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Caving in New Fern Cave Alabama
May 15, 1971, John Van Swearinger IV introduced us to New Fern Cave. John Wallace, Bill Meyer and I were excited to see what all the cavers in the nation were talking about at the time. A large cave system has been discovered in northern Alabama. Vertical cavers came from all over North America to dig the deepest hole at that time in the eastern United States, Fern Cave.
Fern Cave System Located west of Natt Mountain in North Alabama. Fern Cave Invented June 4, 1961 by Jim Johnston, Bill Torode, Louis Fox, Chris Kroeger and Butch Dill. It mainly consists of Surprise Pit, 437 feet deep and 200 feet long.
Morgue Cave It was discovered on June 9, 1968 by Bob Clark, John Cole, Jim Johnston, Don Myrick, Arch Swank and Lynn Swank. It consists of several pits 100 to 200 feet deep. The morgue is the hibernating and nursery den for approximately 50% of the entire gray bat species and perhaps 75% of the gray bat population in the southern United States.
On 11 January 1969 AD New Fern Cave It was discovered by Jim Johnston and is commonly known as the Johnston Entrance to the Fern Cave System. New Fern Cave consists of more than 15 miles of horizontal caverns with three main levels connected by pits and canyons.
In January 1969 New Fern Cave was connected to the Morgue and in April of the same year the lower level of New Fern Cave was reached. Torch barriers and evidence of cave entry by large animals, some now extinct, were found. A search was made for a lower entrance, but none was found. Caving in the Fern Cave System involves a long climb up Nat Mountain or, if you know the roads, to the top and access to the entrance. It felt strange to climb the mountain from the outside and then climb back up the inside of the mountain.
On October 10, 1971, the downstream passages of Fern Cave and New Fern Cave were connected by digging a channel in the cold water. This completed the Fern Cave system by adding three main caves and some minor caves on the mountain. The map and most of the exploration of the Fern Cave system was completed by Bill Torode and members of the Huntsville Grotto.
Our group consisted of horizontal cavers, engaging only in vertical work with no other possibilities. We made several trips in 1971, 1972 and 1973, when the last discoveries were being made and mapping was completed. I experimented with taking some movies in the cave but I was not satisfied with the results that can be seen on my web site. One scene shows the elephant’s ear just after it was broken and on the first journey, and I have a picture of the elephant’s ear before it was broken with John Van Swearingern IV and John Wallace.
On November 20, 1971, we made our second trip to New Fern Cave, we would park by the river at the base of the mountain and walk to the Johnston entrance. Just inside the entrance there is a drop of about eight feet where a wooden ladder was installed.
We stayed in an upper formation room to the southeast filled with helicites growing in all directions. We also visited the Red Lily Pad Room. The room had a circular shape that resembled lily pads in a pool of water, with some stalagmites growing in the center.
Hellekites are formed when wind blows through a cave, forcing water droplets to fly along the formation and release mineral deposits. At different times the wind blows in different directions which creates strange shapes.
After exploring several formation areas, we continued south to Elephant Ears and Green Passage. The Green Passage is a short crawl and walkway that leads to the Blowing Hole. The Blowing Hole is a shortcut to the middle level of the cave. Bill Torode cleared the dirt around the hole, drove a bolt into the wall, and installed a cable ladder. The hole is about four feet and is an easy place to trap climbers on their way down the ladder. The last person down has to move from the bottom with a rope and a carabiner on the bolt.
At the bottom of the middle level we headed down the canyon of Gold Passage to the crystal room with large five inch gypsum crystals protruding from the wall. The wall is more than ten feet high and nearly as wide, and all along the wall are these crystals side by side. The crystals are pointed with smooth sides and form the most amazing formation room I have ever seen. From the crystal room we went to the balcony room. You can literally set on the edge of the balcony and look into a large round room that is about eighty feet high and has a huge flowing stone called Myrick’s Monument that reaches from the bottom of the room to the top.
On July 21, 1973, I returned with Jack Pace and we spent eight hours in the stream at Johnston Entrance. We crossed another dome and climbed a cliff to the Kumari cave. There were lots of soda straws and Hellekites in the room and no tracks or signs that anyone had been there. We left the formation room and re-entered the stream passage at survey mark #18 to the left of the dry stream bed.
On October 20, 1973, John Wallace, Jack Pace and I returned and went directly to Green Passage and Blowing Hole. We headed to the lunch room, then roped off for the return climb down the waterfall. We noted white glacier flow stones and small cave pearls. We climbed into the first large room and exited the cave after another eight hours of exploring it.
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