OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

Fantastic - Incredible

A trip through Pigeon Mountain, Georgia

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Richard Gregson

I became nervous as he clipped a six-shooter to his sit harness. "I take ma gurn with me everwear" he said, smiling, "sept downin the akchul cayuv". All the cavers in Georgia seemed to talk like this. And about guns in particular.

"Surely not everywhere?" I asked him as the six of us walked through the pines towards the entrance of Run-to-the-Mill Cave.

"Everwear", he confirmed my fears.

"Not everywhere?"

"Yup. Everwear. Then as I know that one of them retards as lives in these woods gives us hassle, I could politely blow his head clean off."

They were winding us up of course. American cavers are no more drunken and bonkers than British cavers, it's just that they're drunken and bonkers and armed. They tended to drive in much more powerful vehicles and go "wee-ha!" rather more often than you tend to hear in the Craven Heffer, but otherwise they were, well, cavers. The mountains were also quite recognisable - Wensleydale with freeways.

What we couldn't recognise was the caving gear. We changed into our furry suits. "You gonna die" they assured us. They were wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, despite the thick frost on the ground. They carried the rope to the cave in a large coil, rolling it along down the passage like a waggon wheel. Not a piece of Petzl jammery to be seen.

We were very hot in Run-to-the-Mill Cave, but survived. The passages were very reminiscent of Yorkshire, but much bigger, and the "Borehole' passage at the end a Brobdignaggian version of Peak Cavern. "There's some real-purdy formations down that way", we were told, "you-all take the passage that heads off from the left after maybe one and a half kilometres".

We were staying with TAG (Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia) caver Smokey at his home next door to his rope making factory PMI. We would while away the evenings chatting and joking enthusiastically about the things cavers always talk about, fuelled by bottles of Myers rum and some weird combustible locally-grown vegetable material.

It was Ellison's Cave that we had come to see, though, regarded by the Americans as their finest underground trip, and by many as one of the best possible day's caving in the world. It lies in Pigeon Mountain, a grit-capped limestone hill that is now a nature reserve. A key is needed to drive a vehicle all the way to the road head, but there is no lock on the cave itself, being too scary for scouts.

The entrance lies in an unassuming hollow after a steep ascent through larches - you drop into a pleasant stream passage. This bit was called the Ecstasy, the Agony having been the long flat-out wet crawl that led here from the original entrance.

A pitch is reached, 120 feet rigged over a sharp limestone lip. The PMI rope is so abrasion resistant that the American cavers simply have no knowledge of rigging. Why should they? An SRT problem to them is not passing a tricky rebelay but how to prusik over the lip in which the rope has eroded deep grooves. The carpet they hang over the lip is not to protect the rope, but to protect the rock. No red bolts here. So... when in Rome... (that is: Rome, Italy, not Rome, New York)

Ellison's is pretty easy going until a flat out crawl that you have to do with one leg sticking through a slot into blackness. The slot is far too tight to fall through, which is just as well, since on the other side is a free drop of 620 feet - Fantastic Pit. This was the biggest drop in the US, until a new discovery in the Aleutians, but who's going to argue? Through the squeeze is a perfect roomy ledge which is like a balcony overlooking the simply mind-boggling emptiness of the big pitch. You cannot imagine quite how massive a shaft it is until you start lowering the rope down. Smokey, tied on, leant out over the edge and began to drop the rope. He had brought with him a special pair of leather gauntlets for just this purpose and as the rope began to whizz through faster and faster a cloud of steam billowed up from his hands and a screeching noise rose in a terrible crescendo until there was a sudden twang and the rope went taut as a bowstring from its bolt. A six hundred and twenty foot free hang. The Post Office Tower.

His last words as he rappelled off into the darkness were "if y'all get any speed up try to keep it". How right. Bending the rope into my specially massive Georgian rack was an effort requiring both hands - like Colonel Mustard with the lead piping. When I swung out over the drop, expecting to slide to a squelchy death, nothing happened, and I had to take up some of the weight even to start to inch down. It seemed like ages that I watched the rope winding its way through my rack, with almost no other clue to give me any idea that I was descending, and I must have been going quite quickly, because I soon found myself flying down onto the rubble floor. Graham followed with an equal amount of screaming, and at the bottom we parked our SRT gear and signed the visitors' book, feeling rather nervous of the ascent. It still amazes me to think that quite a few of the US cavers do it with no sit-harness at all - just two jammers and a chest harness Mitchell System. Even now I sometimes wake up sweating just to think about them ropewalking up in their Levis.

What makes Ellison's so great is that it has more horizontal development at depth than you can deal with. A very complex vertically and horizontally meandering passage heads upstream from a junction right underneath the summit of the mountain, and it can be followed at three levels: the topmost only occasionally, but the middle and bottom levels most of the way. In the middle of the lowest level the air is so dry that there are some extraordinary gypsum formations. Transparent and tasting of salt, they are said to be safe from folk stealing bits of them because the crystals dissolve into mush hygroscopically on their way to the surface.

Eventually after hours of crawling, climbing, getting lost and general good fun caving, all in blue jeans and T-shirts and punctuated by Tortilla chips and beer, you begin to hear a roar. Following it down a passage brings you out onto another balcony over an enormous black shaft with a waterfall spilling down it about a hundred feet. Up is about four hundred and eighty feet. This is Incredible Pit. It was discovered first of all from the bottom, the way we came, and then located on the surface. An entrance was found that led to the head of Incredible and its 585 foot free hang, and this made Ellison's a through trip, tunnelling right beneath Pigeon Mountain's summit.

By the time we got back to the bottom of Fantastic we were met by Dan, an old buddy of Smokey's, who had just rigged another rope down the pit about thirty foot to one side of ours. We tandemed up, a pair on each rope. As we prusiked we sang in four-part disharmony, our voices echoing round and round the vast void in a quite exhilarating way. Dan prusiked slowly but continuously without resting at all while Graham preferred to climb (rope-walking as he always has) with numerous rests - but then at least he had a harness! Eventually we reached the ledge. Smokey recovered his cans of Budweiser from a side-rift and Dan produced a tin from which he started to roll up, saying with a glint in his eye "Y'all do smowk down't yer".

It was lucky that there was no caving of much technicality between there and the entrance.