My brushes with mortality this week -OR- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

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.

Sorry, I stopped right there. :eek: Moving on.

You’ve just described my worst nightmare.

I’ve been on several of the well known cave tours (Howe, Luray, Carlsbad) and enjoyed them…all except the part where the guide took us down a tunnel that got narrower and narrower until we were all single file. Then he turned out the lights. :eek: :eek: :eek:

What you did? Never happen in my lifetime.

I got a couple of sentences further than you, my heart constricted and I turned away.

I read it all, and I really, really regret it.

It’s a great narrative, though, Ogre. You’re of stronger stuff than I.

evil giggle… that is about when i would snap my cyalume and give it a shake=)

although I did cave a few times when way younger and skinnier, and i am very happy to say that even after being stuck for 3 hours between 2 people who were a bit heavier than me, in total darkness I am actually not claustrophobic [i took a nap, actually. too dark and i didnt bring anything to read, so i defaulted to napping from boredom.]

I love caves - I have done Luray and Carlsbad tours while traveling around with mrAru. Where is Howe? the name sounds familiar but I cant place it.

Wait a minute. Is this viral marketing for The Descent? :wink:

Ya know, I’ve got my own stories. . . but you really ought to start a “Ask the Spelunker” thread.

Trust me on this one.

I’ve done some spelunking, but not like yours. :eek:

That freaked me out just reading it! You’re definately a braver person than I am,

I’m really glad you’re not dead.

Jeezus! Why would a person want to do that? I’m glad you’re ok and all…but just stop that. Stop it now.

I’m feeling a little sick after reading that. I think I’ll go stand outside in my yard for a while.

I read the first part and had to skim the rest. I started hyperventilating.


I’m living vicariously through your posts! Was there more to this story?

My thoughts exactly. Add though, that I thought I was going to vomit just from reading it!

Yep. Leprachauns.

Yeah, there’s more to it, but no cavey goodness. I was out doing water quality monitoring at another national park Wednesday (a Civil War battlefield,) and I was carefully working my way down the wet riprap next to the Tennessee River. I put my boot down, and suddenly, I feel two sharp raps on the side. I look down, and curled up on the next rock is a copperhead that has taken exception to my being so near. I got lucky, though. They were false strikes, and weren’t meant to puncture or envenomate. It essentially just bopped its head into my boot to warn me. I still went dancing away (exclaiming a ridiculous “Sorry! Sorry!” :rolleyes:) The snake just went back to sunning itself (or what could pass for sunning in all the rain we had.)

Yes, for all the smartasses, I know copperhead bites are rarely fatal, but they really suck, and hell, it’s a good addition to my story. :slight_smile:

Well, sir, then I go down to another of my sites…Owl Creek Bridge. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Civil War. Owl Creek Bridge. Could it be? Yeah, I hoped so too, but that particular Owl Creek is a couple hundred miles away, in northern Alabama. This one is right on the edge of Shiloh National Military Park, and it has a very wide, very slick swamp along it…and the road to the bridge goes right through it. Now, I knew from experience that the mud is nearly impossible, even when its fairly dry out. I’ve been stuck down there twice in the past three years. And it’s nowhere near dry out. It’s been raining all day long. I park my truck where I think it’ll be safe, and just as I start to get out, the rain intensifies to the point where I can’t see ten feet in front of the truck.

No big deal. I’ll just while away a few minutes. I know. I’ll give an old friend a call until the rain slacks, and everything’ll be jake. After a few minutes of conversation, I notice, once again, a couple of things. First, the rain is not slacking off, and second, I can’t really see the road anymore at all. All I see is water. Uh oh. I’d better scrap this site and get out of here. “Gotta go. I’ll call you back later.” Crank the truck, throw it in 4-wheel low, and slap it in reverse.

It doesn’t move. Well, it moves, alright. It moves sideways. It’s like trying to get traction in 2-foot-deep axle grease. I notice that the water is rising, flowing in from the swampy woods, and it occurs to me that it wasn’t a great idea to come all the way down here just so I could be in a flash flood. I start rocking the truck, throwing it in drive, then reverse, then drive again, as I’m trying to get any sort of traction. I stick my head out of the truck, and see that it’s probably not safe to abandon the truck and seek higher ground anymore, since I appear to be in the middle of a large, fast-flowing river now, with water rising quickly. I react to the situation clamly:

“FuckFuckFuckFuckFuckFuckFuck.” Drive. “Fuck.” Reverse. “Fuck.” Drive. I’m throwing 20-foot rooster tails of filthy, muddy water every time I hit the gas.

Finally, with the water swirling around the bottom of my doors, and floating sticks lodging against the upstream side of my truck, my tires catch a little vegetation or something, and I lurch out of the ruts I had created, and I manage to pull the truck out of the flood.

That was some scary shit. I’ve felt like the universe has had a bullseye painted on me this week.

And now I have to sign off for a while. My wife and I are moving this weekend, and I will only have intermittent net access for the next three weeks or so. See you guys on the other side!

Great. You spook us all the fuck out and then just walk away whistling.

I hope you don’t mind, but with the deadpan delivery and the “666” post count, I can’t help but think of a tall, cadaverously thin 19th century comic-book mortician, top-hat and all, delivering that line with questionable sincerity and a predatory grin.

Think, the Crypt-Keeper. :slight_smile:

All the way through the cave story, I kept telling myself, “he had to have gotten out, or he wouldn’t be here, posting it.” But, it was hard to believe me.