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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spelunking Moaning Cavern: A Wild Adventure With My Son (Part 1)

[Click on the photos for an enlarged view.]
A few weeks ago my son Demetrious (DT) and I did something truly awesome.

I took him a couple years ago to Shiloh for a book signing, and we did a side trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We both loved it. I promised to take him to some of the many pretty cool caves in northern California. Time passed, and we never made it.

My wife, bless her, called me at the office one day and asked whether I wanted to take him to Moaning Caverns for their 3-hour Adventure Tour.

"Sure," I answered. "That sounds great." Little did I know . . .

The night before I found a video made by the adventure channel guy who visited the same cave for the same thing a short time ago. I nearly freaked. "I am going to do that? With my son?" Gulp.

A couple days later we drove to Moaning Cavern, about 1.5 hours away in Gold Country, and met up with the rest of our group for the 11:00 a.m. tour. A mother-son team (Tracy and Ollie) parked next to us. We got on right away. The rest of "team" was a five-person group from Silicon Valley (Sean, Bella, Tatyana, Donna, and one more lady whose name I cannot recall).

[Right: The Silicon Valley Group]

We began with elbow and knee pads, helmets with a light, and stood at the precipice of a yawning tear in the ground. The only way down now is to rappel. DT wanted to go first, but when the time came he quietly suggested otherwise. When no one else spoke up quickly, I volunteered. After all, a dad can't chicken out with his 13-year-old son there, right? My mouth was dry and I had to take a deep breath. Our guide, Melissa, hooked me up (a single nylon line about as thick as your thumb), told me to straddle the other ropes, follow them down, patted my helmet, and wished me luck.

[Right: Tatyana leaving the small room on the way into the main chamber.]

The first ten feet are difficult--a bumpy adjustment period. The rock face is maybe 70 degrees or so. And then without warning I was standing in a small room. Huh? Behind me was a small hole down which the ropes disappeared. Go down there? Since there was no other way, I turned around, stuck out my butt (you have to lean back when you rappel, which in itself is a real leap of faith), and started my descent.

This was bumpy too, but I was getting the hang of it now. After maybe 20 feet or so I could hear some distant voices below me and see some light. I realized I was dropping into the main cavern. A giant smooth rock lip jutted out. I leaned back, slipped over without too much difficulty (they call the kissing rock) and was suddenly dangling over . . .nothing.

[Below, right: Me having cleared the Kissing Rock, hanging 12 stories up. Below, left: Beginning the slow journey down after calming my nerves; Below: Approaching the bottom. Whew.]

I swung around and took in what I can only describe as a giant rock cathedral tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty plus ten feet (something like 165 feet) or 12 or so stories. (Picture hanging off the side of a 12-story building downtown on a single rope, and you will have some idea of what I was thinking.) Once I realized what I was doing I found it terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I took about 20 minutes, dangling, moving slowly, and watching a tour group below. At first they looked like ants, looking up at me. A metal winding staircase was about 30 feet to my right. People walking down were snapping photos of me (including a guide who had one of our cameras).

Once I was down, the testosterone high was simply incredible. (I used to play in a fairly successful Midwest rock band, and the only thing I can compare the feeling to was standing on stage with a wild audience screaming in front of you. It was like that.)

But the scariest thing was what followed. I waited about ten minutes, and then watched as my son DT appeared. He had some difficulty at the Kissing Rock. I told him to push off with one hand, but he was too worried about letting go, so he spent a minute or two adjusting himself so he could use his elbow instead.

[Below, two pictures of my son DT, one with him getting squished against the rock, and the other maneuvering to push off with an elbow--"No way was I going to release one hand!" he told me later.]

And then he was over the rock, hanging there above a solid rock floor. My only son. I paid for this. My wife arranged this. Were we nuts?! For a second I was sure he was going to fall. When he started hooting and hollering, enjoying the experience, I exhaled slowly, smiled, and felt proud. He was afraid up top, but he mustered his will and DID IT. Ollie came down after DT, and for a time they were rappelling together. A 20-year old and 13-year old. It was great to see.

[Below: DT with Ollie above him near the top of the chamber, and DT near the bottom, ready to be reeled in, and Ollie's mom Tracy, rappelling after her son.]

Part two of this post will talk about the second and longest part of "Adventure tour"-- bending, twisting, crawling, on your back, side, and front, through some incredibly tight spots. And that was just the beginning. The guide kept saying it is going to get tighter. I could not imagine it. But . . . she wasn't kidding.

[Pops and DT, after the rappel. If we can do that, we thought, we can handle 2.5 hours inside tight spaces . . . Right?. Stay tuned.]


Anonymous said...

Caving books in the future of Savas Beatie? LOL

Great pictures and cool story. You and your son will remember this forever. I could never do this. I got nausous just thinking about it.


Anonymous said...

Oh my God. I think that would take more cahones than jumping out of an airplane with a chute. Heights and claustrophbia! Bring on the second part!


Anonymous said...

I ... cannot ... believe ... you ... did ... this. It's going to give me bad dreams just looking at the pictures. Congratulations to you and Dmitri getting back out.

Larry Tagg

TPS said...

I can't believe we did either, now that I think about it and look at the pictures. Wait until you read about Part 2--inside the bowels of the beast--and see a few shots.