A few weeks ago I went spelunking, or “caving,” for the first time in a long while, and it reinforced what I had already learned on multiple prior occasions. I don’t like this sport. I hate it. I have no idea why I keep finding myself in the position of fearing for my life in some deep dark place. But I think it’s kind of like giving birth, at least as far as I understand it, in that while you are doing it you hate it and swear that you will never do it again. But then after some time goes by, your brain starts to play tricks on you and somehow convinces you that you had a great time and wouldn’t mind doing it again. Your brain conveniently forgets all the hours of terror and claustrophobia and only recalls the joyous feelings of emerging from the darkness and seeing sky and breathing clean air and embracing the fact that you will actually live to see another day.
I suppose I should clarify that it’s not every cave that leaves me feeling like I just escaped certain death. I have walked through plenty of huge cavernous caves with rooms larger than buildings that aren’t the least bit scary, especially when they’re lit up with colorful lighting or filled with other tourists.
It’s the other caves that really get to me, like the one I explored a few weeks ago with my brother and sister. This particular one, up Utah’s Logan Canyon, my brother had been to once before and somehow he convinced my sister and I that it would be a good idea to go check it out. So we drove about an hour up the canyon through a drizzle of rain along a rough and muddy dirt road until we were far up in the mountains with no civilization in sight. The road eventually just came to an end in a grove of aspen trees and we stepped out into the mud and the cold to begin our incursion into the mountain. We first had to hike up a thin and overgrown deer trail straight up the side of the mountain, which the rain had turned into a muddy luge run that nearly turned us back us before we could even find the cave. After precariously making our way a few hundred yards up the mountain, pulling ourselves up by the soaking wet shrubs and fallen logs along the side of the trail, we came to knoll where David had us fan out to try to locate the entrance to the cave. Clearly this was not a well traveled path. I began to calculate the chances of anyone ever finding us should we fail to return home. David soon called to us and led us to the edge of what looked like a muddy sink pit with a small dark opening at the bottom. “Well, this is it,” he said, with a glint in his eye.
“Are you serious? That’s it??”
“Yep. But don’t worry, it only gets worse on the inside.”
“You could barely stuff a volleyball through that hole and you expect us to all go in there?”
So we switched on our headlamps and descended down into the sink hole. The only sign of any prior human activity was a frayed rope that someone had left behind to assist with the climb down the muddy bowl, probably after some heavyset person lost their footing and slid down the mud at a high rate of speed and corked themselves in the cave’s entrance, which would have been terribly inconvenient for anyone already in the cave and now unable to get out. Once we crawled into the cave it became a dark and silent world, dank air and wet clay beneath our hands and knees as we crept along following the beam of our headlamps and the illuminated backside of whoever was crawling in front of us. We spent the next several hours working our way down through the shaft of the cave which seemed to tunnel straight into the mountain. At times it would open up into large amphitheaters of darkness where our headlamps were pitifully ineffective at penetrating the blackness. Caves are one of the few places in the natural world where one can experience true darkness, pitch black. Anywhere else might at first seem to be truly dark, but soon enough one’s eyes will grow accustomed to the darkness, and then the faint light of the stars or the distant glow from the city will illuminate the world, however partial. But deep in a cave there is a total lack of light, and no matter how long one sits there in the darkness they will never be able to see their own hand waving in front of their face. It becomes disorienting and the brain races to make sense of the total loss of its primary sense, leaving you feeling dizzy and heavy. You literally hear your heart beating in your ears. Of course, other than brief demonstrations of the pitch black effect, I kept at least one of my three flashlights on at all times. I wasn’t taking any chances. About a dozen extra batteries rolled around in my pockets.
The truly scary parts were the points where the cave shaft would narrow down to a tiny opening that was barely wide enough to squeeze through a thin human being. It was too narrow to crawl or even shuffle with our arms at our sides. So we would stretch our arms out in front of us and pull ourselves along inch by inch, wiggling and creeping and sliding through the clay and the rocks, covering our clothes in mud, careful to keep from gashing our heads on the sharp walls. In those narrowest, darkest, scariest parts, it became a mental exercise of completely shutting off your brain and focusing only on the one task at hand, which was inching your way along until you hoped you would find a larger chamber where you might be able to turn around, since you were pretty confident that you wouldn’t be able to back up even if you had to. But if you didn’t shut your brain off and focus on just that one and only thing, the claustrophobia and a keen awareness of your situation really began to tear at your mind and body. Your heart would race and your breathing became erratic and panicked. I constantly had to battle thoughts of “Where exactly am I right now? I am deep in a mountain about a mile down a rat hole with a million tons of stone piled on top of me. If any part of this cave collapsed at any moment we would be done for. Game over. ‘Congratulations, you were stupid.’ It would take months for rescue crews to dig down deep enough to even be close to where we are, and for as long as I survived on whatever dwindling sour oxygen remained I would be powerless to do anything but lay there in that tiny hole squeezed between muddy rocks and wait for my batteries to slowly fade into nothing.
At one point in a particularly narrow tunnel where we had to contort our bodies at extreme inhuman angles to make any sort of inching progress, I instituted a rule that all three of us were not allowed to go together. At least one person had to remain behind in case anything happened, in the hopes that that person would still be in a position to go get help. This was only because I was with my brother and sister and couldn’t bear the thought of my parents getting a phone call saying that three-fourths of their children would never be coming home again. Extreme adventures with friends is one thing, family is another. And I knew that I would be the one blamed for any unfortunate event, even though the whole thing was David’s idea. Bad reputations die hard.
Despite the obvious downsides, I do have to admit that it was a pretty great day. (See, that whole pregnancy phenomenon is already setting in). There were a handful of places where the cave opened up and there were huge cathedrals of rock and we were jumping around from boulder to boulder buried deep in a mountain, laughing with each other and exploring what some might call the edge of the world, and I had to recognize how lucky we were to be somewhere truly wild and where so few people ever (or would ever want to) go. Nonetheless, I was extremely relieved to crawl out of that hole and back into the open mountain air and drizzle of rain that was beginning to turn to snow.
One other caving experience that stands out in my mind was of an entirely different kind. A few years ago when I was living in Maui my brother came over to visit. Together with my Argentinian friend Hernan we decided to take a road trip to the far side of the island where there are far fewer people and it is a beautiful lush tropical rainforest. Hernan had heard about an underwater cave that sounded like a pretty awesome place, so we decided we would definitely try to find it. We stopped at a store on the way to buy some sort of lighting device to help us navigate the cave. David and I settled on glow sticks, since we figured they would be water proof and cost as much as we were willing to spend. Hernan shelled out twice the amount of cash that we did ($2) and bought a flashlight that he sealed up in a ziplock bag. We were ready to take on the world. A few hours later, after navigating the extremely narrow and winding road along the coast, and after surviving some huge leaps off the top of waterfalls, we made it to the beach where some maniac had told Hernan we would find the cave. A trail led us down through some jungle and lava rock to the base of a lava flow where there was a partial cave and a deep pool of freezing cold fresh water. After an excessive amount of toe-dipping and whining, we grabbed our glow sticks and leapt into the pool. We found ourselves in chest-deep water and as we explored further into the cave, we discovered it was much larger than it initially appeared to be. We followed a cavern back into the darkness, looking warily over our shoulder to watch the beautiful blue shimmering water and rays of light fading behind us until it became the familiar pitch black of the caving world. Right about the time we lost the last of the light it became too deep to touch bottom and we were forced to press on while treading water. We cracked alive our glow sticks and were disheartened to see that they only gave off enough light to illuminate our frozen fingers wrapped tightly around them. Hernan’s $2 flashlight wasn’t much better. The conversation quickly deteriorated.
“I’m freezing, this is ridiculous, I can’t see a thing! Russell!!!!! Where are you??? So help me, if you scare me I will kill you!”
“I’m right here next to you, stop shouting! Oh man, you’re right, this is ridiculous. Hernan?!? Where are we supposed to go? I can’t tread water forever!”
“Umm, I think we’re supposed to find a hole to crawl through into the next room. Feel around and see if you can find it!”
“The walls are too slippery, there’s nowhere to climb out! My legs are cramping up!”
“I found the hole! I think. I don’t know Hernan, it’s pretty freaking small and I can’t see what’s on the other side.”
“Toss in a glow stick!”
“I did. Now all I see is my glow stick hovering in space.”
“Well, I can’t find anything else, let’s just go for it. I’m getting really tired. Stupid flashlight! Where is it!?”
“Follow my voice, I’m going through right now. Oh man, this is just stupid. Do you think this water connects to the ocean? I wonder if sharks could swim up into these caves. Something just touched my leg.”
“Okay, I’m through! Oh man, who knows what’s in here, I really can’t see a bloody thing. Get in here! I don’t want to be alone in here!”
“Okay okay, we’re here. Oh man. Hernan, are you sure this eventually leads back outside? I don’t think we could find our way back the way we came if we tried.”
“My limbs are freezing up. I can’t swim much longer, we’ve got to get out of here. I’m not kidding. Where do we go from here? It’s all I can do to keep from screaming.”
“Okay, I think I found the way out. But we’re going to have to swim.”
“What do you mean? We are swimming.”
“No, I mean, we’re going to have to hold our breath and swim through a hole. It’s only a foot or so below the surface. I can feel it.”
“Are you serious? I’m not putting my head underwater! How long is the tunnel?”
“I’m not sure, not too long. Hopefully. I think I can feel air on the other side, but my hand is too numb I can’t really tell.”
“Stupid glow sticks. I really wish I could see anything. I hate you Hernan, this was a terrible idea.”
“Alright, I’m going for it. Hernan, I hate you too, just for the record. You two can stay here and die or follow me and, well, maybe still die.”
We made it through into the third chamber and were extremely relieved to see a faint light high above us. We found a way to crawl out of the water and scale the walls of the cave up to the light, which was an exit from the cave and back into the jungle, where we then had the pleasure of walking barefoot across lava rock and mud to get back to where we had stashed our packs. It was a terrifying yet awesome experience and, despite how unnerving it was to be lost in a pitch black cave treading water with no certain way out, it was a great day. One of the best.
And, like all experiences that truly test your nerves and your mind and your abilities, you come away from it with a renewed appreciation for being alive, for truly living. There’s a lot of people that are alive for a very long time before, if ever, they realize that being alive is nowhere close to the same thing as living.
P.S. Here’s a short video of my buddy Ryan and I crawling through a cave on a beach on the island of Kauai.