Saturday, April 4, 2009

Something stinky this way comes

I couldn't wait, but I was terrified - all at the same time. I'd been invited on my FIRST caving trip. My college room mate, who had fewer brain cells than I DO, was also along for the ride. Both he and the guy coming were experienced cavers.

Let me stop for a second and explain that I've ALWAYS been claustrophobic. When I was a kid, my brother zipped me up in a suitcase and left me there for what seemed like a half hour, when it was actually probably only 30 seconds or so, but THAT did it. NO more confined spaces for me. So why did I want to go caving? I don't know. I really have no clue. (But I'm VERY glad I did say yes as I would take many, many more caving trips, lead a number of expeditions myself and even lecture on caving at grade schools later on in life.)

Back to the story - the other guy, the leader of the expedition, shows up and I'm spooked because he looks JUST LIKE ME!!! They say, whoever the hell 'they' are, that everyone has an exact twin someone in the world. I met mine that day. That didn't bolster my confidence however. Here we are being led by a guy that looks like a brain dead guy, me, and another even brain-deader guy, my room mate and of course, yours truly. This is NOT starting off right.

Oh God, we were in trouble.

We get to the cave. Only it's not a big hole in the ground as I thought. We drop down a little-bitty hole, then sideways for a about 100 feet, then DOWN a short shaft by rope. I didn't sign-up for ropes. Getting down was bad enough, but even I could figure out we needed to get back up later on. I would find out that this was nothing compared to what was coming next.

What was coming next was me coming face to face with my fear of being confined in small places. We had to remove our small packs, tie them to one of our feet and then belly crawl through a coffin-sized passage for the next hour and a half. I could have stopped and said, no damn way. But I chose to face my fear and press on. I'm glad I did because I overcame claustrophobia THAT day. But the "fun" wasn't over yet.

We crawled on through mud. I came to love mud during the coming years of my caving career and picked up the nickname "Cavehog" because I'd rather wallow in the mud than simply walk across a path. Anyway, back to the story. At one point, the crawl got so tight, we had to shimmy through a very shallow stream with water up to our chins.

Finally, we broke out of the coffin-sized passage into a chamber large enough to kind of sit up in. It was a welcome relief. We ate lunch there. They taught me the importance of NOT leaving anything behind. They were good cavers.

The only problem was my room mate, having very few brain cells, was having trouble with his carbide lamp. Carbide lamps are the type of lamps miners used to use in which a flame shoots out the front of a polished disk and provides illumination. Sometimes carbide lamps can be finicky and clog up. My room mate's lamp was misbehaving and rather than checking it in a sensible manner, he took his helmet off and held the lamp to his ear to listen for escaping carbide gas. His ear, which was covered by his LONG curly hair. His LONG curly hair, which promptly ignited in a flaming fireball 500 feet below the surface of Bloomington Idiana. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!! A lot of WOOOFING AND POOOOFING and cussing later and we got his head extinguished. But now the entire cave smelled like burnt hair. And this particular cave have almost no air movement through it. So we had to live with the smell for quite a while afterwards.

We finished the expedition and made it out alive. And from that day forward, I continued to use carbide, but I NEVER held it to my HEAD to hear if there was gas coming out. Thanks for that tip there, Bill.