I have had a tough summer. I got lost in feelings of loneliness and depression. And then felt shame for feeling lonely and depressed. I didn’t like how I felt or who I was. Ugh…
As I struggled to find my way out of this period of depression, memories kept surfacing of an extremely challenging caving trip I took more than thirty years ago. When I found myself returning to those memories repeatedly over the past few weeks, I realized that they must be a story I needed to hear.
Here is my story of my journey to the underworld.
When I first got into serious cave exploring, one of the first cavers I met in Tampa was a member of a private cave conservancy group that protected Butler Cave, which was located in the mountains of northern Virginia. She invited me to go caving there with her over the 1983 Memorial Day weekend. Butler Cave is in pristine condition because it has been under protection since its discovery in 1958. Of course, I jumped at the chance to see this world-class wild cave.
That Saturday, a large group of us had a tiring, but good five hour trip into some of the easier sections of the cave and took some hikes around the beautiful valley above the cave. On Sunday, a smaller group of us went back into the cave to explore some of the more difficult sections. We got to see the rarely visited Crystal Section, which was coated floor to ceiling in dazzling delicate crystals and intricate formations, including large calcite flowers and tufts of angel hair. It was like walking around inside a geode! We also were able to look into the Moon Room and view its slick, milky-white, translucent crystalline floor, which no one is allowed to walk on.
After about six exhausting hours, we sat down in a large passage for a rest break and snacks. Then we split up, with part of the group heading back to the surface.
I chose to stay with four experienced cavers who wanted to continue exploring. All of us were in pretty good shape and of average to skinny build. Our very experienced trip leader was a small dynamo of a woman who might have weighed in at 90 pounds after a big meal. Of the four men, I was the thinnest.
After our rest break, without any discussion of where we were headed, our trip leader crawled into a small passage next to where she had been sitting. Although I was not enthusiastic about the looks of it, I followed after the third person. One man followed behind me.
The oval passage was about eighteen inches high at the highest and about 3 feet wide. Because of its small size, we had to crawl on our bellies and push our helmets and packs ahead, which was awkward and tedious. It was very slow going right from the start.
Tight crawls have always been my very least favorite part of caving. But I was hopeful that we would soon pop into a bigger passage. I was so wrong.
It wasn’t too bad at first. We were moving very slowly, but there was reasonable space on all sides of me. All I could see in front of my helmet were the soles of the boots of the man ahead of me. I quickly realized that I needed to slow down and keep more distance between my face and his boots, because getting too close to his boots made me feel more closed in and uncomfortable.
We spent more time waiting than moving, so I had ample time to experiment with having my head and arms and pack in various positions to try to find which was most efficient and comfortable. I got increasingly frustrated that the people ahead of me were so slow.
After about twenty minutes we had not gotten far. Not a good sign. I was getting very anxious and I decided I wanted out! It was difficult to see behind me because there was not enough space to turn my head sufficiently. Once in awhile I could hear some muffled voices ahead and behind, but even though our heads were only seven or eight feet apart, I could not make out any words because our bodies blocked most of the sound. Repeatedly I yelled to the man behind me to back up, but I could not understand his response. I backed up a little and pushed my boots against his helmet, but he did not back up. I finally gave up and rested while waiting for the man ahead to move. After awhile, there were no more muffled voices—we all had given up trying to communicate.
As we moved slowly forward, the passage got tighter. It was hard to have a real sense of time, but I think we must have been in the crawlway for at least thirty minutes by this point. Now the ceiling was averaging nine to twelve inches high and the passage had narrowed to about two feet.
From my trip log: “Now it was necessary to keep my head turned sideways—very fatiguing on my neck, frequent resting of my head on the sand was required. Now it seemed like forever. I had feelings of panic…”
About this time, I heard deep rumbles. It sounded like the bedrock was rumbling! After several agonizing minutes of intense panic, I realized that what I was hearing was the runaway pounding of my heart! Oh, God, I really hated this! Definitely turning into my worst nightmare!
It got tighter. Most of the time there was not enough room to turn my head to switch sides, so my neck muscles were in pain and cramping. There was no longer enough room to have one arm by my side to push while the other arm stretched above my head and pulled—now both arms had to reach out in front of my head. I was absolutely miserable. I swore I would never do a crawlway again.
More from my trip log:
Incredible strength was needed to move even one or two inches forward because by now only my ankles and hands [wrists] could move—there was no room for knee or leg action nor for elbows, shoulders or back to help out. I had to keep reassuring myself that the air was fresh and cool and okay to breathe and that I was in fact still moving slowly but surely forward. I turned my lamp down [open flame of carbide miner’s lamp] as low as I could because of my fear of bad air [from burning up my oxygen]. Then the crawlway began slanting upward and became even tighter—movement was next to impossible. At this point I was almost in tears—I could not bear to think of having to return out this way.
I felt helpless, isolated, and trapped! I felt horrible—intense frustration and anger and fear. Several times I got teary. And at one point, I let my feelings erupt into a temper tantrum—thrashing around, hitting the sand with my fists and kicking my legs and yelling. It was like losing it in a straight jacket—I could thrash all I wanted, but couldn’t move much and no one could hear me. The effort was exhausting and the exertion made it hard to breathe. I stopped because I was afraid if I totally freaked out I would never get out alive. And none of this was helping—I was just making myself feel worse. And that was good information to have—I had no power to get out immediately, but I realized I could stop making myself feel worse.
So I surrendered to my physical reality. I chose to focus my attention on the physical realities around me instead of my fears and emotions. I began reporting to myself the moment-by-moment observations of my reality: “See, it’s okay to lay your head on the sand and gravel. It feels good to rest your neck muscles now.”
One of my worst fears was that the air would stagnate and I would suffocate. However, when I started paying attention, I observed that I could feel a slight current of cool air flowing past my face. It wasn’t stuffy—it was refreshing. I realized that I probably wouldn’t suffocate. So for awhile I would just focus on breathing slowly and be grateful for the cool breeze on my face. It was comforting to me. I would chose to repeat this process many more times to quiet my fears along the way.
There was not much to do and not much to see while I waited. I started paying attention to the gravel on the floor in front of my face. At times I would make a game of moving some of it off to the sides of the passage so I would have a tiny bit more clearance as I moved ahead. It helped to keep my mind focused on a tangible activity like this instead of letting scary thoughts run out of control.
I was grateful for the sand and gravel because made it relatively easy to slide my helmet and pack forward. It also made it somewhat easier to slide my body forward, almost like I was lying on a layer of ball bearings. When I was resting, I also came to appreciate that the sand and gravel were much more comfortable to lie on than solid rock or sharp rubble.
One of my more realistic fears was of getting chilled and getting hypothermia, which has caused the death of trapped or injured cavers. The air, water, and rock temperatures in this cave were around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which could become a problem without warm clothing and the ability to keep moving. The risk is greater when lying on damp rock or in wet conditions because the body heat drains off much faster. So I was grateful for the dry sand and gravel, which offered some slight insulation, and for my warm, dry clothes.
I forced myself to take an inventory of the positive things about my situation. I had come prepared with proper food, water, clothing, and light sources. I knew I had enough light to last several days, and enough food and water to last at least six hours comfortably. All of these things helped me recognize that regardless of how miserable and afraid I felt, there was no immediate threat to my physical safety. I had to keep telling myself this throughout the rest of my ordeal.
One of my biggest comforts was knowing that experienced cavers back at the camp knew our trip plan and how to locate us if we failed to return on schedule. I trusted them and felt less alone knowing they were nearby. Additionally, they knew how to contact an extensive network of trained cave rescue personnel.
As I continued listing positives, for once in my life I was happy to be the skinniest guy in the group. I knew that the two young men ahead of me had bigger shoulders and chest, and outweighed me by twenty or thirty pounds. I knew I could get through anything they could squeeze through.
Finally, after what must have been nearly two hours of misery, I could hear voices again. The guys ahead were out of the tube! One of them reached in and took my helmet and pack to make it easier for me. Even so, it took awhile for me to squeeze through the last few feet. It was so tight that I have no idea how the two bigger men could have made it through.
I was so grateful to be able to sit up again! I was shaky and totally exhausted and almost in tears with relief at being out. Unfortunately, that relief was overshadowed by my fears about having to endure the same torture to get back to the main part of the cave.
I put my thoughts aside to help the last man out. He was the huskiest of our group, so he had an extremely tough time getting through the last five feet. He grunted and growled and did some serious swearing as he sweated his way out. After he caught his breath, he told me the thing that pissed him off the most was that this whole ordeal was unnecessary because there were other ways in. Oh my God! That meant there were other ways out! This was the best news I had heard all day!
After a rest and snack break, and some brief exploring, we headed out. The route we took back to the main passage was not a cakewalk by any means, but infinitely better than the tube we had crawled through. Along the way we made some frustrating wrong turns and had to repeatedly climb up and down some rugged forty-foot crevices that shredded our clothes.
Once we found our way back to the main passage, I felt great relief to be in familiar territory and only minutes away from the surface. We easily made our way to the bottom of the first big room in the cave, Breakdown Mountain, so-called because it contained a 300 foot high pile of rubble which we would have to climb. I was so happy to be leaving that I didn’t care that I was the last person up or that I couldn’t see because my glasses were totally fogged.
The last significant obstacle to exiting the cave was the climb up a thirty foot cable ladder. I rested while everyone else climbed the ladder. When my turn came, I was still out of breath and my glasses were still fogged. I was glad to be on a safety belay as I climbed because I was so shaky and fatigued that I could barely lift my arms or legs or get my hands to hold onto the ladder. I kept yelling up to my belayer that I couldn’t do it, but he talked me up one step at a time and I eventually got to the top.
Ten hours after we had first entered Butler Cave, I crawled through the small entrance gate and out into a beautiful starry night in the Virginia mountains.
Now I remember who I am.