We got the email from CJ and it said, “You COULD drive all the way up here to PA, or we could meet halfway in WV, where there are some caves we could check out; though we’d likely have to invest in some headlamps/knee pads.” Which means, in all likelihood, that we will have to crawl on our bellies through tight gaps with pointy underground rocks dripping with mud or poking us in the kidneys and underground sludge oozing off every turn and we will only have one powerbar to split between the three of us for many, many hours. This is generally what CJ means when he suggests anything outdoorsy; “Let’s go climb Mt. Owen!” means you are sure to be covered in shit and hoarding power bars come turn-back time. “Let’s go rock climbing!” means we’ll be covered in shit and out of power bars by noon. “Let’s go caving!” Well, I guess you can’t say we didn’t know what to expect. We’ll appoint ourselves responsible for snacks, at least.
Joshua called to confirm: “So… Should we meet up in WV? What’s up with this caving thing anyway?”
I can’t hear CJ’s response but Joshua is very excited; he translates for me: “Some cave! … In the ground!… !!!”
Me: (from the kitchen with Jeff finishing up some dishes) “Will we have to crawl through mud on our bellies?”
Joshua: “Cheyenne wants to know if we’ll have to crawl on our bellies.”
Joshua: “He says there might be some tight spots.”
Jeff in kitchen: Snorts audibly.
Me: “I just don’t think I can crawl underground on my belly between giant boulders. Underground.”
Joshua: “Cheyenne doesn’t want any belly crawls.”
Me: “Ask him about the mud.”
Joshua: “He says, ‘what about crawling on your side?’”
Jeff: Rolls eyes back into head.
Me: “Foot, Down.”
Joshua: “So, uh, any other caves where you don’t have to belly-crawl?”
There are; one is in Pennsylvania not an hour’s drive from CJ’s house.
I had imagined something more, well, cave-entrance-like. Maybe with ferns, and a trickle of water coming down one side. A triangular, lean-to like opening made of some slabby rock covered with moss and strewn with wild thyme and honeysuckles. Something like you might see on the cover of a Hardy Boys novel. An artist’s rendition. This was not one of those caves. After picking our way down a poison ivy-infested hillside strewn with broken beer bottles the local color liked to chuck off the highway above, we arrived at large metal pipe sticking out of the ground at a 40-degree angle; it has a heavy metal door with a tiny window and it is padlocked from the inside. CJ has a key and he is intending for us to go in the pipe and to lock the door after us.
(CJ has to repeat three or four times to me in plain monosyllabic English that we are to go down. “It opens up once you get down, really.”)
My outstanding caving outfit consists of sturdy hiking boots, knee pads, work gloves, light rain jacket/windbreaker, helmet, and head-lamp. I was really happy to have the pads about four feet into the chute when I nearly shear off my kneecaps on something the Above World might call a “hand-rung.” Unfortunately, installed on the bottom of the pipe, it functioned more as an impediment or perhaps tailbone cruncher depending upon whether you felt a face-first or ass-first descent was appropriate. Also the pipe is about two feet in diameter, at an awkward angle, in a decidedly downward direction, and covered in wet clay. Once you get to the bottom of the chute, there is a drop down to the cave floor of around three feet, but on my stomach with my hands locked around the former kneecap killer, I couldn’t see that and so I dangled picturesquely flailing my boots around until I smacked my foot into a rocky outcropping (yipe! bad caving etiquette!). Once out of the pipe, I look around to find that “opens up” is something of an overstatement because not only is there not sufficient space to stand, there is space for only one person at a time, and the floor is a sludge of muddy gravel continuing a steep slide down and around the corner out of sight. The not-floor parts of the cave are pointy limestone covered completely with wet clay. Also, there is a stinky dead ferret lying at my feet, which: awesome. I escape the ferret and slide down a bit to find a larger area and wait for Joshua and CJ.
After much echo-ey shuffling and swearing, Joshua meets up with me and then CJ arrives. We descend rapidly for a bit and then find ourselves in a large cavern. From here are three or four routes; CJ chooses the easiest and shortest first to get us warmed up. We creep along a bit (Hey! Caving!) and then promptly come to a belly crawl. “Just a little one!” CJ chirps and worms his way through while I look on in horror. Once on the other side he peeks back at us and gives us some cheerful pointers on how to maneuver in sticky sucking clay when you have a gigantic boulder over yourself. I go next to get it over with.
I got about half way before Joshua had the bright idea to record the action with our camera. “Hold it right there for a minute while I get the camera ready.” Like hell: “I’m not stopping now!” This is about where I started to think about earthquakes and quarry blasting and torrential rainfall and all those things that one should maybe keep far from one’s mind while inching through tight crevasses. The clay sticks to you and so inching along is strangely tiring; this crevasse is maybe a little over a body length long—not bad, I’m sure—but I’m feeling a little panicky by the time I make it to the other side because now there is a belly crawl between me and the entrance.
A minute later, Joshua is inching through and CJ is scouting ahead a little; he calls back, “So uhm, I sort of forgot about this one—Cheyenne, there is another, uh, tight spot, but I think I seem to remember it’s a little shorter.”
It actually is a little shorter and I’m trying to not freak out now as we head on. The majority of the route consists of butt-slides and clambering because there just is not a normal “floor” anywhere in here.
Caving photos are weird in that there is no sense of reference; in this section, you emerge head first into a decline, which is mildly awkward. After a bit we come to the “Art Gallery,” a squat tunnel where dozens of people had made weird little clay snowmen and signed their names with clay-worm letters. CJ says the cave is frequented by boyscout troops, among others. Yeesh—the thought of ten kids in this cave is enough to make me hyperventilate. Also, I’m such a wuss.
We get to a section where the only way further is a hole in the floor, which would be a belly crawl in any other orientation but in this case is a rapid downward descent with only the gummy clay to keep you under control. CJ goes right down and calls up that there is a small room and it is the end of the passage. He says there might be space down there for three people and there are some cool crystals down there. Joshua picks his way down but I decline in favor of resting in a lovely stand up-able space and because someone has to guard our packs from marauding boy scouts or cave-trolls.
Self portrait of Intrepid Caver. My spirits were up exponentially at the thought of turning back.
Joshua and CJ ascending back out of the “room” at the bottom of the Hole.
Returning went much more smoothly; in fact, we were back in the main room near the entrance in no time. The belly crawls didn’t bug me so much when I could put them behind me.
CJ was happy to pose for Joshua on the return Belly Crawl.
We hung out a bit catching our breath and drinking some water (caving is really tiring even though we were primarily on our feet the majority of the time—you are constantly balancing and stooping and trying not to brain yourself on all the sticky-downies). I was actually feeling a bit like, “that’s it?” when it turned out it wasn’t because CJ was up and disappearing down a different branch of the cavern.
This tunnel was similar to the first but with fewer belly crawls. It also didn’t take very long to get to the bottom and back to the main cavern. The third tunnel had us hunting around for the entrance; this is because it is a 10-inch high, two foot-wide hole off the floor of the cavern. I kept repeating, “We’re going in THAT?” and “Holy crap!” but CJ was already though it and hell if I was going to get left behind with the rabid boy scouts. This was definitely the tightest squeeze and it the pointy rocks were indeed out to get the vital organs but it lasted only a few feet whereupon it opened up and went down rapidly. This section of the cave was the most interesting but also the most difficult mostly because it involved stemming across a crevasse that went down out of sight. The idea of slipping and getting wedged down there was enough to keep me in a persistent state of neurosis. I swore like a sailor with much frequency during this stretch.
If you look carefully, you might notice an abundance of clay over our very beings.
At the bottom of the crevasse-defying stemming descent was a huge room—not so much in girth but in height because it went farther up than our flashlights could reach. Ginormous boulders dangled out of the gloom above our heads and their offspring littered the floor of the cavern. There were cool curtain-like (calcite?) formations and seams running through the rock walls. Here we had interesting discussions about such topics as how frequently those looming boulders fell and how feasible would it be to find one’s way back if all our flashlights went out. We turned off the flashlights for about two and a half seconds to marvel, albeit briefly, at the complete lack of light. Yep, dark. Time to head back now.
This looks like a belly crawl but it is not; CJ and I are heading vertically up a slimy chute, and apparently pretty goddamned happy about it too. (Note pack sitting on horizontal ledge over our heads.)
Eventually we returned to the evil little belly squeeze over pointy rocks, which on the uphill is a real gut-punching menace. Once back to the main cavern, we scrambled back upwards through the sludgy gravel to the tiny room with the dead ferret. Climbing out of the metal pipe was even more difficult than sliding down, not surprisingly, and right as we got to the top, we could look up at the sky over the rim of the pipe where there was one ginormous and ugly spider crouched about six inches over your face. Ungh god.
Outside it was about twelve billion degrees and we were covered with gunk and had on all this protective gear and we were sweating from the squeeze uphill. But wait, hold everything! We need the Intrepid Cavers Mission Completed photo.
Yeah, didn’t turn out so well. That’s because our camera was approximately 54 degrees and, like I mentioned, Pennsylvania was 12,0000,0000000,00,000 degrees or some insane bullshit, and the lens was all fogged.
Here, I photoshopped it. Bad Ass.
We backtracked up the beer-bottle strewn hillside, stripped down and chucked our muddy duds all over the street once more. Then we went out for microbrew and bar food, arguably the best part about caving.