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Dr. Piton Nearly Dies In Cave!
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passthepitonspete


Aug 28, 2003, 7:02 PM
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Dr. Piton Nearly Dies In Cave!
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This isn't the sort of trip report you'd want your mom to read. Not one where you nearly died…. I mean, you wouldn't want to have to lie, right?

And while in certain circumstances I would consider it perfectly legit to lie to your wife, to me it seems unsportsmanlike to lie to your mom. [This may partially explain my current marital status] However if your mom "gets it" - and mine emphatically does - then she probably understands that there are a few mistruths which are considered "acceptable" in ordinary mother-son relationships:

"No, I haven't been drinking, mom…."

"Yes, mom, I'll clean up my room….."

[Note: If you happen to be a 40-something bachelor who owns his own home, then you can substitute the word "house" for "room" above]

"Solo caving isn't really any more dangerous than doing it with a partner, mom. The most unsafe part is actually driving to the cave….."

Twenty years ago, there was a publication known as Caving International Magazine. I was pretty proud when they used my photo of Blue Creek Cave in Belize as the front cover one issue. Pete Thompson was a crafty bastard who made the mistake of also publishing The Cave Explorers by Jim Eyre, and was subsequently sued and put out of business by a chap named Kelley who Jim defamed in his book. Prior to going down the tubes, Pete told his subscribers that the magazine was in a bit of financial difficulty [though not revealing why] and that it needed some assistance to get through the crisis. So he solicited $100 donations from "Friends of Caving International," one of whom was my dad.

One night a couple of months after the mag went T.U., I was drinking a pitcher with Mike Boon, Thompson's Assistant Editor. When I mentioned to Boon that my dad was one who had tried to help out, he nearly pissed himself laughing when he revealed the scam! And that bugger Thompson still has my negative.

At any rate, there was an article in the magazine entitled The Solo Caving Myth, which included an account written by Paul Courbon whose first attempt to solo the 320-m-deep Lepineux Pits of Pierre Saint-Martin [then the World's Deepest Cave] left him standing on the lowermost rung of his cable ladder still five metres above the bottom! The premise of the article was that solo caving was no more dangerous, and although I can't remember exactly why, I was certainly prepared to believe it. Using a similar stream of logic, I've extrapolated this argument - whatever it is - to include solo big wall climbing.

After seven hundred miles of driving to Kentucky, I pulled my Chrysler mini-van up to the bitchin' digs of the Cave Research Foundation. [When you're as cool as me, you need a hot set of wheels, baby. You oughta see the saguaro in sunglasses that rides on my antenna - it's a real head-turner.] The next day of my solo trip was Valentine's Day and since a CRF Expedition was scheduled, I figured it wouldn't hurt to leave my door open, as it were.

So on the doorknob of my bunkhouse, I hung a sign which read,

Dr. Piton's Shagadelic 3-D House of Female Belay Slaves - *Hotties Welcome!*

My dad taught me that it "pays to advertise," so what the heck….

After kitting up, I drove along twisty roads winding through leafless hardwood forests and sodden valleys, then uphill onto the top of Toohey Ridge which is formed beneath the Big Clifty Sandstone caprock. It's a pastoral agrarian landscape of cattle and tobacco fields little different than southern Ontario, and belying the hundreds of miles of cave passage - both surveyed and undiscovered - that lie beneath. Roppel Cave is part of the Mammoth Cave System, the world's longest cave, and I am a member of the group that is exploring and surveying it. The idea this day was for me to investigate an area that had been visited only once or twice over twenty years ago, and check to see if there might be any leads. Back then, the cave was "going" in all directions, and quite often small leads were ignored in favour of better ones. We had hit pay dirt more than once using this approach, so it was worth a shot. Since I was alone and therefore unable to survey to the requisite standard, I would not scoop anything because we obey a survey-as-you-explore ethic. So if anything "went," I would bring back a survey party at some later date.

On my solo jaunt I carried four sources of light - my helmet-mounted carbide lamp and Black Diamond LED headlamp, a penlight round my neck, and an extra Duo headlamp in my cave pack. I also carried spare carbide and water, fresh batteries, and maybe a snack, though I expected to be underground for only a couple-three hours. Since we had a much longer trip planned for the next day when my partners arrived, I was under strict instructions not to wear myself out. I wanted to return warmed up, not knackered.

I dashed across the soggy ground from my van to the cave entrance and fumbled with the lock to the blockhouse, eager to get inside quickly to where it was a bit warmer. The cave remains 54F year-round, and once I was a hundred feet down the fixed ladders which descend from the entrance, I began to warm up.

At the base of the ladders, a normally small waterfall gushed into the dome from an invisible canyon above. Lots of water today! I dove through the crawlway, down an awkward little climb, and slipped between the tight walls of the "chemically-enlarged" Sh*t Canyon to reach the next dome, where yet another waterfall poured in. A thirty-foot climb up a steep but now stabilized gravel- and mudslope took me into South Downey Avenue, one of the nicest canyons in the cave, perhaps eight feet wide and thirty feet tall. Its perfectly flat floor [don't leave footprints off the path!] ends too quickly after only a couple hundred feet with a short climb down some breakdown blocks to Roppel Junction, a place I have passed through scores [but seemingly hundreds] of times.

To my left was Arlie Way, the main trunk in this area, while straight ahead and slightly right leads to Yahoo Avenue, resplendent in gypsum flowers. My route this day was rather more cunning and devious, not to mention completely invisible. In fact, I and others could likely have passed this place a thousand more times without ever finding it. But this is the mystery of a multi-level cave like Roppel - "any passage can go anywhere anytime." You just never know.

A couple of years earlier, I had been handed a lead only two minutes' walk down Arlie Way from here. It was a tight little canyon above a pit, which needed some "combined tactics" to enter. While others were taking pictures I checked it out solo, contorting my body through a near-impossible "S-bend" and slithering gingerly beneath loose and teetering blocks. And after more than forty minutes of wriggling, squeezing and ultimately digging my way through one of the tightest and nastiest little grot-holes it's ever been my displeasure to push, I popped up into a fifteen-foot-wide by ten-foot-high virgin passage! Not a footprint to be seen.

After surveying this new bit through turquoise-blue crystalline pools and a statuesque stalagmite grotto, a letterbox-sized crawlway through a travertine curtain led us to a flat-out crawl over flowstone, beneath a shelf, and we popped out right into the middle of Lexington Avenue, where hundreds had passed without ever noticing!

That night at the fieldhouse, this conversation repeated itself half a dozen times, as the Roppel Regulars filed in.

"What did you guys find today?"

"We connected Snorkland to Lexington Avenue."

"No way! Where?! I've been through there a million times and never even saw it!"

But that was then, and this was now. I pulled out my compass and looked due west from Roppel Junction, then climbed about twenty feet up the side of the passage over some breakdown, and dropped into an eighteen-inch-wide slot between one of the blocks and the wall. And there, one body-length down the slot and exactly where you would never expect to find it, was the opening - a three-foot-square crawlway leading ten feet to a walk-in-closet-sized room. From this small chamber, the only way on was up through a narrow and sinuous canyon, but knowing that it actually went somewhere gave me the confidence to thrutch through alone. A thirty-foot climb up a chimney deposited me in Lexington Avenue, which saved me a good twenty minutes of caving compared to the usual route via North Crouchway. Amazing! I couldn't believe how quickly and easily I got here. Ya just gotta love a cool little shortcut like that one. Needless to say, it had been discovered from the Lexington side.

Pulling out my compass again, I confirmed that my built-in "gyroscope" hadn't been turned backwards and sat down to fettle my carbide lamp and look at the survey. I took careful note of the passage dimensions at this critical junction, vigilantly memorizing the details so I could recognize the spot on my return trip. One of the easiest and dumbest mistakes you can make while caving is to enter a larger passage or room from a tiny one, and fail to remember where you came in! As one who has done this more often than I care to admit, I have tried to learn from my errors.

Relax. Take a deep breath. You're not that far from the surface, and at least you told someone where you are. Be cool. No worries…..

This is the usual dialogue that goes through my mind a little while into every solo caving trip. I've caved alone enough times now that I'm fairly relaxed, at least most of the time. Very much unlike my first big wall solo, when I was talking to myself virtually every move of the way, checking, double-checking, triple-checking. Man, it's bad enough when you bug someone else with your constant muttering, but when you can't stand the sound of your own voice …? Sheesh.

When climbing in a Party Of One, the last thing you want to discover halfway up a big wall is that you can't stand your teammates.

OK, I thought, it's likely one of these two passages heading roughly west. Let's take a look at the lineplot. Right, I'll follow this one, then. With survey notes in hand, I strolled down a comfortable flat-floored roof tube that was a shortcut around a meander in the main part of the canyon which was running parallel to and beneath me. I was listening carefully because I was told that before long I would be able to hear the sound of a waterfall echoing in the distance. All systems were go - I was on the right route. Nice to be in easy walking passage, I thought. I glanced down at the survey again…

…and then I was falling.

And by "falling" I don't mean that I had merely slipped, or had skidded down some mudslope on my backside, or had tumbled into the muck. I mean that I had somehow flipped over onto my back, and was plummeting backwards through space while facing upward towards the ceiling, my feet actually higher than my centre of mass. But even more alarming was that nothing was stopping me. Despite it happening so quickly, I distinctly remember having had the time to realize how utterly petrified I was. I was solo caving, and I was falling - a long way - completely out of control!

Wham!

My helmet struck something and my carbide lamp flew off into the darkness. My feet hit something and pitched me even farther backwards onto my head, then suddenly the small of my back impacted rock, then my shoulders, then my knees and thighs, and I rattled to a halt like a ball bearing in a pachinko machine.

Ouch.

I was stunned, and had absolutely no clue what had happened. As my senses returned I found myself wedged across the top of the main part of the canyon which had cut in unnoticed beneath me. My back and other various body parts hurt, but I appeared to be mostly intact. Just beneath me and maybe three feet along from the constriction which had stopped my fall, the canyon belled outwards below into a terrifyingly deep void. Blackness. A long ways down. A damn long ways.

If I hadn't landed crossways, I might well have kept falling back-first and hit nothing but air for another thirty or forty feet. I'd have been a dead man. Or worse - a supine paraplegic wreck shivering to death in hostile loneliness.

Shaking from the adrenaline rush, I wobbled down the narrower part of the canyon like a Parkinson's victim to collapse in a heap on the cobbles at the base. Fortunately the floor was flat - and not some bottomless four-inch-wide crack - so I was able to locate my carbide lamp. My LED headlamp was still burning on my helmet, but my hands were trembling so badly I couldn't even fire up the carbide. Thank you, Jesus! Delivered again.

So I just sat there for a while thinking, trying not to puke, and waiting for the jitters to subside enough so that I could get up out of this pit. Why had my life been spared, yet Andria's had been snuffed out in a heartbeat? The thought crossed my mind that had I got the chop here, they might have renamed the passage after me. I chuckled at the irony of achieving immortality by dying. Since I was actually afraid of falling again, I decided to wait just a bit longer to make sure I didn't blow it. Finally the cold motivated me enough to get moving, and I carefully climbed back to the top of the canyon to revisit the Scene of the Crime.

Right where the roof tube entered the top of the canyon, the wall of the tube sloped downwards at a forty-five degree angle, and I could see where my left boot had skidded across it. But how in the hail had I missed seeing this big honkin' canyon?!

Now a more sane man would have curled his tail between his legs, curtailed this madness and bolted for the surface, but I really wanted a little something more to show for my efforts. Generally speaking, I am one not easily dissuaded. I traversed carefully along the top of the canyon towards the rumble of the cascade, and gratefully chose another meander to avoid further exposure. I rejoined the streamway just where it had begun cutting downwards, and sloshed upstream through the shin-deep flow.

Superb! I love streamways like these! This one was reminiscent of many I had waded through in West Virginia - swift-flowing and sporting. Most of the rivers in Roppel Cave are little more than standing water since the dip of the limestone bedding planes is so slight, so it was nice to get into something that gushed and roared and cascaded. The chill of the water was re-energizing, and I perked up as I splashed my way around the obvious fishhook bend shown in the survey.

The passage ended in a small room where the stream poured in from a too-tight crack in the ceiling. I was told that I was supposed to climb up in a dome here, but there was no dome. I had hooked round to the east, and the survey showed the passage continuing back to the south-west.

Straight ahead, I pushed a nasty little crawl through breakdown about seventy-five feet east to where it dead-ended at a little cairn. Oh, OK - someone else had been here, but not surveyed it. I wasn't surprised - you'd be making five-foot shots at best. I backed out of the crawlway, and noticed a tiny opening up to the right. I extruded my body into a tight canyon perhaps two feet wide which was heading away from known cave - it appeared virgin as there were no survey stations visible. I turned around to see where I had entered, then I climbed up six or eight feet to where the passageway was wide enough to allow me to traverse it more comfortably. After going south fifty feet or so, it turned towards the west and I assumed that I was heading for the known stuff.

After about a hundred feet, I climbed back to the base of the canyon to reach what was certainly the same streamway, but at a higher level. The water was coming from the south, and was not on the survey! Could this be some cool discovery? With excitement I plunged into a waist-deep pool, crawled along a gravel bank, and immediately emerged into a hopeless choke of sandstone boulders. The water poured from between blocks that were penetrable only by the numerous beer cans that were wedged in place. No go.

Including the loop to the east, the canyon heading back to the west, and the unsurveyed streamway, there might be two hundred feet of mop-up survey to do here.

Back where I had re-intersected the streamway, I climbed up into the continuation of my canyon, which brought me to a dome where I finally found the survey station GA16. This was the passage I was supposed to check - Bijou Alley - but I remembered being told that there was about eight hundred feet of crawling to its end. Somewhere I had dropped the little ziplock bag with my survey notes, and despite spending a bit of time looking for it, it remained lost. Looking at the map later, it is only about four hundred feet from where I was to the end of the survey.

It's an interesting place - there's a decent draught in the passage, and it deserves a recheck. It's headed towards a blank spot on the map. There might be some upper level leads that could be spied with a climber's eye, something few bothered doing twenty years ago. But I was in no mood to keep going. I figured I'd better bail before I used up any more of my luck. Besides, I knew I'd be back.

As I turned to leave, I could imagine the smell of the Hickory Villa Bar-B-Q wafting into my nostrils.




EPILOGUE:

Back at the fieldhouse that Valentine's Day evening, no slender topless sport-climbing hottie served me crescent rolls, beer and a climbing magazine in the bathroom. Neither did any sultry brunette in a sexy little pink number dance to AC-DC for me. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of falling through the darkness.

Sometime later I was wakened by the sound of my bunkhouse door being quietly opened. Could it be that my sign on the doorknob had finally worked? Was a long-haired green-eyed hardbody California girl in a skanky green top coming inside to kiss me?

Alas, it was none but James - my caving partner for the next day.

And not only is he ugly, but he has a beard.


mrhardgrit


Aug 30, 2003, 3:23 PM
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Re: Dr. Piton Nearly Dies In Cave! [In reply to]
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Hmmm .... cool story! Don't really suppose any round here really appreciates it, but as a fellow caver (a British one, anyway) I certainly did! Man, you were pretty lucky to get wedged like that - I only ever seem to get wedged (read completely stuck!) at the bottom on the canyons when I'm bloody cold and there's a waterfall coming from above!

Well, take it easy Pete and watch out for those bearded cavers!

Tom


joshklingbeil


Aug 30, 2003, 4:11 PM
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Haven't I read this before? Watch out in dem caves.


rcaret


Aug 30, 2003, 4:11 PM
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Great story , Tanks.


drkodos


Aug 30, 2003, 4:15 PM
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I have a particulary un-nasty papercut....but it hurts just the same.

More Nudes at Eleven, Spurts Fans


passthepitonspete


Aug 31, 2003, 7:18 AM
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Re: Dr. Piton Nearly Dies In Cave! [In reply to]
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Yes, you've read it before. It was originally posted in Trip Reports way back whenever, but was moved to Community because of its title, the same as the note on the doorknob. Then it got moved BACK to the new Trip Reports section by Phil, but then it got moved to the Archives because of its title.

Phil said he'd move it from the Archives to Trip Reports if I changed the title, which I did. Then he said he wouldn't move the post, I had to copy and paste the trip report into a new post, and put this new post in the Trip Reports Forum, which I did.

So there. I'm sure nobody cares, except the wag who PM'd me and accused me of wanting the spotlight by republishing it....

For another gripping near-death caving story, please click here to read Travis' Eye of the Tiger!


duracellbunny


Aug 31, 2003, 9:14 AM
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Wooooowwwwww!!!! , I am glad that everything went fine and you are OK!!!! :)


tahquitztwo


Aug 31, 2003, 1:21 PM
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Great story Dr. P.......I really enjoy reading about your exploits! Keep up the great stories. :)


tenn_dawg


Aug 31, 2003, 3:43 PM
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I remember when I saw the canyon that you fell into.

It would be incredibly easy to do exactly what you did.

You're walking along a squeezeway on a dirt floor, nothing changing, nothing changing, then whoop. The floor is gone, and in it's place is a 40=50' deep, 3 foot wide canyon.

You got way lucky, that would have been a terrible way to die, down there in the dark.

As I recally, traversing the top of that canyon was pretty damn scary too. You're on huge handholds and footholds, but if you blow it, we're talking BIG consequences.

Travis


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