October 08, 2013

Fantastic Pit Ellisons cave

Looking down a 586ft pit on rope and knowing that we are about to drop deep into the center of a mountain is an experience that few words can describe.   One word did come to mind when the drop was named and that word must have been Fantastic!  Steve Scoutaris, Noboru Sakabe and Adam Haydock rented a car to take a weekend trip down to the world famous Ellisons cave in Georgia.  I remember back in march, Chris Parks and I were talking about planning a crossover trip and I want to thank Chris for getting the gears in motion and making this trip happen!!!  Anticipation was growing as the days got closer to this epic weekend and finally the hours were counting down to our departure down to Georgia.  Noboru came to my place and we picked up a rental car the following morning, picked up Steve at his house, and drove for 10 hours to Lafayette Georgia. Steve went to work the night before at midnight and got off work at 8 am so he did not get any sleep when I picked him up.  Your a crazy mofo Steve but I love that dedication!  The passengers in the car were hating me for eating 5, yes 5 hard boiled eggs prior to the ride so I quickly diverted from my usual Pantera and metal classics for some relaxing sounds so Steve could sleep.   It's quite a long ride but we managed to get there right at 9pm which made us one of the first groups to show up.  After a while people started trickling into the campsite but after talking with Troy for a bit, I ended up going to sleep early so I could get a good nights rest. 
The next morning we woke up early and got ready for our adventure through Ellisons cave. The crossover trip consisted of 13 great cavers; Noboru Sakabe, Elliot Stahl, Dave Stahl, Brian Killingbeck, Grace Baumann, Anmar Mirza, Aaron Atz, Kevin Romanak, Troy Fuqua, Steve Scoutaris, Jessie Houser, Joe Kinder, and Adam Haydock. Chris parks couldn't make it due to work obligations.  We drove to the blue hole where the trailhead starts the hike up the mountain to the entrance of Ellisons cave and the Dug entrance where we would enter the cave.
Blue Hole Ellisons Cave

We went over our plan which was going to be consisted of two groups; one group was Anmar, Troy, Noboru, Steve, and myself. The other group was Elliot, Dave, Grace, Brian, Joe, Jesse, and Aaron. Our groups objective was to enter the cave, rig, and rappel the 120 ft warm up pit. Than bring the 700 feet of rope across handline ledges to the attic of Fantastic pit.  The objective of the other group was to hike up and around the mountain to the Incredible Pit side, Rig the first 50ft drop, than rig the second 80ft drop, and rig and rappel the final 440 ft Incredible Pit drop.  After each group reached the ground we were going to travel through the cave passage and meet half way inside the cave. Than we would continue up each others rigged rope, de-rig the ropes we climb out on, and exit the cave at the other sides of the cave creating the crossover trip.
We entered the Cave, Rigged and Rapped the warm up pit, and made our journey to the Attic of Fantastic Pit.  The ledge bending around the drop didn't seem to bad but knowing you could slip and fall 586ft was a bit of an eye opener but thankfully handlines a were in place which made it even easier. I didn't really think about it till I realized where I was. Troy and Anmar rigged to the bolts on the ceiling so we had to actually swing out into the pit just a little in order to start our descent. Troy went first following and as Anmar was descending, we heard an unusual screeching noise coming out of the pit but it turned out to be the dirt and dust on the rope making a sound as the rack was feeding through the rope. I got on rope next, dialed into the pigtail line, than dialed into the main line that would swing me out into the darkness. I took a deep breath as my blood started to boil for a few seconds and stepped over the edge  I look up at the bolt locked into the rock and look down with a sense of a calm, focused, and a rather exhilarated feeling knowing right now that I am 586 ft on rope looking into the deepest vertical drop in the United States. I popped off a bar and maneuvered my rack to 4 1/2 bars which started my descent. I had to feed the rack a bit at times and got a few blasts of dust in my face as the rack screeched down the rope descending into the darkness. As I got closer to the ground I went through a fog cloud and at one point it was me in a foggy haze with a white rope suspending me in a darkness until I came in sight of the group below. I started to ascend faster so I popped on another bar. I started picking up more speed and in about 6 minutes I was at the bottom of Fantastic pit. It was amazing to look up and see how enormous this pit is inside this cave. I couldn't believe it. 
Fantastic Pit Ellisons cave

Everyone else made it down and we started our quest through the cave to find Incredible pit. We had a lot more crawling than I expected but we weaved ourselves through tight slots, boreholes, and small passage trails to get to some walking passages. There were a lot of breakdown rooms encountered in this maze, but after we got turned around we came to our first location. Kevin noticed some rope hanging from another level so we made our way up to the rope and realized we were in the same location the rescue occurred back in May. This was important for Troy to come back here as he was the trip leader in that group. The story of the rescue was tragic but the caver survived and was handled by some of the best cave rescue personal in America.
I want to recognize Troy for his leadership in how he assessed, handled, and executed one of the best cave rescues I have ever known. The decisions you made to save this cavers life were brave, thoughtful, and was put into action with precision. You did everything right and my hat comes off to you. Now the same climb that the victim fell into, is now our next obstacle. The climb itself didn't seem to challenging but knowing this location had a history, I put my harness on and clipped into the handlines to ensure my safety and to ease any worries anyone else might have had.  We all climbed up and made it safely to the upper passage. 

The climb to the upper passage
We continued on and eventually made it to the South Pole and North Pole rooms which had some amazing crystal formations. We were surrounded by treasure chest rooms caked with white crystals !
South Pole Crystal formation Ellisons cave
South Pole Crystal Ellisons cave
 I was particularly impressed with the ice crystal appears to be Epsomite which relays more on water to produce a real ice like looking formation that I have never seen anywhere in my life. There were even small bubbles inside the crystal which might have had something to do with the water that helped to create these glass like chandeliers. 
North Pole Epsomite formation Ellisons Cave
We continued down passages and Anmar claimed to hear voices in the cave.  Before we started assuming that he was hearing voices in his head, we walked right into the other team! We were able to meet half way through the cave and get a snap shot before continuing on. It was nice to see the other half of the group and to know that everyone was having an awesome trip.

Both teams meet in the middle of Ellisons Cave

We continued onto the Angels Paradise room that had some of the largest and  most delicate gypsum needles I have ever seen!!!. There was a whole room was carpeted with these shimmering cotton candy crystals ...Absolutely fascinating!! 
Gypsum Needles Ellisons cave

Gypsum Needles Ellisons cave

Gypsum Needles Ellisons cave

Gypsum Needles Ellisons Cave
After traveling through more passage, we finally made it to the window where you can look out into Incredible pit and see the bottom from 100ft above the ground.. We made it!!! Finally!! Well, not really. We had to travel down the Devils Staircase to get to the bottom of the pit. We squeezed down through the labyrinth of the devils staircase, grunting, griming, and farting our way through the passage like we were chasing hobbits down to the center of the earth and popping out in this large room with a waterfall freefalling from the top. It felt like we made it home because we got to the pit but we were still a long way from the campsite. We had to ascend a 440ft pit that had a waterfall coming down, de-rig the drop, haul up the ropes, climb up another 80ft pit, more crawling, and a final 50ft climb to exit the cave.

Incredible Pit 440ft
Troy went up first and went solo which gave me a chance to take a few pictures of Incredible Pit from the bottom.  Once he was at the top, I got on rope and made my ascent up the Pit.  As I started my ascent to the top, I would slowly pendulum in and out of the waterfall which was like being in the middle of a thunderstorm yet every time I was pushed into the waterfall, it made me imagine how wild this room can get especially after the rain storms. We had it pretty easy!!!  I have heard that this pit can have a hurricane going on inside from this waterfall and a vortex of water spinning around which I assume made the pit so circular.  The day we climbed Incredible was considered a trickle.  We checked the weather to make sure we would not find ourselves in a variation of this hydrology and realized that there was a hurricane coming up the coast and would effect the Georgia area the following afternoon.  Perfect timing!!!!!!!  When I got to the top I was thinking to myself how impressive of a climb that was!!!
Kevin getting off rope at the top of Incredible Pit
Everyone got up the rope so Kevin, Steve, and myself continued through the dwarf slot canyon passage to the 80ft pit.  This was also a nice pit climb with a waterfall to the side and an easy climb to the top.  The three of us climbed up while the others de rigged Incredible.  They brought the rope and we hauled it up over the edge of the 80ft drop.  The three of us continued to follow the wind and debris through the small slot canyon passage and a small crawl through stones that brought us to a large dome room with three ropes tied into the ceiling.  This should have been named the "Shit out of luck" room or the "price is right" room because there were three options to ascend on rope to the top of a dome  but none of them were the right ones EXCEPT for the bonus forth rope to the right of us up the canyon and in the back of the room...NICE!!... I got to the rope and made the ascent up and over the safety rebelay,  I look up and I realized... I am outside!!! I thought I was still in the cave but I was actually outside all of a sudden almost like I was transported into the forest...It was a bit weird and for a second I was hoping I wouldn't wake up and be back inside at the bottom of Incredible. Thankfully my dreams are not that ridiculous yet and I was actually outside and out of the cave.  The entrance appears to be actively sinking into the cave so everything around us was brittle except for a tree with strong roots which was where the last rope was tied to. 

We all made our ascent out of the cave and even under the darkness of night with no moon, it still felt a little brighter than it was inside the cave. We walked up the mountain to the road which lead us back to the Fantastic side and down the mountain to our cars. It was nice to get back to the car and relax. Kevin and Troy jumped into the blue hole and I took a nap in the car before we headed back to the campsite. The other group beat us back by a few hours so we all hung around the campsite until our Chicago crew decided that we should get some sleep since we have a long car ride home. We woke up at around 8 am to strike camp, get some BBQ, and drive back to Chicago.  After dropping everyone off and returning the car, I finally got back to my place around 930pm.
I want to thank everyone who brought the ropes and helped to create this amazing trip so all of us could enjoy hanging out with old and new friends as well as experience one of the best trips in the world.  Thank you!!!!!

Ellisons Cave Crossover Trip 2013 Joe Kinder, Noboru Sakabe, Anmar Mizra, Aaron Atz, Kevin Romanak, Grace Baumann, Brian Killingbeck, Elliot Stahl, Dave Stahl, Troy Fuqua, Adam Haydock, Steve Scoutaris, Jesse Houser



Here is a nice photo of Fantastic Pit taken by other photographers for National Geographic.

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