Thursday, January 03, 2008

Doubting My Sanity

I was seriously doubting my own sanity as Brent fed the rope out, gently swinging me off and out from the comfortable Hall of Giants ledge 237' above the bottom of Surprise Pit (404')....

Saturday morning (December 15th) dawned and I grabbed kolaches at Alabama Bread Co. for everyone on survey the trip. They've become a bit of a Fern survey tradition for me - being #1. delicious, #2. really great cave food, #3 I like buying them to share them with the folks who give up their Saturdays to come survey Fern. Its pretty much my thank you for coming out to play in the mud.

Hiking up the mountain I reviewed the game plan for today. Jimmy, Michelle E. and Brent would go in by way of Surprise and tie-in the top of the land bridge with the Hall of Giants ledge (which ended up being 167 feet down in Surprise - instead of the 120/130 that was guesstimated). Once they were done with those shots they'd come in through the key hole to the Hall of Giants and find Steve P., Steve C. and I. Then we'd push a small interesting lead over by the haystack.

I went in through the Johnston with Steve and Steve at 11:23am. We made it to the Hall of Giants in 1 hour. The main floor area of the room we'd finished surveying in November. We did more surveying in two of the leads off the large room. Funny thing is the one marked "Lead #3 - Putnam" had a date of 12/15/1992. Wonder what are the odds are of coming back to the same lead, on the exact same date 15 years later? We'd gotten through a crawl and had just popped out into a cool 100' dome when we heard Jimmy and Brent and Michelle's voices. We BO'd back and forth a bit till they got closer. There's a sweet little window about 15/20 feet up on the wall in the Hall of Giants. For us it was on the floor of the 100' dome room. So Steve stuck his head down there to describe how to find us. They crawled out into our room and we talked about what to do next. We decided we'd stop a little early - so next time Steve C. sketched he could change out and go to a smaller scale in the dome room. (He's done the plan the past couple times and I've done the profile and cross sections) I think we'll need one - if not two more surveys in there to finish up the Hall of Giants area.

Steve and Steve left by way of the route we took in. Brent, Michelle, Jimmy and I checked out the tiny little lead. Gosh there was plenty of air flow! and sticky mud too... I actually had to take my helmet off and shove it ahead of me for the first part. We got in there and there were three ways to go. One got too tight fast - one I could see the end of and then the last one - you come smack up against a formation with about a 4 inch crack and you can feel the air whoshing past you. There's a little - 4 inch again - duck under off to the left that looks like it heads off and around the formation crack. The floor is mud and flowstone crust covered mud... so we dug on it for a while with a rock till we hit rock and then gave up. It definitely needs to be surveyed - seeing as how its not on the original Torode map. And it will be interesting to see the direction it trends.

My super-duper muddy-mud gear.

I headed out with Jimmy, Brent and Michelle E. by way of Surprise. You have to go through a key hole in the Hall of Giants that is filled with the stickyiest muddiest nastiest mud. Once I got on the other side my gear was so glopped and I was so glopped I was lucky to identify my gear from the floor - seeing as how we now looked like helmeted peanut butter monsters. You can hear the waterfall that drops into Surprise and see the rope in the distance - but you have to kind of skirt the pit - on a wide ledge, in and amongst a large ledge with VW Beetle-sized breakdown, and then squeeze through a tight funky mushroom shaped passage. Then you finally pop out on the Hall of Giants ledge in Surprise pit proper. As everyone started cleaning the mud out of their cams my nerves started to jangle a bit.

I'd been in Fern Sink out to the land bridge twice to toss a rock and count the seconds before it hit the ground. But seeing as how I have no real desire to do the pit - this was first time doing any rope work in Surprise. Its not that I can't do it (I've frogged plenty of 400's and even an 800' before on a pulley hanging from various trees, I-beams and cliffs), but for me there HAS to be a reason to do a big drop - like something really cool at the bottom, or more cave....otherwise there's no point. And then there's the whole mental thing of holy crap - that's 404' feet down! There isn't anything to see at the bottom of Surprise - if there was - I'd be down there. Now if/when we make the connection crawl from the Bottom Cave to the bottom of Surprise that's only been made once before - I would love to frog out. Anyway - the point is that this was the first time I'd tackled any part of Surprise and I was SUPER nervous. I knew the 167 foot climb wasn't going to be a problem - its just the whole mental aspect of swinging out off the nice solid ledge out into Surprise - 237 feet off the deck. You could literally say I was jumping right into the middle of it!

Michelle started to climb first. While I was waiting my turn Jimmy chose a nice 20lb rock and chucked it off into Surprise. (He said we have to ration them - otherwise there won't be anymore to toss in.) After a second it hit the Torode Hall ledge right below us and then bounced off of it and down the rest to the bottom. The echo seriously made it sound like the whole place was going to collapse in on itself. It sounded amazing - although I think I would have appreciated it a bit more if I hadn't been as nervous. Jimmy (he'd gone down Surprise first that morning) told Brent and I he was a bit shocked to see his feet were still 6 inches away from the ledge when he came down. After a bit of pondering he heaved his dangling pack at the ledge. He'd made contact after a few tries and was able to enough momentum going that he was able to pendulum back and forth. He said he started spinning around so he had to wait a couple go rounds to be able to get enough momentum to get himself over to the ledge - and then get up on it. (Um. Yeah. I am so not that brave/crazy.)

Michelle called off rope. Jimmy said he'd go up last - so Brent and I told each other "you could go first" at the same time. I was as ready as I'd ever be - so I said I could go - that way I wouldn't have to fret about what I was going to do. The ledge is a nice large one with plenty of room to walk around, maybe 15-20 feet deep - kind of has some flowstone step downs that get you closer to the edge. I was about 2 feet from the wall, so I VERY carefully snuck out and clipped on 10 feet from the abyss. Jimmy said something about pungee sticks and - "don't look down" and I said yeah - "Ha ha - very funny - I'm seriously freaked about this." It got quiet fast. I started to feed rope down through my croll to get some rope tension. Brent had the other end of the rope so when I got high enough for my feet to come off the ground I wouldn't pendulum out over the pit. He slowly fed the rope out so I hung straight. The rope and I twirled around a few times and my pack got all tangled up in the rope. Oh. Joy. I fritzed with that for a minute or two and then started the climb. I'd only gotten about 5 feet up when my top ascender slipped straight back down. Gulp. The peanut butter mud from Michelle's boots had gotten all over the rope and had clogged up the cam teeth and spring again. Ooops. So I took to looking up at the rope above me - wiping the mud off above my QAS before I slid it up. I took shorter strides too. It slipped about 1/2 a dozen more times, but I was a bit more prepared for it when it happened and I didn't want to completely swallow my tongue. Sure was happy to see the bottom of the rope pad.

Once we all got out of the Fern sink we bopped over to the Johnston entrance to grab my jacket and hat. I left the strings of a ditty bag wedged in the ceiling just inside the entrance, so the pack rats didn't think it was fancy new nesting material. So I literally did a complete round trip underground and above it by going back over and into the Johnston entrance! There was even some discussion as to me being one of a couple - or perhaps the only person who has ever done the route I took on Saturday. Anyone know?

So anyway I didn't fall to my death or anything otherwise you wouldn't be reading this. And now that I did it - it was actually fun. What doesn't make you completely freak out or plummet to your death makes you stronger, right? And doubting my sanity, I'd probably do it again.

Muddy leftovers at about 1:30 am on December 16th.

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At 9:45 PM, Blogger Laura said...

looking good my beanie, glad you are still alive.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger wilkinsbb said...

Good times! I enjoyed reading your report and looking forward to returning next week.


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