“This is the missing link for my studies!” Merlin Tuttle, 1969, after seeing the Morgue for the first time
Icy tentacles of wind crept inside my hardhat as I inched down the steep slope towards the rope. Wispy clouds floated through the chill January air above the steep cliffs. Dead leaves crunched underfoot as I crept down to the waiting rope. I was at the bottom of the Morgue sinkhole, the sides so sheer that free climbing out would be impossible (at least for me). I was visiting the cave in the dead of winter.
On one side of the sinkhole a deep vertical fissure penetrated the darkness, but I could only see about 10 feet into its depths. On the other side of the sink another hole punched through the rock; that’s where I was heading. The dark hole I inched towards led down into the Morgue, the winter home for over half of the country’s millions of hibernating gray bats.
When the cave used to be open in the summer, I loved discussing trip planning to this section of the cave in public with my caving friends.
“What do you want to do this weekend?”
“Let’s go to the Morgue!”
People gave us real strange looks and wondered why on earth anyone would want to visit a morgue for fun. I liked to let them wonder.
As I neared the dark entrance to the cave, I sat down and scooted towards the rope. Many loose rocks littered the slope and it was essential that I not knock even a single rock into the pit, not only to ensure the safety of my friends already at the bottom of the rope, but also to maintain total silence. If I made any noise, the bats would hear.
I scooted down a large boulder onto a two-foot-wide ledge. I crept down to the rope, clipped my ascender onto the rope tied to two bolts at eye level on the smooth limestone wall, then wove the rope through my rappel rack. Dropping to my knees, I lowered myself over the edge.
Looking around the top of the Morgue Pit, The passage leading into the cave immediately widened. Below me, the walls belled out, creating an enormous and long room. The passage was actually a long, wide canyon and I was descending on the far end of it. The sinkhole I started in is probably the remains of an ancient rock collapse that created an opening to the surface and also blocked the main canyon passage that used to be a continuous canyon between the Morgue and the West Passage.
My gloved left hand held tight to my rappel rack while my right slowly guided the rope through the steel bars. I tried to move smoothly without rattling any of my carabiners or climbing equipment tethered to my seat harness. Looking back up, I saw the pale hole of surface light getting smaller and smaller. Looking down, I saw tiny lights moving around the bottom of the pit, barely illuminating a corner of the room. I looked around and my light glanced off the fluted walls of the long canyon. Water dripped and plinked into the darkness. A lone bat clung to the damp wall, covered in glittering drops of condensation.
After 105 feet, I landed on lose rock at the top of a steep scree slope. I crouched down to release the weight from my rack. More quietly than I’d ever moved, I detached my rack from the rope, secured all of the bars on my rack so they wouldn’t clank and make noise, clipped it to my seat harness, and crept down the slope. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. No matter how lightly I tried to move, occasionally I’d step on a loose rock and it would shift. Boooom…. Any noise reverberated in the immense chamber.
Finally I made it to the bottom of the slope and stable ground. The group of biologists, Merlin Tuttle and Jim (Crash) Kennedy from Bat Conservation International, Bob Madej, our photographer friend Chris Anderson, and Steve Pitts were huddled together, quietly talking and looking at gear we’d take farther into the cave. I silently removed all of the dangling gear from my harness, piling up all of my equipment in a heap of webbing and metal.
Chill air touched my bare skin, making me shiver. It was cold, much colder than any cave I’d ever visited; my polypropelene pants and shirt would obviously not be enough for this day. I was pretty shocked at how cold it was. I wasn’t expecting that. I dug around in my pack and got out an extra fleece shirt and a hat.
Most caves, including most of Fern, are a stable temperature throughout the year, moderated by the average temperature of the region. Caves near Fern are usually a constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Most of Fern is usually a dry and stable 56 degrees. I knew this room was much, much colder.
We were in the cave on this very cold January day in 2003 to conduct the first real inventory of gray bats, or Myotis grisescens in decades. I couldn’t wait to see what we’d find.