Well, we didn't bottom either of the caves that we attempted during my time in Alabama, but I had an absolute blast trying, and I pushed myself further than I've gone previously in caving, so I count the trip as a big win nonetheless!
I rung out my time in NC the night before my 6am flight with a contra dance, and I really can't think of a better way to do so! It was only the second contra dance I've made it to since the pandemic, so I was loathe to miss one for a silly thing like sleeping before a day of travel. The energy was high, everyone was loving being there, and I got to end the night with a FANTASTIC waltz!
I arrived in Huntsville, Alabama the following afternoon, hung out with my extended family there and caught up with them until B, my Alabama caving partner, picked me up early in the night.
We drove about 45 minutes to his house outside Huntsville and set about preparing for Bleeding Ghyll the next day. We would have to make it a quick trip due to a bonfire he was hosting the next evening, so we didn't anticipate bottoming. At about 1am we finally were ready enough, downed a shot of mezcal each for a nightcap, then hit the sack.
We awoke at the ripe old time of 8am-ish and loaded up into his car and made for Bleeding Ghyll, about a half hour drive away. Much to our chagrin, we discovered that, sometime in the last few years, the area had been logged right up to about 30 feet from the cave entrance. They had even logged the nearby streambed! Of course, time heals all wounds, but I could imagine how pretty the area must have been prior to the logging.
We geared up and wriggled into the cave about 20 feet, past a couple adorable salamanders, to the first rappell. The first rappel, which was about 53 feet, descended through a waterfall, so almost immediately after B descended out of sight communication was difficult between us. I found a comfortable spot to wait, turned off my light, and listened to the sound of the crashing water until I heard a faint "OFF ROPE" from somewhere down the pit. It was time!
I turned on my light again and rigged my rappel rack and started rappelling the pit. It was beautiful! After perhaps 10 feet, if that, the pit opened up and belled out into a free-hanging rappel and I could look around at the empty, cylindrical pit, with perhaps a 7-foot radius. The water from the waterfall glistened on the walls, reflecting the light beautifully.
After I reached the ground and de-rigged, B slid through a small passage to where it widened up in another passage, where I passed our gear to him, then passed through myself. We scooted along to the top of the next drop, a ~90 foot pit with a ledge 20 feet from the deck(1). Due to the need to get back to his place in time to prepare for the bonfire, we decided I would be the only one to descend this pit, then check out the cave at the bottom, and ascend back up. For safety, B showed me how to do a change-over(2) should anything go wrong mid-rappel. Due to my previous ropework experience in rock climbing I took to it quickly, and off I went! The pit was beautiful, it was much like the first but on a bigger scale. When I arrived at the ledge, I swung onto it to stand comfortably and peered down to the bottom. I turned my light to maximum to see further and looked around. After a few seconds it went back to the dim setting. I tried my second light on bright, then it soon turned to dim. I tried the same on my third with the same result.
In light of my lights freaking out and me having no idea what was going on or if they would freak out more in the near future, I performed a change-over on the ledge and zoomed up the rope. This pit also contained a waterfall, ut it was slightly offset from the rappel line so it didn't bother me too much, but it did, once again, have the effect of making communication difficult. Once I reached be and apprised him of the situation, he informed me the batteries on my lights were low, and he should light my way where he could and I would keep mine off as often as possible. We were both somewhat stumped as to how this happened, as we had checked all of our batteries the night before, but they could have been unreliable. That's why you always bring three lights, kids! We backed out of the cave, I ascended the first pit with B lighting my way where he could, then I ascended in the dark when I passed where he could see me. Ropework in the pitch black is an interesting experience, especially when it's through a waterfall! It heightens your sense of touch and hearing, accentuating the sound of the water, the groan of the gear, your own huffing and puffing, and the cold of any exposed skin or water hitting your body. I was made aware that I was near the top of the pit when my helmet cracked into a rock where the rappel ceased to be free-hanging. I turned my light onto dim and scampered up the remaining 20 feet, then waited for B to arrive after announcing that I was off rope. After he came up, we gathered our gear and exited the cave.
We arrived back at B's home and, after we took care of our dirty gear, he started preparing for the bonfire. I got to work on some chores on my phone that had built up over the last few days while nursing a cider that B gave me from his beer cellar with hundreds of drinks he had collected over the years. I spent that time in his back yard among his many flowers, fruit trees and various pretty plants. There couldn't have been a better place to relax before the socializing at the bonfire!
Soon B's friends arrived. They were all former cavers and were chock full of adventure stories from all over the world! It was a ton of fun to chat with them and hear their stories. They had obviously been friends for a long time, their rapport was on point! We also got to try various kinds of mezcal that B had gotten from Oaxaca on his last caving trip to Mexico. This was the first time I tried Mezcal, and oh my god it was so good. It made me wish Kelly and I had made it to Oaxaca on our trip last year, but of course there will always be more things to see than time to see them, and we sure as shit didn't waste any time! Soon, though, we started to get tired, and many of the guests had a lot further than a 30 second walk to get home.
Soon, it was just me and B sitting at the bonfire. We decided that, as we had most of the day tomorrow to cave and we'd both been burning the candle at both ends for a few days, we would not set an alarm and make our plan for Canyon Cave in the morning. Off to bed we went!
In the morning, we decided that we had JUST enough time to do a pull-through(3) of Canyon cave. We had some breakfast and put our gear together then headed out! The landowner situation for Canyon cave was somewhat dicey, so B threw me out of the car with our gear on our way past, parked elsewhere, then came to meet me and we walked through the woods together to the entrance.
The cave IMMEDIATELY starts with a waterfall. The large entrance seen in the picture above quickly gives way to a small passage in cascading water containing the first drop. B went down to rig it while I waited with my gear on the surface. Soon he was ready to go, so he went for it as I watched from the rigging point. Soon he was on the ground of the short, ~15 foot at most drop and I joined him.
I finished the rappel and started the crawl further into the cave. Bleeding Ghyll, as a wet cave, is very cold, so we had discussed our plan ad nauseam prior to entering. B informed me that, shortly after the first drop, there was a ~30 foot, thrutchy(4) passage that led to the Z-bend. The Z-bend is a portion of the passage that makes a sharp turn to the left and has rebuffed 3 or 4 caving partners B brought to the cave, ending the trip early. There is even a false Z-bend prior to the real one where one of his partners had backed out before. B even gave me a demonstration on how he does it, which was feet first, so he advised that I head in head first to investigate, come back and ask any questions if I had them, then try feet first. Well, off I went, somewhat nervously, to investigate!
I wriggled my way through the passage, looking for the false Z-bend to orient myself. I went through a few twists and turns, but none that screamed Z-bend. Eventually I found one that I knew must either be the false Z-bend, or the Z-bend itself. I contorted myself until my hips were at the corner of the bend and realized I was feeling increasingly unsettled and uncomfortable, and my heart rate was showing it. I lay in the stream (the passage had flowing water through the bottom) and took some deep breaths through my nose and out my mouth to calm myself down, as I do on a scary rock climb. When I was feeling more settled, I continued forward and peered around the corner from whichever Z-bend I had juts done. The passage went straight and slightly downhill until it reached a slightly larger room. I was lost as hell.
I backed up, feet first, to where B was waiting at the foot of the waterfall we had just descended. After a brief discussion, we concluded that I may have simply passed the false Z-bend and hadn't yet reached the true Z-bend. In order to avoid any other confusion, we decided we would both go this time, leaving our gear at the waterfall, so he could assess how far I had reached. I led the charge head first, much more confident now that I knew I could make it to where I had been with relative ease, and B followed feet first, as that's the orientation he needed to overcome the Z-bend.
As it turned out, in my search for the Z-bend, I had passed it without noticing! After reaching the Z-bend, I wriggled through it once more and waited on the other side for B to work his way through. It took him several minutes (in his defense, I'm a spry, flexible 25 year old), but then we were together again on the other side.
After our reunion, we discussed time. We were moving slowly, and I wanted to be back at my families home in Huntsville before ~10pm so as not to keep them up, as I had a flight to catch the next day. Being real with ourselves, we determined if we continued with our plan to pull-through it was quite possible that we would get back to their place around midnight. B hadn't brought any gear with him to the Z-bend, so we decided to continue to the second drop to have a look around then head out. I was happy as a clam, having pushed past my nerves to do the Z-bend (I have have no particular fondness of tight spaces) and done the physical crux of the whole cave! B was a little bummed about not bringing our plans to fruition, but I hope I was able to convince him I couldn't have cared less either way now that I had achieved what I had in the Z-bend.
We went on to the second rappel of the pull-through, where cave rats had gnawed at webbing from the previous hardware before B had installed chains ~10 years ago. I've never seen cave rats, but to hear B tell it, they're actually adorable creatures! I hope to see some one day, if that truly is the case. The second drop was ~96 feet, but the cave continued laterally as well, which required one to crawl over/around the fissure of the 96 foot drop. B isn't a fan of exposure, so he elected to stay while I continued alone as far as I could without vertical gear. I found a small puddle about 1 or 2 feet deep with the clearest water I have ever seen in my life. It was so pristine that I might not have known it was there at all save for the refraction from my light!
Eventually, I came to a big pit of unknown depth that there was no way in hell I was going near. Near it there was a belly crawl that led to more cave, but it opened up to another drop of unknown depth after about 9 feet of crawl, so I soon backed out of that and returned to B. We hung about and chatted at the top of the second pit until we started to get cold. The cold cave water combined with a constant breeze courtesy of the existence of an upper and lower entrance to the cave were consistently robbing us of heat, and sitting around was not aiding us in that battle. We returned to the base of the first pit and prepared to ascend.
Since we'd rigged it as a pull-through, B had to give me a body belay on the other side of the rope from the one I was ascending (if anyone reading this wants a more thorough description of what this is and/or why it was necessary, leave a comment or reach out to me, I'd love to explain!). Anyway, I began to ascend the short drop. It was made quite a bit more interesting because of the waterfall falling directly on me, so I constantly had water crashing over my entire body while I tried to ascend the rope. Soon, though, I made it up! After I secured myself above the drop and released the rope, B started passing me up gear by tying it to the rope and having me pull it up. After I had everything, I fixed the rope and he joined me. As he ascended I worked on moving our gear to the surface, and at one point I heard him let loose a wild "YEEEE HAW" (or something to that effect) as he went through the worst of the falls! God, do I love caving.
We made it out and took our sweet time getting back to his place, as we had plenty of time having left when we did. I made it back to my relatives in time for dinner and prepped for my journey to Brazil the next day. I had over 24 hours of travel ahead of me to reach the farm in Campo Grande, which is a story for another post! I'm writing this from my families farm in Campo Grande, where I'm hoping to have lots of time to relax and heal up my hurt finger (strained a ligament while climbing) before hitting Rio with the force of a thousand suns.
Or hopefully the force of a thousand suns, none of which have strained ligaments.
I do two caves in Alabama with B. We don't bottom either of them, but I have an absolute blast and push myself further than I ever have under ground.