Entertainment USA

It was a grey and shitty day at Manchester Airport. I said goodbye to Angela my girlfriend and boarded the 747 to New York equipped with full caving gear and enough clean clothes for a couple of days. I arrived at JFK, 15 miles outside Manhattan, on a sunny afternoon on November 25. I had one letter from a caver who lived in Atlanta over a 1000 miles South. My return ticket back to England was booked for Feb 22. I knew by now that I was completely mad! After surviving New York I knew it would all be rite. I caught the bus into the Port Authority bus terminal. By now it was dark and I was in downtown Manhattan (a grade 5 neighbourhood) with a huge ruck sack on my back, with no Bullpot Farm or Bernies Cafe to meet cavers. It felt like a scene from Crocodile Dundee of was it Teenage Mutant Ninja Potholers?

Two days later the Greyhound bus pulled into the terminal at Atlanta, Georgia. My contact, Alan Greasier, was on a expedition somewhere in Mexico and wouldn’t be back until the following week. I dropped all my caving gear off and decided to take a journey out West to see California, Los Angeles and to visit San Francisco. One week later I returned back to the same bus terminal in Atlanta. Unfortunately it was 4.30 in the morning and I had caught a bad dose of flu. The traveling on the bus had made me dog tired. I slept rough till 8 then walked to the youth hostel and booked in for the night. I phoned Alan but he had gone caving in Alabama for the weekend. Luckily several cavers lived in the house and Chris Stone volunteered to take me caving the next day.

Despite feeling like dirt I couldn’t miss out on a caving trip. Chris picked me up in his truck outside the “dunkin’ doughnut” on the Sunday morning. He had read Jim Eyre’s “The Cave Explorers” and had even heard of the RRCPC. This was my first impression of an American caver: “How do you fancy doing a 600ft pit called Ellison’s, Neil?!” I reluctantly agreed and explained that I wasn’t feeling too good and it would take a long time for me to prussik up and I would probably puke on him from above. Luckily the gate was locked up the road so Chris changed his mind. We were in TAG country (Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia) and had over 6000 caves to choose from, which had been explored and located so far.

We settled for a modest 150 ft pitch in Cemetery Pot and a quick look around some of the passages and chambers leading off from the bottom. On the way out my aspirins had worn out and I was forced to vomit at the top of the pitch. We ended the day by exploring Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave which was full of an amazing array of very interesting calcite formations of an extremely impressive size and magnitude. I was quite glad when Chris said that we didn’t have time for any more pits. We returned back to Atlanta and I met Alan Cressler who had just returned from his weekend with a broken wrist. His best friend, Marion ‘0’ Smith had tried very hard to run over him in his pick-up. Strange people!

Alan was extremely keen and favoured exploration. He showed me several surveys of some of the caves they had been involved in finding and also explained about the cave formation and geology of the area. He talked about many classic trips which I would enjoy and his favourite saying was: “The wetter the better”. He also liked misery and tight squalid holes. I was definitely home from home.

The next weekend followed and I was back up to full strength. We set off on the Friday afternoon and headed for a Christmas party at Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. It was pissing it down but I was happy listening to Jethro Tull on one of the many classic rock stations. We suddenly pulled in by the side of the road and Alan announced “We’re going to bounce a pit. Wheelers raid.” It was dark as we got changed in the pouring rain.

We soon arrived at the pot after a short walk through the thick woodland. Alan soon rigged the rope round a nearby tree arid rappelled down. I placed my Petzl stop on the thick, muddy 11 mm rope. I found it difficult to descend due to too much friction. I eventually arrived at the bottom of the 1 20ft pit. The cave was beautiful with large white calcite pillars towering up the shaft. A tight squeeze led to a small grotto with more interesting formations. After a quick look round we returned back up the shaft. Alan used the Texas Two Rig to climb out and even with a wrist in plaster he managed it quicker than me.

After stopping for me to buy a 12 pack of Bud we arrived in the field somewhere near the Cumberland Cavern system. By now the rain had stopped but the temperature had dropped below freezing. I awoke in my bivvy bag, cold and with a bad hangover. Several people had arrived during the night including Jim Smith, the leader of the up and coming 1993 expedition to Hautla in South Mexico, one of the deepest systems in the world. He’d also caved in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and the deep systems of France.

I was introduced to Alan’s youth Heath who made plans to do a deep wet cave called Hicky Pot. After an oatmeal and banana breakfast we loaded up his car with ropes and set off, both of us not knowing anything about the cave apart from the rope lengths and the fact it was wet. Only two parties had been to the bottom since it was originally discovered. After passing over several creeks we realised that the local water levels were quite high. We stopped to buy some Mars bars ten drove up to a large country house at the base of some woods. Heath spoke to the local natives and permission was given.

The walk up to the cave almost killed me. I had never been so bloody hot struggling up a steep hill in several layers of thermals, a furry suit with a thick PVC TSA suit, and too much rope and SRT equipment. Heath patiently waited for me to catch up. We found the entrance with a large stream flowing into a small hole. This way in was too wet as Heath soon found out so we opted for the alternative 1 5ft entrance pitch. This led through to a small crawl to a very wet streamway and an exciting pitch of 30ft. We traversed over the water and rigged the pitch out of most of it. A hands and knees crawl led to the third pitch. This one looked impossible to avoid the water. We managed to place a deviation at the top and I placed my new rack on the rope. It was a quick descent down the waterfall to a ledge after 30ft, off the ledge and under the full force of the water down 1 5ft to a large chamber full of large formations flowing down the back wall. I watched the impressive spectacle of Heath descending - the wetter the better!

We soon left the main streamway and a 24ft free climb led to a deep pooled chamber. At one end a tiny airspace led off. As we emerged ourselves into the pool one became stuck in the glutinous mud underneath the water. On your back and off with your helmet struggling with the tackle. The diarrhoea sump lived up to its name - a classic piece of misery at its best! We followed this miserable passage to a junction with the main streamway. The way on was worse - a long low airspace crawl becoming quite tight around the chest. Alan Cressler was the man who’d originally pushed the cave. I found it better to take off my helmet and wore a balaclava. I had an epic when my carbide hose set on fire. I filled the crawl with acetylene gas.The crawl continued for several hundred feet until it eased to hands and knees then short cascades led to a 55ft pitch. This was rigged semi dry. At the bottom there was an awkward rift climb to a huge balcony over an impressive black space. Heath hammered a bolt in to make sure the 1 20ft drop was rigged dry. I shivered on the ledge, waiting patiently. The pitch was a free hang through the roof of a large chamber with plenty of formations - impressive stuff. By now the character of the cave seemed a lot friendlier. Sandy crawls led out of the chamber and we regained the streamway in a classic Yorkshire rift passage. The water cascaded down a wet 1 3ft pitch. After another complete soaking we followed the streamway and out over a traverse to the final 65ft drop into a chamber. We followed the streamway to the start of a long crawl. After rounding a corner we came to a sump. The passage was flooded, we were at the bottom level but another 2000t of passage had been discovered in low water conditions and several leads at the bottom still remained unchecked.

The return trip was exciting and tiring. We surfaced into the cool evening air after 10 hours underground. Heath admitted that it was the hardest trip he’d done so far. I compared it to a good grade 5 in England. The evening was spent socialising where I met some very interesting caving characters and organised a trip down to Mexico for a fortnight’s classic caving, leaving on the following Friday

Everyone decided to have a group ridge walk on the Sunday, ridge walking is an American term for looking for new caves, we split into two different groups. The first thing to do is to find the contact point, in this instance it was a small layer of sandstone in between two different layers of limestone. This occurs at a certain altitude and is marked on the topo map for reference in the specific area. Jim Smith and Marion “0” Smith walked at a higher altitude trying to find a top entrance to the system. It is quite common for a cave to break through the layer of sandstone and produce a depth potential of around 600-700 feet depending on the area. The area we were walking on was a lot lower down. I walked on the contact level while the others walked above and below looking for the obvious signs of cave entrances.
Ridge walking is very exciting but demands a lot of time to be spent over a small area, most of the time the area is in “clearcut” which is where the trees have been cleared and dense brambles and thorn bushes have grown In their place. We were having no luck apart from getting lost from each other and being ripped to shreds by the not so friendly vegetation when suddenly Alan came across a small depression with a draughting hole in the bottom. With me being new to this he let me dig the hole open and explore the new cave. I rigged the rope around the nearest tree and rappelled down the tight entrance hole. I placed my rack on my cowstail because the top was tight, the shaft soon broke into a fair sized hole but stopped after 20ft. There was no promising way on at the bottom apart from a climb up one of the walls. I climbed up ten foot and traversed over a hole finding myself in the roof of a circular pothole, after rebelaying the rope to a large formation I set off down. My rope was only 70ft long and I soon reached the knot dangling in space about 1 5ft from the floor.

Unfortunately we did not have another rope in our group so after locating the new cave on the topo map we walked back to find the other group. We couldn’t find them anywhere and thought that they could have found a big system and were scooping the booty! We returned to the trucks and finished the weekend in style with an “All you can eat” meal at Stoneys for $6, no wonder some Americans are so fat!
By Friday I was to meet a Gerald Mani in the greyhound bus terminal at Chatanooga for the start of my adventures in Mexico!

to be continued

Neil Pacey.

 

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