While out hiking, we spotted a sink, which is pretty common in this area of Alabama and of course as cavers we tend to check it out. It was up a steep section of hill, and Brian was the one who went to check it out. It was a hole!
So we came back with gear. Brian, Brandi, Ben and I set out to survey this (hopefully!) new cave. In Alabama, caves have to be at least 50 feet to qualify. It is interesting how each state survey has its own arbitrary number. I am glad the Alabama Cave Survey has started keeping a database of so-called "Karst Features" which is anything that does not qualify, so at least there are records. Although frankly, my preferred method would be to include everything into the same database.
We hoped this would be a "Proper Qualifying Cave" but wouldn't know until we went down. After rigging to a convenient tree, I was first on rope to descend. Since I was the only one checking it out, I went in unmasked; although our crew is very safety-conscious and that includes being careful in this current pandemic.
Being the first into a new hole in the ground requires a bit of extra awareness. The edge isn't free of debris or loose rock. The boulders overhead hanging down may not be stable. It took me a good five minutes to get the edge cleared off to not let go of stones as I continued, and I deployed the rope as I went, to prevent it from getting cut by falling rock. There were two boulders that seemed to be hanging in the air that I had to duck under, and so I tested them from the top first, seeing if they were at risk to fall or perhaps held up by things I couldn't see yet, or were well frictioned into place. Luckily, they were. So I ducked in.
Once properly into the hole it was obvious it continued! I hollered up to the surface this finding, but continued on my own to scope it out. Right now, I was not sure how stable this rocky slide was. So I stayed on rope and carefully made my way down the cobble, quite aware some were rolling out from under my feet. I heard a bit of water which is always a fun sign. I got to a few larger boulders that seemed to be holding this slippery slide of cobble up and peered over the edge (still attached to the rope), and saw a second drop with water!
At this point, I knew I needed another rope pad, and this was clearly worth exploring further and mapping. I knew two safe places to be off rope so I could get someone else into the cave to start surveying. I went back up to the top, got more safety gear and Ben volunteered to come down and help. My favourite part of the survey is keeping book and sketching, plus I have experience finding good survey stations. Ben took the Disto X2 in hand and followed me in. A disto is a great piece of survey kit, highly accurate, and easy to use. No more peering though sights trying to line everything up within +/- 2 degrees, now, we go for +/- 0.5 or better. We can average multiple shots with ease, so unless you really want a super-duper-beyond-all-tenth-a-degree-of-doubt survey, we just take multiple forward sights to make sure there was no error with a shot, and move on. This makes surveying a lot faster AND a lot more accurate than older manual methods. We can also pick stations off of good positioning, rather than the need to see past them to the next, which opens up a lot of opportunities and also can increase accuracy further.
I found my first 'safe zone' to be off rope, ducked under some boulders to the side of the first drop, and Ben did some shots and then followed me in.
Once down, Ben ducked into my spot and I went back on rope to continue to the next 'safe zone'. I knew I could get around to the far side of the second drop to stable ground, where I could come off rope and find a good station to set up for shooting the second drop. On my way I set the rope pad so it was all ready, and checked to make sure the rope would make it to the bottom. Good to go, I went to a stable alcove and got off rope. With the next legs of the survey acquired, Brandi joined us as we had enough space to stage three people.
Caught up on the sketching, my next task was to get down the second drop. As I started to descend it became clear there was more loose cobble than I thought around the top, and pulled the rope up to prevent it from being damaged from anything falling on it. There was a bit of an edge that they were falling from, so I cleared it, re-deployed the rope, and continued on. It opened up into a nice freehang space of proper limestone. Above near the entrance had just been mudstone walls with a bit of sandstone cobble. But the cave had made it into a stable very fossil-filled layer of limestone.
I set up a station at the bottom to shoot to and got off rope. The top of the drop was a bit drippy and cold, so Brandi was second down to get out of the waterdrops. Ben got the survey shots and I kept on sketching, then he joined us at the bottom.
Sadly the cave did not continue, but it was a proper cave, at a bit over 75ft of surveyed length. We all climbed back out, happy to add a new cave to the database.
Brian we found out, had been hanging out with a redtail hawk the whole time! It liked it's perches in the area, kept stretching and preening while watching the squirrels skitter around in the leaves. He managed to take this picture on his cell phone, just walking up to it!
Hence the name of the cave...between the slippery slope of cobble and mud and a very friendly hawk, we went with the name Friendly Raptor Slide.