Sunday, January 14, 2007

[trip] 8 Days of TAG Caving

Brian Masney, Garth Dixon, Dave Riggs, Judi Wasilewski, and Mary Schmidt spent part of the week surrounding New Year's caving in TAG.

Tues 26 December: The day after Christmas, I woke at 4 AM to fly home. After arriving, I re-packed for TAG, then met Brian and Dave Riggs for Mexican food. We met Garth at Brian's house, where the three of us spent a few absurd minutes chasing Brian's escaped cat around the parking lot. Cat captured, we finally headed South.

After driving past Wytheville, we started looking at the Gazetteer for possible camping spots near roads dead-ending in National Forest. We set up tents in the snow.

Wed 27 December: In the morning we awoke to bear hunters and their barking dogs. Awakening to hunters was to be a continual theme of our trip... hunting season also influenced our choice of caves, since many TAG caves are on hunting clubs' property and inaccessible during hunting season. After a few more hours of driving, we arrived in TAG. We were hoping to drop Larson's Well; however, the landowner was not home. A neighbor led us to another cave entrance, which had a beautiful sinkhole with a waterfall flowing in. Brian pulled out his laptop to check the GPS coordinates against his database. The cave matched the description of Waterworks cave. We were equipped more for bouncing pits than wet crawls, so we headed instead to South Pittsburg, TN. South Pittsburg Pit was recently purchased and opened by the SCCi. It is a beautiful pit.

We headed to a campsite near Scottsboro, AL, that WV folks have used often for TAG trips: Goose Pond Colony. We set up tents near the lake.

Thurs 28 December:At sunrise, we were awakened by the sounds of World War III (or, duck hunters in close proximity). Later we saw the bumper sticker: "If it flies, it dies."
We headed out in search of 3 pits: Clod Hole, Will Well, and Rhonda Well. We bushwacked for 6 hours without success. Our 1989 directions and GPS coordinates utterly failed us. We were looking for a gully... and an old logging trail. (We found several.) One of Brian's friends had instructed us to find "a grove of cedar trees - but they're common around here"). We stopped at a cave owner's house to inquire about Sawmill Well. He was not home, but his daughter gave us a phone number for future reference. Back at Goose Pond, Dave and Judi soon arrived.

Fri 29 December: A large group of people were planning to camp until New Year's Day at the TAG Cave In site. On the way we stopped at Cemetery Pit. It was pretty, and as evidenced by the elephant tracks and smooth polished rocks inside, quite popular. We wanted to visit the waterfalls (and avoid the map area called "3D maze"), but were thwarted by Ed's Ledge, a 30' drop that required more than a handline. We ran into 2 other cavers at the bottom who told us to look for their caving website; I haven't been able to find it. It would be nice to go back, and also visit Rusty's Pit, located on the same SCCi preserve.

At the TAG site, we met many wonderful TAG cavers, and also ran into Denise and Mike Hopkins, whom Brian met via Flickr.

Sat 30 December: Mike H. took us to Flowing Stone cave, which required a 2-mile, hourlong hike (Brian, as usual, carried the rope the entire time without complaint). Flowing Stone is a beautiful 225' pit. Water flows over a 50' flowstone formation near the top. The floor and walls are also entirely formations.

Sunday, New Year's Eve: Overnight rain had soaked through our tents and sleeping bags. Wet socks and wet boots were unappealing. We had coughs and chest colds. Dave and Judy headed home. Instead of caving, Garth, Brian, and I spent the morning hiking at Cloudland Canyon. We intended to bounce The Diggings Pit, a 141' pit near the highway. We ended up descending only ~50' to a dry ledge, not wishing to get soaked. The rope was slimed for the rest of the trip. New Year's Eve was spent hanging our wet gear up in a cheap hotel room, doing laundry and listening to trains go by.

Monday, New Year's Day: We had permits for 2 days in Fern Cave, a long beautiful cave system that also includes 404' Surprise Pit. Our plan was to bounce Surprise Pit one day, and spend the next day exploring some heavily decorated horizontal sections. We had difficulty following the trail, thus beginning our daily allowance of bushwacking. We first found the Morgue Entrance (closed), then after more bushwacking, the Twin sinks/Surprise entrance.Surprise Pit was a great rappel, but I'd like to do it in lower water conditions next time. It was extremely foggy so Brian did not bring any photography equipment into the pit.

Do I look pissed in this picture? It's because the cave ate my pack. We rigged in a spot that we had been assured would provide a "completely dry" rappel and ascent away from the 430' waterfall. However, we went during unususally high water conditions. The rope landed at the bottom of a nasty 30' breakdown climb in high winds and spraying water. Brian was the first down and moved the rope so that Garth and I landed at the top of the breakdown pile.

When it was time to ascend, Brian swung out over the pit from the top of the breakdown pile, but his swing was arrested when the rope caught on a rock and jerked him to a halt. Not wanting to slam into the wall when it was his turn to ascend, Garth came up with an elegant solution: I tied myself off to a rock and fed him out on my rack so he could start ascending in the dry part of the pit without having to swing out.

I was the last one up, and had to downclimb the breakdown. It was a tough, sheer climb, complete with "portable handholds" that almost took me with them when they fell. Cavers typically carry garbage bags that can be used as ponchos for water protection -- I tried using one for the first time. It was worse than useless. The wind whipped it up in front of my face, blocking my vision. The climb took forever because I was trying to return the extra ~ 80' of rope slack to its original position at the bottom of the drop (so that it could be pulled up later without snagging on rocks). The rope kept catching on the sharp outcrops of rock and I was continually stopping and backtracking to free the rope.

I started losing my balance while climbing and dropped my pack. It rolled... and kept going and going. I looked for it when I got to the bottom, but it was so coated in mud that earlier in the day, I had been having trouble seeing it from a few feet away. Meanwhile I was getting soaked. The wind was blowing so much water into my eyes that I couldn't keep them open, and I feared losing my contact lenses (I forgot to pack glasses, so I would be screwed for the rest of the week if I lost a contact). I was plenty warm, but ascending in water spray is potentially dangerous, so after fruitlessly searching for a short while, I headed up without the pack. It took less than 50 feet to get out of the water.

If I had to do it over again, I would coil the slack in the rope, attach it to me at the top of the breakdown pile, and swing out into the pit like Tarzan. It would be better to risk a high-speed encounter with the pit wall than do that nasty downclimb again.

I was pleased that I frogged the 404' in 28 minutes -- the tallest pit I have frogged. When we left late that night in the cold and dark, we bushwacked straight down the mountain according to our GPS coordinates.

Tues 2 Jan: We dropped Moses' Tomb, a lovely 230' pit. I used my new Ropewalker system for the first time -- and learned how to downclimb with a Ropewalker after Brian's makeshift flashbulb gun went off in my hand (ouch!) and I had to descend for a new one (a commercial model for smaller bulbs). Unfortunately, the smaller bulbs incompletely lit the pit.

Wed 3 Jan: We obtained permission for Sawmill Well, a nice 155' open air pit. Afterward, we drove home, arriving shortly after midnight. This left us with a few days of vacation to recover from our vacation!

More of Brian's photos are here.


MaryNeedsSleep said...

I would like to update with more pictures, but I had a lot of trouble getting the pictures to show up, and I can't seem to format them the way I would like. The source code used in Dave's posts didn't work for me. Any tips?

Brian Masney said...

I found that guy's website. It is called The World According to Stefan and Carrie. There are a lot of photos from various TAG pits.