So I have nearly died a couple of times this week, or at least it felt like it at the time…and not “yuk yuk. I could have died just then!” No sir, more like “Holy crap. I could have freaking DIED just then,” followed by gloomy thoughts of mortality.
On Monday, I was leading a group of fish researchers into a long and tight cave in order to get all the way back to a particular deep pool that we suspect contains cave fish. You can access it two ways. The first, which I’ve taken several times, is nicknamed “the Meat Grinder.” It contains a 300-yard crawl through sharp cobbles, where the ceiling is only about a foot and a half high, and a couple of truly nasty tight spots. The second route, which I’ve also explored (but not as far in) is called the Wind Tunnel. It has some crawly bits too, but I thought overall that it was much more promising. Better than leaving more flesh on those cobbles, I thought.
We get slightly past the farthest point in the Wind Tunnel where I’ve been, and like turning a switch on an Ugly machine, the cave turns nasty. Lots of squeezing through cracks between giant boulders, pulling ourselves up through ceiling exits, dropping through long, narrow chutes to tiny rooms below, and to top it all off, the passage is getting tighter and tighter. We finally get to the bottom, and reach a place I’d heard about from the last person who’d been there, nearly twenty years ago:
“There are two places in the cave I’ll never go again, and one of them is in the Wind Tunnel.”
What he described was a massive pile of breakdown that blocked the connection between two small rooms, ad the only way through is a very tight crawl under one of the boulders. Lovely. I stick my head under the rock, and I can hardly believe anybody could get through. This is nothing more than a hole. It looks about seven feet long, with a corkscrew twist at the end. It’s slightly more than a foot wide, and less than a foot high. I briefly consider giving the whole thing up then and there, but we’ve been working our way back here for hours, and I figure I’ll go ahead and try to push it.
In the first place, my helmet won’t fit, not even turned to the side, so I take it off and shove it in ahead of me, and begin working my way into a tiny hole in the rock where, really, no person should ever go. I go in, head to the side, one arm extended ahead of me and one along my body, trying to make my body as small as possible. After a certain point, the only way to make progress is painstakingly slow: I have to exhale to minimize my body size, and scrabble forward for a few seconds with my toes, then inhale a little and repeat the process. The rock is pressing hard on all sides of my body, and it feels like I’m stuffed inside a PVC tube or a sausage casing. But still, I’m making progress. It takes me nearly ten minutes to work my way through to the corkscrew, where you have to twist your body and sit up. I make it through the tightest spot, and I sit up in the tiny, tiny space at the end of the passage. My body is twisted halfway around, and my head is levering painfully against the rock wall at the end, when I realize something. Well, a couple of somethings. First, I realized that, y’know, I’m not really as skinny as I once was, and that it’s awfully tight in here, and that this is a place where even a beanpole would feel claustrophobic. Second, I realized that the tiny rock I had just scraped over has caught my belt, and I can’t move forward any more. At the same time, my body is twisted in an awkward and unnatural position, one arm is still pinned in the hole, and the other has no leverage at all, so I can’t force myself back.
Now, I’ve been caving for a while, and I even serve as a cave guide on occasion. I never, ever get freaked out in tight places. They’re usually negotiable with care and rational thought. But this time I was trapped. I could not move, and the panic started rising pretty fast after I realized that I was good and stuck. My muscles started aching from the awkward position I was in, and the need to move, to be anywhere except pinned in this tiny, dark space miles under a mountain, was overwhelming.
I was stuck there for more than 30 minutes. I eventually extricated myself by using my pinned arm, which was almost asleep, to hook a rock in the interior rim of the passage, and slowly pull myself back into the hole. The first quarter inch I slid back felt like a miracle. It took me another ten minutes to work my way back through, and by the time I got back, I was shaking and covered in sweat.
“It’s pretty tight.”
The rest of the party declined on trying it again, and we had to backtrack out of there. We never did get to the pool. Maybe we’ll try the Meat Grinder next time.
That’s the first brush with death. I’ll post the rest of my week later.