Poking About in TAG.

11th - 13th December 1992  and 15th-l8th January 1993.

For those of you who don’t know about my little sojourn in the Good Old U.S. of A., I’m here working for the American branch of a British company in a place called Sanford, North Carolina. There’s puck all to do here on the weekend so I decided to get in touch with some of Neil’s mates that he went caving with on his trip to the Colonies in Winter 1991-2.

And so it was that I found myself at Cumberland Caverns near the town of McMinnville, Tennessee early one Friday evening. This is the venue for the annual Cumberland Caverns Christmas Dinner, one of the highlights of the N.S.S. calendar and I was privileged enough to be there on the right weekend. Unfortunately I don’t live anywhere near there and had to get there by an eight-hour drive. But with petrol at 60p a gallon and a company sports car who gives a toss?
I quickly located Alan Cressler, one of the hard team, in the car park and his mate Ted Wilson. They announced that we were off on a Friday night excursion to Cumberland Chasm just up the road. After a hack through the woods we arrived at the entrance which was blowing out steam into the chilly night air.
A short crawl and a narrow climb led to a fine 140 foot pitch into a chamber with water sinking in the floor in several places. All the draught was coming out of a narrow rift passage which is tantalisingly close to one of the far flung corners of the Cumberland Caverns system. However TAG cavers have got far better things to do than fart about digging to connect a pothole to a cave as you’ll see.
When we got back to camp at Cumberland Caverns about a hundred people had turned up and Alan introduced me to them all but I can’t hardly remember any of their names, but some of the real classic cavers of the area were there. Then an odd and rather frightening thing happened: we sat round a campfire chatting and didn’t drink any beer!

The next morning we were up early and down to Shoney’s Restaurant for a $5 all-you-can-eat breakfast bar. I’m afraid it made the menus of certain Yorkshire eating establishments look rather limited. After endless cups of coffee we set off to Chism Chasm near the neighbouring town of Sparta.

The American caver is never happy without his truck and our team of eight had six cars. Eventually we found a space large enough to park and we hacked off through the woods to the entrance. After tying the rope to a tree we abseiled the 150 foot entrance pitch with the rope rubbing in lots of places and no rope protectors. (Ray would have a fit if he saw it). Alan was busy fiddling about with some 4000 year old Indian remains which he later identified by sex and age somehow (clever git). The rest of us soon got bored of the bones and went down the shorter second and third pitches into a boulder floored chamber. Meanwhile we had spotted an obvious lead between the second and third pitches but it required some more rope and bolting to get across to it. More of this later.

After Chism Chasm a few of us decided to go to Rock Drop Well, a cave with 4 pitches and lots of swinging onto ledges to find the way on. It ended in the inevitable boulder-floored chamber. A good sporting trip with an awkward take-off on the last  pitch.

Then it was back to the Christmas Party. My worst fears were confirmed when it was revealed that there was an alcohol ban. Fortunately I had taken the precaution of packing a bottle of Scotch so me and another British caver from the Mendips had to drink it out of a lemonade bottle. I was quite surprised when I was reading my Christmas present a few weeks later, which was a copy of ‘The Great Caving Adventure’ by Fartin Marr. He went caving with the same people (Marion Smith and Jim Smith) in 1972 and suffered a similar fate at the Cumberland Caverns Christmas Party. On Sunday morning I had to sort out some business with Cecile James who was going to give me a lift to Mexico the following week, so I had to wait for her to get up. By the time I’d made all the arrangements and got to Shoney’s everyone was just leaving and in the confusion I got left behind. The moral is: If you’re going caving with that lot Don’t be late!

I knew they were going to Rebel Cave so I rushed back to Cumberland Caverns for directions. Due to a long drawn out conversation with Gerald Moni who was going to Mexico too I didn’t arrive back at Rebel cave till 2 pm but I was in luck. Jim and Laura Smith were just turning up and so I went down with them.
The ubiquitous tree belay gave a steep sloping abseil to the top of the first 120 ft drop in a wide daylight shaft. A rebelay to another tree gave a fairly free-hanging drop onto a dead deer. From here large passages radiated out and there was a second 60 ft drop down through boulders into the lower part of the passage. A short walk led to another fine pitch of 165 feet into a large chamber with a stream entering from avens and sinking in the floor. A passage led off apparently to several other chambers where the morning team were carrying out a survey. When we gibbed we pretended it was because we wanted to get home but in fact we didn’t want to get involved with any boring surveying and get stuck behind a load of slow old gits on the pitches. That just left me with a boring 8 hour drive back to N. Carolina which seemed to last forever.

A few weeks later I was back in TAG again. I was too late for the Friday night trip and arrived at Cumberland Caverns at 1 am. The next morning we assembled at the Ponderosa Cafe in the neighbouring town of Sparta. A large team again, we set off for a pothole called Massive Well which had only been discovered a few weeks before and we were going to push the leads, or ‘scoop the booty’ as they say here, as it had been discovered by a fat bastard. We had some difficulty locating the entrance but in the process stumbled across another unexplored entrance. While one team located at the entrance we had come to look for, the other team explored the new one, E2. As we were rigging the 212 foot pitch we could hear voices because the other team had dropped into the same system, albeit with a few silly rope tricks on the 60 and 80 foot pitches.

We all did the exchange trip and I pushed on down through a loose boulder choke for another 40 foot through some small cambers increasing the total depth by a few feet. E2 soon became a bit porridgey and covered everyone with a thick coating of sticky mud on the way out.

In the next cave my demented digging tendencies surfaced at the bottom of a cave
called ‘28
foot pit’. A low crawl with a strong draught beckoned me irresistibly so I
attacked with bear hands and a
geologists hammer. After 20 minutes of digging I was through and into a low crawl. However after 20 foot it ended at a narrow inlet, so I backed out. I discovered the downstream way on but it needed digging through another mudbank. The others were a bit bored of waiting so we left it. The others renamed it ‘Pete’s Poke Hole’ In my honour and a tear came to my eye at the thought of having such a fine cave named after me. We then did a bit of prospecting and found another 50 foot open shaft which had
been reported by locals but never explored by cavers. We got quite excited as we
abbed into a large chamber with a nice waterfall but It ended in a solid choked floor. It was dark by now so we retired to a restaurant for a well-earned ridiculously cheap tea. On Sunday, after breakfast we split up arid went to various places. Me, Geoff Dilcher and Paul Aughey from Florida went to Oh Bee Lee Cave which had a walk in stream entrance down to a replica of the first pitch of Diccan Pot. The others, being Americans, didn’t have a clue about dry hangs and abseiled off down the heavy waterfall but l was buggered if I was going to get soaked so I quickly rigged a deviation from a chert projection. The chamber at the bottom had several leads which were all pushed by yours truly in a single-handed attempt to reach the other replicas of pitches in Diccan Pot. But for the lack of a bar the pothole was lost. The sound of water was roaring from a low crawl which was just blocked by a jammed flagstone. Then we proceeded to Bounce’ a couple more 150-200 foot pitches around the Cookeville/Sparta area. In the second one we swung off onto a ledge halfway down and walked into 200 foot of unexplored well-decorated fossil passage which was quite exciting. At the restaurant
night we were out-bragged by Alan Cressler’s team who had found over half a mile of superbly decorated railway tunnel at Chism Chasm with a simple bolt climb and pendulum. Bastardsl

Monday was a public holiday in honour of Martin Luther King so we had another days caving. Again we split up and I went with Ted Wilson just to do a couple of short caves Short they may have been but the quality was there. The first one started with an awkward muddy sideways crawl which continued for about 20 minutes, hot work with large bundle of rope. This led to a squeeze and a skydive. I was in my element and Ted was too and we were moving along well. He’s from Indiana where the caves are more scarce and consequently narrower than in TAG country. A short walk/stoop led to the top of a 175 foot drop which belied out into a fine shaft with a light spray of water. We abandoned our gear and set out along a system of horizontal tunnels leading to avens crawls and inlets ending in a mud choke.


After exiting to an ice storm, which is a cross between a snowstorm and a hailstorm, we made a chilly descent of a neighbouring 90 foot shaft before it was time for me to set off on the long drive back to North Carolina. TAG Country a without a doubt the most exciting area for caving discovery in the USA. It is still possible to find caves any day without resorting to digging. The local cavers tend so many caves that they have difficulty thinking of names for them all!

Pete Hall

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