Mystery Falls Cave

This is a picture of Mystery Falls cave in Tennessee, not Krubera. I should know, I made the photograph

Stephen Alvarez

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Mystery Falls Cave near Chattanooga, TN.

Mystery Falls cave is Tennessee's deepest pit, 281 feet deep.

I should know, I shot this picture of Mystery Falls in the mid 1990s. The picture is often misattributed across the internet as Kruber Cave in the Republic of Georgia.

In fact, the cave is located on the side of Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga Tennessee. The cave has been well known since the 1880s and was once used as the water source for the Chattanooga suburb of St Elmo.

A fatal fall in the 1950s led to the sealing of the pit's upper entrance. A locked door was added in the early 1990s to control access to the cave.

Making the photograph was an ordeal. To make this picture, I descended a rope in the 281-foot-deep shaft and positioned my cameras on the chamber floor. This image was shot on film, so I used multiple cameras with different exposures. I also had a 35mm camera with a custom polaroid back so I could judge exposure and climber position.

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Kent Ballew climbs out of Mystery Falls Cave.

My friend Kent Ballew had placed ropes out in the room away from the waterfall. I opened the cameras' shutters then he and Neeld Messler descended the ropes firing flash bulbs at predetermined intervals. Once they reached the bottom, I looked at the polaroid and suggested some adjustments. They climbed the ropes and I took another photograph. What appeared to be 6 people on ropes in the chamber is in reality 2 people in different positions on rope -a triple exposure on a single piece of film.

All in all, I made 4 photographs on 2 different cameras and 2 different rolls of film. 2 frames going down and 2 coming up. Of those 4 only one turned out well. It’s the picture of Mystery Falls that you see here.

So how did this photograph that I made in Tennessee in 1996 get spread across the internet as Krubera Cave in the Republic of Georgia? Some of it might be honest confusion. I have photographed both places. I was a member of a Ukrainian expedition to Krubera in 2004 (I’m still a proud member of the Ukrainian Speleological Society).

But mostly it’s a shocking result of disinformation. This picture and others were lifted from a previous version of my website and put together on made for advertising sites that claimed the pictures were from the deepest cave in the world.

This was sometime in 2008 at the time of the Russo-Georgian War. In the run up to the Russian invasion there was a huge online effort to raise the profile of anything in disputed Georgian territory. Krubera is in the self-proclaimed Russian proxy state of Abkhazia. Lots of rescources went into making pirate sites about Krubera that featured images from other places. Why? Maybe to raise the state's profile and make its claims of independence from Georgia seem more legitimate. Maybe just to confuse things as much as possible.

Those sites proliferated and soon international news outlets were reporting this image and other stolen images of mine as being in Krubera (ironically, they did not attribute my Krubera images as being from Krubera). Once that kind of viral disinformation is out it is very hard to roll back. There was a time that I tried correcting the information online but soon realized I was fighting larger forces than I could imagine. I could write a similar post about dozens of my cave photographs, Majalis al Jinn, Fantastic Pit, the Sand Passage, even Rumbling Falls have all been attributed to Krubera cave in the Republic of Georgia. Krubera Cave in fact looks like this (Deepest Cave).

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Alan Cressler in Krubera Cave's entrance shaft.

To this day people online will argue with me and claim that the picture of Mystery Falls is from an entirely different cave, on a different continent from where I stood when I triggered the shutter. It's a good warning not to believe everything that you see on the internet.

So this is my picture of Mystery Falls cave in Tennessee, not Krubera. I should know, I made the photograph.

-Stephen Alvarez

November, 2023

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