Solution Rift Rescue October 6th, 2017 by Kelly Smallwood NSS 58745 RL FE
It was Friday night, October 6, 2017 at the annual TAG Fall Cave In. Jason Hardy and myself were doing our usual hanging out on vendors row. Around 11:00pm eastern time, Troy Fuqua approached me to tell me he was worried about a group of cavers who had went to Solution Rift Cave that day. I asked him what time was their call out and he said they expected to be back around 8pm. I asked him how many were on the trip and there was some confusion if there were only 5 or if there were 7. Having helped survey this cave and been there on numerous occasions and knowing they left late from camp, I told him I’d give them some more time before I would be worried.
About an hour later around midnight, there was still no word so several of us were gathering around Troy’s tent site. Here we decided to call Blaine Grindle, who lived about 15 minutes from the cave. I asked Blaine if he would drive down to the landowner’s house and see if their cars were still parked there. We patiently awaited the return call. By this time a few more cavers showed up waiting to hear and were all ready to volunteer to help assist if needed. About 20 minutes later we got a phone call from Blaine. Cars were still there, no sign of the cavers and the landowner was worried.
Out of the group gathered, Jason Hardy, Troy Fuqua and myself were the only three that had been to the cave before. Due to recent health issues, Troy was not in a position to enter the cave but was willing to drive and do what needed to be done on the surface. Others who were on site to help were Jason Lavender, Matt Tomlinson, Zeke McKee, Lee White, Matt Bumbalough, Warren Wyatt, Chris Higgins, Verl Speer and Rebecca McNabb. After hearing back from Blaine, we made a plan to grab our gear and head out within 15 minutes. The cave is an hour from the TAG site so on the way Jason Hardy called Brad Tipton of the Hamilton County Rescue to formulate a plan. It was decided that Jason would lead a group up to the upper entrance of the cave and hard rig the cave as they went thru looking for the group of cavers. We were unsure if there was an accident or if they could have dropped a rope and been stranded since this was a pull down trip. I would then lead a smaller group to the lower entrance to do a sweep to make sure they were not there.
Since I knew the landowners, once on site, I went and spoke to them to let them know of the plan. Jason and his team gathered gear and made sure they had the ropes needed to hard rig the cave. I called off rope lengths and we checked them twice to make sure they had what was needed. At 2:15am eastern time Jason Hardy, Jason Lavender, Chris Higgins, Matt Tomlinson, Matt Bumbalough and Warren Wyatt were then going to be driven up the mountain by Troy Fuqua to get them as close to the upper entrance as possible. Verl Speer was going to drive myself, Zeke McKee and Lee White to the lower entrance to check it. Rebecca McNabb and Blaine Grindle waited at the landowner’s house to start a fire if needed.
The upper team took off up the mountain and the lower team went towards the lower entrance. Within 5 minutes we were at the lower entrance and as soon as I got out of the vehicle and looked at it I clearly knew it was sumped and it was more than likely the cavers were trapped on the other side. Luckily I had cell phone service so I immediately called Troy Fuqua and he answered. I told them of the situation at the lower entrance and told them to abort the mission to hard rig the cave and come back down to help dig out not one but 2 large beaver dams that were sumping the lower entrance. Beavers have always been somewhat of an issue at this cave but typically cavers check the lower entrance before doing the pull down trip as it’s a short less than 10 minute walk from the vehicles. Unfortunately, the cavers who were trapped did not do this and none of them had ever been to the cave before to even know to do this. I also knew that if the upper team had continued their mission to hard rig the cave we could have six more cavers trapped and only three of us outside to dig out the beaver dams. I then phoned Brad Tipton to give him an update on the situation. After the upper team got down to us, they helped Zeke McKee and Lee White who were already working on digging out the dams. As they worked on them, the water slowly began to recede.
Around 4:15am I then heard shouting coming from the lower entrance. Jason Hardy made his way back over to it and listened for them again. He heard a voice call out, “Who is out there” and Jason replied, “Its Jason Hardy”. Jason then asked if everyone was ok and they replied yes. Within another 10-15 minutes the water was finally low enough for the trapped cavers; William Alan Camp, Kitty Rose, Susan Williamson, Mark Lassiter and Kyle Lassiter to exit the cave. They were all obviously very thankful as they had been waiting there for rescue for at least 5-6 hours. Thankfully, they all had on wetsuits and were only a bit cold and not hypothermic. It was about 5am when we all left the landowners house and about 6am when Jason and I crawled into bed back at the TAG Fall Cave In.
**Please note, Solution Rift is a very technical vertical cave and is not for the beginner. It is on private property and permission is also required before visiting. Giving current situations it is also highly recommend you take the extra time to check the lower entrance before attempting a pull down trip.**
Cavers digging out one of the two large beaver dams
Trapped cavers emerging from the cave.
Trapped cavers emerging from the cave.
Jason Hardy coming out of the lower entrance during normal water levels.
Normal water levels coming out of the cave.