“This is a really deep pit.” Bill Torode, after hearing a basketball-sized rock hit the bottom of Surprise Pit on June 4, 1961
You hear the cave long before you see it. Cavers trudging up the long and winding trail, bogged down by a heavy packs and enormous coils of rope that look like giant doughnuts draped over their shoulders, first hear just the hint of a whisper. At first, you think the whisper may be the wind blowing through the forest. With every step, the whispers change. They become louder, turning into a dull roar. Soon you know that what you hear is a waterfall, waves of water slamming onto hard rock.
The first time cavers heard this distant whisper was on a pleasant summer day in 1961. A group of cavers from Huntsville, Alabama were out looking for new caves. The 1960s had started out with a bang for the small and very fringe sport of caving. Practically every time cavers went out to look at a new sinkhole anywhere in the southeast, they were rewarded with deep pits, long caves, and gorgeous passage. But June 4, 1961 would be a day like no other for Huntsville cavers. They were about to make one of the most significant discoveries in the history of Alabama and southeastern caving. On that summer day, Huntsville cavers discovered what remains to this day Alabama’s deepest vertical pit.
The June Grotto outing in 1961 was pretty typical. Bill Torode was a 17-year-old high school student at the time and was looking forward to the monthly Huntsville Grotto caving club’s monthly caving field trip. Bill’s mother dropped him off at the meeting area. A couple other guys were already there, but none of them had a car either. They hung around, wondering if they’d even get to go caving that day, when Jim Johnston soon showed up in his station wagon and the debate over where to go got started. Jim was slightly older at 28 years old and one of the most experienced cave explorers in the local club dedicated to exploring local caves.
The Huntsville Grotto is a local club affiliated with the National Speleological Society (NSS). In the early 1960s, it was a small club made up of many different types of people who shared a common interest: visiting local caves and finding new ones. The Grotto was founded a few years earlier in 1955 and sponsored several outings each month, but did not plan outings to specific caves. Instead, everyone met on a certain date at a certain time and talked about what to do that day.
Jim had started caving when he was in high school. He’d become an Eagle Scout at the age of 16, visited his first cave while still in high school, and joined the NSS while also still a young student. Jim and his wife Frances moved to Huntsville in 1956 for a job with the new space program efforts on Redstone Arsenal. Not too long after Jim moved to Huntsville, he heard a story on a local radio program about how the local caving club had launched a rescue to find a missing man in Tumbling Rock Cave. He was excited to learn there were other people interested in caves in Huntsville. Jim asked around, found out when and where the local Grotto met, and got involved in the club. He loved caving, and jumped right into many projects in area caves, including opening up the torturously tight Blue Crawl in Tumbling Rock Cave and helping find and record all of the caves in the Newsome Sinks area south of the Tennessee River.
When Jim arrived for the June Grotto trip, the small group that included Jim and Bill, and also Louis Fox, Chris Kroeger, and Butch Dill, started to throw out ideas. Jim wanted to go check out a sinkhole on Keel Mountain east of Huntsville (a sink that later would turn out to be Tony’s Cave, or the Cataract). Bill, however, had other ideas.
Bill had his eye on an area around Nat Mountain, nestled in the heart of the Paint Rock Valley in Jackson County, Alabama, about 30 miles east of Huntsville. Nat is a knobby mountain with a flat top rising up from the fertile river valley. The Paint Rock Valley and surrounding area is the tail end of the extensive Cumberland Plateau, a series of ridges and hills finishing off the long chain of Appalachian Mountains. The small hills in Jackson County, lovingly referred to by the locals as mountains even though they rarely extend more than 1,000 feet off the valley floor, feature the ideal confluence of geologic features and limestone rock that are perfect for the formation of both long, beautifully decorated horizontal caves and very deep vertical pits. Jackson County is one of the country’s best caving destinations, and the Paint Rock Valley has more than its fair share of fantastic caves.
Bill met a farmer in the area who told him about local caves, piquing his interest in Nat Mountain, a mountain that up to then didn’t have any interesting caves. The farmer pointed across his fields to the base of Nat and described a large cave low on the ridge. Bill of course looked for the cave. He looked more than once. He didn’t find anything.
Two weeks before the June 1961 Grotto trip, Bill was riding around with a friend from school visiting caves east of Huntsville. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, the duo found themselves near Paint Rock trying to decide what to do next. Bill gazed over at Nat Mountain and suggested going to look for the cave the farmer had mentioned. Bill’s friend reminded him that looking for more caves that day would take many hours, and both of their mothers were expecting them home and cleaned up in time for dinner. If Bill hadn’t been worried about annoying his mother, two teenagers may have discovered Fern Cave two weeks sooner.