I woke up at 5:30 on Saturday morning and was ready to leave the house by 6:00. A new grotto member named Bob was supposed to meet me at the house by 6:00 to ride to the cave, but he wasn't there by 6:10 so I pulled out. I got maybe a mile from the house and my cell phone rang. Bob was at the house, so I went back to pick him up and we headed down I-24.
We waited at the meeting spot at Shoney's until 7am, but no one else showed up. We went on down the road a bit and met up with Morris Sullivan in Murphreesboro. Morris is a veteran caver, but had never been to Tumbling Rock, which was our destination in Jackson County, Alabama. We all piled into the Honda, grabbed a biscuit at the Hardee's drive-through, and headed towards Bama.
We made a quick stop at Martin Springs, which I had visited two weeks earlier. On that occasion, the spring was running really high and was full of mud. This day it was very clear and pretty. It's part of a cave, but the entrance with the spring is sumped. A pit entrance exists on the ridge, but that will have to wait for another day and after I learn how to do vertical caving.
We got to Tumbling Rock Cave about 9:30 in the morning and paid our seven dollars each for parking to Mrs. Precise, the landowner's wife. We also bought a photo copied map of the cave for a buck. The map was nice, but it was practically useless for navigating in the cave. It just doesn't show enough detail for a cave that has six miles of passageways in it. The map didn't survive the cave either and we forgot to buy another one after we left.
After Mrs. Precise unlocked the gate on the cave, we entered and started for our destination which was approximately two miles into the cave. We took it slow on the way in, since Bob and Morris wanted to take a lot of pictures, and most of the nicer formations occur earlier in the cave. This cave features a lot of flowstone formations, and some of the more interesting ones are where flowstone has formed, been broken, then formed over the older formations.
This cave was not as easy as I thought it would be. I'm in much better shape than I was this time last year, but I still have a long ways to go. Tumbling Rock has some really wide borehole passages that you can just stroll down, but it also features crawling, stooping, wading, and lots and lots of climbing and sliding over large piles of breakdown. There was one really large pile of breakdown that I would say was at least four or five stories tall that we had to climb up and then down the other side.
Finally, just as I know I'm reaching my physical limits, we stoop walk down a low, wide passageway that eventually gets high enough to walk comfortably in. From a ways off you can hear water falling. Suddenly you come upon a strange sight, which is a hole in the ceiling about 3 feet in diameter, with about as much water pouring out of it as you would expect from a normal shower. There's a small pile of rocks piled up underneath it.
I sat down and rested right next to the pile of rocks, and Bob and Morris did as well.
"I guess we're gonna have to go up there," I said to Bob, pointing at the hole in the ceiling.
"Yeah, right," said Bob, laughing at me. I wasn't completely sure, but I thought I remembered someone telling me about having to go up a small hole in the roof to get to where we wanted to go in this cave. I knew there was a group of cavers from Atlanta right behind us, so we waited for them to confirm that yes, we indeed had to crawl up into that hole if we wanted to see one of the most spectacular sights in any cave in the southeast.
So Bob went up first, with me giving him a knee and a little shove to help him along. Then I barely managed to get up after using Morris' knee. You have to get up as high as you can then use your arms to push up until you can get at least one foot set to help you the rest of the way up into the upper passageway. It wasn't pretty, but I made it. Morris made it up all by himself since he's small and in excellent shape.
After you make it through the hole, you follow the small stream of water for about 30 feet and you walk into the bottom of a circular shaft that is about 20 feet or so in diameter. There's water falling down in the middle of the shaft like it's some sort of huge shower room. Then you look up and it just takes your breath away. . .
You can't see the top.
Seriously. You shine your headlamp and move around the edges of the water in a vain attempt to see where it's coming from, but you can't. The water is falling such a long distance that it's divided up into large drops that just appear out of the darkness. They also seem like they're falling in slow motion. You can watch an individual drop of water falling towards your face for almost two heartbeats.
It's called the Topless Dome of Tumbling Rock and it's a perfect name for it. Someone recently managed to photograph the entire dome, but they had to lug in huge spotlights to do it. The shaft goes straight up for 440 feet, which means at one point I was about 450 feet below the surface above. That's 1.5 football fields.
Since we were cold and wet and nearing exhaustion at this point, we decided not to go any deeper into the cave and head for the entrance. It took almost as long, since I had to stop and rest a lot, plus we got turned around a few times and had to back track when we hit a deadend. We finally exited the cave at about 3:30 so we were inside for about 5.5 hours. This was the longest I've been inside a cave so far, and also the most distance traveled.
We stopped in Kimball, TN for some quick Mexican food, and by the time I made it home I pretty much passed out after a long, hot shower. Sunday was a day of sore and weak muscles, but today I felt much better. My upper back all around my shoulder blades and down to my triceps hurt the most, but my quad muscles came in a close second in complaining the most the last two days. If I could do a trip like that twice a week I wouldn't have to worry too much about diet and exercise.