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A Photographic Journal of Caves in the South

Ms. Carroll is an avid researcher & freelance writer who writes on a myriad of topics with which she has experience and knowledge.

Stephen's Gap: 143'

Stephen's Gap: 143'

Cave Repelling

I first learned to cave in 2000 or so. I was instantly enamored with the technical vertical climbing and rappelling gear - static rope, racks, harnesses, frog systems. I was just as quickly struck with the importance of receiving the safety/rescue training that I obtained.

It was a much slower evolution that I came to fully appreciate the true beauty of the world beneath us. As I did, I realized that I was treading on sacred ground. The 'underground' is hardly a scary place to me. It is one of God's most precious gifts and I hope that all those who dare to see it raw fully appreciate that fact and leave no footprints. Aside from bats (which I personally don't care to encounter), there are stunningly clear waterfalls and rivers called the underground water table; rimstone pools, crystal white formations, cathedral-like domes, and a maze of intricate passageways.

An Important Warning

Caving is an inherently dangerous sport. These accounts are from an experienced caver. It is highly recommended that anyone who wishes to pursue caving first obtain adequate training and join a local grotto or club which focuses exclusively on caving.

Stephen's Gap

Every cave has an 'allegory of the cave' moment as you exit. Sometimes you can spend hours, or days, underground. Stephens Gap is unique in that it has two entrances, one vertical and the other horizontal, each within feet of the other. It has become a common training ground for those learning to rappel and is not much appreciated for the caving passages beneath it. I am no exception to that, but its beauty was not lost on me.

Cuyler Cave

Cuyler Cave

Cuyler Cave

These little beauties are called cave pearls. It is a federal crime to remove them, but sadly, they are sometimes removed. It's hard to believe that beneath the earth in total darkness that these perfectly spherical and snow-white rocks await discovery. Cuyler Cave is very unique despite the pearls. Once you drop through a mailbox slot called the opening, this cave, which is located on private property, opens up to a vast underground network of passages including an underground lake.


Pettijohn's, 6+ miles

Pettijohn's, 6+ miles

Hazards of Caving

Caving isn't for everyone. There are tight squeezes. It can be muddy as hell. Passageways sometimes require you to chimney up or down rock. Caves are a constant 57 degrees and water in passages can quickly chill you to the bone if you're ill-prepared. The rope needed to rappel down and back up again is heavy, as is all other required gear.

So why do it? Some might answer like Herzog did about Annapurna and say "because I can." My answer is confounding, even to me. Why wander around in total darkness? Because there are eclipse moments underground, just like on a mountaintop, when you see something so timeless and sacred that you feel you've just witnessed creation itself.

That is part of it. Another part of it is who you're caving with. The comradery of trusting your life to another is not a common association. It rivals military experiences or sharing an event where neither of you should have survived but you did together.

Another part of it is the challenge. Caves can be technically difficult, physically challenging, and therefore, personally rewarding. I can remember being so sore after an exhausting day of caving that I could scarcely move.

WHY go caving? The real answer comes in small fragments, not whole pieces. And when you piece them together for yourself, it's like stringing a lifetime of the best possible risks/rewards together.

Fern Cave Entrance

Fern Cave Entrance

Fern Cave and Surprise Pit

When I got the chance to go to Fern Cave with several friends, I was thrilled at the prospect of a 402' rappel into Surprise Pit but more so by the 402' climb out on my frog system. Once I saw the entrance, the rappel and climb took a back seat. It was replete with the most gorgeous ferns and was what inspired the fern garden now planted at my own home. The ferns were knee-high and some higher. How lucky for the bats who live in Fern Cave that they get to see it twice every night they fly. Fern is home to the largest colony of federally endangered gray bats in the U.S.

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Natural Well

Natural Well

A Natural Well

In a way, most wet caves are natural wells. They are certainly part of the underground water system. Natural Well is located near Monte Sano State Park. The rappel into the cave, which is really more of a pit, is tricky in that the rock wall disappears from under your feet on the rappel. If memory serves me well, it's about 100 foot and it was my first chance to successfully go inverted on rope in an open pit. Once you enter the pit, it just spirals down into nothing that a man could fit through, yet rushing water just disappears underground.

Valhalla "Hall of Fallen"

I went to Valhalla to train with a group going to El Cap. We all rappelled and climbed out about 10 times that day despite a haunting fact: Two young adults were killed there one day as the rock contracted and expanded with changing temperatures. A very large rock collapsed atop them and they very clearly never saw what hit them. Ironically, Valhalla means 'hall of the fallen.'

Sometimes the risk of injury and death gets lost on cavers. I've even heard some joke about it. The risk wasn't lost on me, nor was the memory of those who've died there, now at least three.

There is a saying among cavers that the only rescues are self-rescues. Valhalla provides examples of why. There is little anyone can do to help you when you are suspended on rope whether rappelling or climbing. And when rappelling, you will have little time to save yourself due to harness hang. Caving is a serious sport. It's not child's play, no matter how it's portrayed to you.

Neversink, 162'

Neversink, 162'


Famous for its glow worms, Neversink is a very special pit. The rappel is spectacularly laced with a waterfall, ferns, trees, and of course, if you rappel at night, the worms. After a 1-2 mile hike up an enormous hill laced with rocks, you arrive at what seems like an assuming pit. But once you're over the lip on rope, you are instantly fascinated with Neversink's treasures.

Frogging Ellison's

Frogging Ellison's

The Southeast's Deepest Pit: Ellison's

Pictured above is the most impactful cave I've ever done, probably because it's the southeast's deepest. As I slowly rappelled this 586' feet drop in Ellison's, I don't think I've ever felt so eerily alone. When I got to the bottom, I was still alone, but I suddenly felt surrounded by an invisible net, like I had entered another dimension. I sat at the bottom of the pit in stone silence and listened as single droplets of water fell, one by one, from the walls to the ground. It was as though they fell in slow motion, and as they hit, their sound echoed in even slower motion.

I realized that I was not witnessing something through a lens, but I was experiencing something with my remaining senses, all of which were immensely heightened. It was pitch black. It was so black that I couldn't even imagine light any longer. It was so quiet, but for the water droplets, I could hear my inner voice telling me, this is WHY you cave. The voice told me, 'Not everyone has been here, and no one who leaves here will ever be the same.'

Solution Rift: There Are Challenges and Then There Are Crickets

The most challenging cave I've ever done is called Solution Rift in Tennessee, comparable to Kennamer in Jackson County, Alabama. It stands to reason that I don't have photos of very challenging caves.

Solution Rift is what's called a pull down, multi-drop, through trip, meaning you take your rope through the cave with you and use it for each drop (the longest being about 200'). It took the entirety of a day and into the evening to complete. There was a lot of water, and in fact, we got lost briefly in the Burrrrr Tubes and for the first time, it occurred to me that I might not make it out alive. As much as I trusted the trip leader, there was always the possibility that I could personally get hypothermic, injure myself, or otherwise.

The most difficult passage was what seemed like about 800' of a military crawl. We tied our cave packs to our ankles and drug them behind us as we crawled face down on our elbows. As we exited the crawl and finally were able to stand up, we were in a cavern described as the exit. And there sat one very huge beaver between us and the exit. We were forced to dive through a pool and pop up on the other side, which was outdoors. I've never been so thankful to hear crickets and see the stars twinkling above.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Vicki Carroll (author) from Birmingham, AL on April 13, 2020:

Thank you Liz. I appreciate your positive feedback. I welcome any criticisms as well. It makes me a better writer.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 12, 2020:

This is an extremely well-illustrated and interesting article. I appreciate the balance you have struck in writing a great account of caving, but also highlighting the inherent danger and safety requirements.

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