Caving 102

Sinnett Cave, where the caving crew went on January 12, was a saltpeter mine during the Civil War, and is now controlled by a nonprofit caving organization. Which means that we needed a reservation to visit it, and there would be no one but us tromping around during our assigned time slot. The crew consisted of the five of us who went to Mudhole--Dave, Paul, Rose, Don, and me--plus Kevin, who has also done a lot of caving with Dave and Paul. I retained my position as the designated newbie; a position I once again managed to deserve, though less dramatically than at Mudhole.

We parked by the side of a small road and variously hiked, climbed, and crawled up the side of a hill to the cave mouth. Which was closed off with a heavy steel gate and a four digit combination lock. The engineers among us seemed very impressed with the design and construction of the gate, which they thought would require an acetylene torch and considerable time to breach. Only one bar of the gate actually moved when Dave took off the lock--we gathered anyone who couldn't slither through the resulting opening wasn't optimum caver material anyway. Once inside, Dave told us the combination and we all went around muttering it for a while and thinking of memory-jogging tricks to help us retrieve it if necessary. Like if we were the only ones conscious and had to go fetch help.

To give you a broad view of how this cave was laid out: from the hole in the side of the hill, you went back into the hill (or mountain), roughly on a horizontal until you reached the bottom of the Silo, a steep vertical climb to the largest area in the cave, the Big Room, which was were most of the mining took place. However, the broad view oversimplifies; in caves, nothing ever seems to be simple or straightforward. Much of Sinnett seems formed by water erosion of the limestone rock, so a lot of the passages have a curved, free-form, organic feel that works fine for traveling water but tends to get humans turned around. There's also the danger, when you see a straight line or a right angle to assume it's part of an organized plan, rather than just the way that kind of rock happened to break.

Dave reminded us to look for bats--the Virginia Big Eared Bat, which hibernates in this cave, is protected to some degree, and we had to be careful not to disturb them. We saw some at various points in the cave. If you weren't looking for them, you could easily have mistaken them for some kind of rock formation, or perhaps a lichen--they are tinier than I expected--mouse-sized--and they do not hang from the roof like ripe fruit from a vine; they huddle together in small, tight clumps in places where the ceiling curves down into a wall, pressing themselves so closely against the rock wall that you could almost imagine they were growing out of it. We also saw the occasional flying bat, and they looked larger--either they were a different kind of bat that isn't yet hibernating, or bats look larger with wings outspread than when they are asleep and plastered to a wall. [Dave says they were Pips (Eastern Pipistrelles), the most common kind of bat one sees in caves.] I was torn between wanting to look at the bats and not wanting to wake them up with my head lamp, so I settled for many quick side glances.

The whole trip in was a barrage of new sights, sensations, and physical challenges. I don't mean to imply that it was particularly physically grueling--I have no idea if it was or not; for some of our party, it might have been akin to a walk in the park. And I didn't go quite as far as the rest did; but still, in addition to what traveling I did, I was also busy absorbing new things and situations, and learning what to do about them, which for me takes a lot more energy than just doing things.

I found, since I was with the rest of the party this time, instead of puttering about on my own near the entrance, that I had two interesting new anxieties to get over. The first was getting left behind. Not that anyone was deliberately leaving anyone else behind, especially newbie me; but a couple of times, if the veterans were not quite sure if a passage was the right one, a delegation would explore it. Sometimes two delegations would go in different directions, leaving anyone for whom it might be a good idea to not to dissipate energy on side trips--like, for example, me--sitting at the junction, guarding the packs. And sometimes, if scouting took longer than I expected, I would find myself worrying . . . .not so much that they'd left me, because even if they found another way out, they'd still have to come back for the packs, right? More like worrying that something had happened to them . . . had happened to both groups; one party fallen down a crevasse while the other had been ambushed by orcs, and it was up to me to figure out when to go running for ropes and/or Gandalf. An overactive imagination is not a blessing in a cave, I think.

And then there was the fear of getting lost--not me getting lost, but all of us. Which I know does happen at times, and is very understandable; I could see how remarkably easy it would be to get turned around. At first, this anxiety hit with sledgehammer effect every time someone would casually say anything like, "Are you sure this is the way?" or "Shouldn't we be heading more uphill?" Which happens a lot; we had a detailed map, but translating a map to the reality was more complicated than, for example, reading a floorplan or a city map where it's all more or less two dimensional. And as Dave notes, usually when anyone wanted to look at the map, someone else had taken it on a side exploration anyway. I don't think anyone ever got lost or even turned around more than briefly, and by the time we were headed out, I learned that the words "Are you sure this is how we came in?" were, at least in this cave, probably not a reason for alarm, merely an opportunity to catch my breath while the vanguard discussed options. [Dave adds: "It is very normal to be lost in a cave. In fact MOST of the time you are wandering around semi-lost waiting until you come out to a landmark you know. This is actually true above ground as well, but there people don't stress over it and you can more often walk in a more or less straight line for longer distances. The only problem is if you STAY lost for a very long time, or find yourself going in circles and unable to find the way back until the party members start running low on battery power or start getting dangerously tired. At that point you need to stop just randomly wandering around and actually start worrying about finding your way out of the cave in an organized fashion. In the many dozens of caving trips I've been on this has only been needed once or twice, and the rest of time we've wandered about in disorganized bliss however we wanted to."]

I found I was not fond of the parts where the ceiling is so low that you have to stoop, such as the part just inside the entrance. My claustrophobia, though under control, would periodically register a mild protest. But they weren't too awful, and crawling seemed to help. Spaces that were narrow didn't seem to bother me as much, especially since in Sinnett the narrows tended to be tall. And when it came to climbing, I realized that narrow was cool--climbing up something with walls on two, three, or all four sides was so much easier, not to mention feeling safer.

A large portion of the route lay through tall, narrow fissures with limestone walls that had eroded irregularly, so instead of being merely rough, they were formed of hundreds of round-edged, weathered shelves and ledges of varying widths. Rather like small scale buttes. Some of the ledges were wide enough to walk on, or at least place our feet on while bracing against the opposite wall; but most were only an inch or a few inches wide, so we progressed with what I suppose is a variety of chimneying, where you're held up not by gravity pressing you down on a ledge but by the pressure you exert with your feet and hands on narrow ledges in opposite walls. At first, I found this unnerving, especially when I could look past my feet and see ten or more feet of fissure beneath them. But after a while, it grew more intuitive, and that's when I realized I was exerting way too much pressure. Rock-breaking pressure. And therefore burning much more energy than necessary. I convinced my brain that I could use a whole lot less pressure and still not fall down, and after a while I convinced my arms and legs, too, and the whole thing got much easier. You could shuffle along at a fair pace and not find it too tiring or scary.

The official description of the cave said something about Sinnett being "developed on multiple levels." I don't think I realized exactly what that meant until I got inside. Passages would frequently branch off, and then return to the main path, sometimes after a scramble up or down. If there was a main path; sometimes there were two or more options, depending on whether you felt in the mood for climbing over some boulders or doing a stooping crawl, that would join up almost immediately, so it was hard to say which was the main passage. Some passages had what the others referred to as an "attic"--a roughly parallel path above our heads along one or both sides of the path we were following. At several points, when most of us were proceeding through the fissures, I don't think any two of us were traveling on the same level, using the same set of ledges. You'd see someone scampering along the top; someone else walking on the floor, but having to turn more and more sideways as the fissure narrowed and finally taking to the ledges; and in between, two or three of us working our way along the ledges at different heights, the leaders shouting back advice to the stragglers (like me, usually) on whether you needed to work your way higher or lower by the end of the fissure.

Beyond the fissures we arrived at the base of the Silo, the final stretch of cave before you reach The Big Room, which is the goal of all Sinnett trips. As you may deduce from the name, the Silo is a fairly vertical ascent through a chute, but then again, perhaps the name is a little misleading, because it's not at all as smooth or straightforward as the name would seem to imply. Take a straight rock chute and squash it a little, and then twist it back and forth to get the maximum number of kinks in it, and that's more like it. A lot of fairly difficult rock-climbing (not just my verdict but that of several party members), and the fact that I got up even the first stretch was due to Dave's and Rose's example, advice, and most of all patience.

Following right behind Rose was a good idea. As I mentioned in my description of the Mudhole trip, she's a very experienced rock climber; and since she was the only other woman on the trip, I tended to assume that her body probably worked more like mine than those of the guys, only stronger. I could watch what she did and try to imitate it, hoping my greater reach--I'm a few inches taller--would compensate for my woeful lack of experience. If I seemed to be having trouble, she would demonstrate again and she and Dave would show me where to put feet or hands and how to move my body and Dave would remind me that he was braced to stop my fall if I didn't make it. And then, bless their hearts, they would let me puff and dither and study the rock, not only with my eyes but also with hands and feet, and try the handholds and footholds on for size, make a few abortive efforts, sometimes stand imagining exactly what I had to do and how it would feel--mental rock-climbing; works a lot like mental tennis--and finally, either I'd convince myself that I could do it, or maybe I wouldn't be convinced, but my stubborn side would kick in, and I'd say, "I'm not going to stop now, dammit." And I'd heave myself up another stubborn stretch.

But the higher I climbed in the Silo, the more conscious I became that this wasn't supposed to be a one-way trip--what went up must come down, preferably under her own steam. Every time I got over a difficult (for me) patch, I would find myself thinking, "But how do I get down again?" I even voiced this concern several times, and Dave and Rose reassured me that most of it was going to be fine going down--you could usually slide on your bottom. It's not that I disbelieved them, but maybe some of my ancestors came from the Show Me State. I could feel a sludge of anxiety about getting down weighing on me, small but steadily increasing.

I noticed, by the way, that in some places the good hand and footholds had been worn smooth by the passage of time and many cavers. I haven't yet decided whether the reassurance that others had passed this way before made up for the slight loss of traction from the polishing. I definitely found where sand had sifted down on the rocks--it was a very dry cave--it tended to undermine my confidence that the rocks in question provided a good foot- or hand-hold.

Anyway, when I hit the final,most difficult stretch, I ran out of juice. I'm not sure myself how much of this was due to plain physical exhaustion and how much to mental fatigue. A combination, I think. Every time I reached up to take a hold and try to pull myself up the first part of that stretch, I could feel my arms start to tremble from the physical fatigue. And my stubborn side would tell me that there was just that little bit left, and if I pushed myself, I had enough strength to do it; and some combination of fear and prudence would shout back that maybe I had enough strength and maybe not, and even if I did, how about the return trip, dummy? Rose and Dave demonstrated and pointed out the route, but I had hit the wall, at least for the time being, and encouraged them to go up and begin sampling the delights of the Big Room.

I found a place at the base of the steep climb where I could prop myself comfortably--it seemed to fit Paul's instructions to find a "skeletal" resting place, where all my weight was on my bones and I didn't have to use muscles to keep myself in place. In fact, most of my weight was on my derriere, and I got so comfortable I started calling it my hammock. The fact that I found myself perfectly comfortable sitting there, with a fissure a foot wide and at least fifteen deep running between my feet and my seat, speaks wonders about the degree to which I was getting over some of my initial anxieties. I figured if resting for a while produced a significant new supply of energy and stubbornness, good; I'd try to climb higher; and if it didn't, also good; I was having a fine time where I was.

I concentrated on breathing and looking around figuring out how to describe what I was seeing. Kevin came down after a while to entertain me--presumably while the others were hunting for and testing the possible connection to another nearby cave, which was one of their goals for this trip. (Serious claustrophobes may want to skip the rest of this paragraph.) The passage to the other cave contained three tight "squeezes. Dave reports that he was able to make it through two of them by removing 2 battery packs and various garbage (including an old D cell) that he had collected from the cave floor out of his chest pocket, but decided not to chance the third one, which he later learned people usually had to be pushed through. Perhaps I should be glad I wasn't within worrying distance of this effort.

Kevin experimented with possible alternate, less strenuous ways up the tough stretch, but didn't find any; or at least none that didn't require being 6'1" to carry out. So we sat around and talked, and he told me some fascinating bits of cave lore, like the time he left his pack in a cave and a year later, when they found it, all the organic matter had been eaten by cave life--his spare shoes were down to soles and metal eyelet holes. And how caves eat cameras; they get banged up, or the mud seeps in and destroys them, which has set me to wondering whether one could do anything with a disposable camera, or whether, now that I have the Nikon digital that I really like, I should sacrifice the inexpensive digital I had to the cause of documenting a caving trip. Will ponder this.

Eventually, the rest of the crew began coming down--I felt a little less like a total wimp when I saw that coming down the final slope was not a picnic for all of them. And Paul said that I'd done very well for only my second time out, he was amazed I'd gotten as far as I had, and if I had tried the final stretch, he might have tried to talk me out of it.

On the return trip, I discovered--and here, Dave and Rose and everyone else who told me this are entitled to a big "I told you so"--that it was actually easier to climb down the Silo. In most cases, you actually could simply slide on your rear; you had to be careful to make it a controlled slide, but that's another case where close spaces produce security instead of claustrophobia--the tighter the space, the more there was to hold onto and control the slide. I think if I'd tried going down the Silo a ways before getting to the steep stretch, I might have felt differently about trying it. Which might have been a bad thing, if I'd been over confident; then again, I might have burned less energy worrying about the return trip and might have had enough reserves to handle it. Who knows?

In general, I found the return trip easier than the trip in, and after the Silo, it wasn't downhill, so that wasn't the reason. Part of it was psychological. I had passed that chasm before and managed not to fall in, so it wasn't as scary. I could do it without faltering, faster, and maybe even on my feet instead of on hands and knees. I'd crawled through that tight space and not come even close to getting stuck, so why should I worry now? And part of it was that I had begun to learn just a little bit about some of the techniques used. The chimneying through the fissures went so much faster--I knew how much pressure would keep me stable so I wasn't overexerting; I'd developed a better eye for finding routes that would take me gradually up or down as needed. Dave commented particularly that he thought I was doing much better on the way out, so I don't think it's just my imagination.

On the way out, I also found time to reflect on the fact that I am forming definite prejudices about caving equipment. Knee pads, for example. On my first trip, the knee pads I borrowed from Dave were rigid; the sort of thing kids wear for falling off skateboards. I thought they were okay. The ones I borrowed this time were softer and slightly smaller, and thus seemed rather more practical . . . until I realized that they did not want to be knee pads. Apparently it was their ambition to become shin guards, ankle bracelets, and eventually flip flops. I felt as if every time I turned around I was hiking up my knee pads, like a grade schooler tugging at her droopy socks. Give me back the skateboarders' knee pads!

And helmets. I liked the fit of the helmet I borrowed this time a little better, but as for the light--the one I borrowed at Mudhole was one Dave had rigged with a self-contained light--the battery was attached to the helmet. I never realized how well off I had it with the self-contained light. The one I used at Sinnett had a cord running from the back of the helmet to the battery, which was stored in my jacket pocket. I seem to have a remarkable aptitude for tangling myself in the cord, of unhooking the cord and finding myself in the dark. And I don't think it was just because I didn't have a good inside jacket pocket; I think I'd have managed several attempts at self-strangulation in any event.

We entered the cave at about 12:45 and left about 5:15, so this time I managed to spend about four and a half hours underground. Although the Mudhole trip was definitely interesting, obviously I had a lot more fun this time. While I won't pretend I didn't have moments of angst and anxiety, I also had a lot more time to enjoy the sights and the experience, not to mention a lot of satisfaction at doing physically challenging things. The last slope defeated me, but then I've only been doing my gym rat routine for a few months; I want a rematch when I'm in better shape.

In typical mystery writer fashion, I'm celebrating the reasonably successful conclusion of my second adventure in caving by reading Nevada Barr's Blind Descent, in which Anna Pigeon, park ranger, experienced rock climber, and serious claustrophobe, has to join a rescue expedition into the Lechuguilla Cave (the more recently discovered cave near New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns). Maria told me Blind Descent had scared her so badly that she didn't want to go into commercial caves after reading it, which I find was as good as double-dog daring me to read it. So far, it's pretty cool.

I should add that if it hadn't been for caving, I wouldn't have been able to park in my building when I got home Saturday evening. The only space left was one no one else wanted because the cars on either side had each carelessly parked several inches over the yellow lines. I managed to squeeze in, and then realized that I had no room to open either front door wide enough to get out. And I had stuff in the back seat, so I couldn't easily just roll back there.

So I opened my door as far as I could; slid out the top of the opening, where it was slightly larger, and much less obstructed; and then slipped out sideways with only my legs having to clear the lower part of the opening, where it was narrower. Worked like a charm. I managed to resist the temptation to practice chimneying down the space between the two cars so as to leave footprints. I don't think going vertical in that situation would ever have occurred to me if I hadn't just come back from caving.

And there you have the story of my second caving trip.