Go With The Flow

Snail Shell Sump Trip, June 24, 2006

Brian Williams


A sump trip sometimes works out the way you plan it, but most of the time you never know what you’re getting into until you get into it. Sometimes you just gotta jump in and ride it out.

Not so far from the urban sprawl of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, lies a hidden gem known as Snail Shell Cave. Owned and managed by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) and considered to be the longest cave in the Cumberland Plateau Region, this little beauty can be a dichotomy of peaceful stream passage and roaring whitewater adventure, all dependant upon the rain.

The plan was a trip into the upstream sump, put a couple of divers through, and try and reach a possible second sump past the 3000 ft mark on the other side. That was the plan. The rain had other plans. It had been dry for weeks and conditions were favorable for a big push. We always plan ahead so schedules can coincide as cavers come together from Tennessee, Georgia and Florida to make these trips. But the day approached and the rain came down, lots of it.

“And lo, the stream swelled, the current became swift and the visibility went south.”

Ah, but nothing is impossible…impassable maybe, but not impossible. It reminds me of that old saying, “If you’re gonna’ be dumb, ya gotta’ be tuff.”

Marbry Hardin, Forrest Wilson, Brian Williams, Mark Wenner, and Matt Vinzant converged on the Murfreesboro Shoney’s the morning of June 24th to fill up on the breakfast bar and make the final plans. It had been raining for the past two days now but we held out hope that stream levels in Snail Shell had not yet begun to rise. Arriving at the parking area we found standing water and lots of mud on the trail. Heading down to the sink for a quick reconnaissance, we noticed a beautiful waterfall cascading into the stream that under normal dry conditions is not there. Closer observation revealed that the stream flow was indeed above normal but it didn’t look too bad on the upstream side of the falls. We were in for a surprise.

We opted to go ahead and give it a shot; after all, how bad could it really be???

Well….I’ll give you a hint, the trip to the upstream sump in ideal conditions takes about 3 hours. This time, fighting the current and the raging waterfalls, we made it to the first sump after 5 hours of hard caving. Water was even shooting out of some of the flowstone formations before the first breakdown area. As Forrest pointed out later, we overlooked the fact that the current was getting stronger the farther upstream we went while it should have been less each time we passed a side lead where water entered the system. This would prove to make for quite an adventurous ride on the way out.

Arriving at the large flowstone formation that blocks the passage we could see that the crawl was sumped shut, but we knew how to make the 20 ft climb up. We rigged a rope and webbing and pulled gear up and over, lowered it down, and on we went. The other side of this formation was a real sight, with a mad whirlpool of frothy water being sucked under and through the tight crawl. Continuing upstream, it took quite a long while just to reach the worst of the waterfall climbs. Each bend in the passage brought us closer, but it was not until we got in the deep canyon slot that we could hear the distant rumble of the whitewater as it crashed through the gouged out pools and slots of the narrow gorge of rock. The upside to all this was the water being a bit deeper, which made the climb shorter. The downside was the incredible hydraulic pressure created by the force of the pounding water in the pools below. We all made the climb up but it took almost everything we had, and upon reaching the top we collapsed on the bank to rest. The sump was just ahead and the prospects for a productive trip were looking grim.

The gravel bar where we usually gear up was almost completely under water. The only thing showing was a small stack of weights we leave at the “beach” each time so minimum amounts of lead need to be hauled to the sump area. Of course, no line was in sight and we knew there was a strong possibility that the line had been completely shredded due to flooding.

The original plan was to put a couple divers through and push to the low airspace near the end of the last survey and a possible second sump. Looking at the visibility in this first sump, we determined that even if we reestablished the line through sump one, exploring sump two in these conditions would be difficult at best, unproductive at worst. Determined to make something of this trip, I was elected to try and reestablish the line through sump one. Visibility was reduced to about 8 inches, but I felt like I knew the sump route fairly well and could get the line through again. Surprisingly, I found an intact line after minimal searching and tied in a “T”. Mark Wenner geared up to go back through and assist me in taking some pictures. We also decided to recon on up to the Crossroads and see what conditions were like further beyond toward sump two.

I did have to put in another “T” and reroute the last section of line as a gravel bank had been deposited by flooding and pinched off access on the old line. The upstream side of the sump was a cauldron of frothy swirling muddy water. Dropping our gear above the now flooded beach area, we headed upstream toward the Crossroads, about 3000 ft in, where a right and left passage converge on the main drain. We spent about 2 hours on the other side of nowhere heading upstream and taking pictures along the way. At the Crossroads, we were struck by what we saw. Both the right and left passages were pouring cloudy water into the main trunk but upstream the water was clear, with visibility reaching 10 ft or more. Incredible! We should have dragged the tanks along as exploration would have been possible in these conditions. We could have never imagined this, but it’s one of the things we learned and will be useful data in further exploration upstream.

It is obvious that a great deal of the surface water supplying the main stream passage is coming in from these Crossroads, which would indicate surface sinks may be located not too far up these passages. The right fork has been explored down to an impassable crawl on a previous trip so this time I headed up the left passage about 200 ft to find it getting wider and still going so further exploration may reveal an additional entrance here.

Mark and I returned to the other side, and we all packed up and headed for the door. The trip out was a real “route”. If you didn’t keep up there was not much chance of anyone being able to get back upstream to get you. The water had risen even more while we were at the sump and now the current created some lovely whitewater passage where just a few hours before was a meandering stream. The rapids above the waterfall were really ripping and we all had trouble here avoiding the hydraulics at the pools. You had to stay above the water in this area or the force could grab a leg and jam it in a crack pulling you down and holding you under. Forrest found out the hard way and got a leg caught in the rocks at the last drop. Fortunately, he was flushed out and we fished him and his gear downstream to calmer water. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Forrest had wrenched his leg pretty good and was having trouble even swimming for the rest of the trip out. There was a plus side to the high water; the trip out was like a whitewater amusement park, riding our floating packs…with really sharp rocks whizzing by our heads…in the dark, definitely an “E” ticket !

Becky Dettorre was waiting for us at the entrance and it was a welcome sight to say the least. She stayed there 3 hours with her dogs, just waiting and worrying and planning a call out for rescue if we didn’t show up soon. At least somebody cared! The hike back to the trucks is always brutal, but after an 11 hour trip it’s downright insane. But even Forrest managed to make it back with a bum leg. Nothing quite so motivating as knowing everyone else is too tired to help! Hunger will do that to you as well, and after a brief delay to change a flat tire, we made it back to the Murfreesboro IHOP and Marbry ate everything that wasn’t glued down.   

Stay tuned sports fans, we will be back. There’s more to explore on the other side of nowhere. Snail Shell does not give up its secrets so easily, but a few determined cavers will continue to press the upstream passage, survey, explore, and when conditions are less than optimum, just try to “go with the flow”.

A note regarding my trip reports and articles:  I’d like to acknowledge Becky Dettorre for faithfully editing many articles submitted to this and other publications, thanks Becks!