Wot Dabney goes West

first thing I did when I arrived in the colonies was to visit my love sick friend Francesca (a Brooklyyn babe) in one of the high skyscrapers on 3rd Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Station.

After giving her and her friend a Cadbury’s Flake each(?) I extended my flight departure from 3 to 5 weeks. Unfortunately, Francesca than informed me that she had changed her mind about driving down to New Orleans (and TAG) but would I prefer to go to the cinema to see Robin Hood???

A trip to Boston with an 18 stone nymph, an anorexic 30 year old spinster, and a kayaking trip down the Concord river was not enough to compensate for my sense of adventure, so I decided to go it alone and flew to Knoxville, Tennessee. Cave country!
It was in Knoxville that I met a man with unusual caving techniques, we parted company after only one and a half caves. I’d been given a bum steer! The first of the two caves I did was the Geuffry Shaft (240ft) which had a snake at the bottom. I had a bit of a problem descending a very shitty rope, the only way I could descend was by kicking upwards of the walls of the pitch. Not recommended.

The second cave we did not complete, mainly because my caving partner pissed me off big-time and I threw a wobbler for several very good reasons. The next night I dossed down at a luxury hotel free of charge called the Knoxville Mission Rescue for Alcoholics and Drug Addicts, not by choice I might add as it was RAF. I met some interesting people here whom I had to shower with and no prizes for guessing who dropped his soap and left it there!

Having survived the previous night without sleep or food I decided to hitch to the Great Smokey Mountains. Whilst hitching there I decided how nice it would be if I had some camping equipment with me instead of a full SRT kit, oversuit and wellies. All in all I spent some good time in the Great Smokey’s, I met some excellent people and bagged the highest mountain, Dingman’s Dome (6643ft.). I also avoided the company of the Black bears.

Hitching back to Knoxville proved to be very difficult and I had a few close calls however the following day I managed to get a lift to Chattanooga where I met the Chattanooga Grotto Club during one of their formal meetings. The speaker, Monty Keel, asked at one point if there were any questions so I held my hand up and introduced myself as a British caver from the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club. This held no weight at all as nobody had heard of us. Very embarrassing! I then added that I was on my own and would be willing to go caving day or night. After saying this a bearded gent came over and said, “Hey man, you can stay at my house and I’ll take you caving.”
“Cheers mate!, I replied, (as anything was better than the Mission Rescue).

This man with the facial hair was Bernie from Hamilton County Cave Rescue, a real SWAT style team.  Meeting Bernie was when my holiday really took off and we had many a good laugh, trips to the Cactus Moon Bar and met some great girls. Through Bernie I met Dr Dan Twilly, a top caver with plenty of bad habits. Needless to say we got on like wet carbide on fire. Dan and Bernie decided to throw me in at the deep end and do Ellisons Cave. Three pitches: 125ft, 30ft climb and 586ft. Here I had my first crash course in using a rack, but this merely added to the excitement, especially on the third pitch. The third pitch was a real corker, a bit like the top of Bar Pot but with the shaft of Juniper Gulf and a huge block halfway down the shaft. This had to be the highlight of my caving career so far. With dropped jaw and eyes like dinner plates I descended this awesome pitch. It felt bottomless, deep space, the echo at the bottom was incredible. At the bottom we signed the visitors book and departed at 3am. Despite this early hour it was warm enough to cave in T-shirts! Dan and I drove back to Chattanooga where Dan had to get changed for work.

Next was Moses Tomb, a 220ft entrance shaft which seemed to feel much deeper. It seemed to go down and down until it eventually reached the sandy floor. Virtually all the walls in the shaft were completely covered in calcite curtains and flowstone. A photographers dream in real hillbilly country. A few days later Bernie, Dan and myself did numerous open shafts, the most spectacular one being Valhalla, an open pot twice the size of Alum Pot. It’s big even by American standards and I hope to go back and photograph it this Christmas.

Eagles Cavern was another good pot, a bit like Notts Pot (from what I’ve seen of it, (Two-ropes-short-of-a-tackle-bag Chaz). Great classic pots with adjacent shafts underground. At one point we had to swing into a passage about 1OOft from the floor. It was proving a little tricky and I eventually resorted to prussiking up to a narrower section and then abbing down swinging like Tarzan. It was well worth the effort as the passage led to a big chamber with magnificent rimstone pools, I couldn’t venture any further however as they were very fragile.

Well those are the highlights of my trip to the States and I would like to thank Bernie and his family for putting up with me and to Dan Twilly for some excellent trips above and below ground (and for sharing his bad habits with me!).

Jason Pitman.

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