Early Saturday morning, the Cave/Cliff Unit was asked to respond to Ellison's Cave on Pigeon Mountain to provide mutual aid to Walker County Cave/Cliff Rescue who was dealing with a patient stranded at the bottom of Fantastic Pit. CHCRS is very familiar with Ellison's Cave, having executed over half a dozen rescues in this popular cave over the last three decades. The most recent was the 23 hour evacuation of a trauma patient from below the 586 foot deep Fantastic Pit in 2013.
Ellison's Cave is home to the two deepest free-fall pits in the United States. Fantastic Pit is 586 feet deep and is considered the traditional route to the bottom of the cave. Another equally impressive shaft, appropriately named Incredible Pit and measured at 440 feet in depth, allows access to the opposite end of the 11 mile long cave system. The cave's depth, the long rappels and the opportunity for a unique through the mountain trip from entrance to entrance compels adventurers from all over the country to travel to the cave for high risk adventure. Unfortunately, many of these adventures have resulted in difficult rescues and multiple fatalities. All of the fatalities were a result of poor preparation and lack of appropriate rope skills.
Saturday's incident followed the trend of poor preparation and inadequate skills. The result was a patient stranded at the bottom of the United States deepest free-fall pit suffering from exposure and exhaustion. Rescuers entered the cave at approximately 0700 hours and proceeded to Fantastic Pit without knowing the status of the patient. CHCRS Lieutenant Voss was sent down the pit to establish communication with the patient and to perform a medical assessment. Voss found the patient and tended to him until rigging teams comprised of Walker County Rescue and CHCRS members finished rigging the haul system. Communications were established from the top of Fantastic Pit to the bottom using VHF radios. Communications in-cave were then relayed to the surface using military field phones. This allowed Unified Command the ability to monitor progress in the cave and provide support to the 26 rescuers spread throughout the cave performing multiple rigging responsibilities.
At approximately 1045 hours, the rigging team at Fantastic Pit began hauling the patient up the 586 foot pitch using a 3:1 mechanical advantage system. The patient reached the top in 25 minutes. The patient was able to walk under his power to a short 20 foot pitch, where another team lowered him to the base of the Warm-Up Pit. At the Warm-Up Pit, another team of rescuers hauled the patient 125 feet up the last vertical obstacle before the entrance. From the top of the last pit, the patient walked to the entrance under his own power, exiting the cave at 1245 hours. Approximately two additional hours were required for all rescuers and gear to exit the cave safely.
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