Caving 101

Some friends who do caving offered to take me into a cave suitable for beginners. December 29, 2001 was the day. There were five of us. Dave, Paul, and Don have done an impressive amount of caving. Rose had been before and enjoyed it, but hadn't ever been with them. I was the rank newbie. We trekked out to Front Royal, Dave located the landmarks that let him find the cave--right by the highway; no major hiking through the woods involved. We put on gear (much of mine borrowed) and went over to the entrance.

Now, as I recall his description of it, one of the reasons Dave chose this cave--affectionately known as Mudhole, which is much more appropriate than its bland official title--was that it had a gentle, sloping entrance, very easy for a beginner, both physically and psychologically. But remember I said the cave was RIGHT off the highway. Evidently, the highway department had recently eradicated the main entrance while installing a concrete drainage culvert beside the road. Not an insuperable problem; there was still the side entrance. We slid and slithered down a dirt- and gravel-lined semi-circular pit--I think it was maybe ten feet down, fifteen at most, though I could be wrong; I have NO sense of distance. And by gravel, I just mean a lot of gravel-sized rocks, not some kind of formal landscaping, Anyway, at the bottom of the pit, we ducked inside the very large, shallow mouth of the cave, which contained a flat area, a side passage to the right, and to the left, a hole--it reminded me illogically, of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. And immediately everyone began popping down the rabbit hole. Which was a very small rabbit hole. And as far as I could see, continued to be not only small but rather steep for an unfathomable distance.

Okay, I realize that the whole point of caving is that you are going into someplace where it's dark--hence the helmets with the nifty little lights on front. And that there would be parts that were steep. And parts that were narrow. And parts that were all three. But somehow I wasn't expecting the path to get quite that dark, steep, and narrow all at the same time right at the outset. The little voice inside me that had occasionally popped up to say, "are you sure you really want to do this?" looked at the rabbit hole, stood up, and shouted, "I WANT OUT!"

I told Dave, who was waiting for me to slither through the hole, that I didn't think I could do this and would stay up top. I must remember to ask him if I sounded merely nervous or flat out hysterical. Anyway, I bolted, and scrambled up out of the gravel pit with astonishing speed, and stood on the surface, sipping at my water bottle, because for some reason my throat suddenly resembled Death Valley. Wisely, Dave didn't try to pursue or persuade me; just made sure I was okay and then disappeared down the rabbit hole himself.

Yes, I balked. Froze. Failed a sanity roll, as Call of Cthulhu players would say. Since I have moments of mild claustrophobia, I anticipated that I might feel some degree of anxiety, but I did not expect quite this degree of irrational, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching, panic-driven need to get the hell out of there and never come back. I loitered about the edge of the pit, and after a couple of minutes, when my throat was feeling more normal, not to mention my breathing and my heart rate, I got mad at myself. I mean, I knew there was a distinct possibility that caving might not instantly or ever become my favorite hobby; but I never imagined that I would be unable to handle what Dave referred to as a tourist cave. And yet the score very obviously stood 1-0 in the cave's favor. I brooded on that a while, calling myself a coward, and stared down into the pit. And then I threw in a little embarrassment at wimping out in front of everyone, and guilt that they might not feel quite as free to enjoy themselves with me presumably gibbering here at the surface, and I managed to propel myself down into the pit again.

Of course, possibly another thing that set me in motion was the observer part of my brain. As all this was going on, the observer was having a blast. This is the kind of thing the observer loves. If that doesn't make sense, I'm not sure I can explain it any better. For a writer, or at least for me as a writer, the observer is the part that sits there taking notes when you're being mugged or having dental work or absorbing the news of the death of a friend. And also, of course, when you're watching an eclipse, being blown away by a new piece of music, or learning that your first book has been accepted for publication. It's all part of the show for the observer. And I don't mean that only writers have an observer; for all I know everyone has one.

Anyway, the observer was noticing, with interest, the physical symptoms; trying to savor the sensations as they flickered through my brain, so I could describe them; considering whether "panicking" or "freaking out" was a better description of what I was doing; pondering which of my characters might experience something similar to this. And the observer was getting impatient. "Okay, claustrophobic reaction, nice; good display of irrational behavior. We've seen all that now; what's next?" I'm not sure whether I wanted to please the observer or thumb my nose at it, but the observer was definitely part of what got me back into motion.

Down in the pit again, I eyed the rabbit hole. Not safe to go down it by myself, of course; not that I had any intention of doing so. But I could potter about the side passage. I didn't even have to get out of sight of the entrance unless I wanted to. So I turned on my helmet light; shed one layer of clothes, since I was feeling rather warmer after so much scrambling up and down the gravel slope; and ventured forward.

First I came to a small opening. I peered inside to see a small room or perhaps more accurately a small collection of connected spaces and crevices. I stuck my head in, noticed the interesting shiny stuff on the ceiling, watched a spider crawl up the wall, noted that the room was way too small to enter, then pulled my head out and went back to the entrance to sip some water.

I ventured back down the passage again. I was getting to like this passage. It was shaped vaguely like a hallway, and looked comfortingly like what you expect a cave to look like if you've only seen them on TV. But then, beyond the Spider Room, after about ten or fifteen feet, it changed, as if a giant had taken the walls and pushed them much closer together and then, for good measure, knocked the top slightly sideways, so a cross-section of the much narrower hallway would look slightly on the diagonal. Having recently seen Harry Potter, I immediately nicknamed it the Diagon Alley. I tried fitting my body into it. I had to turn sideways, and I could feel the rock touching my back and chest No, this is not an alley I will be traversing, I thought, and I retreated back to the entrance, which I had now begun to think of as the foyer.

I listened at the rabbit hole for signs of life. I sipped some water. I sat and contemplated my essential wimpiness. And then, just for something to do, I decided to climb onto a nearby ledge.

It was a very wide ledge--perhaps more like the top of a boulder, and only about five feet off the ground. Not hard to climb, or very scary, apart from its dangerous proximity to the rabbit hole. I mean, if I slipped and fell, and fell in just the right direction, and landed in just the right manner, I might go slipping down the rabbit hole. Fortunately, that did not happen; I merely crouched on top of the ledge for a while, looking, I suppose, like a gargoyle who shops at REI, and then climbed down. Oddly enough, while I was on top of it, the ledge seemed to have tiptoed away from the rabbit hole--it was no longer as dangerously close as it had been.

Taking this as a good omen, I went back to the Spider Room and poked my head into it, and then my shoulders, and gradually managed to get to the point where I could crawl into it. I had figured out that sometimes, what I needed to do to make myself go a little farther into the cave was to prove to myself that so far, at least, I could still get out. So once I managed to coax myself into the Spider Room I hung out there for a while, sitting on the floor staring at rock a few inches from my face and seeing how comfortable I could get with that sensation, or sitting on a ledge and thinking about how much I'd like this room if I were a bat and could hang from the ceiling.

I went back to the entrance, treated myself to a sip of water, and decided to revisit Diagon Alley. Which, after the time I had spent communing with the rocks and other inhabitants of the Spider Room, did not seem to be nearly as narrow as it had before. I slipped into it, took a couple of sideways steps, and then retreated.

I got down on my hands and knees--it was a little wider at the bottom, and I did still have Dave's spare knee pads on--and crawled in. I could get a little farther that way before it made me nervous. And if I lay there and moved my head to play the beam of my helmet light around, I could see that there was a small room at the end, maybe ten or fifteen feet away. A room whose floor contained not one but two obviously bottomless pits. Clearly, the intelligent thing to do would be to stay well away from the bottomless pit room.

By this time, I had a method. Go as far as feels comfortable. Then take one more step. Maybe two. And then, when I hit the point where it really starts bothering me, stop. Calmly retreat. Take a deep breath. And then start all over again. Always, the point I just couldn't go beyond the last time was fine when I went back. It took me half a dozen tries before I could get to the end of Diagon Alley, stick the front half of my body into the room, and peer down into the bottomless pits. Which were smaller than I originally thought, and not quite as bottomless, but still, they were pits. They went down, which wasn't a direction I wanted to deal with yet. There was also an abyss, not visible until you stuck your head in the room, and far more bottomless than the pits; and two slopes that looked as if they might be climbable, if the left one weren't so close to the abyss and the right one weren't on the other side of the pits. Although it might be possible for someone very agile, like a tightrope walker, to cross the razor-thin strip of rock between the pits, I wasn't sure it was anything I would ever want to try.

Just then, I heard Dave calling, apparently from the foyer, so I scrambled back out. I explained what I'd been doing, and showed him Diagon Alley. He immediately went all the way down it--I noticed that all the slithering back and forth I had done seemed to have widened it considerably; it was beginning to seem like a major thoroughfare. And Dave seemed to have no fear of falling into the pits as he walked over the no longer quite so razor-thin strip of muddy rock between them and then scrambled up the mud slope beyond them. Emboldened by his example, I actually entered the room and began figuring out how to get around without falling into the pits or the abyss, while Dave, having vanished through a hole at the top of the slope, was calling down about the things he was seeing. Including bats. I liked the idea of seeing the bats, so I began getting acquainted with the pits, and eventually eased past them and started figuring out how I was going to go about crawling up the slope. Then Dave reappeared at the top of the left slope. Apparently there was a whole room up there, equipped not only with bats but also some of the most interesting rock formations in the whole cave, and it could be reached by climbing either slope. I managed to crawl halfway up one slope, but decided to practice getting down again before going all the way.

Just then Paul arrived--climbing with daunting ease straight up out of the abyss; and then up the left slope. And Don and Rose arrived though Diagon Alley and crawled up the left slope, too. I could hear them up in the bat cave, discussing its occupants. Paul dropped part of his helmet, and Dave scrambled down into the abyss to look for it, eventually emerging from the larger of the two bottomless pits. How interesting: they were all interconnected.

About this point, to my irritation, I discovered another thing that made me nervous: having too many people in motion around me. Which was perverse, since Dave's arrival and then Paul's made me realize that it felt better to have someone around, visible or within earshot as I made my glacial progress. And seeing people disappear into one initially threatening-looking opening and reappear from another was starting to have a calming effect. I began to contemplate the notion that if the rabbit hole, the abyss, and the bottomless pit all went to the same place, that meant there were three different exit routes, one of which, surely, would be doable. But I was, at the moment, staying put, because comforting as their presence was in one sense, having the whole crew swarming up and down the slopes like mountain goats made me want to sit tight pretending to be part of a rock formation until they were all stationery or gone. Obviously I was ten times more likely to cause them difficulties than the other way around; but it took me a while to get past the need not to have anyone following too close on my heels. I was just deciding the time was right to claw a path all the way up the slope to the bat cave, and then afterward, depending how that went, considering the wisdom of attempting one of the various downward openings. But that was when the rest of the group decided they were ready to leave; not surprising, since they'd been off doing much more strenuous things the whole while. And I was feeling strangely tired myself. So we trooped out.

The cave got in one more parting shot, though. Dave went up the gravel slope first, followed by Don, then Rose. Paul stayed down until last in case, as he put it, anyone had trouble getting up the slope. It was nice of him not to say, "In case Donna has any trouble getting up the slope," though clearly I was the most likely candidate for rescue. I was crawling up behind Rose, trying to pay attention and take the same route she was taking, since she mentioned that she'd done some rock climbing and to me, at least, she looked like a veteran. Learn from the experts. Unfortunately, at one point, she had grabbed a protruding root--she afterward said that she realized it was a mistake as soon as she grabbed it--you never grab roots or branches--so she shifted to a rock. Not knowing this bit of climbing wisdom, I trusted the root, which promptly broke, sending me sliding down the slope.

Paul asked me afterward if I felt panic when I began sliding. I could honestly say that no, I didn't. I'd recently savored panic, and this wasn't it. More like anxiety and frustration. In what seemed like a remarkably long few seconds, I was picturing what I was sliding toward, and I'd spent enough time in the foyer that I was reasonably sure I wasn't going to slide all the way into the rabbit hole; so I was just trying (not very effectively) to slide as slowly as I could manage so as to break as few essential body parts as possible. I was quite surprised when I landed on something much sooner than I expected, and that the something didn't have any sharp rocky points. The something was, of course, Paul, who broke my slide halfway down the slope and steadied me until I got a new grip on some rocks and could begin creeping up the slope again. More slowly, avoiding vegetation of any kind, and testing all the rocks before trusting them. Unfortunately, while I managed to get my hands around some rocks at the top of the slope, that's when the last of my upper body strength gave out, and there wasn't a good toehold available, and I knew from the trembling of my hands and arms that gravity was about to win another round. Which was when Don grabbed my left arm, braced himself and said he'd hold me while I pulled myself out. I had to admit to him that I didn't think I had enough strength left to do that, so Rose grabbed my other arm and the two of them hauled me over the edge. I don't really know if I thanked Paul, Don, or Rose articulately enough. Perhaps it's all in a day's work if you're caving, but for some reason I felt immensely cheered, being in the company of people who would, quite literally, leap to catch me if I fell and pull me out if I got in over my head. And I probably failed to tell Dave that I appreciated his patience when he was trying to talk me through climbing around in the bottomless pit room; it must have been like watching a slow motion video of a snail race.

Anyway. All in all, I have to admit the cave won. I like to think I didn't completely roll over and play dead, but very close. Fortunately, Dave and Paul have not completely given up on the idea of taking me caving. Yes, I do mean fortunately; I'd like to give this another try. I can't say that the freaking out part was a lot of fun, but it was rather interesting, seeing how I react in a new situation; in fact, useful; and I'd like to see if I can push past my initial reaction. Once I started feeling a little more comfortable in Mudhole--toward the very end of our stay, alas--I stopped thinking of it as tons of rock poised to fall down any second in the event of a statistically improbable (but not impossible) earthquake and started seeing how it could be a lot of fun, like a giant three-dimensional maze and a free-form jungle gym all rolled into one. And feeling a sense of victory all out of proportion to the difficulty of the few things I managed to explore. I'd like to think that if you become comfortable enough with one cave to start enjoying it, you would have an easier time getting to the same point with other caves.

I can see not doing something because you've tried it and don't enjoy it, or because you've tried it and gotten enough of the experience to satisfy you, or even because you have tried and realize you genuinely can't get past some irrational mental barrier--but not because you damn well haven't really tried. So if I get a chance, I want to try this thing again.

And there you have the story of my introduction to caving.

Next: Caving 102! Thrill to death-defying rock-climbing exploits! Marvel at prodigious feats of subterranean navigation!

Okay, seriously; this time I did get more than ten feet into the cave.