Broken Line at Bluebird Spring
During an attempt to connect two cave systems a team of three experienced cave divers became trapped. As they discussed who might come to their rescue they realized that the most qualified rescuers were themselves. Click the title to read the full story.
by Lamar Hires
In 1986, we set out to prove a connection from Bluebird Spring to Ellison’s cave in Lafayette, Georgia. If successful, this connection would make Ellison’s the deepest cave in the southeast United States. The fact that a British team of cave divers had failed to connect the spring was an even greater incentive. My longtime dive buddy, Woody Jasper and I headed to Georgia that summer and made the connection by pushing our tanks in front of us to get beyond the restriction that had stopped the British team. We penetrated the dry cave another quarter mile before we were stopped by a massive boulder choke. We had proven that Bluebird was connected to Ellison’s, but there was still more work to do.
Two weeks later, Wes Skiles, Woody, and I assembled a team including Paul Smith, Louis Menoyo and Jeff Stillo and returned to Bluebird to push the dry cave and look for a route beyond the boulder choke. The entire dry caving community was there… this was a very big deal and everyone wanted to see if Ellison’s would go on to make the deep cave record.
Bluebird is not for the inexperienced; it is a maze of narrow body tubes that are exceedingly tight to maneuver, further complicated by low visibility. You don’t want to lose the line. Our team was carefully selected and prepared for the no-mount push. I had no way of knowing at the time that a few, seemingly inconsequential decisions would later trap Wes, Woody and myself with no one but ourselves to rescue us.
We arrived to find the basin at Bluebird blown-out due to heavy rains. I led the way and since we planned a no-mount dive, I carried only one safety reel. I deployed my safety in the basin to give the rest of the team, who was unfamiliar with the system, a guideline to the permanent line. This was the first of several unwitting decisions that would later lead to our entrapment.
Upon entering the system, there is three hundred feet of narrow passageway that leads to a ten foot restriction. To get through the restriction, each diver has to turn on their side, pushing a bottle in front and find the exact spot that will allow them to pull through. It takes patience and presence of mind; you scrape and pinch yourself just to get through. Once clear of the restriction, you ascend in a reservoir pool inside the dry cave.
The trip in is uneventful. Everyone clears the restriction without a problem. While we surface and begin unloading gear, Woody stays behind to check out a possible lead for an alternate route around the restriction. He ties a “tee” into the guideline and explores more underwater passage. Unfortunately, the lead pinched off in a pile of rocks, so Woody returned to join us leaving his tee connection in place. This is the second decision that complicated our exit.
Part of our dive plan is to time a dye trace that the dry cavers would release on the Ellison-side of the boulder choke. We had an idea of how much time it would take and our goal was to be well on our way when the dye was released. We were already diving in poor visibility and the addition of the dye would reduce our visibility to complete blackness. Without our guideline, there was simply no way to find the correct route out. In addition, they would begin dynamiting the boulder choke to see if they could release enough passage for a man to get through. While not overly concerned about the dynamite, it did make us think about the stability of the cave system and what the blasts could unleash.
After exploring the dry cave for leads, it was time to go. The dye trace had begun and the clock was ticking for our exit. Louis, Jeff and Paul went first, each waiting several minutes after the other so as to avoid a traffic jam at the restriction. I was set to go next and as I entered the water I had a bad feeling. The permanent guideline looked slack. Something was very wrong. I entered the reservoir pool to find the permanent guideline broken and held in place only by the tension of Woody’s tee. I went into the restriction and found the frayed end of the permanent line. Instinctively, I reached for my safety reel so I could tie into the end of the permanent line, enter the restriction and locate the other end of the permanent line on the exit side. My safety reel was not there; I had used it in the basin entrance and cursed myself for breaking this basic cave diving rule. I started back out of the restriction and in doing so, entangled my fin in the line. As I worked to free myself, Woody shows up and gives me a hand. We return to the dry cave and I am now very low on air. Woody enters the system next, yet in the poor visibility, he mistakenly follows his tee rather than the broken permanent line. My decision to deploy my only safety reel and Woody’s decision to leave his tee on the permanent line had caused us to lose precious gas. The clock was ticking and we have barely enough gas to get us out, let alone deal with any further complications.
As Woody, Wes and I survey our options, we have the harrowing realization that we may need rescuing and wondered who our friends would send in to get us. Then the hard truth sank in. We were stuck in a remote area miles away from fresh tanks, fresh divers and our cave diving community. The most likely divers to come to our aid were already there…we are the divers they would send in and it was up to us to get ourselves out. No margin for error, no gas reserve. It is now up to Wes to reconnect the frayed permanent line and then return to let Woody and me know we have a straight shot out. The dye trace is now evident in the water and we are losing the last shreds of visibility. There is no time to waste.
With cues from Woody and me, Wes has an idea of what to look for. He enters the sump and locates the frayed ends of the permanent line. He makes the connection, but also a horrific discovery. Wes rejoins us and as he surfaces he slowly lifts Paul’s dry pack out of the water. It is a dramatic moment in an already tense situation. We now realize that the slack guideline and Paul’s lost pack means that there has been a terrible accident and our friend Paul must be dead. Somehow Louis, Paul and Jeff ran into trouble on their exit, broke the guideline and didn’t have time to repair it. It could only mean that Paul had snapped the line and broke off his dry pack as he was drowning. We are silent as Paul’s death sinks in. Now we have an even bigger problem. Bluebird Springs is such a narrow system that it is likely Paul’s body will be blocking our exit. Without gas reserve, we do not have the time to move him so we can escape. We desperately need a straight shot out.
Out of options, we have to go for it. Wes enters the sump first, fearing he would bump into our friend Paul’s body. He enters the restriction and begins pulling himself through the tight crevice. As Wes nears the end of the restriction, he grabs a hold of a rock to pull himself clear. At that moment, a hand reaches out of the blackness and touches Wes’ hand and then disappears. Wes is shocked and wonders who or what made contact with him. Had he imagined it? Did Paul’s body float up against him? The touch had felt solid, like a grip. Wes is baffled and a little rattled as he continues on. Woody and I are close behind, each timing our exit several minutes apart so as to not waste gas waiting at the restriction. Pulling ourselves through the blackness, feeling our way out using the guideline as our only sight, we each surface at Bluebird Springs with much relief to the sounds of cheers from waiting friends.
To our surprise, Paul is standing on the beach with everyone else. Paul was alive! Barely stopping to catch our breath, we find out what happened. Louis was the first to clear the restriction and exit the cave. Jeff followed, but became wedged fast in the restriction. As precious minutes ticked by, he finally freed himself, but in doing so had broken the permanent line. Paul had become wedged in a low offshoot crevice of the restriction where he lost his pack in the force to free himself. The permanent line had disappeared back through the restriction by this time and the men could not repair it. Upon hearing the line was severed, Louis re-enters the system to fix it so Wes, Woody and I would be able to find our way out. It was Louis’ hand that had grabbed Wes upon exiting. Once Louis saw Wes clearing the restriction, he left and exited the cave in relief that his friends were okay.
And Bluebird Spring? Did we ever connect it to Ellison’s cave? No, the boulder choke proved too thick for even the dynamite to blast away. The dye trace did show that the system is connected, but without a passageway for a man to get through, the record could not be broken. Today, Ellison’s Cave is the 12th deepest cave in the United States.