Update: On May 27th, I was called to a rescue at Ellison's. Here is my account of the rescue
Ellisons CaveTrip Report
Feb 5, 2011
The CaveEllisons is 12th deepest cave in the US. It has the deepest unobstructed vertical pit in the lower 48 states called Fantastic. Its 586 feet tall and could fit the Washington monument with room to spare. A parallel, sister pit next to it called Smokey is around 490 feet. On the opposite side of the cave near a second entrance is another pit called Incredible, but that was not part of this trip. At the bottom of the cave is a labyrinth of horizontal passage full of difficult and technical climbs. This is my fourth trip to Ellisons in 3 years and the first on which we plan to repel Fantastic. I've repelled Smokey on two other trips and did and Smokey II on another however Smokey II does not reach the bottom of the cave. On one other trip we navigated the horizontal passages to the North Pole and Angels paradise.
OvernightThe characters in this story are myself, Kris-vertical caver extraordinaire, Greg-repeller and explorer and Lauren-caver and classic outdoorswoman. The 2 hour drive from Atlanta to LaFayette starts a little late and Lauren and I arrived at the Blue Hole around midnight. The rain from earlier had slowed but a brisk wind was kicking cold droplets from the trees. The Blue Hole is a natural spring at the base of Pigeon Mountain. The water being upwelled actually comes from the Ellisons cave system so we could get an idea of how much water was in the cave, the high level indicating quite a bit. A few well-timed minutes later Kris and Greg pull in and accompany our surveying. Its decided pretty soon that we'll need to take raincoats into the cave, along with all our gear. Tired, we pitch tents and pass out.
Water got into the tent. Ugh. Fortunately just a little and we didn't realize it till in the morning. I suppose its an omen for what's to come. The sun was a welcome sight but the sky was still broken with low soggy clouds. Still, the tent and sleeping bags were strung up to dry in the wind and it was time for breakfast. We had the Kris-Klassic: english muffins stuffed with eggs and cheese. Quite possible they best way ever to start off a day of caving. We met a few sightseers who came by to gawk at the Blue Hole as well as the Pigeon Mountain park ranger who stopped by to restock rescue forms the state provides at some of the caving locations. We had a fun conversation about the flood levels in Ellisons as well as how often they come to check the rescue forms. That conversation especially, reminded us to call some friends (thanks Adam, Charlie) to report out trip.
To the CaveAfter dressing, gathering our gear and ropes, its time for the hike up the mountain. There is some concern over the amount of drinking water we have so I decide to carry an extra gallon jug up the mountain. It is an exhausting climb. With the ropes, bags, clothes and vertical gear in tow we hike 40 minutes up over a mile and ascend over 1000 feet before reaching the entrance of the cave. As expected, we found the flooding from a year before caused a cave-in at the mouth of the cave and a new entrance was dug out around 20 feet from the old one. We enter the cave around 12:30pm. The first 300 yards of the cave is fairly easy stream passage. The water was high so it was nearly impossible not to get your feet wet. Then we come to our first big obstacle, the Warm Up pit.
The Warm Up Pit (125 ft)The Warm Up pit is named so because despite being a formidable pit on its own, it is only a small precursor to the larger pitches in the cave. At the top, water from the stream passage falls into the pit 20 feet from the bolts we are rigging to and the whole room is filled with a thunderous, echoing roar that sounds more indicative of a large river. Rope rigging gets delegated to (the delight of) Lauren who sobers up a little when we tell her her "you rig it, you ride it." After the rope is dropped and checks are made, we descend into the dark, misty room - Lauren, Greg, Kris and then myself. The water from the fall bows out and come pretty close to the rope at the bottom-enough to where you get a constant spray of mist and an occasional, invigorating cold splash. Fortunately, we land a few feet away from the main column of water. Quickly de-rigging, we make our way out of the room and to the nuisance climb. Along the way, there is an interesting land bridge; a column of rock with drops on either side that eventually lead down to the bottom of the cave. Fortunately there is rope to clip into. After said traverse, and the nuisance climb, we make a short hike to the Attic.
The Attic and the ArgumentThe Attic is the room immediately surrounding the top of Fantastic Pit. Two interesting facts about the attic: 1. there is very little "floor space" meaning most of the room is just a gigantic hole in the ground and 2. Where you enter the attic is on the opposite side of said hole from where you rig the ropes for the repel in. This results in having to traverse a very narrow (2 foot wide) ledge for a distance of 5 to 6 feet that opens right into the pit. And you have to crawl. Fortunately, there is a rope to clip into while you traverse, but its still pretty unnerving. After getting our packs and selves through the traverse, it was time to evaluate the pit.
From the very start, despite Kris' persistence and our well-preparedness, I didn't expect us to drop Fantastic due to all the rain the area had. I had expected to arrive in TAG Hall via Smokey I as we had done every time before. The reason being that a waterfall gushes into Fantastic for the last 350-400 feet and being on rope in a wet environment is one of the most dangerous prospects in all of caving. In fact (up until the time of our trip) the only death in Ellisons occurred in 1999 when a climber became tangled and stuck in multiple ropes under a waterfall on the Incredible side. He died - still hanging on the rope - of hypothermia. Despite wearing layers and having rain coats, I was still not sold on dropping Fantastic, so after a lot of hesitation, we decided to compromise. Greg would carefully descend the rope into Fantastic until he came above a point where too much water was obstructing the rope or the repel. If that occurred he would change-over on rope, climb back out and we would take the rope over to Smokey I. Unpacking, uncoiling and dropping 660 continuous feet of rope is an exhausting task, so I let the other three do it while I drifted into a short nap (half knowing that karma would strike before the end). Fortunately despite our reservations, and the extra loud thundering of the waterfall into the pit, Greg was able to repel in and get off rope, radioing back that the descent was clear.
Fantastic Pit (586 ft)Greg, being off rope in TAG Hall radioed up and it was Lauren's turn. Despite it being Lauren's first trip Ellisons, there was no wavering getting to and clipped onto the rope, only an iron-willed determination. I on the other-hand couldn't tell if my shivering was due to the cold or nerves. Lauren took a few minutes to repel into the pit, and then it was my turn. Attaching your repel rack to the rope requires you to clip in and sit atop a little rock seat/protrusion, your legs dangling into the pit. Pulling slack off the rope to feed into your rack requires a 60 pound dead lift with a single arm as 590 feet of rope is no light matter. After checking, double checking and redouble checking my gear, it was time to swing off the rock ledge and over the pit in one all-or-nothing move. The descent was breathtaking. Despite the mist and humidity, there is no denying how vast and deep this pit is-imagine a spider hanging by a strand of web in the middle of an elevator shaft. For the few minutes it takes to repel you see the various, multi-colored, pancaked layers of rock strata, some with faces as smooth as concrete, others dotted with various tiny formations. A hundred feet away, a gigantic rock pillar has broken at its base and leans against the opposite wall in a scene reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. Water from the waterfall gushes out over a ledge and falls with you as you repel the last 400 feet.
At the bottom, for the last 100 feet of the repel, the water from the fall bows out into a fine spray, and an whips up an intense wind laced with a thick mist-a veritable Nor-easter inside the cave. Fortunately we are away from the main stream of falling water, and the storm doesn't last long before we're able to escape into the calmer and warmer confines of TAG Hall.
Ellisons GeologyThe horizontal cave at the bottom of Ellisons is a labyrinth of crossing and splitting passages-over 12 miles of it. There are not many tight squeezes, but quite a few technical climbs and traverses. It is really suited for only the most experienced climbers and cavers. Make sure somebody in your group knows a little science though as Ellisons is geologically a fascinating cave. It lies along a minor fault line on the North American tectonic plate-a line extending through Hunstville, northern Alabama and Northwest Georgia, near an old subduction zone credited for creating the Appalachians. Deep in the cave, you can see each side of the fault, prominent rock faces shifted and molded by geologic events. One of the results is that the Gypsum and Limestone infused throughout the rock is melted and flash cooled, creating unique and beautiful veins of crystallization in gigantic granite walls while also oozing out stalactites of pure crystal in others.
The North Pole and Angels ParadiseA little over half way through the total of horizontal passage is the North Pole, our destination. We leave our vertical gear in TAG Hall and strike out for it, Kris leading the way. After 30 minutes of winding our way through passage, and through some interesting and technical climbs, we stop to eat. Fortunately we packed a veritable feast. There was apples, oranges, trail mix, string cheese and Kris brought a sausage log and dijon mustard. Combining sausage, cheese and mustard I remarked how fantastic the snack was. Kris said it was truly "incredible" and Lauren added how she liked the "smokey" flavor. Awesome. After food and rest, we continue toward our destination, only making a few wrong turns along the way. Becoming exhausted again, we finally come to the North Pole. The North pole is a rather lonely, pure crystal stalagmite buffetted by a man-made rock wall. Up close, it looks more like a gigantic, wet icecicle, infuse with tiny air pockets. What is amazing about this particular crystal, is that it is found nowhere else on Earth. Minerologists have identified it as closely resembling a mineral called epsomite, but it is still unique and therefore has been unoffically dubbed Ellisonite, after the cave. We all bask in its glory and take turns getting pictures with it. After a rest and some debate, we leave our packs behind and strike out for one more attraction: Angels Paradise.
Neither me or Kris really remember how to get to Angels Paradise, so we simply follow the survey markers for a bit. About 10 minutes in and we finally find the passage we were looking for. Angels paradise is a series of rooms filled with needle-width hairs of pure, milky white Gypsum. It looks as if the cave floor and walls are the back of a gigantic, furry white animal. Throughout all my experiences caving in TAG, I have yet to find any room or formation resembling Angel's Paradise. We stop and gawk for a few minutes, but by this time, we can tell that the trip back and the climb out is already on everyone's mind. Back at the North Pole, we realize that its approaching around 9PM in the outside world.
The ClimbsIts generally accepted that the trip out of a cave is quicker than the trip in (assuming you don't get lost) and getting back to TAG Hall was easy enough. At least it seemed easy compared to what lied ahead. It was decided early on that Lauren and I would tandem climb together out of Fantastic since we would be the slower climbers. Getting near to and on the rope was tricky with the cold wind and water so to minimize our times climbing in water, Lauren hung back while dashed into the pit and got on rope. Being wet cold and tired, the climb up is a daunting prospect. The spray from the watefall wasn't all too bad, but I was concerd about the rope inadvertantly swinging under the main gush of the waterfall. It was especially frightening a few times because the wind would whip up some heavier splashes of water and it felt momentarily as if we were swinging under the falls. I knew the higher we climbed, the less wet the environment would be, so I went ahead and climbed about 150 feet before calling Lauren out to the rope. Fortunately the rain jackets and layers did their jobs and we got up the rope warmly and safely, even resting in the splashes and mist.
If you have never done a tandem, single rope technique climb in a large pit, it is quite an experience. Both people alternate climbing and resting, so the entire time the rope is bobbing up and down (5-10 feet) and spinning around. Escaping the water, then vertigo, Lauren and I do 10-20 stroke climbing intervals passing the waterfall and some pit formations. After about 45 minutes we realize that the top- and salvation- is near. Off rope we collapse in the attic eating a victory snack of water, oranges and beef jerky and radio down that we are off rope. We rest while Greg and Kris climb but being much faster than us, they are near the top in about 20 minutes. Shortly after we begin hauling up the rope. Greg and I pull while Kris and Lauren coil it into the bag. Once the rope is up, Lauren and I head out for the nuisance drop and Warm Up pit. The warm up pit is a lot like Fantastic in that the bottom 10-20 feet is pretty wet and there is a danger of swinging into the waterfall. The climb up is pretty quick and there is no better feeling that shedding your vertical gear at the top. After officially climing 711 feet out of this cave, I close my eyes for a quick nap. The time in the outside world now is about 2 am.
FreedomI am greeted by the smiling face of Lauren in what seemed to be just a few minutes. Greg, then Kris follow her up. The last gruelling effort we have to exert is now pulling the 75 lb rope up the 125 foot warm up pit. It takes three people pulling, using our hand ascender to catch progress and Kris' pulley to keep the ropes from rubbing the rock edges too hard. Eventually the heavy rope is up, the short rope coiled and we are walking the stream passage toward the entrance. Karma catching up with me, I elect to carry the big rope out of the cave and down the mountain to the cars. Once we are out, the air outside is cold and biting-it doesn't help that we are wet so we make quick work of the hike. 30 minutes later we are back at the cars we left 15 hours ago. Exhausted we change into warm, dry clothes. The grueling and tiring trip already transforming into a cherished memory along with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
Tragedy - A Week LaterSunday afternoon (the 13th), a good friend and fellow caver from Boston alerted me to tragic news out of North Georgia. I was stunned to hear that two UF students - Grant Lockenbach and Michael Pirie died in Ellisons after becoming stuck on rope under a waterfall on Saturday. The only details that seem to be consistent are that a bag was dropped or left behind in a 125 foot pit. Grant got on rope to retrieve it but became tangled/stuck somewhere near the bottom of the pit. Hearing calls for help, Michael repelled down on the same rope to help Grant, also becoming stuck. Both were wearing shorts and t-shirts.
At the risk of making too many assumptions, or too much conjecture, I will echo the statements of a certain member of the Chattanooga cave rescue. The group was underdressed, under-experienced and ill prepared for a cave as technical and dangerous as Ellisons. Ellisons is not a beginners cave, in fact it is the exact opposite. It is a cave experienced climbers work towards doing. It is vitally important that if you are planning a trip to Ellisons not only should you dress appropriately, but you should have plenty of experience and know the finer points of single-rope-technique. Not only repelling and climbing, but being able to do change overs quickly, under pressure, and on a heavy, wet rope. Know what the conditions are before going into the cave, and how much water to expect.
Any and every caving trip, no matter the difficulty, requires careful planning and preparation. Please take your time and be safe. If you would like to try your hand at caving, please don't be discouraged. It is truly an amazing experience. If you aren't lucky to have friends who are experienced cavers, search out your local grotto or caving/outdoor club. If all else fails, send me an email and we'll set you up on one of our beginner trips. But at all costs, do not enter a cave alone, or without experienced cavers, or without the proper gear.