Trip ReportTrip Date: May 06 2023
SERA Cave Carnival 2023: Conley Hole, Wilkson Hollow Horror Hole & Sinking Cove
A truly magical reunion with friends at Caver’s Paradise and a 3-day cave trip lineup featuring a pit bounce on Friday, a more ambitious multidrop trip on Saturday, and a wet pulldown trip on Sunday.
Just wrapped up an incredible weekend back in Tennessee for the SERA Cave Carnival. It really all came together perfectly and the only downside was it coming to an end. After much deliberation and last minute changes, I wound up putting together a 3-day cave trip lineup: a pit bounce on Friday, a more ambitious multidrop trip on Saturday, and a wet pulldown trip on Sunday.
DAY 1: Conley Hole
I woke up at 3am Thursday morning, 2 hours ahead of my alarm clock and unable to go back to sleep with my mind racing about things I might have forgotten to pack. I eventually just got out of bed, cooked all my meals for the day, and got on the road around 5am. The commute from Kansas City to Caver’s Paradise is a little over 10 hours, but taking my time and making a few pit stops along the way took me around 12 hours. I checked in and Alea Moore directed me toward the spot she set up camp back in the woods. I spent the rest of the evening hanging around in the registration tent catching up with everyone.
The plan for Friday was to bounce Conley Hole, a very scenic 163’ beehive-shaped blind pit . Thany Mann informed me a few days prior to the event that the landowner situation had changed, but fortunately Thany himself lives less than a mile away from the cave and the hike from his property would not be that much more difficult to get there. Everyone else I planned on camping/caving with wouldn’t be arriving until Friday evening. Alea and I would try to recruit someone for the trip but would still be OK bouncing it with just the two of us. In the end, Justin Huffman and Matt Pelsor (a caver from Indiana and host of the caving podcast) decided to join in on the trip. Matt had actually visited the cave once before, but it would be a new one for the rest of us.
There was some rain in the forecast later in the afternoon so we all piled into Alea’s truck and made an early exit from camp at 9:30am. Matt informed me that he was bringing his recording equipment to document the trip and to see if he could get an interview out of us. I shied away from the idea but suggested he ask Justin about finding and exploring 500 new caves in a year. And for the rest of the drive over, Alea and I had the pleasure of sitting front row to a live podcast interview.
We arrived at Thany’s beautiful property and parked along the treeline. We hiked straight up the mountain and I struggled to keep up with Justin and Alea while carrying the rope. After gaining all of our elevation, we followed an old logging road straight to the pit, a 40-minute approach hike in total. Justin rigged the pit with a lead-in line to the most obvious tree. He used a webbing sling to keep the anchor point high above the lip. While he was rigging, I commented on the novelty of getting to go on a recreational caving trip with Justin and asked him how many he had been on. I assumed he’d be able to count the total with his fingers, but was still very surprised to learn that this was his *very first* sport trip!
Alea went down first, followed by Matt, myself, then Justin. While topside, I was happy to learn that Justin was interested in continuing the interview with Matt on the drive back to share some more about his caving projects. Some intermittent drizzling rain was coming down which meant unfortunately we wouldn’t be getting any epic sunbeams coming into the cave entrance despite being down there right at noon.
Conley Hole is an impressive pit. It bells out quickly in a beehive shape to a maximum of ~200’ in diameter. The natural light shining down into the entrance in combination with your headlamp allows you to easily see all the walls around you and take in the full scope of the enormous room. We spent a half hour walking around the perimeter taking photos and admiring the formations before making our way out. Part 2 of the podcast was even better, wrapping up with the genesis of Justin’s caving journey. His passion is both infectious and inspiring. It will be a great episode when it airs.
We got back to camp where the drizzling rain persisted but never came hard enough to spoil the party. Attempts were made to convince Gerald to be interviewed without success. More people started to roll into camp Friday evening. Fun times were had at Jody’s bar. Jody and I even had a few measly attempts at passing juggling clubs later on! I turned in early before the bulk of the shenanigans was to begin.
DAY 2: Wilkson Hollow Horror Hole
For Saturday, I really wanted to do a bigger trip. Going to the back of Blue Spring and a trip to Rawhide Horror Hole were both discussed as options, but ultimately we all agreed that we wanted to be back in time for the evening festivities around 6pm. In the end, Wilkson Hollow Horror Hole seemed like the perfect fit. I was confident that I could navigate us to the bottom of the cave and get us out in 6-8 hours without getting hopelessly lost. Ashley Adkins-Irons and Michael Ketzner would be joining Alea and I for this adventure.
We left camp in Alea’s truck around 10am and made the short drive over to Wilkson Hollow. We drove past dozens of old abandoned cars and heavy machinery and parked right at the treeline. I walked down to the old sawmill and found the cave register which was in surprisingly great shape and had dozens of entries dating back to 1991.
We started the hike up into the hollow just before 11am. I carried two packs, one containing Ashley’s 200’ rope. We tried to find and use the logging roads when we could, but half the time we just continued gaining elevation while bushwhacking and following old leaky water pipes. We arrived at the entrance at 11:15am which was still fairly dry.
The beginning of the cave involves a series of sporty climbdowns until a hole in breakdown lowers into a stream channel. An impressive dome to the right was raining down water. We headed downstream and continued along the route I had studied which was marked with cairns at significant junctions. We reached the lip of what had been described as a “scary climbdown” at 11:45. Fortunately, it had been suggested that we bring a 60’ rope to rig this climbdown, as it was indeed very scary and very well may have thwarted our plans had we not brought the extra rope. A single ceiling bolt allowed us to get down a nearly vertical breakdown slope safely into a 150’ wide and 100’ tall breakdown chamber which continued as borehole of similar size at the top of a far saddle.
We spent some time in this enormous passage taking photos. Halfway down, there is an impressive wall of formations featuring large while calcite flowstone draperies mixed in with helectites. The passage ends in the “plain of volcanos” [sic], a muddy area with a flowstone mound which made for another good photo op. I also explored a crawlway filled with helectites and a pool with a continuous fractured calcite raft on top of the water.
At 12:30, we climbed down into the breakdown to the horror hole, a 165’ pit where I would get my first opportunity at rigging an in-cave rebelay. There are 2 bolts to start with on a boulder at the top in a small void in the breakdown. I rigged the first rebelay on the single bolt ~20’ down, then another double bolt rebelay shortly after. Ashley had to lengthen the first rebelay in order to make it work, but fortunately the second rebelay could be done while standing on a ledge and didn’t require any further adjustment. The last ~100’ of the drop goes over a ledge to the bottom of the pit. Some rope pads were added as well. The rope bag wound up falling down to a lower level that we knew to avoid, but fortunately I was able to free climb down to it without issue to retrieve it on our way back.
At the bottom of the horror hole, we continued past some mud sculptures and over some flowstone. A newer route high in an exposed canyon with a perma-rigged traverse line allows one to bypass “Okeefenokee Swamp”. This wet passage contains waist deep mud (“neck-deep” by Gerald’s recollection) so it was nice to be able to stay dry using this new route. Beyond the traverse, a short decorated hallway leads to 4 bolts, only 2 of which we used to rig the 20’ pit which lands at the base of a flowstone mound just past the end of the swamp.
After a short hands and knees crawl and a climbdown, we arrived at the top of the final 99’ pit named “Bear Well”. There is a bolt for a lead-in line, a couple bolts on the right wall which allow for a free-hanging drop, and another far bolt for a redirect to stay out of the water which we did not use (there was very little water). Michael finished up the rigging and descended the pit at 2:30pm. Our landing area wasn’t quite at the bottom so I figured there must be a bypass climbdown. I started crawling around in the side passages while Alea and Ashley came down the pit. Michael and I eventually got to a dome room which overlooked the landing area which made for some cool photos, but we still did not find a bypass to the bottom. I went back to the rope and tossed it down the pit, and it landed perfectly on the bottom. We all rappelled down and explored the short stream passage to the low crawl just ahead of the terminal sump. We set up a phone on the wall to get a bottom-selfie, then began making our way out of the cave around 3pm. We exited the cave at 5:15pm, exactly 6 hours after entering.
We made it back to Caver’s Paradise with enough time to head back to camp and get situated before the raffle. Aaron Irons had cooked up a feast of chicken, salmon, potatoes, and salad to share with everyone and it was the best meal I’ve ever had while camping. The rest of the evening was a mix of chaos and entertainment. Matt Pelsor hosted the raffle, and everyone was overly confident that they were going to be winning the rope in the raffle. In our group, only Alea came away with a prize of cave themed soaps (“Neverstink” was a highlight). At some point I squeezed in a hot shower which made crawling into bed just before midnight much more comfortable.
DAY 3: Sinking Cove, Boulder Entrance
All of a sudden it was Sunday. Michael had been up til 4am and was still very much feeling the effects of the evening festivities at 8am as we were breaking down camp in anticipation of heading out at 10am for our final cave trip. Maggie Brosky and Darian Castle (who did not attend SERA) would also be joining. After spending some final moments around the campfire talking with Gerald and others, we said our goodbyes and headed toward Sinking Cove at 10am.
The route to Sinking Cove dips down into Alabama briefly before heading back north into a valley. We all parked our cars along the road next to some abandoned vehicles near the locked gate and once again piled into Alea’s truck to continue onward to the SCCI preserve. The road to Sinking Cove is a bit rough and involves a short drive along a wet creek but Alea had no issues. The preserve is a really beautiful place and parking is within sight of the cave’s main gaping mouth. By the time we were all suited up and ready to head to the cave, it was 12pm.
We would be doing the pull-down route via the Boulder entrance (E6) 400’ higher up on the mountain. The narrative describes the route to the bottom as passing through 5 pits, the maximum of which being 53’. Alea brought her 150’ rope which would be more than sufficient. Someone had mentioned that the cave was already rigged, but we didn’t take any chances assuming that to be true. We got nice and sweaty climbing up the mountain, passing 3 entrances to the cave along our hike. I’m not sure if there’s an established route to the Boulder Entrance, but we pretty much beelined it straight up with a short break and got there at 12:30.
The boulder entrance (aptly named) is nestled in a small pocket under some massive boulders. The first drop was indeed rigged, and after getting into our wetsuits we made our way down into the cave at 1pm. After corkscrewing down through some breakdown into a stream channel, we reached the 2nd drop (37’) where two side-by-side potholes punch through to a room below. This pit was also found to be rigged. Perhaps Alea would be carrying her rope through the entire cave for nothing other than to look very cool wearing it!
The route continued through a couple rooms. It passed by a scenic area with an active flowstone formation dripping and flowing over a series of pooled dams. We stopped here to take some photos before continuing (Michael brought his nice camera for this trip). The passage ahead opened up into a large room with a hole down into breakdown leading to the top of a canyon. The TCS narrative describes a downclimb here but it is now rigged with 2 bolts for a pulldown next to a wobbly boulder wedged in the canyon. This drop was not rigged, and at the time I was thinking it was the 53’ pit. So instead of trying to downclimb, we went ahead and rigged it for a pulldown but found the snug rappel to be significantly shorter (perhaps 20’ max).
As we worked our way past this narrow drop, the canyon continued and quickly a slot in the middle of the floor opened and dropped into a deep pit. This was the 53’ pit described in the narrative. A traverse line was fixed to the left wall and led to the pit which was already rigged with a rope. This pit was definitely the highlight of the route and we spent some time taking photos down below as people stood on top and rappelled.
At the bottom, we followed a meandering stream canyon with clean washed scalloped walls and came to an 8’ climbdown which was rigged with a rope to a natural anchor so we just rappelled it. It was immediately followed by a 25’ pit and then a 23’ pit (both pre-rigged with a rope). There is no telling how long the cave will remain rigged and it would be foolish to attempt the cave without sufficient rope to rig the cave on your own or else risk being trapped if a rope was missing along the route.
Just past the last drop (our 7th rappel of the trip), we reached the point where we would need to crawl through the water in order to connect to the main trunk of the cave. I caught a quick video of Alea entering and then packed my phone away. The crawl did not look bad at all, and Alea reported that it quickly popped back up into a large room. After a brief moment of confusion, we found the way on, and it sure did look grim! An intimidating crawl at first, but Michael led the way and we made quick work of it. I didn’t have to remove my helmet and the water only grazed my ear slightly once. I wish I could have gotten some pictures/video in the crawlway but it would have been way too much trouble to get my phone out and Alea was ready to power through the water as quickly as possible to avoid getting cold. We were in the crawl for ~10 minutes until we reached a climbdown which was already rigged with a rope to use as a handline. A few minutes more and we reached the main borehole of the cave.
We spent some time at this junction setting up lighting for a group photo with Michael’s camera which came out really great. The plan was to take a quick trip upstream to tour the borehole, but Alea realized quickly that her body temperature wasn’t going to allow for it so we all just headed toward the exit. We passed a room with massive deep rimstone dams and saw some swirly smooth marbled stalagmites. We approached the swim exit but a moment of confusion had us circling back before ultimately returning to the same spot. There was some nervous anticipation of the swim exit, not knowing what to expect or how long of a swim it would be. I opted to pack my phone away. After all the buildup, it was a bit anticlimactic when we turned a corner after just 20’ and saw daylight just ahead. We climbed out of the water onto the slippery rocks at 4:45pm, having been in the cave nearly 4 hours.
Before getting changed, we hiked up to the main entrance to admire it up close and I briefly explored inside. We got changed and I said my goodbyes to everyone as they made plans to go get mexican (and potentially rescue Michael should he run out of gas along the drive). There was nothing I wanted more than to stop the weekend from ending and join in for dinner, but I knew I had a long drive home ahead of me and the trip that day had already taken much longer than I expected. So I hit the road, settled on some taco bell mexican, drove through some insane thunderstorms, and drank a redbull around midnight. I got within 1 hour of Kansas City before becoming too tired to continue, then stopped at a rest stop for a couple hours of rest. I made it home at 7am.
Moving away from TAG sure makes the trips back something that much more special. An unforgettable weekend for sure. Kudos to the Nashville Grotto for putting on a great event.
Photo Album Links
Conley Hole: https://photos.app.goo.gl/TbTZQvt2fRoxymVh9
Wilkson Hollow Horror Hole: https://photos.app.goo.gl/DgGTBnenFQdZWHJc7
Sinking Cove: https://photos.app.goo.gl/nQdqtFzK4giaDRVSA