Original explorers of Walker County’s Fantastic Pit look back on historic ‘first drop’

Contributed Photo / Caver and Rising Fawn, Georgia, resident Jim Wilbanks descends into Ellison's Cave's Fantastic Pit in the late 1960s.
Contributed Photo / Caver and Rising Fawn, Georgia, resident Jim Wilbanks descends into Ellison's Cave's Fantastic Pit in the late 1960s.


The Agony is what Jim Wilbanks calls an ear dipper -- an underground passage so filled with water that cavers must keep one ear submerged as they move along.

After that difficult 1,000-foot squeeze inside Pigeon Mountain's Ellison's Cave, the passage opened up into a new discovery and a lifetime of caving experiences for many of the college-aged cavers on that historic first trip in 1968.

That new discovery after The Agony was the Fantastic Pit. At nearly 600 feet, it's known as the deepest freefall pit in the contiguous United States.

"It was the biggest," Wilbanks said in a phone call about Richard Schreiber's discovery. "It was what we had been looking for for years. Richard found it because it was a really dry fall, and he pushed a stream crawl that no one else would."

Walker County residents had known about Ellison's Cave on Pigeon Mountain since the late 1800s, but those 1968 explorers used a combination of leadership, advances in technology, teamwork and determination to push further into its depths and explore one of the nation's most storied caves.

The feat of skill and daring was revisited earlier this summer in LaFayette as the cavers -- most now in their 70s -- gathered for interviews to be included in the re-issuing of a self-published book about the cave and its early exploration.

And in July, Ellison's Cave's Fantastic Pit was featured on the cover of National Geographic under the headline "Chasing the Unknown."

  photo  Contributed Photo / Photographed July 19, Diane Cousineau stands near Walker County's Pettyjohn Cave.
 
 

 

EARLY EXPLORERS

"We were just kids," Diane Cousineau said of her college-aged group of cavers who were assembled for that expedition at Ellison's Cave. "We were going to live forever."

Cousineau and her friends went caving every weekend back in the late 1960s -- but they all knew this trip was different, she said in a phone call. The trip's organizer, Schreiber, was a few years older than Cousineau and most of her caver friends, and he often took the role as leader and mentor.

"We had a historic cave that ostensibly didn't go very far, and suddenly it opens up," Cousineau said of Ellison's Cave.

As the magazine cover says, the LaFayette, Georgia, resident said they were indeed chasing the unknown. Not every tight crawl leads to a new discovery, she said. Sometimes cavers will have to back out. That's part of exploration -- you don't always know where you're going, Cousineau said.

(READ MORE: Cool cave facts and what to know before going underground)

Even though people living nearby often knew about caves in the area, they could only go so far, Cousineau, 75, said. Once it got tight and wet, they'd simply turn around, she said.

Advanced descending and ascending equipment allowed cavers in the late 1960s to go deeper and make new discoveries, Cousineau said. Mapping also helped gauge how water and caverns ran underground and connected with other caves, she said.

Also, the college-aged cavers had a camaraderie and youthful spirit that drove them further, Cousineau said.

 

SIX-SECOND PIT

Schreiber and fellow explorer Della McGuffin were the first to find the Fantastic Pit at Ellison's Cave. Schreiber, who died in 1990, would often do ridge walks and question locals in the quest for new caves, Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks had been all over North America caving with Schreiber, so when Schreiber asked him to save a date, he agreed, he said. Schreiber was assembling a team to do the first drop into the Fantastic Pit, but he wouldn't give Wilbanks any details at the time about what he was planning

Eventually, Schreiber relented when Wilbanks visited his mentor in person.

Schreiber told Wilbanks that he found a six-second pit -- a pit that takes six seconds for a rock to hit bottom. Because a rock falls about a 100 feet a second, cavers are able to estimate a pit's depth, but they wouldn't know for sure until they were able to do a more in-depth survey.

"For cavers, it's all about finding virgin caves," said Wilbanks, a Rising Fawn, Georgia resident. "That's it, that's your goal. Find someplace nobody else has been."

Despite the six-second estimate, Schreiber's expedition borrowed an 800-foot rope just in case.

The half-inch rope filled an entire military duffel bag, Wilbanks said, and weighed about 60 or 70 pounds. It was Wilbanks' job to drag the rope through the stream crawl to the Fantastic Pit.

The stream crawl was about 16 inches high with 8 inches of water in it, Wilbanks said, with softball-sized cobblestones along the bottom. He went first with the bag of rope, and a friend, David Stidham, followed, helping by pushing it through, Wilbanks said.

"The rope was dragging top and bottom," he said. "David would get behind and push, and big wall of water would come, and I'd hold my breath until I got air again."

The passage had to be done on their bellies, Wilbanks said, though occasionally they could get up on their side.

About a dozen people were divided into two teams, and Wilbanks said they only had cotton clothes and usually only carbide lamps. Since caves are chilly year round, there was nothing worse than waiting to climb a rope in wet cotton clothes, he said.

The lamps contain calcium carbide, a chemical compound that looks like grey gravel, he said. When the lamp drips water on the mineral, it creates a gas that's forced through a nozzle and set alight.

A baby bottle full of calcium carbide will burn for about twelve hours, he said.

Wilbanks was able to source an electric light for the first drop, because as soon as a climber goes over the lip into the Fantastic Pit, they're descending through a waterfall, he said. Later, another access point was found for the pit, he said, allowing cavers to set their ropes higher along the pit.

The cavers had to develop new equipment and rope techniques for those deeper pits, and some of those techniques are still being used today, Wilbanks said.

(READ MORE: 12 popular caves in the Chattanooga area and a book to learn more)

At the bottom of the pit is 14 miles of cave, he said. The 1968 group explored the cave for six or seven hours on that first drop, Wilbanks said.

They put the first footprints ever in that part of the cave, and Wilbanks said it was a surreal experience. They moved fast on that first trip but later went back to do a closer survey. It's an incredible place, he said.

They were in areas so deep in the mountain, Wilbanks said, that it would take 36 hours to get back out. It was a feat of physical strength and technical ability that most people don't understand, he said.

"There's no walking in caves," Wilbanks said. "There's stepping over rocks, there's climbing up stuff and climbing down stuff. But there's no walking."

Beyond the dark and cold, caves are muddy and slick, he said. And in virgin caves, the surface is sometimes loose because it's never been walked upon, Wilbanks said.

Also, at that depth of the cave, he said grimly, if someone is injured, there's no chance of rescue.

  photo  Contributed Photo / Photographed July 19 near Pettyjohn Cave in Walker County, Diane Cousineau holds a form cavers are required to fill out before they begin their trip.
 
 

"A BIG DEAL"

When Wilbanks returned to the house where they were staying after climbing out of Ellison's Cave, he said there was a group of "caving luminaries" invited by Schreiber there. Later, a different group of people arrived to learn more about the first drop into Ellison's Cave. Schreiber also had to invite the person who lent them the 800-foot rope, Wilbanks said.

"It was a big deal, and he knew it, and everybody in the caving world knew it," Wilbanks said of the expedition led by Schreiber. "That's why there's a bronze plaque over the entrance dedicated to him."

Just two weeks after that first drop, diggers had already created a new cave entrance, allowing cavers to enter without having to do The Agony stream crawl, Wilbanks said. Some people still do the original stream crawl using that era's technology while carrying a rope, he said, to honor the original explorers' feat.

Along with some of his caving friends, caver Bill Steele visited a few months after the first descent into the Fantastic Pit to help with mapping.

Then 20, Steele is 74 now. After participating in expeditions all over the world throughout his adult life, he is still an active caver. Steele lives in Texas but is currently near the Bahamas on a cruise ship telling stories about caving to passengers, what he calls his retirement job.

After the descent into the Fantastic Pit, Schreiber and McGuffin took Steele and his friends through the cave, Steele said. The group traversed along high canyons and newly-named cave features like Hall for the Giants, Bloody Crawl and Angel's Paradise.

In a written passage for the republishing of Ellison's Cave book, Steele said Angel's Paradise was like nothing anyone had seen before: a room completely adorned in white and clear crystals, some a foot long. They moved along slowly through that passage, he said, to enjoy and to preserve the spectacle, stepping only in the first set of footprints made just recently by its discoverers.

"They were proud to show us all they had found," Steele said of Schreiber and McGuffin.

Schreiber was the first person to tell Steele about Sistema Huautla in Southern Mexico, a cave Schreiber said had the potential to be the world's deepest. Steele said he's been exploring that cave regularly since the 1970s and was there just a few months ago.

The significance of Ellison's Cave for Steele is that it helped him increase his skill level to do deep pits, he said.

The Chattanooga area is one of the centers of caving in the United States, Steele said. Anytime he hears someone being considered for an expedition is from this area, it's a real plus and means they know what they're doing as a caver, Steele said.

When Steele was a child, he had a big interest in rocks, he said. When he went into his first cave at 4 years old, which was Fairyland Caverns at Rock City, family lore said his love of caving started.

"I said, 'My God, I'm inside a rock,'" Steele said. "Caves are great, and I never let it go."

THE GOLDEN AGE

Along with Steele and Cousineau, Wilbanks also attended the meeting of the cave's early explorers in LaFayette, he said.

"The Exploration & Survey of Ellison's Cave" was self-published by Marion Smith, and caver Mike Fischesser is expanding it with new interviews and photographs for a new printing.

Smith died about a year ago, Steele said.

Returning to Ellison's Cave, the group followed the cave to the top of the Warmup Pit, a smaller pit that precedes the Fantastic Pit, Wilbanks said.

During their visit, a rope was rigged at Warmup Pit, meaning someone was already down there, he said. Then a group from Florida came up the rope, completing a trip that started from an entrance on the other side of the mountain.

Another group from Mexico City was also there to traverse the pit, he said.

"This gives you an idea," Wilbanks said. "What we discovered, there are people coming from all over the world to do this cave system."

In the late 1970s, Cousineau was asked by a college student what it was like to be part of the golden age of caving. She said she doesn't feel old enough to be part of a golden age but acknowledged that some of what they accomplished back then is seen that way by the caving community.

(READ MORE: 10 awe-inspiring caves to visit in the U.S. One's not far from Chattanooga)

At the time, they didn't think anything of it, even though they were using less advanced equipment and there were fewer options if someone was injured, Cousineau said.

Since then, she said, local cavers have started a nonprofit called the Southeastern Cave Conservancy that protects and manages more than 170 caves, with the majority of those in the Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia convergence area.

"Who gets the chance to buy all their favorite childhood places? This is just incredible we get to do this and all kinds of other things," Cousineau said.

Most cities have a caving club -- called a grotto -- and she said they offer classes and often host caving trips if anyone wants to learn about caving safely.

Some of the original explorers moved to the area after that first drop into the Fantastic Pit, she said, and helped establish a cave and cliff rescue team in Walker County. Cousineau has since retired from the team after 30 years of service, she said.

Also, Cousineau and her husband started a company called Pigeon Mountain Industries that sells rope and rescue, caving and climbing equipment.

Like anything and caves themselves, once you step into something new, many new channels can open up, she said.

NEXT ADVENTURES

Caves form in limestone, a sedimentary rock that can be dissolved by water over time, Wilbanks said. While the Rocky and Smoky mountains are made out of granite, he said those mountains sometimes have isolated pockets of sedimentary rock pushed up where caves can be found.

But the central third of Tennessee -- the Cumberland Plateau -- has more caves than any other place in the United States, he said, and more are still being found. Ten years ago, there were 6,000 known caves in Tennessee, he said, and today there are 12,000 Tennessee caves documented.

There might be fewer blank spaces on the map, but Wilbanks said there's an infinite variety of caves, and some of them are significant. Cousineau also agrees there are still more caves to be found and plenty available now to explore.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.


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