By Cindy Butler & Brian Williams
Swimming close to the edge of the wall, Marbry knew he was nearing the end. The passage was running out of air and there was nothing left but water and rock. The way forward was blocked by a sump. There had to be more cave here. It was the perfect river cave in the perfect unexplored ridge. The ground above provided little clues in this stretch of woods. There had to be more cave here, but this sump had to be cracked if any more passage was to be found.
Marbry Hardin is what some call a cave river rat, to others, he’s more of a cave trip “pimp”. He needed some help with this cave and he knew how to get it. Marbry and his crew had mapped all of the known passage in this new river cave and it lies so close to Rumbling Falls and Camps Gulf that the potential for new big cave was there. Both upstream and downstream passage ended at a sump. More help was needed, divers to crack the sumps. Marbry had previously been in contact with Forrest Wilson for help. Forrest in turn was able to bring his knowledge of sump diving along with his own team of Cindy Butler, Tom Johnson and Brian Williams to try and take a shot at cracking the sump. Last month the cave had been sumped at the entrance due to unusually heavy rains and we spent a TAG trip checking out other leads and caving in mapped passage. This week Marbry let us know that the cave and sumps were ready to be explored and he planned to have a large contingent on hand to hump gear both downstream and upstream.
I am in the process of training on rope with Brian and this seemed like another great chance to do some caving, diving and exploring. Brian and I met up at my house and we hit the road early Friday morning headed north. We were trying to meet up with Forrest and TJ in Atlanta but Brian and I were so busy telling cave stories we missed the exit. A few cell phone calls later we met up with them at a gas station. Back on the road and to our first stop of the weekend to drop into a small pit entrance to a cave called Signal Light. A little “warm-up” for the next day’s activities.
Signal Light is a 70 foot pit with a nice sized cave for us to explore. TJ told Brian this was his first climb on rope but he was an experienced rock climber and knew how to rappel. Brian rigged a double rope just in case of any problems. Brian went first and I followed soon after. It was a nice drop and I enjoyed looking around and watching the others come down into the pit. We spent a couple of leisurely hours exploring the cave that had some nice dome rooms, breakdown, technical climbing and fissures. Not a lot of decoration but very roomy and a good beginner cave. We finally gave into our growling stomachs and decided to leave. Forrest and TJ went first with TJ using an older model rope walker borrowed from Forrest. Forrest thought TJ was fine and went on up and out. TJ started having a little difficulty getting his ascenders to grab the rope and was trying to climb and not getting anywhere but exhausted fast. Brian was able to climb up, coach and assist him out. Just before heaving up his power bar, TJ was nice enough to warn me to look out below as I waited on the bottom for my turn on rope. Which brings up a question, “Is it proper to yell rock if what is really falling from the top is only vomit ?” Brian then rappelled down to climb up next to his student (me). I was using his rope walker and he ‘frogged’ up the rope. It was a lot more enjoyable for me. We both made sure and let TJ know not to give up because of his bad experience and that with the right gear and training he would really enjoy climbing. Ready for a 200 footer TJ?
- TJ, Forrest, and Cindy at the edge of Signal Light.
- TJ drops the pit
- Some pretties behind the cavers
The next morning we all met up with Marbry in McMinnville and after a short drive we pulled into the well known meeting area by the bridge near Camps Gulf to meet the rest of the team. I have to stop here and mention the names of all the cavers involved in this expedition as they were a fantastic group of people. They are: Marbry Hardin, Carol Cady, Camille Lloyd, Mark Wenner, Doug Strait, Janey Leaderer, David Cole, John Fred Hutchinson, Hal Love, Joel Buckner, David Parr, Pete LaRue and Pat Yentsch, Forrest Wilson, Cindy Butler, Tom Johnson and Brian Williams. Marbry took a little ribbing from his friends about the persuasion he used to convince his friends and fellow cavers to hump gear for this trip. We are not sure what he actually promised but I think I heard the term “Cave Pimp” more than once. We all jumped into four wheel vehicles for the trip to the cave. The group was gearing up in the hot afternoon sun and Marbry was busy dividing us up into two teams for the simultaneous upstream and the downstream push. We kept hearing Marbry say, “This is your diver, you stay with this diver and carry what ever they need carried”. TJ and his team had the longer haul through the cave. The plan was that TJ would dive a short sump to try and make a connection to a known cave that lies 200 ft. on the topo survey from the upstream sump. He would check for survey stations and leave a marker then survey on the return trip. Forrest, Cindy and Brian had the shorter trip to the downstream sump but there was a lot of swimming to get there. Marbry hoped this sump would connect to more dry passage possibly leading to another cave that had been connected by dye-tracing and is about three miles away. Potential for huge passage between the two caves is high. Forrest planned on doing survey if the sump did go to dry cave so I was along as the second diver and possible survey buddy. What we were really afraid would happen was that the cave would stay underwater too long or would come up in passage too low to make exploration feasible. Luckily, we were wrong.
Leaving the warm sun after gearing up and entering the cold water at the start of the cave was a bit of a shock. We are used to that nice 72 degree spring water. At 66 degrees I was glad I wore double everything! We started down the passage in water about waist high. Further down, the water ended up well over or heads and we all had to swim. All of our gear did well floating except for two of the steel tanks. Lesson learned. Make sure all tanks have adequate flotation. Part of the problem was we were not sure of how much swimming we had to do and did not prepare all the tanks accordingly. One of our team members started having trouble through the swims. Maybe it was that 55 lb steel tank with no flotation strapped to his back. At a low swim through that was about 15 ft deep, with no hand holds, he could not keep his head out of the water any longer. Exhausted, we assisted him and we were able to get a life jacket on him and get us all to an area where we could get on some dry land and rest for a bit. A tank was lost in the struggle when Brian jettisoned it to hold up the struggling caver. At the next breakdown area we all rested and reorganized. I geared up and with Brian’s help did an underwater and above water search for the tank without success. No luck finding the tank and we decided to push on. Although this was a set back and we did “loose a piece of the pie”, we decided that having the caver with us was much more important than saving the other tank.
After a couple more areas of swimming and wading, we came to a muddy area Forrest thought was the waiting area Marbry had suggested for the final approach to the sump. We were all getting pretty tired by then. We had to make a decision about the altered plans with only 3 tanks between us now. Forrest pointed his finger and said, Cindy, you are diving the sump, you are the most current”. I have to admit I didn’t put up a fight. Cool, my first chance at cracking a TAG sump. Fate and Forrest had dealt me a winning hand. Forrest and the group of cavers settled down for the long wait ahead. Since the sump was a downstream siphon we decided that keeping the group back a little way would help the visibility. We all agreed that since we were down to one diver I was to find a way through the sump, check and see if there was going cave on the other side, then return to report. We would return with more tanks if needed on the next trip.
As I geared up for the dive, Brian swam downstream to find a place to tie off and stage for the final push. He came back to report that we were still a long way from the sump and there was some swimming and crawling left to go. Brian and I headed downstream while the other cavers settled in. It took us almost twenty minutes to find the terminal sump. I was getting a little anxious about the time factor as I geared up for the second time. One of the regulators had a slow leak at a hose fitting and had become slightly clogged with mud. Another piece of the pie slips away. Now I’m really not liking this much but I decided to try a short dive. Brian reassured me that he would keep track of the time and it was up to us now to make that decision. Out of excuses, I started swimming. There were several blind albino crayfish, and schools of small bind cave fish that looked almost like guppies. I always thought fish schooled to protect them from predators so I noted this behavior for my biologist pals back home. I had about 3 feet of visibility in the sump pool. I found the small opening at the bottom of a breakdown area Marbry had told me to look for. It was a duck under leading into a large water filled cavern area. Most of the room had breakdown rocks on the floor and the water had amazing visibility of about 10 feet. More crayfish and several more schools of the tiny fish. I followed the trail of air pockets to a couple of small air bells across the roof of the cave. Found another duck under and back into a pool and dry cave. Well that was pretty fast! Then I heard Brian and realized I had made a circle!
One more check. Back into the underwater passage I found the area where I had doubled back. Dropping to the floor I followed the wall to another small duck under. I passed through this and found air above me. At the surface there was a large pool of water that was at the end of a cave. No sound or sign of human movement. The cave was huge! Doubly so after going through the small sump. It looked four times the size of the cave we had been in. Big bore-hole cave with water- sculpted walls. There was a bank with breakdown and clay on my right, the rock of the cave wall on my left and a winding creek passage stretched out before me. I went around a couple of corners drifting in the creek and could not see an end to this room. Mission accomplished, time to head back. Back at the pool I tied off on a rock and cut my line. I took a compass heading out. I took one more look around, the absolute isolation and stillness, the huge size of the area and realized I have not ever felt this alone before. It was a little unnerving. I also felt pretty elated because I realized this was exactly what Marbry and his friends were hoping for, huge going cave to be explored!
I returned to Brian, gave him a brief report, we snapped some photos then dropped my tanks and headed back to the group of cavers waiting on us. We had been gone almost an hour and Forrest had come down to check on us. He met me half way and went on back to help Brian with the gear. I continued back to the group of waiting cavers with the good news. The waiting team was very happy. It was exactly what they wanted for Marbry and the cave. We all packed and left without incident.
Back in the sunlight and warm air we had a short wait on the last team. TJ, Marbry and upstream group returned to report that TJ had laid about 600 ft. of line, had done some survey, but hadn’t found the expected connection to the other known cave. Although expectations were higher for the upstream connection, the cracking of the downstream sump was proved to be the most exciting accomplishment. It took a while to get packed and cleaned up out in the hot sun. The chiggers found some of us, or we found them. A couple of group photos later and we were off for Mexican Food and a celebratory beer…. or three.
I need to take a pause in the action for a moment and comment on this fantastic group of cavers that Marbry put together for this push trip. I have not been ‘dry caving’ for long but I must say that the humor, strength, professionalism, kindness and ability of all involved really made this trip work. Not once did anyone think of quitting when things got muddy and bad, I never heard a sound of compliant. These wonderful folks proved that cavers are happy to have any excuse to be underground, even humping gear through a cold river cave. One time I remember that I stood tired, open mouthed in awe at the ceiling of a breakdown room that had to be 60 feet high that had mud and sticks stuck in the ceiling from the huge flow this cave takes in a flood. I said something like “this cave is totally awesome”. One of the cavers carrying my tank looked up, straightened his back and said ‘your right, but it might be a little more awesome if I didn’t have this heavy tank!’ He smiled and pushed on! I saw a lot of that going on. I would go into a cave anytime and anyplace with these cavers.
- The August 2003 Sump Dive team
- Marbry motivating the team.
- Is my light on?
- Cindy getting close to the terminal sump
- Cindy returns from cracking the sump
- Happy diver after succes!
- Time to pack up and leave
- Some members of the “downstream team”
- Doug, TJ and Carol with empty reels.
- A caver favorite!
Part 2 – Sunday at Big Spring
Sunday Morning we again met Marbry for another type of cave dive. Not far away was an area that had a possibly unexplored spring. It was Forrest’s turn to do some underwater exploring and maybe lay some line. I decided that I would be support sherpa and then go caving with Marbry.
While Brian, Forrest and TJ geared up, Marbry and I decided to check out the river for more springs. Spotting a couple of places to check that looked like dry cave on the bank I returned to Big Spring. This spring lies at the base of a 100 ft. vertical rock face with a small fissure opening into a pool of “Windex blue” water. There were two small boils at the surface and around to one side of the rock face there was a partially air filled cavern that Marbry and I planned to explore. He had been told there was a cave there that ended in a breakdown room.
Brian has been to the “speed gearing up class” and was the first in the pool. TJ soon followed. As Forrest entered the water both the men came up to report that the openings into the system were blocked by breakdown. The three men decided to try and dig in, not wanting to give up on this spring. Marbry and I donned wet suits and slid into the opening to the right side of the pool. We found the cavern led to a small pool that had several openings in the limestone. Marbry swam into one low area while I followed. The water was about thee inches below the ceiling of the little cave here. Marbry turned over on his back, took a few breaths and started into this area holding his helmet for light. “Don’t make any waves,” I heard him say as he slipped under a low air space and deeper into the cave. Don’t make waves ? What was that all about ? No regulator to breathe from and we are supposed to cave through this stuff ? I was not too upset though when Marbry returned to report the cave ceiling met the water and it was a no go without tanks.
Turning back to the small pool, Marbry made a comment about how he was a little disappointed and thought the cave might go just past the fissure he saw on the floor. Fissure? I swam over and looked underwater at a deep blue fissure that looked like it would go. How did I miss this before? Crawling back out we called over to the divers to check it out. I’m starting to think like a caver now instead of a diver. I was hunting air filled passage and passed right over a water filled passage!
Brian was the first diver to make it over to the area and brought in one tank in case the fissure was too tight. Forrest and TJ were still busy digging but had just about given up on the spring head. Brian dropped under the water and slipped down the fissure to find going underwater passage. He wanted Forrest and TJ to come over and check out this lead before the vis went south. Let’s let Forrest lay some line today. TJ went down next to the big room Brian had found at the end of the fissure. He tied off the reel and came back out. When Forrest arrived, the plan was made for him to go in, pick up the reel and continue on with TJ second. Brian knew it would probably be too tight for more than one or two so he swam down to the tie-off in the big room to wait. Forrest turned after another 35 ft. and they came out to re-evaluate the plan. Forrest reported that it sloped down but was getting tight. TJ went back in alone and managed to find his way down the slope and under a couple of tight duck-unders to a point where the silt was at least 3 ft. thick on the floor. No visibility at all at this point but he did stick his feet through a hole in the floor while turning the dive. Looks like there may be a way through, but not this time. He tied off after a total of about 120 ft. of line and a depth of about 27 ft. Brian went in once more to check out the tie offs and the last drop down. He came back and cut the line at the reel and tied it off at depth inside the fissure to avoid any possible swimmers or other divers trying to follow the line in although Marbry said that would not be a problem at this remote location.
While the boys were checking out the underwater fissure I asked Marbry to give me a lesson on how to check out ‘dry’ caves and to let me know if the openings I found in the creek bank were caves. The first one we checked was a creek undercut. The second was blowing cold air. Oh, that’s how you tell?! Marbry slid in and said ‘it goes’. We crawled about 200 feet in a small muddy cave with one little room you could stand up in. I noticed that Marbry was marking the floor of the cave with his boot and using his body length for measure. I hadn’t thought of that one. We found a salamander and a couple of crickets but the cave pinched off, with cold air still blowing. Marbry had several suggestions on a name for our new cave. He seemed pleased that I had found my first ‘dry cave’. We decided on CSH. (Cindy’s Slimy Hole)! You can guess the other suggestions were just as rare.
Back at the spring we joined our three successful cave divers. Repacked gear and headed out of the woods. We all went to town for more food. Florida cavers seem to do BBQ, but in Tenn. they do Mexican. Either way I end up eating anti-acid! Parting from the group, Brian and I headed home. A short stop at a cliff we spotted off to the side of the road with openings in the side. Couldn’t resist, had to stop. It looked like a great place to do some rappelling. Too bad the caves didn’t go. The climb at least got our blood pumping again and we were able to make good time on the trip back home. Stay tuned for the next installment when we head back to crack the upstream sump and start the survey on the downstream virgin borehole.
- Big Springs
- Gearing up for fun
- Looking for some leads
- Tj hovers above the fissue in the cavern area to the right of the main spring
- Laying new line
- Forrest prepares to dive the fissure