photo note: that dashing guy above is not me. You’ll see what I looked like later in the story. I chose to show this photo because it pretty much shows what caving is like. His gear and clothing, the water and the formations – this is it – and it is loads of fun.
This adventure began in a lava tube ice cave on the northeast side of Mt. Shasta in California. Gregg Fautley, a great high school friend had several of us up to his family’s cabin and his uncle Ed Schilling, offered to take us on a jeep tour of the mountain and show us to some real, non-tourist lava tubes. Real caves – I thought. Let’s do this. I’d only been in a few tourist caves and so I was thrilled.
He told us to grab our flashlights. I was ready with a small novelty 2-AAA battery plastic light. I called it my flash stick because I really didn’t think it qualified as a flash light. Soon we were off-road and after several stops to explore other points of interest, water some local plants (it’s just what boys do…), lunch and trying our hand with Uncle Ed’s .22 revolver (we were horrible marksmen) we arrived at – The Cave. It was not only a real lava tube, but was also a year-round ice cave.
I was really – really looking forward to this and scrambled up to where I saw the top of an old wooden ladder sticking out of the ground. I was looking down into a dark hole with one hand on that ladder when everyone caught up. I was first to head down and quickly discovered that I could not navigate the ladder and hold the light at the same time so I shoved it in my pocket and soon, the only thing I could see was the ceiling hole above me. Everything else was lost in black-as-ink shadow.
A few steps lower, the cave suddenly got very cold. Duh – It was an ice cave. I kept moving down deeper into the blackness, working the wet wooden ladder by feel alone as that ceiling hole got smaller and dimmer. I began to feel unsettled, but refused to let a little cold and darkness mess with this great opportunity – I was in an Ice Cave to have an adventure, not fuss about being uncomfortable.
Finally – my foot touched solid ground, or gritty ice by the sound of it, but I still could not see a thing. The ladder vibrated as my friends followed me down and I could hear them talking, but there was no longer any real rowdiness in their voices. They too were being cautious as they descended.
My first thought, as I stood there in the dark, was to retrieve my flash stick so I could see and get away from the ladder. I let go of the ladder and reached into my pocket and immediately slipped on the ice, landing on my back. To my horror – I realized that I wasn’t on flat ground, I didn’t get my flash stick, I‘d lost the ladder and I wasn’t even lying still. I was sliding down a pitch dark, frozen slope. Whoa! I picked up speed and slid deeper into the cave. With images of ice cliff edges filling my mind, I reached wildly for anything to grab – but there was nothing for what felt like 10 minutes as I picked up speed and slid deeper into darkness. Suddenly, my arm looped around an ice formation about the same time as my foot hit gravel and my out-of-control slide abruptly stopped.
Had I been screamed? Lord, I hoped not. Guys just don’t do that. I took a deep breath and tried to settle my mind while my body vainly struggled to absorb all the adrenaline I just dumped. I finally pulled out my flash stick to discover that I’d slid maybe all of 25 feet into a small room with almost nothing of interest in it. I could not have been sliding for more than 15 seconds – way shorter than it felt. My heart was pounding so I tried to collect my dignity and get upright before my friends saw me.
“Wilson! What are you doing?” Gregg called out from the bottom of the ladder as the beam of his bigger flash light swept to cover me. I was busted. As I stood up, it was clear from my soaked back that my arrival at the bottom of the slope had been less-than graceful. They gave me grief because that is what friends do.
The rest of that cave was pretty dull after that slide into unknown darkness, but no matter. I was hooked on caving. Something about the mildly hostile environment just appealed. I knew I needed some knowledge, skills and equipment that I didn’t have but was determined to acquire.
Not long after moving into my first home away from home, I was off to the library to search for cave knowledge. I found a book that connected me to a local club and within a month I was learning from real cavers – Spelunkers, they’re called from the word, “speleology” or the study of caves. Thanks to that book (of course I bought my own copy) and their fun-loving acceptance of the new kid, I was learning what gear I needed and the safety rules and the ecology of the world beneath us. They laughed and shook their heads when I told them about my first experience with that ice lava tube.
The father of the group’s founding family was also the author of that book and he slapped me on the back one night and told me that he was glad I had survived to join their club. Life was good.
We went on several camping trips to places that I could never find again because I was crammed in the back of someone’s pickup, beneath the shell with our gear and a few other members who included me into their joking around. After some bumpy roads into private lands we crawled out to see the locked entrance of a cave. The owner had agreed to let our spelunking group into explore their private cave. How could this be any cooler?
Each trip into the deep earth proved to be an adventure of discovery. We planned to spend many hours underground, finding amazing geologic formations and crawling or even rappelling through tight holes to see the wonders of many subterranean rooms. Early on, I realized what my favorite part of each trip was, it was rappelling into deep dark holes with my helmet, head light, and gear pack, using my own self-tied harness and carabiners. Each ride down was fantastic as I discovered that I was really good at rappelling and could contort myself into almost any hole or crevasse despite being so tall.
On weekends, I began taking my gear up to a peak of rocks to practice, and sometimes teach friends how to rappel. Most loved it. Some not so much.
My harness and carabiner system allowed me to descend head-first down the rope, just like a spider. I felt I could almost fly with my harness, rope and a couple of carabiners. I also became strong and almost cocky as a rock scrambler, meaning I could navigate across uneven ground or walls where you just couldn’t walk.
Once, while hiking, a female friend (who was not particularly the outdoors type) and I were walking along a ridge we needed to descend. We came to a wide “V” shaped crack that wound its way down to where we wanted to get. I evaluated it as a possible way down, but the bottom was thick with brush that we couldn’t walk through. She looked at it, knowing what I was thinking and asked, “How are we going to get down this way?”
Cockiness surfaced and I answered, “Simple. Just watch.” I jumped into the “V” toward the left and landed against the steep wall where there was no footings or hand holds to grab. Gravity really wanted me down in that brush, but I quickly turned and jumped to the opposite wall, over all the brush and further down the crack. Back and forth I jumped for about 10-12 jumps over all that brush before landing on solid ground where I turned and called back to her, “Just like that.”
Oddly, she glared back at me with unmistakable scorn. I thought it was funny, and fun – yes, almost flying through that deep “V” was huge fun. So I walked with her to a place where a normal person could easily walk down. Even odder – she later chose someone else to pursue romantically. Sigh…
I met my match in a cave near the north fork of the American River in Calif. No rappelling, but still a great cave.
Here’s what happened. Everyone was talking about a room that few visited because you had to wiggle head first down a shoulder width tube that then twisted back up into the entrance of the room. That bottom dip was always flooded, so if you went to the room, you were committed to getting wet. I wanted to see this great room so my partner, the 10 year old son of the founding father of the group, and I took off.
The lad was right behind me as I plunged in and started my wiggle down. My helmet light was bright and I could see the deep puddle at the bottom as well as a ridge that crossed from the upper left down underwater toward the lower right. I was sure I could wiggle pass that ridge. I also thought I could do it fast enough to avoid getting fully soaked but as my ribs compressed to pass the ridge, I realized too late that my 20 year-old ribs compressed easily, but not my hips – and that’s what stopped me – right at the bottom when most of my body was now under muddy water.
My forward progress was at the end and my only choice now was to back up. This was going to be a pain because I didn’t have much wiggle room in that tube to begin with and now I’d have to work against gravity going backwards. Ugh!
There really was no help for it, so I began only to find that ridge was now hitting the bottom of my rib cage and not allowing it to compress. With half my body under water that ridge had me trapped. I was able to keep my head above water (whew) by bending my neck to the left. I fussed for a few minutes, but could find no way to squeeze and push myself back up that tube.
The only answer was to send my partner for help. Blast!
Waiting for help was, ugh – I’ll call it tense. I had to swallow any thought of panic. My right cheek was right at the water level and any movement splashed more mud into my face. I was getting very cold. My helmet had to stay above water or it might short out and plunge me into darkness. I became acutely aware that I was stuck in a rock tube beneath tones of a small mountain above. If I had a small hammer and chisel, I’d be losing a fight against the temptation to chop my way free of that blasted ridge.
Well, my young partner finally returned with dad who began tugging on my feet which allowed me to press ribs with one hand and push backwards with the other and I slowly but finally slid past that cursed ridge and started progressing backwards up that tube.
It was a short climb back to the entrance of the cave but I was suddenly exhausted. My friends all came by to evaluate the impact of my little adventure and make sure I didn’t take it too seriously by poking some fun – since I had clearly survived.
As life rolled on, I was soon off to college and my marriage to a woman who does not do caves, so my gear hangs handy for unrestrained reliving of many great memories. That tube and ridge though, they were far worse than that blasted ice lave tube had been so many years ago.