Trip ReportTrip Date: Oct 07 2022
TAG Fall Cave-In 2022: Thunderhole, Lacy Pot, Moses Tomb, Larson Well
My first TAG Fall Cave-In with several trips to some classic vertical caves.
This past weekend I attended my first TAG Fall Cave In. I never bothered attending the event when I lived conveniently close in Nashville. I suppose it was partially because of my aversion to camping, and partially because I was always too busy with other trips to make the time for it. But after hearing a crew of Missouri cavers would be making the big drive down and had some cool trips planned, I figured I should go ahead and commit and see what the weekend would bring.
I woke up at 4am Thursday unable to get back to sleep, so I wound up leaving earlier than I had planned and arrived at 5:30pm after the ~11hr drive. The wooded camping areas were much larger than I expected and I just picked a random road to drive down and tried to find a quiet spot toward the back to set up camp. It was about a quarter mile hike from my camp to the main area with the vendors, stage, and bonfire.
There were a few tempting official cave trips to sign up for, but I decided not to sign up for any of them and see what other spontaneous opportunities might come up.. I usually prefer to have a very orderly schedule with my caving (and life in general) so this was a bit of a fun experiment for me. I went to bed around 11:30 but was woken up around midnight with my body on the floor due to my air mattress deflating... I emptied out the back of my car, pushed the front seat forward, placed a storage bin in between the folded down backseat and my front seat, and with enough padding on the bin I was almost able to lay flat in the car. It was not a very restful night of sleep.
Friday, 10/7 - Thunderhole
Friday morning I got a text from Chad McCain that they were planning to head to Thunderhole, a classic multidrop located in Alabama. I hiked over to their camp to get some info and then we loaded up around 8:30am to make the drive over. I rode along with Issac Smith and Chad. Another car followed behind, full of the current and former chairs of a student grotto in Rolla, Missouri including Cole Kostelac, Elizabeth Sutherland, Garrett Bell, and Bradley Meyer. After a trek up the hillside we arrived at the cave around 10:30am. Some water could be heard topside. The cave has 5 drops and a wetsuit is advised when the water is high, but the expectation was that the water levels would be fairly low. Chad dropped the 80’ entrance pit first and spotted a garter snake. There was also a frog wedged sideways in a small crack looking out at us as we passed by. It took a half hour for the last person to make their way down.
The water flows down around to the left in a canyon which is followed to the second 22’ drop. When I made my way ahead past the second drop, I found some of the Rolla cavers heading in the wrong direction trying to avoid the wet cobble-filled belly crawl which would be required to make it to the next drop. After redirecting them and reassuring them that this was indeed the right way to go, we passed through the “exhalation squeeze”. This crawl was probably much more difficult back when the TAG guidebook I got the beta from was written, and I was able to get through without issue all while staying almost completely dry with all of my vertical gear on. Eventually we were up on our feet again and continued to follow the water to the third 46’ pit. There was a bit of a sprinkle but I was still able to stay mostly dry on rappel. The biggest pit (95’) was next and had a bit more flow to it. I zipped down quickly but knew I’d get drenched on the climb back up.
Beyond the fourth drop, one must follow several hundred feet of some nice scalloped canyon passage. I went slowly avoiding stepping into the water since there were still a few people behind making their way toward us. I waited at a climbdown section to provide some guidance to the people behind me. The fifth 66’ pit drops to the bottom of the cave where the water can be followed for ~100’ to some very deep clear blue water. The passage continued with 6’ of air space but I opted not to go for a swim to see what was around the corner. On our way back up, those of us who weren’t already wet got soaked climbing the 4th pit. I waited at the top of the pit for a rope to carry out of the cave and was happy when I finally was able to start moving again.
We were back at camp with plenty of time before the evening festivities began. I ran into a few friends including Justin Huffman and even convinced him to go see what his max squeezebox would be as his personal max was still only measured by disto in a cave. But when we got to the pavilion, the scene was a bit too crazy with people in costume lined up to try. I hung around with some Missouri folks for a bit, but at some point found myself wandering unable to find anyone. After making two big loops around the friendly campsites and vendor areas without ever crossing paths with a familiar face, I decided I’d just turn in early and try to get a good night’s sleep. I adjusted the setup in the back of my car a bit and slept like a baby.
Saturday, 10/8 - Lacy Pot, Moses Tomb
I woke up at 7:30am with a text from Rachel Saker at 3am stating her trip to Surprise Pit would be leaving a bit later than originally planned. I had never visited Fern and was pretty excited to go, but I was up and ready for a trip and didn’t feel like waiting around. I discovered I was camped out next to Alex Lambie and he invited me on a trip to Lacy Pot. Coincidentally, this was one of the two caves Chad had originally planned to visit after Steve Davis recommended them. Chad ultimately planned to stay on site instead of caving Saturday so it worked out perfectly.
Lacy Pot is a classic TAG multidrop whose entrance had collapsed in 1983 and was inaccessible until a team of cavers dug it open somewhat recently. I drove with Alex Lambie. Two Kentucky cavers Beau Gergel and Cody Kisner drove separately. Another two cavers from New York named Addie Hervey & Elena Berman joined as well. This was going to be their first big pit.
The hike out to the cave was beautiful and really made me miss TAG. We passed boulder fields, karst ravines, and finally arrived at the cave at noon. A small 5’ wide depression at the far edge of a larger sinkhole marked the historic entrance which was plugged up with massive boulders. A much more obvious drop which may have nearly qualified as a pit on its own before it was dug on was the new entrance to the cave. Alex rigged the entrance drop and added a massive rope pad. He noted the rope was stiff and terrible and that we’d all have a great time rappelling down it. I was assigned to go down last and make sure the NY cavers were feeling OK with the rappel. After a lot of forceful nudging and constantly feeding rope from both sides of their racks, they were both able to make it to the bottom of the first pit. Thankfully I could C-rig my bobbin and make it down with relative ease.
After the 60’ entrance pit, a second 135’ pit almost immediately drops into a massive 200’ by 100’ chamber. The room was very echoey and devoid of any formations. It was filled with giant breakdown and sloped up along the left wall. At the top of this slope, a high saddle leads to a final 197’ pit called “Scared Well”. I had spoken to James Hoffman on Thursday about this pit and he said that no one would be able to convince him to drop it again. He reported that despite everyone climbing up the breakdown slope against the far wall at the bottom of Scared Well, chunks of rock broke off the ledgy wall while cavers were on rope and pieces of shrapnel had come flying up at them striking him in the face several times.
Fortunately by the time I got done taking some pictures and climbing up the slope to the top of Scared Well, Alex and Cody had already bounced it separately. The NY cavers decided to go ahead and get started climbing out of the cave. So Beau and I would bounce the final drop separately to avoid any shrapnel incidents. We took a few pictures of the NY cavers tandeming up the 135’ as Beau sent a flurry of rocks down Scared Well. I finally got my turn to explore the bottom, and then we all tandem climbed up the 135’ and then made our way separately up the entrance pit.
On our hike back we found a beech tree covered in boogie woogie aphids (beech blight aphid). It was the first time any of us had seen them. These odd insects have a large bushy white mound on their heads with long stringy white strands coming out of them and begin a defensive headbanging dance in unison when disturbed. It really is quite a fascinating sight.
We made it back just in time for the awards and door prizes. We stood at the very back of the large crowd at the perimeter of the giant stack of logs which would be ignited by the evening's end. It was very cold and I wasn’t sure if I had enough time to run back to my camp to get a jacket without potentially missing out on having my name called for the raffle. A few of us did our best to stay warm, some huddled in penguin formation around a candle until the fire safety team ordered that it be put out since we were just beyond the perimeter of the bonfire which was being doused in gasoline. After a half hour of suffering, we were finally rewarded with a front row seat to the epic bonfire which was lit up with a flamethrower. The scene devolved into chaos as the crowd broke the perimeter and started pulling half burned ropes out of the fire. I still have no idea if this is typical TAG behavior or if it was a unique moment of total anarchy.
After reaching a comfortable equilibrium of body temperature, we went back to camp for a quick refueling and set off for an evening adventure to Moses Toomb. I don’t think I have ever gone caving at night before, so this was a bit of a unique adventure. Alex Lambie was looking for a bailout option, but Riley Drake provided enough pressure to keep the trip idea afloat which I was fully on board for. Riley drove Alex’s car and we carefully made our way across the site. Riley never failed to use her blinker at every intersection, even in the most remote areas with no one around LOL. We finally reached Carson Majors’s campsite in the far north and then drove out to the cave.
We pulled into the open field parking area around 10pm and made the short hike up the well-defined trail showered in the light of the full moon. Alex had the pit rigged by 10:30, and I was the first to drop down. Moses tomb is a 230’ blind pit with some nice flowstone decorations on one side of the wall. I reached the bottom and quickly explored around, finding a few large salamanders. I was filming the first person down (Gustavo Bautista) and noticed as he came fully into view that he was upside down, rappelling at full speed fully inverted! It quickly became evident he was doing this purposefully as he slowed down and flipped back upward. Alex came down next and the two of them decided to tandem race up the pit before the rest came down. We were back on site well after midnight. I stayed up until around 4am engaging in various shenanigans and was still having fun but figured I should get to bed or else risk regretting it the next day.
Sunday, 10/9 - Larson Well
I was up at 9 and just barely made it over for the pre-paid breakfast before they shut down for the morning. I honestly felt pretty refreshed and ready for a hard day of caving. The night before there was some discussion about Elmo’s Canyon and I was hoping I could convince Alex to lead a trip there. However, he had plans to lead a trip to Larson Well and he was already joking around at bailing out on that trip as it was. Larson Well was described as a perfect Sunday-after-TAG level of cave trip, and I was happy to settle for it. It was Alex’s first really big pit he ever bounced and he was curious to revisit it to see how much smaller it would seem now that he’s done so many larger ones.
We packed up our campsites, and drove off site before 11am. The Kentucky cavers from the previous day managed to wake up in time for Gustavo’s trip to Ellison’s so the crew was Alex, Riley, Carson, and Christian Green. We stopped for some food and I began to feel the drag of yesterday’s shenanigans on my brain. We drove into the cove passing Russell Cave National Monument and reached the parking area around 1:30. Alex rigged the 160’ entrance pit with a deviation and we started making our way down around 2pm.
The second pit is a wet 60’ but we didn’t get drenched. The passage beyond follows a narrow canyon and passes two short climb downs. A handline was rigged for one and we practiced body rappelling which is just as awkward as I remember. The cave ends in a decent sized room. We poked around briefly then sat around and chatted a bit before making our way out. We drove over to El Toril in Kimball for an early dinner which had me feeling fully recharged. There was discussion of heading to Cagle’s Chasm afterward, but I had already made plans to drive over to Gerald Moni’s house for the evening and spend some time with him and Justin Huffman. Had these plans emerged earlier, I definitely would have been on board.
I made it to Gerald’s around 7pm and Justin stopped by for a couple hours. It was good to get to see Gerald since I didn’t wind up crossing paths with him at all during TAG. He told me about how the echoes from the dynamite blasts opening up Larson Well back in the day could be heard all around the cove. We enjoyed a nice breakfast the next morning before I started the long (but not quite as long) drive home to Kansas.
TAG was a blast. Going in without a plan is a bit outside of my comfort zone but it seemed to work pretty great. Now living so far away in Kansas, It’s nice to have a good excuse to make the long drive and reunite with so many friends in this strange community we have. I will definitely plan to be there again next year.