Dorton Knob Smoke Hole - The Hardest Pot in the USA

 Team:         PeteHall,   Alan Cressler,  Andy,  Ted Wilson,   Neald Messler, Terry (Monk) McClanathan,  Doug Strait,  Chris Hudson.

I arrived at Hinch Mountain, the highest point on the Cumberland plateau (3048 ft) at 1am on Friday night after my customary 8 hour drive from North Carolina. The last 10 miles of the journey were along dirt roads and navigated using a faxed map from Alan. A refreshing kip in the back of cars and pickup trucks saw us all ready for action and soon we were at the entrance sorting rope for the 11 pitches. That was when I found out it was a serious trip and I wasn’t all that well prepared. Terry was talking about being out in time for breakfast and everyone was packing extra jumpers and wetsuits. I, for my part only had a thin furry suit and a torn oversuit, no spare carbide, no food and no emergency lighting etc. It’ll be reet I thought. It can’t take that long to get down and out of a 700 foot deep, mile long pothole. At the entrance pitch we had to remove the back up belay from the tree in case the passing rednecks pinched the rope, as the entrance is only 5 feet from a forest road. This was followed by a 15 foot pitch up and another 15 ft back down. Then the fun begins: the next half an hour is spent squeezing through a narrow roof level traverse with holes in the floor waiting to swallow any unsuspecting tackle. The narrowest part was thoughtfully provided with a tangle of heavy duty chains, bolted to the walls as a special obstacle, apparently designed to keep out Yankees (Northerners). Eventually we arrived at the second pitch of about 35 foot into a rocky floored chamber. We just had time to feel what it was like to be vertical before crawling off into a sandy bedding plane with a few squeezes. After rigging the next pitch and finding it to be blind, we decided it was the wrong way and returned to the rocky floored chamber. At this point Doug Strait and Chris Hudson decided it was too much and turned back whilst Neald Messler, who had got lost in the woods and his car had broken down eventually caught up. The re-formed team continued along a narrow, damp passage to the next pitch of 45 foot This was rigged directly down the water (‘The Wetter the Better’ as the old TAG saying goes). A climb up here led to a flat out, sandy crawl for 400 feet followed by a narrow traverse onto the next pitch of about 45 ft. We were now in the best part of the cave where the passage was stooping height occasionally approaching walking size. Here the well equipped people had a snack and changed into their wetsuits and I was lucky enough to scrounge a bite of chocolate.
From here the way on lowered to a flat out streamway crawl with plenty of water and cobbles and a special variety of sharp grit for the sleeves. Fortunately the water in Tennessee isn’t cold and I survived in my rather inadequate clothes. In this region, another easier way in, the “Yuppy Boating Entrance” joins the main route but this is apparently only used by Yankees and other low life. After about half a hour of crawling over a sandstone floor reminiscent of Mossdale Caverns the floor eventually cut down through the 10 foot thick layer of sandstone straight down a 55 foot pitch. This landed in a large ‘room’ where a climb down through boulders led to the next 85 foot pitch onto a big ledge. Here, surprisingly enough, we rebelayed the rope for the next 145 foot descent. We were doing well but the floor of the chamber was made of large boulders and it took us a while to find the way through. And even then Ted Wilson, who isn’t a big lad, couldn’t get through. From here a narrow sideways walking passage with plenty of sharp projections led past a 25 foot handline climb to more of the same. Eventually we arrived tattered and torn at the final ten foot pitch/climb and the terminal choke.

This pot is one of the deepest in the USA and it has a further 400 foot of undiscovered depth potential. So seeing as how I was with some of the keenest cavers in TAG, it would have been rude not to have at least a little poke around. Whilst Andy was poking around in a draughting crawl beneath the choke I headed off up into the boulders. However Andy’s way didn’t go and mine was too scary so we gave it up as a bad job.
We had given up on Ted and Monk back at the squeezes but as we were heading back Monk came flying towards us determined to have a crack at the bottom. He had a sort of ‘Now or Never’ look in his eye as he had been waiting to do the trip for years and he wasn’t getting any younger. Neald waited for him whilst the rest of us went to climb the pitches.
Well we waited at the top of the 145 foot pitch for an hour and then at the top of the 55 foot pitch for another hour. When Monk arrived at the top he was clearly fucked. And the worst was yet to come. Suddenly that epic feeling came over me that I get sometimes at the bottom of deep ‘ard potholes with exhausted people. So we did what we could by giving him all the remaining food and carrying his tackle and fucked off so we didn’t have to wait for the bastard. As it happened this revived him enough so that he was able to keep up as far as the entrance passage. Instead of taking half an hour as it had on the way in this took an hour and we struggled out to a frosty moonlit night at lam. Monk, however, spent over three hours in the entrance rift and didn’t emerge until 3.30 am.

Dorton Knob Smoke Hole certainly lives up to its reputation as the hardest pot in the USA and the original entrance is only to be recommended to specialists in misery. However I still don’t think it rates along with the Quaking/Crescent type potholes for sheer misery and value!

Pete Hall.

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