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That doesn't stop TAG cavers from trying to find more. In early 1997 Fred Hutchison of White House, Tenn., went ridgewalking (as a hunt for new caves is called) in Fall Creek Falls State Park. In the winter, with the vegetation gone, black holes in the limestone are easily visible from a distance. One little hole that Hutchison found went just a few feet before dropping into a pit.
Less than a month later Hutchison returned and descended the 68-foot shaft, then proceeded 500 feet up a small stream to the bottom of a short, noisy waterfall. About 50 feet beyond the top of this cascade he found the base of a second, 14-foot falls that appeared too difficult to climb. Hutchison noted the thunderous rumble of the falling water. On March 1, 1997, he filed the name Rumbling Falls and its location with the Tennessee Cave Survey, a cavers' organization that attempts to catalog all the state's caverns.
It is an ethic among cavers that those who discover new passages should map them for posterity, or at least have the first crack at doing so. Marion Smith had been looking for an "old man's mapping project," as he calls it—a small cave that he and his girlfriend at the time, Debby Johnson, and a few cronies could explore and map on Sunday afternoons. Hutchison's little cave seemed to fit the bill. Thus Smith approached Hutchison at a cavers' meeting in 1998 and asked if he intended to climb the second waterfall in Rumbling Falls. Hutchison said no and didn't object to Smith's giving it a shot.
Smith, Johnson and several fellow cavers began mapping the cavern that September. John Swartz, the survey's chief draftsman, decreed that this would be a map-as-you-go project: No one would be allowed to run ahead of any passage until it had been thoroughly measured and recorded. This would turn out to be a key decision.
Their second mapping trip, in October, pushed the cave's known length to 2,000 feet. On the fourth visit, two weeks later, Smith passed the tight spot where I now lie lollygagging, stepped around a corner and saw the last thing anyone on his team had expected: a ledge and then a vast expanse of blackness. He yelled to those behind him and told them what he saw. "No f———way!" Swartz answered.
Smith tossed a rock off the lip. It fell silently for what seemed a very long time before exploding at the bottom. The sound rumbled across the floor of an enormous chamber. "How are you making that noise?" Swartz asked, thinking it was some sort of trick—until he caught up with Smith and saw for himself.
All right, I'm coming already," I say, thinking, Man, I gotta get in shape. I grunt and slither out of a tight spot to where I can sit up. Just beyond Smith, Chris Anderson, an amateur cave photographer from Kentucky, has clipped himself to a rope rigged to bolts set in the ceiling. The blackness at his back seems to swallow all light. "On rappel!" he shouts to those already at the bottom. He steps backward and vanishes.
"Off rope!" a distant voice echoes.
I go next. For the moment, I can see only colored bands of rock on the nearest wall and the tiny twinkling lights of cavers 20 stories below. They appear to spin slowly as the rope twists under my weight. Smith named this drop Stupendous Pit. From where I sit, the name fits. I appear to be surrounded by millions of tiny, discrete water droplets floating in the air. They undulate in waves reflected by the light of my helmet lamp, like phosphorescent beads within the body of a monstrous jellyfish.
At last I touch down on a rocky hillside. Boulders the size of cars and trucks lie scattered below me, vanishing in the darkness toward the Rumble River. The floor of this room encompasses 4� acres. The team gathers atop a flattish boulder in the center of the room to wait for the other members to drop in. We drink water, snack and stow our heavy vertical gear, which we won't need beyond this point.