Trip ReportTrip Date: Oct 07 2023
TAG Fall Cave-In 2023: Ellison's Incredible>Fantastic Crossover Trip & Flowing Stone
A bucket list Ellison’s crossover trip from Incredible to Fantastic touring all the nicest formation areas of the cave, a pit bounce at Flowing Stone Cave, and fun at The Gauntlet ropes course
I started my drive from Kansas City at 5:30am on Thursday toward my second TAG Fall Cave-In. At sunrise, rain started to pour down which continued heavily until I passed over St. Louis. At one point, a tidal wave of splashing water from passing semi trucks heading in the other direction suddenly reduced my visibility to zero for 5 seconds. Thankfully I had not collided with anyone by the time I could see again! The rain continued to come down until I passed Nashville.
I arrived at registration around 5:30pm and quickly spotted Ashley Adkins-Irons who had already established a nice perimeter for our group’s camp. After dinner, I wandered over to the Howdy Party briefly to see if I could find Justin Huffman who I had planned on carpooling with for the next day’s trip but wasn’t able to. I figured I’d just find him in the morning and headed to bed early sometime around 9pm.
Friday: Ellison's Cave System - Crossover Trip
I woke up at 5:15am, which in hindsight was much earlier than needed. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be too rushed to get ready in the morning and accidentally forget something. I also needed to find Justin. It was a very odd feeling stepping out of my car in the darkness so early. It seemed like I might be the only person awake in the entire TAG site. I tried my best to quietly eat my breakfast and get dressed, then hiked a big loop around campus in the stillness of night. I realized that finding Justin was going to be practically impossible (there is no cell service), and returned to camp. After killing some time and wishing I had slept in a little longer, I went ahead and started my drive toward Pigeon Mountain.
Once I got service, I got confirmation that Justin would be meeting us at the parking area. He ultimately got tied up at work late and was running on around 4 hours of sleep. I was first to arrive at the empty Blue Hole parking area just before 7am, still in complete darkness. Justin arrived shortly after. Gustavo Bautista, Ben Urbanski, Anastasiya Razumovska, and Felipe Barscevicius pulled in, some of which having been tricked by the unstable time zone of the TAG region. We were still waiting on one other person who would be leading a team consisting of myself, Justin, and Ben through the Incredible side. Eventually it became evident that this person had bailed on us... and I wondered if the crossover would still be happening.
Some brief history: The Ellison’s Cave System was worked heavily in the late 1960’s. Fantastic Pit was first discovered and descended in the fall of 1968. It remains the deepest pit in the lower 48 at 586’, and is likely the deepest free-hanging pit in the entire country. The original explorers quickly pushed the cave upstream and discovered “Incredible Dome,” but it wasn’t until the next year that “Incredible Pit” (440’) was descended and confirmed to be one and the same. A few weeks later during the 4th of July weekend in 1969, the first crossover trip was done with teams descending from both sides, meeting somewhere in the middle, and climbing out the opposing pits. Bill Steele recounts some of this history in his interview featured in this year’s guidebook.
Gustavo was determined to make the crossover trip work, and quickly improvised a solution. Justin had already visited the Stairstep Entrance leading to Incredible Pit multiple times. He actually helped Lee White rig the alpine route down Incredible Pit consisting of 10 rebelays back in 2019. Gustavo provided Justin the ropes and carabiners needed, and tasked him with rigging the Stairstep Entrance pit series. Meanwhile, he and Ben would run up the mountain and rig Fantastic Pit. Roger and Brittany Marmol were (conveniently) already leading a separate official TAG trip to the Stairstep Entrance to the top of Incredible later that morning. They would eventually catch up with us and agreed to derig Incredible for us. After rigging Fantastic, Gustavo and Ben would drive over to the other entrance, catch up with us, and then we’d be fully set for doing a crossover trip together as a single group. Then after the trip was over, a couple of us would hike up and over the mountain back to the Stairstep Entrance parking area back to our cars.
Despite being about a mile and a half away from Blue Hole as the crow flies, the drive over to the parking area for the Stairstep Entrance is 35 minutes, winding through steep switchbacks up to the top of Pigeon Mountain. By the time we were parked and prepared to head downhill to the cave, it was 8:45am. After a quick half mile hike downhill to the cave, Justin got to work rigging the 97’ entrance pit. Some light rainfall started to come down and we were able to take shelter among the large boulders. After some brief deliberation, a lead-in line was tied to a natural anchor along the right wall leading down to a single-bolt standing rebelay, followed by one additional single-bolt rebelay. Roger and Brittany Marmol had already caught up with us before I dropped the pit at 10am.
The entrance hall beyond the entrance pit is an enormous passage around 100’ tall. It eventually reaches some crawlways that lead to Second Step Pit (83’). Justin rigged the pit and we had all descended by 10:30am. At the far end of the room at the bottom, an impressive display of large chunky crystals were seen up on the right wall just above the hole in the floor where the passage continues. The gravely stream crawl beyond, called “The Misery,” was probably a lot more difficult in the 1960’s. On our trip, it was a nice comfortable crawlway. Even with the rain outside, the stream heading over to Incredible Pit was negligible thanks to the especially dry year we’ve had. I’m sure in the wet season it’s probably difficult to hear one another here. Justin rigged a lead-in line along the final stream crawl over to the pit, along with a double-bolt rebelay to keep us out of the trickling waterfall.
After Justin and Felipe, Anastasiya got on rope at 11:15am and had some trouble beginning her rappel past the rebelay. During that time, Gustavo and Ben caught up with us after rigging the Fantastic side. I was finally on rope at 11:40am and began my rappel. I went down the pit on 5 bars and still had to feed the rope the majority of the time. I had never dropped down to 4 bars before and wasn’t sure if it was safe, but in hindsight I wish I had. By around 12:30pm, all of us were at the bottom. What is usually a swirling waterfall engulfing the room in a crashing mist, was a 12’ wide sprinkling of water which allowed us to comfortably take lots of pictures all around the room and remain completely dry. You could see evidence of the floor flooding up several feet along the walls. Headlamps were placed around the room to light up the pit nicely. It was a very cool experience to be able to appreciate the beauty of the pit continuously with the clarity that you would usually only achieve with flash photography.
After our photoshoot we began the trek downstream, which began in a series of corkscrewing climbups known as the Devil’s Trapdoor Climb up near the East Balcony of Incredible Pit. The passages at the lower-top level in which we continued were very highly decorated with gypsum. We passed a short climbup rigged with a handline into some nice passage where the fault line running through the cave could clearly be seen for the first time. We continued through mostly walking and stooping passage walled with gypsum crust and crystals. One section contained thin bands of gypsum on a black rock that radiated down like lightning bolts. Approaching the White Room we saw a series of white stalactites with a red ribbon/stalactite in the middle of it. We also passed a very impressive wall of pointed spar crystals. We were trying to figure out if “The Carbide Dumps” actually featured piles of spent carbide or if they were just named for the piles of gypsum snow.
Eventually we reached a very nice section of passage that led into Gnome Creamery around 1:30pm. We stepped over large breakdown boulders leading uphill toward a saddle of white creamy mud running parallel to the passage. At the top of this saddle, the mud takes an interesting shape and texture reminiscent of popcorn/helectites. An obscure rabbit hole nearby leads down into one of the highlight features of the cave. Angel’s Paradise is a highly delicate area containing one of the most impressive displays of gypsum flowers I have ever seen. In the upper portion, the left wall was coated in small and medium sized flowers. We spotted a lone tricolored bat hanging near the top of the gypsum-covered wall. The lower level was visited by two people at a time to avoid crowding in the delicate area. A window back to the upper portion made for a great photo looking down from above. In the lower area was a sea of gypsum. Delicate strands folded out in different directions from the floor, some needle-thin, and others several inches wide. It was truly quite a spectacle.
After everyone got their photos, we continued eastward up a climb into more large borehole passage. A few minutes later, we reached the North Pole where the iconic translucent icicle stalactites can be seen. This was the main destination for my first trip to the cave back in 2022. We had a quick photoshoot experimenting with different lighting before continuing on. The passage between these features is very complex with multiple levels. But in less than 10 minutes, we arrived in the area I had most been looking forward to and had failed in finding on our last trip, the South Pole. Here at the bottom of a gypsum crusted wall, a large gypsum chandelier has formed and dangles out over the passage. We got some really excellent pictures here, spending only a few minutes tinkering with the lighting. The chandelier also looked pretty spectacular when a bright light was held closely behind it, with dark orange hues shining through its translucent crystalline structure.
We dropped down to a lower level again into some meandering dry canyons which I recognized from my previous trip. At 2:45pm we popped over into the 240’-tall Snowball Dome just to take a peek at it before arriving at The Stream Junction at 3pm to take a break. After a short crawling section, we took turns passing packs up the short handline-assisted climbup and arrived at TAG Hall. This passage is intermittently hundreds of feet tall and contains the landing area for Smokey 1 Pit (500’), Fantastic Pit, and a number of other pits and/or rig points many hundreds of feet above. The echoey reverb in this hall carries for longer than anywhere else I have experienced. Many of us were hollering to hear our echoes and we began hearing some originating from up above. When we arrived at the bottom of Fantastic Pit, we saw another rope had been rigged down from the Balcony area, a 510’ rig point. There was practically no waterfall at all. Last year, we had to wait much further upstream in TAG Hall to avoid getting rained on. During our visit, we could all casually hang out right at the bottom of the pit and watch people on rope.
We all would be climbing tandem to the top. Felipe and Anastasiya climbed first around 3:45pm. Gustavo and Ben went next. It was pretty cool to see the two-way traffic of one team rappelling down and another tandem team climbing up. Justin and I decided we wanted to go for a speed run, so we clipped our bags to the bottom of the rope with our racks. Justin hopped on rope at 5:23pm and finished his climb in well under 17 minutes. I surprised myself and beat my record from last year by 10 minutes and finished my climb in 25:55.
Gustavo had Ben lead Felipe and Anastasiya out of the cave since Ben had gotten to learn got the route that morning helping Gustavo rig Fantastic. Gustavo, Justin, and myself stayed back to derig the pit. Despite Justin offering , Gustavo carried a soggy 600’ rope up the Warm-Up Pit (125’) and out of the cave. Climbing out of Warm-Up Pit wasn’t as brutal as I remember it being last time after climbing Fantastic. We were out of the cave around 7:15am, a 10-hour trip.
I could have gotten away with heading straight down the mountain to my car which was still parked at Blue Hole, but I had left my keys in Justin’s car back at the Stairstep Entrance parking area. So I (perhaps mistakenly) agreed to carry the 50lb soggy rope up along the hike with Justin and Gustavo. The hike would be a little over a mile, but would require climbing up several hundred feet of elevation up the mountain. There is no conveniently easy way to carry such a large rope, but we got started and pretty much hiked straight up. I had to take several breaks and moved at a snail’s pace, but eventually we reached the road and the terrain smoothed out (mostly) as the sun had fully set. I still could not keep up with Justin and Gustavo and the dense fog rolled in. They had told me earlier that the road we intersected would take us straight to the cars, but I started to worry that I might have crossed an intersection and accidentally taken a wrong turn. I hadn’t seen their headlights in awhile and shouted “yooo!!” a few times. When I finally heard a return call, it was so far away I couldn’t even tell if it was in line with the direction I was heading. I just kept trekking along and was eventually relieved to see headlights ahead in the distance. Justin drove me back to my car at Blue Hole and we stopped to take some photos of a very large Copperhead that was crossing the road.
I got back to camp just in time for taco night! We spent the next several hours gallivanting around TAG. Highlights included witnessing Alea easily push through 6.75” in the squeezebox face down and ultimately winning for her division, talking with Chad McCain briefly to hear more about his incident of being bit in the face by a copperhead at the bottom of Cagle’s Chasm, watching timid fans approach Rachel Saker to get to meet her in person, and finishing off at the Nashville Grotto tent around midnight before heading to bed. Michael Ketzner, Maggie Brosky, and the other youngins were the only ones from our camp who routinely partied until the later hours in the morning.
Saturday: Flowing Stone
We didn’t want to get started too late on Saturday so that we’d have plenty of time to hang around and try out the Gauntlet ropes course which I was too busy caving to participate in last year. I missed out on it last year and sort of regretted it, but I was just too busy caving all weekend.
As we packed up and were about to leave around 9am, I realized that I did not have my helmet. I spent the next hour or so on a wild goose chase. I tried checking in with people from the Ellison’s trip, looked into seeing if I could get a loaner helmet, and checked to see if it was turned in at registration. Negative. Ashley wound up buying a helmet, stating she was planning on getting a new one anyway. But I still wanted to check the parking area for Ellison’s to see if it was laying on the ground somewhere. I remembered setting the helmet on top of Justin’s car and having the light shine down as I changed after the trip.
We eventually just drove over to Blue Hole and looked around but didn’t see it. At least everyone got to see the Blue Hole, which is the resurgence of the water from the Ellison’s Cave System. The water was very still and you could see right into the submerged opening. I eventually realized that the helmet would have been near the other entrance to Ellison’s. At this point, I felt bad taking up any more of everyone’s time. We drove a couple minutes up the road for the parking to Flowing Stone, and Ashley was kind enough to let me borrow her car. So I drove 35 minutes around the mountain to the parking area for the Stairstep Entrance. It was a beautiful day out, and the mountain was full of visitors having picnics and hanging around. It was so full of people I thought that it was pretty likely that someone would have snatched it, but right as I made the final turn toward my destination, the roads were completely empty. And sure enough, I spotted the helmet sitting there on the side of the road, headlamp still on!
Finding my helmet did a lot to boost my spirits as I drove all the way back to the parking for Flowing Stone. I quickly got ready and started literally running toward the cave. I accidentally ran down into the huge quarry nearby thinking there would be a climbup somewhere; there wasn’t. So I backtracked a bit, hopped a fence, then started hustling up the mountain. I originally had prepared myself for missing out on the trip all together, but I somehow managed to catch up with everyone around 1pm before they had even rigged the pit!
Rigging the pit was quite an ordeal. Chris decided to have a go at it first, but wound up only rigging one of the two bolts for the rebelay. Ashley went in next, but ultimately decided to task someone else with the job. Alea went in and rigged the rebelay to both bolts and had me check it before dropping the pit. It was probably fine... but the angle was wider than 90 degrees, so I redid it one last time. All throughout these rigging shenanigans, Michael was taking a nap a few feet away from the pit. I was down at the bottom around 2pm
Flowing Stone Pit is 226’ and as one would expect from the name, highly decorated in flowstone. The bottom of the pit has lots of smooth pads where the water comes down, and the cave slopes down over large wide mounts of ribbed textured flowstone. Everything was fairly dry and sparkly on our visit, but I imagine the wet season wipes away all the footprints from the dry season pretty well. There was a nice little pocket of cave pearls I found, and we spotted a few salamanders. We spent some time setting up lights for a group photo before starting our climb out. I rigged a redirect I hadn’t noticed on the way down on the way up for everyone else to keep the rope further away from the wall.
We were out of the pit after 5pm, and back to the car closer to 6. Thankfully I had already taken the trip over to try to find my helmet, as we were barely going to make it back to camp in time to eat and head over to the evening festivities.
Chris heated up some Indian food and we quickly stuffed our faces before heading down to snag a spot in front of the big bonfire while the awards and prizes were given out. After participating in the mad rush to touch the bonfire, I headed back to camp to grab my vertical gear and try out the Gauntlet. In order to participate, you have to go through the skills checklist first and Ben Urbanski from our Ellison’s trip ran me through everything. Before doing it properly, I tried bottoming out on a J-hang on only my descender just to confirm my suspicion that one can successfully get out of it without the use of a QAS with a little bit of awkward muscling. After running through a proper J-hang, rebelay, tyrolean traverse, and guided rappel, I was planning on actually running the course through the next morning. However, Rachel was nearby and egged me on to run the course right then, and minutes later I found myself crawling into the entrance tube. The awards for best time had already been given out so I didn’t feel inclined to get soaking wet with the water features or carry along a pack with a melon which are both required for an “official” time on the course. I just ran through a “dry” run without a pack. That being said, the course was still pretty tough! I wasn’t sure I was even going to fit through the vertical tube you have to climb on rope through (that usually has a shower coming down on you). My shoulders were compressed at the sides and you just have to frog up a half inch at a time, which was especially difficult with my long legs. The best part was climbing way up in the tree above this vertical tube and doing a guided rappel (essentially a steep zipline using your descender to as friction on a parallel rope) all the way down to the end of the course. I finished in 55 minutes. Rachel actually set the course record for the weekend at around 24 minutes, though somehow the Gauntlet team had misplaced her time and didn’t find it until after the award was already given out!
We actually spent a couple more hours around the Gauntlet again in the morning before leaving. I wanted to see if I could get a better time but wound up getting completely mixed up on my J-hangs and just gave up halfway through the course as my body was feeling taxed from the weekend. I didn’t wind up getting in on any cave trips on Sunday and managed to get home at a very reasonable hour. It was another great weekend with friends and sadly the last TAG that will ever take place at this wonderful location where it has taken place for the past 20 years!