TAG Trip Report – August 4 through 8, 2021
Go to the bottom of this post to see photos from the trip.
Several months ago I heard some interest from a few KCAG members about getting more experience with vertical gear in some deeper pits. I searched around a bit and decided to set up a trip to some of the classic SCCi (Southeast Cave Conservancy Inc.) pits in the TAG area. The chosen pits were Neversink, Valhalla and South Pittsburgh Pit.
I scheduled the trip for early August 2021. The plan was to drive on Wednesday the 4th, do pits on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then drive back home on Sunday the 8th. After putting out the word, three people signed up. Seth Colston, Matthew Hernandez and Becky Nelson all said they would go.
SCCi has a fairly nice reservation and permit system on their web site. I was able to get permits for our desired pits and days. They also have a way to sign disclaimers on the web site. It was all handled online. There is no charge for SCCi permits, but they are required to visit any of the properties and preserves that SCCi manages.
Camping arrangements proved to be a challenge, but in the end everything worked out well. I wanted to stay at Cathedral Caverns State Park in Alabama because it is fairly close to the pits we were going to visit. However, their campground is under construction. They originally thought it might be ready in July, but rainy weather caused significant delays. As a backup, we planned to stay at the NSS Headquarters building in Huntsville. The advantage is that camping there is free for NSS members. The big problem is that it would add about 40 miles each way to our daily drives.
As it turns out, Cathedral Caverns State Park has another campground with facilities. There are only 12 campsites which are first-come first-serve. They do not take reservations. There is also a “primitive” campground which would have worked for us except for a long drive to the bath house for showers and toilets. We were able to get spots in the improved campground just 20 feet from the bath house. They also have VERY good WiFi service at this campground. It is the best wiFi I have ever had at a campground – fast and reliable and easy to connect.
The daily drive was a bit longer than I expected. I originally thought that Cathedral Caverns was on the outskirts of Scottsboro, Alabama. It is actually about 15 miles to the west of Scottsboro. Even so, our daily drive was less than an hour each way – except for Valhalla!
In addition to the actual pits, we planned two training sessions. In May we all met at Rick Hines’ house. Rick set up a 2×6 on the upper deck of his back porch which gave us about 20 vertical feet to work with. We got in some practice climbing and doing changeovers.
A few days before the trip we had a second session at Emerald City Gym in Overland Park. The gym let us use a rope on their climbing wall. Becky was not able to make that date, but everyone else showed up and got in some practice. In the time between sessions Seth obtained a second-hand lightly-used rope walker system from Jim Cooley. We spent some time getting it adjusted to Seth. Hou and Matthew practiced with frog systems.
I left right after lunch on Tuesday August 3 to drive part-way to Alabama. It is a bit over 700 miles to Cathedral Caverns State Park and I did not want to do the drive all in one day. With my camping trailer I can spend the night on the parking lot of any of several businesses including Walmart, Flying J, Pilot, Cracker Barrell and others. There is no charge for this. I spent the night at a Travel America in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
The next day I was on the road at sunrise. South through Nashville, then up and over Monteagle, a right turn at South Pittsburgh and on to the park. I arrived about 1:00pm. After confirming that they did indeed have a place for us to camp, I set up and then sent a message to Seth, Matthew and Becky. They decided to carpool and do the drive all in one day. They arrived about 6:30pm.
After setting up camp, we discussed the plans for the next few days. Item one was to be at the park office at 9:00am so they could get registered in. We were there at 8:30, and they were open. Registering took just a few minutes. Off to Neversink we went! We were all four riding in Seth’s pickup.
The drive to Neversink took about 45 minutes. The parking lot is just off the road and accessible to almost any kind of vehicle. We grabbed gear and started down the trail. It turned out to be a much longer trail than I remembered. It took us almost half an hour of hicking mostly uphill to get to the pit. We arrived at the pit a few minutes before 11:00am.
Neversink is as beautiful as I remember. The walls are covered in ferms, moss and other plants. There is a waterfall coming down the opposite side from the rigging point. There are two rigging points, each consisting of two bolts set in solid rock. The bolts are side by side about a foot apart. We looked at both sets. One of the sets has the ropes boing at a right angle to the bolts. The other set is more inclined, which means the force on the rope is pulling them out instead of sideways. We decided to use the first set for our lines.
I brought a 400 foot and 116 foot rope, both 11mm. We rigged the long rope as the main line and the short rope for an edge attendant. Both ropes were tied into both bolts using a load-balancing method. Everyone got their vertical gear on, then I went over the edge on the short rope. I stopped about 3 feet below the edge, which is a perfect place to coach people over. As each person rappeled on the long rope, I helped them find footing for going over the edge. The lip at Neversink is undercut about 2 feet, so there is a bit of a challenge. No one had any serious issues, though.
When everyone else was at the bottom, I switched over to the long rope and joined them. The bottom of Neversink is impressive in its own right. The bottom is close to an acre in size. The waterfall makes quite a breeze, and a lot of noise too. We found all kinds of critters including several kinds of salamanders and a snake. I grabbed a log and had lunch.
I climbed first. When I got to the short rope, I switched over to it and climbed up to the edge. Everyone else climbed out on the long rope. Getting over the lip was not a big problem for anyone even though it is undercut.
Matthew realized that he had lost both of his hearing aids during his first descent. He and Becky both went back down and spent quite a while searching around the landing area. They did not find anything.
I went down a second time just for practice. The second time I climbed out on a frog system instead of a rope walker. It was more work and took longer, though the difference was not as pronounced as I expected. Getting over the lip was easier with a frog than with a rope walker.
After everyone was out, we packed up the gear and headed back to the truck. We were on the road about 3:00pm.
Back at Cathedral Caverns we decided to take their commercial tour. The tour is $20 per head and covers about 3500 feet in and the same distance back out. It takes about an hour and a half. The cave is VERY large, and the large size extends almost the entire length of the tour. The trail is paved and flat, though not level. There are some significant rises to climb. Some of the formations are truly huge. The “Golaith” is a flowstone column that is 40 feet high and about 200 feet circumferance. Our tour guide had the patter down including some dreadful puns. Off script she was able to answer most of our questions. Besides the four of us, there were three or four others on the tour. It was the last tour of the day.
After dinner we chatted for a while and then went to bed. The next day we were able to get an earlier start since we did not have to stop at the park office. We drove to the Valhalla gate, arriving there about 9:30. There we encountered a serious problem. The gate to the trail is used by three different groups and so has been set up with three locks. When done right, any of the three locks will let the gate open. Someone previous to us had locked it wrong, with result that the SCCi lock was ineffective. It took us 20 minutes to get in touch with the preserve manager.
He went the extra mile for us. It took half an hour, but he managed to come up with the combination to another of the locks on the gate. With that we were able to get in. Many thanks to Buddy Lane!
The road from the gate to the pit parking area is about 2 miles long. The permit information says “high clearance 4×4 is required”. They are not kidding! Seth’s pickup is a Toyota Tacoma with the TRD off-road package, and it was almost not high enough. We tumped the frame on several rocks and there was one mud puddle where we almost got high-centered on the ridge between the wheel ruts. It took us 30 minutes to go 2 miles. Several times I had to get out and give Seth a spot for crossing some rocks. At one point Seth had one of his front wheels hanging complete free of the ground. The ride rocked us back and forth so hard that we probably should have worn our helmets in the truck.
We eventually did get to the parking area. The hike from there to the pit is only 4 or 5 minutes. I rigged in the long rope to the tree with plenty of padding. Today I did not rig an edge tender rope since the lip at Valhalla is much easier than at Neversink. After rigging it I was the first person to go down.
About 40 feet off the bottom I found that the rope was all in a wad. It had not fallen cleanly to the bottom. I was able to push it along with my braking hand. That proved to be a major mistake. The friction of rope rubbing on rope chewed through the sheath almost completely at one spot. Fortunately that spot was about 6 feet beyond the length of rope we needed. I tied it off with a butterfly, got out of the fall zone and told everyone else to come down. Becky and Matthew came on down, but Seth decided to stay up top.
I had lunch while Becky and Matthew explored the bottom a bit. Valhalla has quite a bit of cave leading off the pit. I pointed out the general direction of a small dome which Becky found, and where I thought the main part of the cave was. That was near a waterfall next to a pile of breakdown. As it turns out, the real way on is at the other end of the breakdown pile. Becky eventually found it in spite of my bad directions.
I climbed up while Becky and Matthew were exploring. At the top Seth and I talked for a while. Matthew climbed up while we were talking. I wanted a second trip, so when Becky got up I went back down. It was just a bounce for me. I made sure the rope was not tangled at the bottom, then climbed back up.
On top Seth had decided to do the rappel. I quickly rigged an edge rope so I could help him at the edge. While Seth was doing the rappel and climb, Matthew went over to some rocks partway around the pit opening. He had a prime spot for photography.
We were all out of the pit by about 4:00pm. After derigging and packing up gear, we made the short hike to the truck. The drive out was every bit as exciting as the drive in. 30 minutes to go 2 miles. We made it with no damage to the truck.
On the way back to camp we stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Scottsboro for dinner. Buenavista Mexican Restaurant was not all that busy for a Friday evening. The service and the food were both good. We were back at camp around 7:00pm.
The plan on Saturday was to visit South Pittsburgh Pit. It is the farthest of the three pits we visited, about an hour drive each way from the campsite. The parking area is at a small city park in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. The trail to the pit starts just across the street. The first quarter-mile of the hike is very steep, but after that it is fairly easy. It is about 15 or 20 minutes of hiking to get to the pit.
My 400 foot rope would have worked, but we decided to use Matthew’s almost new 300 foot rope. The main rigging point is a tree next to the trail. I set up an anchor and dropped the rope. On my way down I set up a rope pad on the one sharp point of rock. This is the easiest edge of the three pits and is so smooth that rope pads are needed in only one place.
The total drop is about 160 or 170 feet. There was a lot of rope left over at the bottom of the pit. I got out of the fall zone, then started looking around. There was a dead snake that was fairly smelly. I saw a lot of millipedes on the walls. There were some daddy long-legs spiders (opiliones or harvestmen), some crickets and several kinds of beetles.
Becky came down next. She explored quite a bit of the bottom of the pit. There is some cave which requires climbing up another rope to access. We did not know anything about the provenance of that rope, so we did not go beyond it. Becky found a live ring-neck snake which she put in her pack for rescue.
After Matthew came down, I climbed out. I was feeling a bit of chill. This was the coldest of the three pits we visited, probably because it has the smallest opening and therefore less circulation. I had lunch after the climb, while Seth went down to join Becky and Matthew.
Matthew climbed out next, then found a great photo spot part of the way around the pit opening. I took up a position on the opposite side. We both ran some GoPro videos of Seth and Becky climbing out.
I was the only person to drop the pit a second time. As with Valhalla, I just did a bounce – down and right back up. We let the snake loose from Becky’s pack. It decided to go the opposite direction from the pit, which we though was very smart.
Packing up and hiking back to the truck took 45 minutes. We were back at the park by around 4:00pm. After dropping gear at the campsite, we all went up to the park visitor center for some souvenirs. It is a good thing we did the commercial tour on Thursday. All slots on all tours for Saturday were full up.
After dinner we chatted. Becky, Seth and Matthew exchanged photos and videos among their cell phones. I don’t have a smart phone, so could not add to the mix. I will put my photos and videos on some USB sticks.
Sunday morning I left the campground at 5:00am. It was dark and somewhat foggy. I drove all day, arriving home about 6:45pm. The distance was 726 miles. Seth, Matthew and Becky left around 7:30. Seth reports that he was home shortly after 7:00pm. No surprise there since he was not towing a trailer and could drive quite a bit faster than me.
Overall it was a good three days of caving. We all learned something, and gained experience dealing with pits deeper than anything in Missouri.