Like many people I have had my share of brushes with death in life, some by accident and some not. I have been fascinated by caves and cave exploration since I was just a little kid. When I got old enough I taught myself how to do this in a safe manner and I put myself with people who were experienced so that I could learn from them how to safely get in and back out again without injury. I am repeating that pattern here. Let me share a story with you.
After a few years of doing strictly horizontal caving and all that time saying I will never become a vertical caver I realized I was missing out on a lot of things I would hear the fascinating stories of the things that these other cavers were doing and seeing that I wasn't. So here I am I'm a caver I chose to be a good one and a safe one following good practices and safety rules. I have a real problem..I can't go where these others are going because I am really afraid of heights. How do I overcome this fear and get to go to these wonderful fantastic places that I keep hearing about. Any of this sound familiar?
I did it I worked at it and became competent at vertical caving spending a few years doing 150 ft up to 225 ft drops and many other smaller ones without incident. Now I am originally from the south and in Georgia there is the deepest in-cave pit in the continental united states. The cave is called Ellison's and the pit is named Fantastic pit. It is 601 feet straight down; no wall, nothing but you and darkness. Some friends finally convinced me that I could do it so we went there and I watched them rappel down and make it to the bottom. My turn came and I was the last to get on rope and go down. We use racks to rappel as it gives you the ability to add or remove bars to control the amount of friction and thus the speed of your descent. Anyone who does vertical work knows that the deeper the pit the heavier the rope is and therefore it can be hard to get the rappel started with all of the weight of the rope beneath you. It acts almost like a self belay forcing you to either manually force the rope through the rack with your brake hand or pop off enough bars to allow the rope to glide through with less friction. This can create a very dangerous situation because as you go down your rate of descent will increase and you have to put one of those bars that you popped off back on to slow yourself down but you can't do that without stoppping first.
So I am here at the top of a 601 foot drop alone and nervous. My friends are safely at the bottom and the weight of the 7/16 diameter rope is probably fifty pounds worth or better, I'm not moving because I have all five bars on and I weigh more than those guys that are down there at the bottom. I am trying to feed the rope manually but it still isn't working as my weight plus the weight of the rope is totally stopping me from moving. I am afraid to do it but I have to pop off a bar. I do it but again the weight has crammed all of the bars to the top of my rack and I am still not moving. I had to pry them apart with my gloved hand and sort of stick my fingers between the rope and bottom bar to reduce the friction and allow me to move. It worked too well and now I'm moving too fast. If you go out of control on rappel it can be difficult to impoosible to stop yourself and on a 600 foot drop no bottom belay is going to save your ass either. You are going to die. 600 feet=2 football fields stacked end to end vertically. Six hundred feet falling on an out of control rappel equals you are mushed up pretty bad when you hit the ground. I managed to regain control of the rappel and come to a stop. I locked off the rack by pulling the rope up and over the top of the rack effectively locking up the rack making it impossible to move. Panic here and you WILL die. Nobody else can save you here it is make it or not. I was sssssshaking a panic attack was trying to get the best of me. "Everything alright?" I hear a shout from down below. "Yeah just taking a break." I replied, hoping that the fear in my voice didn't betray my true feelings about this situation. I had to take a moment and remember my training, remember that I am capable and able to do this. I know what to do and how to do it . I can do this I just have to believe in me. Once my confidence was restored I unlocked my rack and made it down to join my friends below.
The things we saw were incredible there are formations of selenite and calcite that are beautiful. There is a particular fomation called the North Pole that looks similar to a hand of crystal and ice reaching out from the living stone. On a shelf in the same room there are some selenite formations that are as fine as the hair on your head. Breathing on them too hard would shatter them to bits. There is a place the call the slip'n'slide where you are actually looking at the underside of a fault of two behemoth pieces of pigeon mountain that are pressed against each other and the weight and pressure has given the rock a smooth as marble finish and the resulting powder is as fine as any cosmetic powder yet it is pure granite.
Sometimes you put yourself in a situation where you have to save yourself nobody else can help you even if they wanted to. Remember what you have learned and move forward, have confidence in yourself and in your abilities. Realize that you truly can do more than you ever thought was possible.
I want to thank the people who are here for your encouragement and heartfelt posts you have sent me. I need the blunt honesty and hope.