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Terror Beneath the Earth:

My First Caving Adventure

Published 7 December 1998

I am the Charter Organization Representative for Boy Scout Troop 8, sponsored by  St. Matthias Episcopal Church. In that role, I attend monthly Troop Committee meetings.

Getting Recruited. My adventure began, as many adult Scouting adventures do, at a planning meeting about this time last year. Mr. Martin was discussing the activity plans for the coming year. The boys wanted to explore a cave, he said. I mentioned that I had never been caving but had always wanted to go. That's all I said. When the calendar was printed, my name appeared as an adult leader for the trip. At that point, to try to explain that I hadn't actually volunteered would have looked like cowardice, so I decided I would follow through. After all, Rob would lead the Scouts. He was the former Scoutmaster. I was just along for two-deep leadership.

The Guide Sets Me Straight. We signed up for the Explorer's Tour at the Cave of the Winds. We had an orientation, were issued helmets and lights, and set out for the cave entrance. I was expecting a hole in the side of a hill. Instead, we learned that to discourage vandals, the cave was sealed with concrete. A small pipe, about eighteen inches across, had been laid in the concrete wall and served as the only way in. A door closed off the inside end of the pipe. There was a smaller pipe, about six inches across, that the guide reached through to unlock the door. I joked that the pipe must serve as a test for tourists -- if they couldn't fit through the pipe then they couldn't go on the tour. The guide looked at me and said in a serious voice, "Oh, we're going through tunnels much smaller than this."

The Cave is Dark and Cramped. We all crawled through the pipe, and the guide started the tour. The cave was what you would expect -- dark and a little damp. We started in a room-sized cavern. Then we crawled down a steep passage and around into some smaller places. The first tight spot was a little tunnel that looks like it narrows down to a keyhole. Before we all crawled into it, the guide explained that it's an optical illusion. We could only see the keyhole-sized passage, but if we crawled down into the tunnel, we would see that it turned sharply to the left and we could get through. I wondered who the first explorer was to shimmy down into a tunnel that narrowed to a keyhole. He wouldn't have known there was a turn.

The Birth Canal. As we walked through the muddy passages, climbing down and around, the guide mentioned that a tunnel in another part of the cave was now closed to tourists. It was called the "Birth Canal" because it was so narrow. A tourist had gotten stuck in it. The rescue team took six hours to chisel him out from behind. The guide said we were headed for the "Mind Bender," which was just as narrow as the Birth Canal, but no tourists had gotten stuck in it.

The Mind Bender. The guide told us the plan for the Mind Bender. It was a tunnel to a part of the cave that was accessible from another wider passage. He would go the easy way and would then coach each of us through the narrow route. They called it the Mind Bender because not only was it narrow, it was also relatively long. Soon enough, I would see how bent my mind could get.

The guide told me to go last. He had some special instructions to help me through. Everyone else would need no special instructions besides the standard procedure of removing packs and canteens to make crawling easier. I told him I had a thirty-eight inch waist, and if that was too large he should tell me before I got into it. I would go the wide way around. He assured me a man with a forty-four inch waist had gotten through. I don't know how he did it.

I followed instructions and went last. The oldest Scout, Morgan, was right in front of me. As we crawled into the passage, we could see it narrow to the point where we first got onto our hands and knees, then crawled along on our stomachs. Morgan said, "This is, like, scary. Well, not scary, but, like, I've never done anything like this before." I could sense the nervousness (if not fear) in his voice, and I encouraged him. I told him I was feeling nervous, too, but I was sure we'd be fine because the guide had taken tourists through here before. We had to remember that we weren't in any real danger. But the thought of that tourist stuck for six hours in the Birth Canal ran through the back of my mind. I said nothing of it to Morgan.

Morgan got through, and it was finally my turn. Now the guide gave me my "special" instructions. He told me that the shoulders were the widest part of the body, so to get the smallest cross-section which would get me through the narrowest part of the tunnel, I had to put my right arm behind me before I crawled into it. Then I could twist my shoulders to squeeze through the narrow section. He told me that's how he himself had to get through. So I trusted him. That's how I crawled for what seemed like fifty feet -- one arm trailing behind me, one arm stretched in front of me. I pushed my helmet and light along in front. I had my fanny pack in the helmet. The rock was tight all around me -- definitely the most cramped part of the tour -- but I was making progress. The guide watched from ahead, and he warned me when I got to the narrowest section.

"This is where you have to make your shoulders the smallest," he said. "Turn your left shoulder up and squeeze it past the rock. OK. That's it. Now, here's where you have to take three deep breaths and exhale. Squeeze your shoulders the rest of the way. That's right. OK. You're through."

It's funny now, and I was even amused at the time he said it. Three deep breaths...and exhale. Now that's tight! But at that moment, I had no choice but to trust him at his word. He'd led a man with a forty-four inch waist through here. I had six inches to spare! Sure enough, I got through just as he told me I would...until my hips got to the narrow section.

"My hips feel tight."

"That's alright. Just squeeze on through. Your shoulders are the widest part, and they're on the other side now."

"I'm not moving."

Maybe it was my belt buckle, or my wallet, or the combination of the two. Neither were very large, but I could feel the buckle in front and the wallet in back both bind on the rock. I think that my hips were just too big. I pushed with my toes. I wiggled with my shoulders. I wasn't moving.

"I feel like I'm going to wedge myself in if I keep going forward."

The guide kept urging me on, and I kept trying, then resting, then trying again. I could feel the panic rising, and the guide said, "I can feel your heart beating through the rock!" Mind you, he was about fifty feet away from me. He knew this was getting serious. Finally, I said that I wanted to go back. I was praying a very simple prayer: "Oh, God, help me." Silently, I was praying that I wouldn't get stuck. And I was praying that I wouldn't lose my mind and start screaming in front of the Scouts. How humiliating! The thought of spending six hours wrapped in solid rock was enough to make me want to pass out. I knew that if it came to that, I would ask for a tranquilizer.

Thank God there was a way around! The guide said he was coming to pull me out by my feet, and he asked Rob to keep me company.

"You're going to be alright, Tim."

"Yeah, I know, Rob." I did know it, too.

"Wow, this is some cave, isn't it, Tim?"

"Rob, let's not talk about the cave right now." The last thing I wanted to do was think about where I was!

The guide came around and started pulling. Thankfully, it seemed easier coming back through the second time with my shoulders. I think that's because of how tough it felt trying to get my hips through.

He got me out, and the crisis was over. I was winded from the exertion, but I was ready to continue on the tour -- as long as I didn't have to crawl through any narrow passages for a while! The guide led us to just that, though. He explained that we would crawl down a long, narrow passage to a point where it was just wide enough to turn around and come back. I told him I would sit where I was and wait. I ate my lunch and caught my breath.

My Resolution. I thought of my friends at work with whom I regularly eat lunch. I took comfort in the fact that of all five of us, I was the only one who would have gotten as far as I did. Maybe they wouldn't have even wanted to crawl through that pipe at the entrance. Then I realized I was ready to make a resolution. I was going to lose some weight. Seven years ago I had a thirty-two inch waist. I'd settle for thirty-four inches at this point. But I was going to get the bulk off my hips and I was going to come back to this cave. And I was going to crawl through that Mind Bender again. I would take off my belt and take the wallet out of my back pocket. I was going to crawl with one arm behind me and one in front. I was going to take three deep breaths, exhale, and wiggle through. And my hips would not bind up on the rock. No, not next time!

No Fear. One other thing happened on the tour after the Mind Bender. There was another passage where we had to crawl through on our bellies, and there was a wider way. The Scouts all took the narrow route. I announced I'd had enough and was taking the easier way. One of the Scouts said, "Hey, Mr. Chambers is taking the easy way." That was enough for me. I wasn't going to let my discomfort control me. I took a deep breath and dove through the narrow tunnel. No Scout was going to see me quit!

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Document Author: Tim Chambers, caving01@timchambersusa.com, http://alum.mit.edu/www/tbc/