Witless is just a polite rhyme of how scared I was that day at Ellison’s Cave in Georgia.
I had been caving for a few years; mostly in West Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama and was just learning the ropes (caving pun). But that year I was turning 40 and wanted to do something memorable. The big time cavers talked about Ellison’s cave. The drop is straight down 586 ft./179 metres, or about 18 stories. There are no walls to repel from, you have to manoeuvre over a difficult lip and be ready for a long dark drop. Being ready means going slow and not letting yourself zip down too fast. Loosing control of your speed is difficult to stop and can lead to death. Ellison’s a major achievement in the caving world.
So I worked out everyday with videos on my VCR and repelled on the weekends to prepare myself for this trip… this cave…. this drop.
Beautiful photo from National Geographic, so that’s what it looks like all lit up. When you are dropping down it is pitch black. All you can see is the dull light from your helmet on the cave wall as you spiral slowly down. You search into the abyss for the pinpricks of light from your fellow cavers watching for you; resisting the temptation to go faster out of fear.
But that wasn’t the scariest part. The scariest part I didn’t even hear about until I got there. The long repel was scary but not as scary as getting there. The first repel into the cave must have been fairly easy because I don’t even remember it. You had to do some difficult caving before you got to the big drop. But it’s just before the big drop that freaked me out.
Two members of our team were already preparing the ropes when I came into the room with the big hole to nowhere. But they were on the other side of the abyss. They waved and pointed; “you have to crawl on that ledge around the bend to get here.” I looked to my left at what I thought was just a wall to a straight drop but there was a ledge that was barely the width of a body. Not only that but the rock wall curved out pushing you away. “Crawl on your belly, that’s the safest way!”
Now it’s scary enough already but I also have a cave bag with my climbing equipment in it. No turning back now. I reminded myself I was very small compared to most cavers that did this. I got on my belly, cave pack on my side, hugged that wall and started to crawl just like a snake. My face was almost kissing the wall and ledge; I could feel that long, dark drop tickling my back. I was so freaking scared! It was a curve you could not see around so you just prayed you didn’t run out of ledge.
Finally the ledge opens up to a place where we could all rest and wait for the big repel. The scariest part of the repel was getting on the rope and leaving that ledge to dangle into the abyss. But it was exhilarating scary, not unsafe, scary.
I trusted our equipment. I trusted my fellow cavers to make sure the ropes where good and our equipment was all in working order. I trusted my own abilities because I had practised and worked out in preparation. So it was scary but not unsafe.
It was that little unmentioned move minutes before…. no ropes, no friends hanging onto me and FEAR. That was unsafe! Sometimes in bed I think of it and am so happy to be in my warm, safe bed. I hope I never feel that unsafe again. Times like that really makes me appreciate the security I have now.
And I can say, “Yeah, I’ve done Ellison’s, man”