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Photographer Chris Anderson
Photographer Chris Anderson

“As a caver you never come across anything this vast.”

Exposing Tennessee's Titanic Cave Chamber

Photographer Chris Anderson reveals how the largest—and perhaps most secret—cave room in the eastern U.S. was finally revealed.

In 1998, while mapping Rumbling Falls Cave in eastern Tennessee, surveyors Marion Smith, John Swartz, and Bill Walter discovered the Rumble Room—a chamber that turned out to be the largest cave room in the eastern U.S. and the second largest in the country. This past fall, when a sewer plan threatened to alter the subterranean ecosystem, the cave's existence was finally made public.

Last September, ten local cavers assisted photographer Chris Anderson in capturing the cave room on film, illuminating it with flashbulbs. "And for the first time ever, everyone could see the immensity of the room," says Anderson. "Five seconds, a fleeting time for sure, and then the bulbs faded out, the camera shut down, and the applause broke out."

The Rumble Room
Chris Anderson's Photo of the Rumble Room

How were you able to photograph the room?

As a side hobby I collect very powerful old flashbulbs, which are indispensable for photographing caves. There were a few cave photographers who had tried to photograph the room before, but it's so big—at least 4 acres (1.6 hectares)—and either they didn't bring a wide enough lens or weren't really able to illuminate the whole room.

People were skeptical because logistically it was going to be very difficult to drag all the equipment in there. But I recruited ten enthusiastic cavers, all from different states in the area. Everyone was willing to haul in bulbs and tripods and camera cases.

How difficult is it to get to the Rumble Room?

The entrance to Rumbling Falls Cave is on the nondescript side of a mountain, wholly unremarkable. But once you get inside, you immediately descend down an 80-foot (24-meter) pit.

Going upstream from there, you stoop and crawl toward a waterfall. There are pre-rigged ropes because with the volume of water coming down, you can't free climb.

For the next several hundred feet, the passage gets progressively less comfortable, until you're forced down on your belly in the water. The passage may be 10 or 15 feet (3 to 5 meters) wide, but it's only a foot (0.3 meter) high or less. Then there is a canyon passage that's 30 feet (9 meters) high but only 2 feet (0.6 meter) to 8 inches (0.2 meter) wide.

The key is knowing when to go up and when to drop down, so that you can take advantage of the widest sections. It's a fight, and there's lots of cursing.

It took an hour going through that with all the gear. But after 500 feet (152 meters) of torturously narrow canyon, the most unbelievable thing happens. There's a very perceptible breeze, you step over a boulder and the floor drops out, 200 feet (61 meters) down. It's a black void and—even with a powerful miner's lamp, you can't see the bottom.

How was the Rumble Room formed?

Thousands of years of groundwater erosion has caused rocks as small as acorns and as large as school buses to drop down and form the Rumble Room.

The unnerving thing is that most of the balcony is made up of rock just waiting to join the pile of rock at the bottom. The rock pile is at least a hundred feet (31 meters) deep.

What do you see once you get to the bottom?

Dropping down on the rope, with the amount of vapor in the air from the humidity and dust, all you see is a piece of thread disappearing. You're literally hanging out in space. And as you get closer to the bottom, the floor suddenly becomes visible, coming toward you in the light, and it's like you're a little spaceship touching down.

There's not a flat, solid spot in the whole chamber—just piles of rock straight to the walls, shaped like valleys and mountains. It's stacked so deep in places that you could walk on a cliff of breakdown and fall 30 feet (9 meters) if you're not careful.

When you're standing in the middle of a cave room 4 to 5 acres (1.6 to 2.0 hectares) across, there is nothing for your voice to reflect off of. Try to talk to somebody standing 30 feet (9 meters) away, they won't understand you. When you yell at them, your sound does travel to the walls, but by the time it gets back to you, it's delayed, like a constant echo.

There are only a handful of words you ever need to speak: "on rope," "off Rope," and "ROCK!!!!!"—which you hope you don't ever hear.

How did you take the photograph?

I gave a command for lights off. In total darkness, I locked the camera open. Then I gave the "fire" command over the radio, and the flashbulbs went on. The whole chamber was lit up. And for the first time ever, everyone could see the immensity of the room.

Even the surveyors had never seen it lit up like that. Five seconds, a fleeting time for sure, and then the bulbs faded out, the cameras shut down, and the applause broke out.

As a caver you never come across anything this vast. Usually the ceiling and walls are right there and you're lying in water. It's uncanny how big this is. It's the largest room in the eastern U.S. and second largest in the country.

Below the room, there're another 14 miles (23 kilometers) of cave where the river flows. The river can be 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters) wide in places, and it can get over your head.

Isn't there a local sewage plan that might affect that river?

The sewage plan would discharge treated sewage into the Dry Fork Creek, which runs directly above the cave system. It's been proven that water from the Dry Fork Creek sinks through some cracks and gets into the cave, flowing directly into the river.

The biodiversity in the cave is impressive. There are blind cavefish that are susceptible to even minor changes in river chemistry.

Tennessee says that they'll be careful, but eventually something will fail and they'll dump raw sewage on accident. That would probably kill life in the cave in one fell swoop. It would be catastrophic.

—Camas Davis

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March 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Afghan Warlord | Colossal Cave | Property-Rights Forum | Antigua Travel Guide Gear Guide: Wool | Gear Guide: Daypacks

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