Sunday, May 21, 2006

Cave #7 - Stephens Gap Cave

I've now been to six caves this year, and I'm starting to learn a hard taught lesson: cavers lie. I think most don't seriously mean to, it's just that facts tend to get distorted, like distances, difficulty of crawls, how long the cave is, etc.

I dragged myself out of bed Saturday morning about 7am, running a little late. We had about 15 of Victoria's friends over the previous night for an early birthday party for her, and my nerves were pretty frazzled and I didn't get much sleep. I showed up at the Shoney's where we usually meet up for caving trips headed southeast of Nashville and found Don, Joe, and Joe's daughter Kylie waiting for me, along with Gerald and Avis Moni who were headed out to scout some caves closer to Nashville.

We pulled out and made a quick stop in Murfreesboro to pick up Morris and then got going toward Alabama down I24. Like most caving trips I've been on so far, we had fairly vague directions to the cave, which included descriptions like "go up a big hill, down the other side, then look for a turn-off that crosses the railroad tracks." Despite this, we managed to find the right spot. Don had taken a quicker route, and was waiting for us there, along with a local caver named B and his friend from Arkansas, who were very familiar with the cave and offered to show us the way up.

I followed them up to Pipeside Pit, which is a pretty little pit about halfway to Stephens Gap Cave. I think this pit is about 60 feet deep or so, but I could be wrong. I left my pack and helmet there and went back to find the rest of my group to make sure they were headed the right way. I found them coming up the trail with two more local people, whose names I've totally forgotten.

Now at this point is where the distorted distances came into play. I had been told it was an 'easy half-mile hike' up to cave. I had my pedometer on, and while I forgot to mark starting points, I know I walked over two miles total, and very little of that was in the cave. It has to be over 3/4 of a mile each way, and some of it is fairly steep, especially when you're a fat ass with a pack and a helmet strapped to your back.

The pack on my back, by the way, was my new Swaygo Sink Pack that I recently purchased, and this was my first trip with it. I didn't really spend much time planning on what to pack since I knew this would be a short trip, but I had two bottles of water, some granola bars, my plastic bottle with extra batteries, 30' of webbing, a six step atrier, my caving jump suit and my gloves in it. I probably need to get slightly longer straps made for it, since it's a little tight when I'm wearing it and I had them extended all the way out.

We did eventually make it up to the cave, and boy was that hike worth it. Once again, it's difficult to describe just how beautiful this cave is. You walk up a hill from a dry stream bed that you've been paralleling for a while and you suddenly see this huge hole in the ground. It's surrounded by hardwood trees and from about 100 feet away or so you can hear the waterfall that's opposite of the side you approach from.

This pit drops 143 feet, and if you stand at the edge and look down, you can see a rainbow in the water about 50 feet below. There's also birds and butterflies flying all around it, and you can sit and watch the birds bathing in the small pools of water just above the falls. We watched the locals we followed up rig his rope to drop through what he called the "keyhole", which is a small crack on one side of the pit. Don and Morris had planned to drop this pit, and decided to take him up on his offer to use his new rope.

Joe, Kylie, and I headed over to the left of the pit for the other entrance. This entrance is just as impressive, and is almost a twin of the large pit, except that it slopes downward and you can crawl down it. It was about 85 degrees outside that day, which had made the hike more miserable, but as you get about 20 feet down into this entrance, it's like you've just walked into a refrigerator. The temperature suddenly drops about 30 degrees and the air is noticeably more humid.

This entrance is much bigger across than any train tunnel you've seen, and is covered with slippery rocks on the way down, so it takes a few minutes to get to the bottom. As you go down, it curves around and meets up with the large pit about 30 feet above the bottom of it. You can stand at the bottom and see both entrances at once, which is an amazing view.

We watched Morris make the drop through the keyhole, then set out to explore the rest of the cave. I had brought the webbing and the atrier to help us get to the bottom of the pit, but I didn't feel comfortable using it to go down the 10' drop that was keeping us from the bottom. I think I would have been OK climbing up it, but I wasn't sure I could control my descent so I didn't try it.

There was a short section of cave that we could get into on the other side of the cave by following a stream up through a hole and going across some small canyons into a dome with a waterfall that dropped from a hole about 20 feet off the floor. We ran into B and his friend again at this point, as they were making a pulldown trip from another entrance and this was their final drop. The cave has about 7 entrances, and all but one are pits.

We saw one bat flying around in this area of the cave, along with a lot of cave crickets. There weren't a lot of formations, but we did see some interesting crystals in the rock. We exited the cave after an hour or so being very wet and a little chilly. It was nice to get back to the 85 degree weather.

We hiked back to the cars, which was much easier since it was mostly downhill, and picked up a few ticks on the way out. We changed clothes, and drove back towards Nashville, stopping in Kimball for some Mexican food.

You really need to be able to do vertical work to fully enjoy this cave, but I'd recommend to anyone even if you don't have vertical training. I plan to start learning how to do vertical later this summer, so eventually I'll go back and drop all of the pits in this area.

1 comment:

Brynn said...

I'm interested in hiking to Stephen's Gap Cave, but I am having difficulty finding directions. If you still have the directions you used, would you mind sharing them? Thanks!