The cavers have already come 300 yards along a wet passageway that leads into Pigeon Mountain. They’re now well into Ellison’s Cave and abseiling down the 125-foot deep Warm Up Pit. Next, the group crosses a perilous natural stone bridge and accomplishes a short climb. Now they’re in a small chamber known as the Attic. Below them stretches the awesome Fantastic Pit, descending into the pitch black. It’s their next challenge, highly dangerous and potentially deadly.
Pigeon Mountain, the feature that sits astride the 12-mile complex of tunnels and bottomless pits that make up Ellison’s Cave. And it towers 2,330 feet above northern Georgia’s Walker County. The peak sits mostly inside the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area which covers more than 20,000 acres of natural beauty and teems with wildlife.
Sadly, although the area around Pigeon Mountain is home to everything from turkey and quail to rabbit and deer, the species that gave its name to the peak has long been extinct. The last Passenger Pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. At one time, however, huge flocks of this bird could be seen throughout the northern U.S. And, of course, large numbers roosted in the area up until the 19th century. Once, there may have been as many as five billion of them before they were hunted to extinction.
As for Ellison’s Cave, the origins of its title remain murky. It’s believed that it may have been named for one of the families who lived on Pigeon Mountain’s slopes up until the 1930s. That community dispersed that decade after the local water table greatly diminished. In fact, it has never recovered to its former levels.
Ellison’s Cave is best known for the deep pits that perforate Pigeon Mountain’s limestone and gypsum rock. These shafts attract the strangely named spelunkers, or cave exploration enthusiasts. As well as Fantastic Pit, the deepest, and Warm Up Pit, the shallowest, there is also Incredible which has a depth of 440 feet. The word spelunker, by the way, is explained easily enough.
Spelunca is Latin for cave.
As well as Ellison’s Cave, Pigeon Mountain also hosts another underground labyrinth popular with spelunkers. Petty John’s Cave, at its deepest point reaches 235 feet, and the complex extends for around six miles. But that’s only about half the length of Ellison’s tunnels and chambers. And by further contrast, the deepest reach of Ellison’s is 1,063 feet.
But for serious cavers, the attractions of Ellison’s far outstrip those of Petty John’s. And the main features that get dedicated spelunkers excited about the former cave are the bottomless pits. They’re not genuinely infinite, of course, but some of them are extremely deep. As we mentioned, the deepest is Fantastic, followed by Smokey I and then Incredible.
We’ll come back to the rigors – and genuine perils – of descending into Fantastic in a moment, But first, let’s look in more detail at how you get to it. We’ve seen that you first have to make your way into the mountain via Ellison’s mouth which leads into a passageway. However, there’s a stage before that – getting up the mountain to the cave entrance.
Most people heading for Ellison’s Cave make a start from Blue Hole, a spring-fed pond at the bottom of the mountain. The water in the pool is pristine and clear, but it’s also quite cold. Nevertheless, there are those who are happy to take a dip in the icy water which comes from within the peak.
There’s parking and a campsite at Blue Hole and that makes it a good place for an early morning start after a night under canvas. To get to the Ellison’s Cave entrance, spelunkers face a climb up the flank of the mountain. The hike is around a mile long and rises about 1,000 feet. While that doesn’t sound too bad, carrying all the gear you need for serious caving makes it a reasonably arduous 40-minute hike.
Starting from the cave entrance, there’s a passageway that runs for around 300 yards. Its floor is wet thanks to the stream that runs along it, so waterproof boots are a must. In fact, you’ll encounter plenty of water in Ellison’s Cave, especially if there’s been recent rain, so decent waterproof gear is highly advisable.
Once you come to the end of that first passage and climb a short rock face, you’ll find the first of the Ellison’s Cave pits. This one is called Warm Up Pit and the name is descriptive since it’s a relatively shallow drop compared to the much larger ones further into the cave. Even so, at 125 feet deep, it requires some technical expertise.
If it’s been raining before you reach the top of Warm up Pit, the noise of the rushing water falling down from the stream in the first passage can be very loud. Once you’ve descended on ropes, you’re at the bottom of the pit. From here, you’ll cross a rocky bridge with somewhat alarming chasms at each side. You’ll definitely want to be roped up for this.
Once you’ve crossed the rock bridge, there’s a 20-foot climb that will take you to a ledge. Then there’s a precipitous drop to the side, so, again, you’ll want to traverse this with care. After you’ve completed that, you’ll find yourself in a chamber known as the Attic. It’s quite cramped in there, and will soon be quite full once all your buddies arrive.
What you’ll also quickly notice about the Attic is that most of the floor is simply not there. Instead, you’re faced with the yawning maw of Fantastic Pit. This shaft earns its name by extending 586 feet down, making it the deepest of its kind in the continental U.S. Of course, traversing this feature is a real challenge, even for the most experienced of spelunkers.
If you’ve ever peered through the windows of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, you’d have been looking across New York Harbor from a height of around 265 feet. That’s less than half the depth of Fantastic Pit. So it takes a particular kind of bravery to launch yourself into the darkness of a hole that deep. And, as we’ll see, those who do so without the right level of experience can end up in very serious difficulty.
You can get an idea of how deep Fantastic Pit is by dropping a rock down it from the top. Just make absolutely sure no one is descending ahead of you first! One caver who dropped a stone into the blackness described how they could actually hear the whooshing noise of it gathering speed as it descended through the air. There was an interval of seven or eight seconds before the projectile crashed into the bottom of the pit.
One man who has written about descending into the Fantastic Pit is Brian Killingbeck, who, at the time, was president of the Indiana University Spelunking Club. His vivid description was published on the Purdue Outing Club’s website back in 2002. He went into Ellison’s Cave with five other spelunkers, and his account makes for riveting reading.
Killingbeck wasn’t ashamed to admit the trepidation that he and his buddies felt. He wrote of Fantastic, “This pit scared the hell out of every one of us.” The club president went down after his friend Ryan had already started the descent. Before the caver went over the edge he “checked and double-checked everything.” Making sure all your kit is in order can be a matter of life or death.
After all the last-minute checks, Killingbeck finally edged over the rim of Fantastic and into the darkness. He described the moment, “Finally, I let myself out over the pit, detached my ascenders, unlooped my rack and began the long descent. I’ll admit this was pretty scary.” Now, there was nearly 600 feet of descent ahead of the caver.
Killingbeck then recorded how his arduous journey went, “I slowly descended the rope […]. I occasionally glanced to the side to reassure myself that there actually were walls to the pit and I wasn’t descending into nothingness. As I looked down everything was black all around me. All I could see was the rope […]. I took everything nice and slow.”
Eventually, after about 40 minutes, Killingbeck reached the bottom of Fantastic Pit. This was, unsurprisingly, a moment for elation. He wrote, “I descended the rest of the way and was done. Hell yeah, I completed the scariest and most dreaded part of the trip.” At the bottom was a chamber about 100 feet across. It led to a canyon actually open to the sky and some 600 feet in length.
Apart from taking some photographs of the awesome pit, now all Killingbeck and his buddies had to do was to get back up to the top of Fantastic. That would be no mean feat. As the club president described it, “It was pretty damn tough. I had to break quite a few times and my heart rate was high the whole way up. […] Finally, I came to the top and slowly got myself off rope with Ryan’s help. Don’t want to make any mistakes there.”
Once Killingbeck and his fellow cavers got out of Ellison’s Cave, they made their way back to the Blue Hole pool. Two of the party then decided it was time for a dip. He wrote, “I walked over and found that the cool thing to do was to skinny dip and totally submerge yourself in the 50 degree cave water. […] I lunged into the water, submerged, and came up flinging my head back and forth. It was refreshing!”
Another who has written about descending down Fantastic Pit is software engineer and spelunker Ryan Rodd. He recounted his experience on his blog, ryanrodd.com, in 2011. And his description is definitely dramatic. “After checking, double checking and redouble checking my gear,” he said, “it was time to swing off the rock ledge and over the pit in one all-or-nothing move.”
Rodd continued, “The descent was breathtaking. Despite the mist and humidity, there is no denying how vast and deep this pit is ‒ imagine a spider hanging by a strand of web in the middle of an elevator shaft. […] At the bottom, for the last 100 feet of the repel, the water from the fall bows out into a fine spray, and whips up an intense wind laced with a thick mist ‒ a veritable Nor-Easter inside the cave.”
As we’ve seen, the descent down Fantastic Pit, followed by the subsequent return journey, is certainly not for the fainthearted. It’s also not for anyone except highly experienced cavers who have all the right equipment and know how to use it. And it is emphatically not an expedition for beginners.
Indeed, over the years a number of cavers have had to be rescued from Ellison’s Cave. And, sadly, there have also been fatalities. In 1999, one unfortunate spelunker became inextricably entangled in his own ropes while ascending Fantastic. His position, 140 feet from the bottom of the pit, left him in a torrent of icy water resulting in his death from hypothermia.
Over a decade later, in February 2011, two students from the University of Florida got into trouble in Warm Up Pit. This incident happened just a week after Ryan Rodd made his descent into Fantastic, which we mentioned earlier. The two students were Grant Lockenbach, aged 20 and Michael Pirie, 18. And Rodd actually took part in the rescue.
Rodd helped to carry one of the stricken cavers out of the final section of Ellison’s, the passageway that leads to the entrance. As he points out, this was a relatively minor contribution to the rescue effort. He wrote on his blog, “Eighty people inside Ellison’s worked 14 hours for this moment… Pulling this injured soul from the dark, inaccessible confines of the Earth and into the free and open world. We just show up and that gets to be our job.”
Sadly, the best efforts of the rescuers were to no avail. Both Lockenbach and Pirie died in the cave. Like the unfortunate spelunker in 1999, hypothermia took them both. It seems that the pair had separated from the ten-strong party they entered the cave with. And that’s when they got into difficulties. Lockenbach dropped a bag and went back to get it. He became tangled in his ropes, however, and was trapped beneath a waterfall.
Lockenbach called on his buddy for help. Pirie then followed him down the same rope to give aid. But now both of them became entrapped. Some of the friends they’d split off from apparently heard their cries for help, but these gradually faded away as cold water poured on to the unfortunate duo.
What’s more, the pair were not properly attired for spelunking in the potentially inhospitable environment of Ellison’s Cave. Speaking to British newspaper the
Daily Mail, Steve Wilson, Walker County Sherriff, said, “They were only dressed in T-shirts and jogging shorts and certainly were not dressed appropriately for going in a cave.” He continued, “It is not a place for inexperienced cavers.” And there were others who added their own admonitions.
One of those admonitions came from the Emergency Management Director of Walker County, David Ashburn. He told the paper, “Caving is something very serious. Hypothermia can happen in the middle of summer.” Ashburn went on, “When the temperature is 56 degrees in the cave, you can become hypothermic in July and die. It was a bad decision to go there as it was well above their skill level.”
Rodd also wrote about the inadvisability of tackling the pit without the right experience and gear. “Ellison’s is not a beginner’s cave, in fact, it is the exact opposite. It is a cave experienced climbers work towards doing. It is vitally important that if you are planning a trip to Ellison’s, not only should you dress appropriately, but you should have plenty of experience and know the finer points of single-rope-technique.”
Another caver, 54-year-old Dwight Kempf, came to grief in Ellison’s in May 2013. Along with a group of experienced spelunkers, Kempf had successfully descended into the Fantastic Pit. But while exploring the caves at the bottom, he took a fall of some 60 feet and was badly wounded. His injuries included a fractured skull and a broken femur and ribs.
During the rescue, and 80-strong team took more than 20 hours to haul Kempf out of Ellison’s Cave. Of course, the rescue had to include getting him back up the 586 feet of Fantastic Pit, an awesome feat indeed. The spelunker also had to be given a blood transfusion while in the pit. But despite his harrowing injuries, he survived this ordeal.
Kempf’s accident serves to emphasize how dangerous exploring Ellison’s cave can be. As his wife, Jill, pointed out in reports of the incident, he was an experienced caver, and was with a team of seasoned spelunkers. Yet that unlucky incident nearly cost him his life. Only the determination and endurance of the rescue team saved him.
Yet another difficult rescue was called for in March 2016. This time two cavers, both students, had successfully made their way down Warm Up Pit and Fantastic Pit. Once at the bottom of Fantastic, they explored for a time before starting their ascent back up through the shaft. That was when trouble struck.
The pair started their ascent up Fantastic. But one of the men then encountered a problem. The 22-year old studying at Alabama’s Auburn University found that he was just too physically drained to continue. Speaking to the
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Bob Lewis, Chief of Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue, said, “He just realized there was no way he was going to get out of there on his own.” Fortunately, the rescue team was able to get both men out of the cave safe and sound.
And once again, it seems that the two cavers really didn’t have enough experience to be tackling Ellison’s Cave. Lewis said, “It was all a little more than they could do and they were a little inexperienced. They were just very lucky.” So the warning is clear. Unless you’re an experienced spelunker, stay away from Ellison’s Cave.