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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Spelunking Moaning Cavern: A Wild Adventure With My Son (Part 2)

In Part 1, I demonstrated just how common sense can occasionally take temporary fight when my son and I rappelled into Moaning Cavern in Northern California (as opposed to what sane people do when they take the steps.)

RIGHT: After the rappel, before going deeper. Son DT and me.

[Note: the rules say no cameras on this journey. So we left ours with the guide. Sean took his with him (good job, Sean), so these photos are from Sean's camera.]

When I was down after the rappelling (I was first), another guide already down there with a Sane Group (the ones who walked down) pointed me to a rather small hole on the far side of the platform. "That's the Gorilla's Nostril. At the end of your trip, you exit that back into the main chamber."

"Oh, ok," I said, wondering what I had really gotten us into. "Where do we begin?" I asked. He walked me a short distance to another part of the platform and pointed out an aluminum extension ladder extending down into the darkness. "Thanks," I mumbled.

When my son DT was beginning his rappelling descent into the cave, a lady with the Sane Group asked me if that was my son. "Yes," I answered proudly. She looked at me like I had a pointed hat on my head and inquired, "Does his mother know you are doing this?"

"Why would I tell her?" I shot back, trying to smile while easing away from the Sane Group. It was meant as a joke, but she didn't take it that way.

Once our group was down, our guide Melissa rappelled after us in about 20 seconds. (They call this speed rappelling, which is verboten for us neophytes.) We double-checked our helmet lights and then listened to her instructions:

You are no longer on a safety rope. It is all free-hand now. If you fall, you can get hurt--bad. We are going down that ladder. When you get to the bottom, yell 'clear!" and then move over to the knotted rope, and start climbing down into a small chamber, where we will gather. It is slippery. Be careful.

She wasn't kidding (and the disclaimer form we had signed above made it pretty clear, since every other sentence mentioned "grave risk of death or serious bodily injury." All right, then.

Melissa went first, followed by DT. The ladder was a cinch, of course. Moving over to the rope was trickier for a couple seconds. It was slippery from dripping water. I grabbed the knotted rope (big knots) and I slid my way down--thunk, Agh!, thunk, Ouch!--thankful I already had children.

In the small chamber, maybe all of four feet high, we crowded in as Melissa explained that the cave trip will get tight, and then progressively tighter. But there was an "escape tunnel" if anyone "can't take it." The only way to get through, she continued, is to crawl, slide, and wiggle--on our back, sides, and front, turning, twisting, grabbing, pulling, and grunting along through the darkness. I discovered (again that morning) it was easier to be brave in a group.

[RIGHT. This is in the first chamber, with the group getting "the lecture" from guide Melissa. L-R: Tracy, me, Tatyana, Bela, and Donna.

As I recall it. . . the first part was feet first, sort of sliding down on your butt into the abyss. Then it turned back and up, requiring some climbing, and careful foot and hand placement, then crawling, ducking (not that much ducking, since the tunnel was only about 24 inches high. It can get tighter than this? I wondered as I following my son who was ahead of me and behind Melissa.

RIGHT: On the way to the second chamber. Sean's a hurting.

A larger chamber waited for us maybe twenty minutes in. By this time Tatyanna was asking to leave. She was claustrophobic, and said she had had enough. We were only about 25% of the way through the "adventure." Melissa told her an escape tunnel was ahead, leading back up a thick knotted rope into the main chamber. BUT (there is always a but) she could not go backward and so first had to navigate smaller tunnels that included "The Guillotine" (a giant rock that looks like a blade barely above the floor--and I mean barely above the floor, and "The Meat Grinder." Use your imagination on that last one.

At that point, we all turned our helmets out (at Melissa's suggestion) to see what ultimate black looks like. Ollie said he could see his hand in front of his face after a couple minutes. Nope, answered Melissa. It is your brain imprinting it in front of you because it knows it is there. That was rather creepy. Imagine being dipped in a giant pool of tar with a scuba mask on.

And off we went. Orders and suggestions were passed down the ranks about what to do, how to move, what arm to use, what side to lay on, etc. Yes, it is that difficult in places, tight, and gulp-inducing. I remember one point where DT told me something like, "Pops, turn on your right side, reach up with your right hand, shimmy forward about a foot, and then twist around on your back." That made me happy I was not alone.

RIGHT: Sean slipping under the Guillotine. Anyone want to join us?

When we eventually got to the last chamber before our climb up through the Gorilla's Nostril, Melissa showed us a pair of optional "side trips." One was down a narrow chute into a room. I opted out because in order to get back up, it would require a certain sort of twisting that I knew my bad back would not tolerate well. (It has a tendency, about once every 18 months or so, to go out doing nothing at all. Yes, I know, here I am underground 300 feet doing this. Does my wife know? LOL I figured that if it went out, I would have to be drugged unconscious to get dragged out. Seriously.) Tracy could not get back up. I tried to help. No good. Melissa tried. No good. Finally, I suggested she (Tracy) back down deeper and let he son go down again, get behind her, and give her a hand. That worked.

Anyway, the second optional journey was into the Column or Cul-de-Sac Room. A rather longish very narrow squeeze (what isn't) passageway to the column, then feet-first to the left, a twist to the right head-on, and then on the belly around the column. I pictured a tall column. Ah, no. It was about 18 inches high.

I was behind my son, and it was the only time he began to evidence a slight bit of concern. "Pop, I'm stuck."

And indeed he was.

"Really, Pop. I don't know what to do!"

RIGHT: Me in the narrow passage leading to the Cul-de-Sac (Column) room, with DT having just managed to get both arms in front of him and thus unstuck. Sean snapped the photo.

"Hold on," I replied. I studied his situation for a few seconds. "DT, Melissa said you need both hands out front. You have just one so your shoulder is stuck. Wiggle back a few inches until you can bring your other arm over, and then wiggle ahead." [The photo on the right shows DT (stuck) with me behind him.] A few others made the journey around the column. I passed on that excursion, too.

RIGHT: Sean finishing his trip through the Column room.

"Ok, Melissa," I said once we were all back in the chamber. (Picture nine people, elbow-to-elbow, unable to stand, and you have a picture of how small this "chamber" really is.) "I don't see a way out of here."

She pointed to a nearly invisible rectangular slit in the side wall about rib-high. It was not even three feet wide, and only about 16 inches tall. "That way," Melissa answered. "It's called the Pancake. You have to go in on your back--there is no other way, push with your feet against the wall to get your body inside, and it angles up. It is really smooth, so there is nothing to grab. You have to be an inch-worm." I could not believe my ears. Everyone was nodding, "yeah, no problem." Yeah, right. Again, group courage.

RIGHT: Sean pointing out the Pancake--the only exit out of the cave, up through the Gorilla's Nostril back into the main chamber. Gulp.

Melissa went first, followed by (I think) Tatiana--we wanted her close to the guide, and she agreed--then one of her friends (maybe Bella) then DT, me, and the rest of the gang. Melissa turned on your back and was gone in about three seconds. It was amazing. It was harder for the rest of us. DT went in on his back. Sean snapped a cool photo (reproduced on the right), and because DT is skinny, he flipped over on his belly, gave a hoot of pleasure--and vanished. Gulp. I was next.

RIGHT: DT entering the Pancake.

I tried to go in on my belly--somehow that feels safer--but with the helmet, etc. you can't. And I am not a big guy at 5-6, so you know how small this really is. I turned on my back, got my head and shoulders in, put my feet against the wall, flashed the universal heavy metal sign (see my right hand near my waist in the photo) and pushed myself into the darkness.

RIGHT: Me entering the pancake, flashing the heavy metal sign, and wishing I was at an Iron Maiden concert instead of entering what from all my senses seemed more a tomb than a passage up to the light.

I could hear some muffled talking ahead and above me. Once inside, the smooth limestone rock is only about two inches from your face. "So," I thought as I wiggled inch by inch, "this is what it must be like waking up inside a sarcophagus." I decided to think of something else.

As I recall, that stretch of cave is about twelve feet long before the turning, twisting, etc. began anew.

"Pops, hold on."

DT was stopped, and I could feel his tennis shoe with my left hand. One of the girls ahead was having a problem. "OK."

And so I waited. And waited. With the rock just above my nose. Remember, you can't turn your head to look above you, or below you, or even really side to side. I thought about earthquakes, a sudden collapse or shift in the rock--only a couple inches and I was doomed. I decided to doze off. (I can do that anywhere, anytime, in about ten seconds.) I told DT to wake me, and I was out. The next thing I recall he kicked me, laughed--"Come on old man!"--and up we went.

The final trip was a twister and required some upper body strength, especially getting to another knotted rope, and then threading your way back up through the Gorilla's Nostril. After a decent climb I could hear a different set of voices and see flecks of brighter lights ahead. My heart sank. The magnificent adventure was ending. Then, suddenly, I was in the main chamber staring up at faces of another Sane Group. (They paid a few bucks to walk down, snap a few photos, hear a talk, and walk out again.) DT and I slapped palms and exchanged hugs, sighs, smiles, and nods as the normal people looked on, likely wondering if this is where the nuts hung out after dark.

The group of us gathered and another guide snapped a great shot of all of us.

RIGHT: The final group shot: Guide Melissa kneeling in front. L-R: Sean, Tracy, Ollie, DT, me, Tatyana (next to me), Bela, Donna, and one girl whose name I can't recall. Sorry!

Now hundreds and hundreds of people have done this. It wasn’t a huge deal. But it was. I think you have to be a dad with a teenaged son to fully understand that. We still talk about it nearly every day, three weeks out.

When we gathered out by our cars, the nine of us who were complete strangers just three hours earlier, laughed, relived the adventure, and were all smiles. We decided we would get together again for another caving adventure because we all got on so well. There are a lot of caves here, so finding another with a good "adventure" should not be that hard.

DT and I were silent for a while driving home even though we were both pumped up with adrenalin and testosterone.

"DT, would you go backward off a 12-story building in downtown Sacramento with just a nylon rope the size of my thumb holding you?"

"No way, are you crazy?" he replied.

I looked at him. "We just did."

He looked back, his eyes got large. "Oh my God. We did." I noted with pride that a grin was plastered to his face and his head was nodding.

And boy were we glad to have Carol--a great wife and mom--who scheduled this for us. Thanks honey!

Sitting at the desk as I write this makes me realize how sedate I have become in my middle years. That must change. So, I am trying to talk my Carol into letting DT parachute with me.

No luck so far.



Anonymous said...

Pretty exciting, Teddy. I like rapelling down to my pool for a tall gin and tonic with a huge twist of a fresh lime right off the tree. You have always been a little "out there," little brother.

Anthony Savas

Steve Basic said...

Thanks to you and your son's adventures, I won't ever have to do this. :) Then again I complain when I walk up Big Round Top at Gettysburg. :)

Thanks for sharing and hope all is well.

Regards from the Garden State,


Mark Wilensky said...

Great post. But even better, I now have a new philosophical statement taken from your text: "...which is verboten for us neophytes." The uses are almost endless.


Michael Aubrecht said...

I'm extremely claustrophobic (can barely get through a car wash) and almost had a panic attack just from reading your account Ted. You're a helluva dad to go through that. Well done!

TPS said...

Thanks for stopping by, everyone (even you, Ants!) Michael, is it fair to say you would not enjoy the opportunity to experience a sarcophgus from the inside while alive? LOL

Seriously, it is worse thinking about it now than doing it. We really enjoyed it (more than we thought). Watch the movie Descent (the cave movie). Keeps caves underpopulated, I bet.


Anonymous said...

I'm crazy claustrophobic and am signed up to do this exact adventure tomorrow. I have been researching the adventure for first-hand accounts in order to mentally prepare myself. Yours has been the most helpful, informative, and entertaining.

Thank you!

TPS said...

Cleartheway--let me know how it goes. It is a lot of fun, so just enjoy it. . . .