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No Cave for Old Rope

By: Philip Rykwalder


At the PMI factory I was 600 feet of satiny and newly minted 11mm nylon rope. Wound up all nice and neat on the spool; white with two tracers. One red, one black. Easy Bend. And, as far as ropes go, I’ve had a remarkably full life, I’d say at least. Been to Mexico and back more than a few times when cavers slung me down Hoya de las Guaguas as bees swarmed around and later on in Golondrinas they tied on another rope and down into the mossy darkness I went. Lowered slowly and carefully down the whole way and came to rest on the soft, green guano floor over a thousand feet down.

Yes sir. Been there.

Back in the States side my main call was Ellisons. I’d lie in waiting all year long for the one trip in the Fall when I’d take a ride up Pigeon Mountain slug over someone’s shoulder to do The Big Drop. Fantastic. Five-hundred-and-eighty-six-feet of the purest free fall through the heart of Georgia blackness. Little bowline at the top, figure eight with two ears to the bolts, half a barrel knot at the bottom as a stopper knot and down I went as the cavers rappelled and climbed on me.

Year after year together the cavers and I gave homage to Ellisons, but then I sat dormant a few years. I assumed (or guessed) that the novelty of deep pits wore off and the cavers didn’t go to Ellisons for a piece. I even thought they had forgotten me completely during this period. And then one day the cavers came home all red faced and muddy and spouting off about some grand discovery they’d made over in Jackson County, Alabama. I’d heard of the place from their stories though I’d never been there. They’d found a virgin cave and used up all the ropes they owned to explore it and didn’t have enough to continue into the unknown. It only took them about 3 minutes of debate until the steel of a knife flashed and I was cut in two; before they finished exploring the cave I actually found myself in many pieces.

The shock of no longer being the longest rope around was pretty unreal after being cut so unceremoniously. After all the good times we’d had together down south in Mexico and at home in Georgia with both of us encased in our own nylon suits I thought the cavers and I had reached some unspoken contract: I would be saved exclusively for deeper pits. Let the other shorter ropes take the dirty job of being weekend TAG ropes.

But, no longer.

It took me quite awhile to come around, but in time I realized that being cut was a blessing. As a long rope I only got to cave occasionally and even then just in a few places. As multiple shorter pieces of rope a whole world of other caves was opened to me including the world of pitting, of multi-drop caves, pull downs, being whipped about in waterfalls, dragged through gritty crawls, brusquely thrown down short climbs and tangled up to no end.

I saw all sorts of caves, pits and passages that previously I hadn’t even imagined in my wildest most fleeting dreaming. Stephen’s Gap for one. Neversink, Vahalla, Hytop Drop, The Sinkhole and the whole range of open-air TAG pits. It all added up to a number of amazing caves, an even larger number of amazing pits, and a few not-so-great ones in there, too. The expansive Rumble Room of Rumbling Falls (amazing) and the drops of Dorton Knob Smoke Hole and Baby Hog Horror Hole (not-so-great).

I had come to terms with being cut up into very usable lengths of rope, but even that came to an end one day. Unraveled if you will. I don’t quite remember where it was (all the caves blur together now), but it was some Tennessee pit with a medium sharp lip. Not as sharp as they come, and so I didn’t think too much of it at the time until the cavers realized that they’d forgotten a rope pad and decided to go ahead and drop the pit anyways. All of a sudden the abrasion of climbing escalated to new levels and rock tore into sheath. Afterward they only called it a bump in the rope, but the fact remains that a little puff of core came out. Later that night the knife flashed and I got cut.


Initially being cut up had opened new opportunities to me, but over time this scenario repeated itself so many times in caves around the South and I got cut up into smaller and smaller pieces. A bad rub, rock fall, or a sharp lip and the knife flashed. A fifteen foot rope end. A nine footer. Even a thirty-three foot rope is marginally usable most times and now it seems all that’s left is a few tattered bits of manky rope and one or two marginally usable lengths.

And just the other day the cavers brought home a new spool of white rope and started taking it on trips to Ellisons again, and they even bought other lengths to replace most of my usable lengths! Now my grungy bits and pieces only get used on rare occasions and then only reluctantly and with a fair measure of hesitation.

And I don’t blame them.

One bit of rope was used to haul a Bronco out of a mud hole a bit back and isn’t fit for much of all, and another was used for a clothes line at a fieldhouse and sat outside for a few years, while still other pieces have hung rigged in various caves for going on four or five years. Permanent rigging the cavers call them, but it sounds more like abandoned rope to me.

And me—I’ve come to accept it all. Well, I’ve had no choice. I had my hey-day and now for the most part I’ve been put out to pasture as I lie in the growing pile of dead, torn, tattered and forgotten gear. Ripped clothing, worn out boots, slipping ascenders and trashed pieces of colorful webbing all glommed into one dusty basement pile. Only sentimentality keeps us out of the trash can or camp fire.

As for you, remember your dead gear. Recall the good times you shared together and memorialize us by mounting us on your walls, make wind chimes of us, or maybe even erecting little bed-side shrines. Remember the good times you’ve had together and celebrate us in your lives. Show us that you miss us; we certainly miss you.
Philip has been a caver for over 18 years and discovered the 2nd deepest limestone cave in the United States. His current interests lie within teaching conservation and leading educational, fun trips with the public via his company, Cave Now, Inc. Learn more at www.cavenow.com

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