one could have exclusive access. If people didn't have enough sense to stay away from the edge, that was their privilege and right.
The locals have been known to jump off DeSoto Falls, where the drop is about 70 feet, into the large plunge pool below. Once in a while somebody drowns, but most live to jump again. The cliff on the far side of the waterfall, 125 feet high, is another story. You couldn't be sure how deep the water was, or how many boulders and logs might be submerged down there. To make things worse, the plunge pool was unusually low due to lack of rainfall.
The two men were not discouraged. The one goaded the other, making it a contest, a test of courage.
"Come on," he said. "I'll do it if you do it!"
The second man, a 37 year old named Bryan Noland, took off his shirt and shoes. He walked to the edge of a large rock that projected like a diving board over the water so far below.
He stood there, looking at the water.
As he fell, Noland windmilled his arms instinctively in great circles. Despite his efforts to remain vertical, his body turned slowly over in the air so that he hit the water flat on his back with a tremendous slap that sounded like a shotgun blast. A moment later, he floated back to the surface, face down.
"Oh God oh God oh God!" the second man blubbered from the point of the rock. He was about to follow Noland, to jump in a futile attempt to help.
"Don't do it!" a caver yelled. "Your friend is dead. He's dead!"
Or would have been, if H.A.R.T. had not been rigging their tyrolean that particular morning, if not for incredible luck. Already in the water at that moment was an inflatable kayak which was to be used to ferry the rope across the pool. Two H.A.R.T. members, one of them a paramedic, paddled furiously toward the body in the water. Carefully they rolled Noland on his back and cleared his airway, encouraged by the fact that he began breathing on his own. Oxygen was quickly administered. Above, H.A.R.T. rigged a simple "Georgia haul" system and lowered a stretcher. One hour after he hit the water with such a horrible sound, Noland was in a helicopter headed for Erlanger Hospital with head, chest, neck, and internal injuries. His condition was critical, but he was alive.
It was only 10:00 in the morning, but many of the Huntsville cavers already looked exhausted.
"Let's not do it," someone said. "Let's just forget about this tyrolean thing."
But the tyrolean went on as planned. Fifty feet out from the waterfall, a fluorescent orange line stretched across 240 feet of emptiness, crossing the canyon at a distinct downward angle. The 5/8th inch Bluewater rope was tightened with great care. Too loose, and the rider would fail to clear the railing at the overlook, or end up stuck out in the middle of a sagging rope. Too tight, and the laws of physics might make an appearance, breaking the rope or pulling the trees right out of the ground.
In accordance with grotto tradition, J.V. Swearingen was the first to attempt the crossing. Suspended from a pulley with a prusik and a safety line to control his speed, he inched his way across, pulling himself the final 25 feet or so. By mid-day the system had been perfected and cavers were zipping across at much higher rates of speed. The safety lines and prusiks were gone, having been found unnecessary. Even after being tightened, the rope was bent downward so that the rider began going uphill in time to stop just as he or she neared the end of the ride. Cavers launched themselves from that now ominous diving board of a rock, careening across the void with whoops and hollers. By late afternoon, it was estimated that over 250 rides had been given to at least fifty different people.
The ropes were taken down. The boat was pulled up, and the cavers went back to the campground. At Erlanger Hospital, Bryan Noland lay in intensive care with machines keeping him alive.
A girl from Huntsville had by chance been wearing a somewhat prophetic t-shirt that day. "Natural selection," the shirt had said, "isn't working as well as it used to."
Or maybe, you couldn't help thinking, it is.
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