"Be brave, but not too brave."
April 18, 2014 7:51 PM   Subscribe

In Deep: The Dark And Dangerous World Of Extreme Cavers
On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface. He’d travelled more than three miles through the earth by then, over stalagmites and boulder fields, cave-ins and vaulting galleries. He’d spidered down waterfalls, inched along crumbling ledges, and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath. Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone. He felt the weight of the mountain above him—a mile of solid rock—and wondered if he’d ever find his way back again. It was his last chance to hear his wife and daughter’s voices before the cave swallowed him up.
posted by the man of twists and turns (74 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

Read this the other day. Great piece. "All you find is cave. There is nothing else down there."
posted by curious nu at 8:07 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]

Underwear is worn for weeks on end, the bacteria kept back by antibiotic silver and copper threads.

As if I needed another reason not to do this.
posted by jeather at 8:15 PM on April 18 [13 favorites]

These guys... bleeding-edge of the map explorers and cave divers and climbers and god knows what else... It's a special type of person. Darwin wept.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:18 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

I can feel myself starting to hold my breath and hunch my shoulders and I'm only a few paragraphs in. I'm not claustrophobic but I would not make a good caver.
posted by rtha at 8:18 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]

Reminds me of this utterly staggering picture of China's Er Wang Dong cave that made the rounds on Reddit the other day. Another shot, even further zoomed out.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:21 PM on April 18 [51 favorites]

but I would not make a good caver.

Caving is fine. The wife and I did the crazy-flavor (read: headlamps, don't bring a camera 'cuz it will be ruined, we will be squeezing in places that don't allow for folks with hips/bust larger than 32 inches, ankle boots, limited to 6-12 folks for 2 rangers, noone younger than 15, etc) tour in Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and it was capital-A Amazing. Do recommend.

But... what we did compared to what these folks do is like model rockets are to Apollo boosters.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:23 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Christ, Rhaomi, that first picture gives me some serious existential spinal chills.
posted by saturday_morning at 8:24 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]

Cools stuff. I've always been super intrigued by cave exploration, and would love to do a multi-day spelunking trip. I just dunno if I could overcome my mild claustrophobia. The thought of crawling through a space too small to take a full breath makes me involuntarily take the deepest breath I can.
posted by calamari kid at 8:34 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

My favorite part is where they're crossing this rock bridge and they have to fight off a balrog.
posted by newdaddy at 8:43 PM on April 18 [22 favorites]

Robots. Long strings of tethered robots. Rescuing other tangled robots while exploring every crevice. No people.
posted by codswallop at 8:49 PM on April 18 [6 favorites]

There was a gap in it just below the waterline—wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Gala could tell that his rebreather wouldn’t fit, so he handed it to Short, along with his mask, helmet, and side tanks. “I left him holding all these things with his teeth and both his hands,” he recalled later. Then he held his breath and dove through.

Bonkers. Totally, completely bonkers.
posted by rtha at 8:55 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]

posted by the man of twists and turns
Eponysteri...b r e a t h e
posted by fullerine at 8:56 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]

This whole issue of the New Yorker is an insane claustrophobic nightmare. What a weird theme for an issue.

Between this and the article about the 5,000 people living and working in windowless gloom aboard an aircraft carrier for 45 days at a time, I needed a long walk today to get all this out of my mind.
posted by kenlayne at 8:59 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]

Caving is fine. The wife and I did the crazy-flavor (read: headlamps, don't bring a camera 'cuz it will be ruined, we will be squeezing in places that don't allow for folks with hips/bust larger than 32 inches, ankle boots, limited to 6-12 folks for 2 rangers, noone younger than 15, etc) tour in Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and it was capital-A Amazing. Do recommend.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
posted by littlesq at 9:33 PM on April 18 [17 favorites]

The Krubera Cave previously.
posted by homunculus at 9:38 PM on April 18

Great article, I kept holding my breath. When he dives without his rebreather, I was thinking "no, no, no, no... breathe".
posted by arcticseal at 10:29 PM on April 18

I'm not particularly claustrophobic, but reading the article made me very, very glad I'm up here and not down there. I was constantly afraid one of them would get stuck. Caves can be stunningly beautiful with the limestone formations, and I can understand the drive to go further and climb to somewhere no-one has ever been; but nothing on earth would convince me to strap on scuba gear to go on, let alone then take it off to freedive further. Besides, at 6'1 and a hefty frame, I'd at my best be like van den Berg.

I'm limiting my visits to those dark and quiet places to old mines and small tourist caves like Wookey hole.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:35 PM on April 18

Cave diving combines the two ways I would least like to perish into one handy, horrifying package. I really got the heebie jeebies from this.
posted by Literaryhero at 10:36 PM on April 18 [11 favorites]

Remember this CREEPY story from 2001 about Ted The Caver with the photo of him squeezed through Floyd's Tomb?.... Brrrrrrrrrr
posted by growabrain at 10:39 PM on April 18 [8 favorites]

I'm not claustrophobic or scared of the dark but I also am not going to hurl myself into the bowels of the Earth because that feels too much like tempting the gods.

It's one hell of an interesting story but put me on Team Nope.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:44 PM on April 18

I wonder if there are any extreme cavers who are not white guys.
posted by Slimemonster at 11:17 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]

I loved this sentence: "They seemed built for solitude—pale, phlegmatic creatures drawn to deep holes and dark passages—yet they worked together as a selfless unit: the naked mole rats of extreme sport."
posted by Tsuga at 11:43 PM on April 18 [10 favorites]

If I have learned anything from minecraft, it is that exploring caves is very rewarding but also very dangerous.
posted by ryanrs at 12:24 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

I wonder if there are any extreme cavers who are not white guys.

Slightly related, this piece about Mammoth Cave and Stephen Bishop the slave caver, is interesting.
posted by Segundus at 12:34 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

Remember this CREEPY story from 2001 about Ted The Caver with the photo of him squeezed through Floyd's Tomb?.... Brrrrrrrrrr

No, but thanks for the insomnia, sleep is overrated anyway.
posted by Literaryhero at 1:05 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]

posted by the man of twists and turns

Eponysteri...b r e a t h e

Who should go in to caves like this? No-one.
posted by atrazine at 1:48 AM on April 19

Okay. Major claustrophobe here. Did not read article, but feel pretty brave to have gotten through the comments.

Gotta look at the sky awhile now. Probably won't even go to the basement for a few days either. Damn.
posted by kinnakeet at 3:12 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

RolandofEld- does the tour really require passing through places that don't allow for folks with hips/bust larger than 32 inches? Because that would disqualify the vast majority of adults. I'm very narrow in the hips for a woman and even at my skinniest- less than 110lb at 5'3"- I was still out of range, and I am pretty sure that most adult men have chest measurements larger than that as well.

I'm not asking to be contrary, it just sounds like something I'd like to do when I'm in the area next fall. Is there more info about it online?
posted by cilantro at 3:36 AM on April 19

cilantro, looks like it could be the wild cave tour, which says "Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches; if you are larger you may not physically pass through the crawlspaces."
posted by effbot at 4:15 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

25 or so years ago, when I was in high school, I did a crazy-flavor spelunking tour in West Virginia -- miner's helmets, crawling through long, shallow crevices and having to step over a few cracks you couldn't see the bottom of. I was underground for hours... with an entire troop of Girl Scouts. Like, 50 of them. In a cavern close to a mile from the surface they lit candles and sang camp songs. Weird, but not un-fun.
posted by jon1270 at 4:29 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

Also, the guides told us about a local caver who had, in the course of exploring other parts of the same cave system, actually stripped naked and greased himself to squeeze through a crevice into a new area.
posted by jon1270 at 4:31 AM on April 19

I wonder if there are any extreme cavers who are not white guys.

If you wonder, read the article. This expedition: "Fifty-four cavers from thirteen countries, forty-three of them men and eleven women." Not all white, not all guys.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:41 AM on April 19 [14 favorites]

As someone who freaks out a little if I can't find my way back to the surface in Minecraft, this gives me an unpleasant tickle in my nether regions. Amazing stuff, but it makes me want to go outside and count clouds.
posted by Mooski at 5:43 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]

Wouldn't being underground so long fuck up your circadian rhythms?
posted by desjardins at 5:46 AM on April 19

Those big mofo cave pics are truly Vernean, with a side of AAAAAAAAaaaaaa... You can easily see how people would come up with lost worlds, molemen civilizations and roaming chtonians.
posted by Iosephus at 5:49 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

At last we have discovered the source of all those "found footage" movies.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:52 AM on April 19

...and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath.

I did this way back in my youth without giving it a single thought. Today, though, just thinking about it makes me tremble in claustrophobic panic.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:02 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Damst. Started reading the Ted the Caver story thinking it was an actual account of real events... I was looking forward to the rational explanations of the mysterious sounds and wind and only understood I was reading fiction around the point of the forgotten video camera. Well done.
posted by jchgf at 6:30 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

Gala was so comfortable in caves that he sometimes felt as if they were made for humans. “The passages are exactly the right size for my body to fit in,” he told me.

Oh, great, thanks for reminding me.
posted by rlk at 6:42 AM on April 19 [11 favorites]

25 or so years ago, when I was in high school, I did a crazy-flavor spelunking tour in West Virginia -- miner's helmets, crawling through long, shallow crevices and having to step over a few cracks you couldn't see the bottom of.

Was it Bowden Cave you went into? When I was (briefly) in college in WV some friends & I took a few trips into Bowden. The Water Course, the Cathedral, the Agony (a horizontal crack about 2 feet tall & several hundred feet long). We even built our own caving helmets with hardhats & fisherman's headlamps. That was 1984 or so. I understand there's been some collapses & a fair amount of the cave is posted off-limits now.
posted by scalefree at 6:45 AM on April 19

I remember a short documentary at the Banff Mountain Film Festival a few years ago about caving. The cavers were walking through the woods with all their gear (maybe in Georgia?) and ended at what looked like "the Hatch" in Lost. They opened it up and started the journey through a huge labyrinth of very small caves, mostly belly crawling.

What really got me was a scene in which all you see is a very small hole in the rock. Obviously, they'd put their camera through first. Because then you see a couple hands push a helmet through. And then you see the hands grab the edges of the hole and start struggling to pull the explorer's body through. It was too small for his helmet and almost too small for his body. It looked kind of like an octopus squeezing through a tiny hole.

I still shudder.
posted by msbrauer at 7:16 AM on April 19

I've been caving off & on since the early 90's and it's a funny thing. I started out in the little bitty caves around Austin (The biggest room in the county, accurately named The Travis County Room is only about 40 x 60 feet, with a max ceiling height of 7 feet in one small 10 x 10 area) and yeah, claustrophobia was an issue. The first time I got in something really tight, I got a little freaked. I was thinking, as I squirmed through cold rock pressed against both my chest & my back, "this is not for me," but an interesting thing happened over the next few days after that trip. I could not get it out of my mind. Somehow, the anxiety transmogrified into an irresistible allure & the challenge of overcoming the fear became part of it, and was a psychological reward as well as the excitement of exploration. It was also initially a better way to get outdoors in Texas, where it's frequently too hot to enjoy being outside on the surface, so I learned to look down instead of up & out, & I found hidden, indescribable beauty.

The first time I ever broke through a constriction to be the first person to ever stand in a new place on Earth (a nice but unremarkable 20 x 100-foot room up in Williamson Co. with 8-10 foot ceiling), will stand as one of the most exhilarating moments of my slightly dull life.

I've done some semi-hard-core caving over the years, some of it in Mexico, where there are monster caves scattered throughout the Sierra Madre Oriental from just south of Monterrey on down to Guerrero & Chiapas - god I love those places on the surface as well as underground - and i have been in 500 & 1000-foot deep caves that don't even rate on the 100-deepest Mexican caves list. The crazy allure of a deep pit, where no light reaches the bottom & you take it on faith your rope is long enough (tie a knot in the end so you won't rappel off, in case!! This is a rule!!) is inexplainable in words. Getting over the lip of a pit like that is one of the most difficult things I have ever done psychologically, and yet once I'm dangling free & on my way down, one of the most meditative. You are pretty focused solely on two things -- not making a fatal mistake & taking in visually the wonders of the dark abyss as your puny headlamp slowly reveals it. Then when you get in range of the bottom & you can see the excess rope coiled up on the floor & you know it's okay to go ahead & take a brake bar off the rack & zip on down, the rush of the floor coming up at you is a whole other trip.

To that though I will add that caving is NEVER a competition between individuals on the same trip for speed, or endurance or anything like that. It's a cooperative endeavor, though there may be competition between groups to push a particular cave at different times. The only thing I dislike about this otherwise excellent and thorough article is their use of the word "extreme" solely due to my fear that it will attract the Extreem Sportz@ dude-bros to caving who WILL see which of them can rappel the fastest, jump the furthest, etc. & begin killing themselves. "Extreme" is a word caves in general tent to avoid for that reason. If you're reading this and you want to cave faster, harder or better than us, we don't want you because body recoveries are a pain in the ass.

I wanted to post this article, but I know quite a few of the individuals mentioned in it, & have a group of friends across the valley right now looking for higher entrances to Systema Huautla, a cave that has traded places with Cheve over the years on the deep list, and is a wonder in itself -- Bill Stone's dive trip there & 6 days exploring beyond the sump in '94 is one of the most legendary caving stories of all time. There's so much potential there still. They've dye-traced the water in the caves to resurgences some 2 thousand feet below the deepest points yet explored, though attempts to push those resurgences upwards has met with futility on a number of trips. A group dove past 6 or 7 sumps at the Huautla resurgence and mapped many miles of cave, but didn't make a huge ton of upwards vertical progress, back in the late 90's. Maybe a few hundred feet? it's likely that the multiple-thousand foot gaps between the deepest visited points in both Cheve & Huautla and their resurgences are mostly if not completely water-filled, and we just don't have the diving technology to connect them. We may never physically connect either of those caves with their ultimate resurgences, but it's not going to stop people from trying until the last possible lead is exhausted. There may be incremental progress for another 20 years.

Me, personally, I will never see the bottom of either of those caves. I could go on a trip there given the time & money, but choose not to, knowing my physical limitations. I'm not afraid, but the endurance required is not for me. The longest I've ever stayed underground is 16 hours on a trip to the bottom of Sorcerer's cave in west Texas, and let me tell you I have never been so happy to see the surface in my life. My hat is off to these guys who can live & work down there for days & weeks at a time - that's is not for me. I also have a personal definition of cave, which is "an air-filled cavity." I don't mind low airspaces, (have been submerged in stream passages to the point where I had to float on my back to keep enough of my head above water to breathe (not an insignificant psychological overcoming as well) but I will not enter completely submerged passage. The place where the water meets the ceiling is the end of the cave. Hard & fast rule. Cave divers are a whole nuther class of human being and I am not one of them.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:26 AM on April 19 [67 favorites]

I wonder if there are any extreme cavers who are not white guys.


Again with the word extreme, though. Plenty cavers are Mexican, Italian, Spanish, etc. One of our best in Texas is Greek. The racial makeup of the American caving community may not be wholly representational of the population at large, but if I were to hazard a guess as to why, other than the economics of vacation time spent & the cost of gear, I would probably be wrong. In Texas, the Hispanic community seems to be at about par with local population levels amongst cavers. I have often wondered why there aren't many black cavers but it's not due to any sort of racially exclusionary activity I've ever seen, or I would not be a part of the community. Cavers are some of the finest people I know. We trust each other with our lives, and people with weird attitudes and beliefs don't tend to fit in well with that ethos.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:41 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

Wouldn't being underground so long fuck up your circadian rhythms?

Over extended periods of time, it can. A Frenchman named Michel Siffre spend 6 months in Midnight Cave in West Texas (I've been there -- it's beautiful!) and the results of the study were intriguing. Google "Beyond Time" for more results. (PDF) Without digging back in to the articles, I seem to recall that his natural "days" got longer and longer as the experiment progressed.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:11 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

Interview with Michel Siffre:
My body chose by itself when to sleep and when to eat. That’s very important. We showed that my sleep/wake cycle was not twenty-four hours, like people have on the surface on the earth, but slightly longer—about twenty-four hours and thirty minutes. But the important thing is that we proved that there was an internal clock independent of the natural terrestrial day/night cycle. Interestingly, during the subsequent experiments I did with other research subjects, all of the people in the caves showed cycles longer than twenty-four hours. In fact, it became common for them to achieve cycles lasting forty-eight hours: They would have thirty-six hours of continuous activity followed by twelve to fourteen hours of sleep.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:32 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]

I attended a summer camp that included caving. It was a tame cave, safe for young teens, but not *tamed* [1], so very exciting. The end of the line was in a watefilled passage that needed a short underwater swim to get to the next room.

In college, I did a semester's caving course to fullfill PE requirements. This was pretty awesome. First they put us through a caving obstacle course, lots of crawling under things, and learning rappeling and rock climbing basics. Then we did 3 caves. One had a several hundred foot belly crawl, which was right at the edge of my limit for too much. Also the lights were seriously old school, carbide lamps on helmets. We developed an enormous camaradre in that short course, and it temporarily changed my relation to tight spaces -- I'd occasionally end up under some piece of furniture or other months later.

All of which is to say, climbing mountains can be fun and fullfilling and generally safe. These Everest guys are something else. I was particularly struck by the part of the article where out of the 15 or so cave divers they had lined up to come, 3 died in other caves before they got there! I've very glad we stopped at the plunge pool.

[1] Only tamed cave I have enjoyed at all was the "Cave of the Glowing Skulls" in Honduras. Glowing. Skulls.
posted by joeyh at 10:41 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

This reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer's stories:
"As you walk beneath the overhang, the temperature drops, and a musty, fungal scent drifts up from the cave’s throat, where the children’s bones were found."
posted by doctornemo at 10:47 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

I was stuck in a minivan on a ski mountain waiting for a 36' truck to show up so that we could shift a day's worth of festival product out of the truck w/ bad breaks into the new one. It was late and we were grumpy and cold and watching crap movies.

And my road-roomie insists that we put a movie on the DVD player about cave divers who get flooded in and have to swim/cave forward hoping there's an outlet they haven't yet found.

I told him "Drowning in enclosed spaces is one of my worst nightmares." But they were bored and the list of options was slim.

10 minutes in, a caver drowns, and I become the angry fox trying to escape the young Spartan's tunic. Suddenly the ones who voted w/ Chris for the movie were okay w/ nothing on the screen for a while.

I'm not even gonna read this article. I got enough creases in my brain that ain't coming out.

I've run in to a smoking apartment with the kitchen on fire, extinguisher in hand shouting "GET THE BABY OUT". Did it without a thought.

But the idea of purposefully strapping on your dive gear and going into one of these caves is the kind of calculated decision that freaks me 6 kinds of ways out.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:26 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Yeah... no thanks. Great read: devoured it this morning over a cup of coffee. As I guy into "extreme" sports -- I do rock climbing and run ultramarathons -- I get it. At least on a certain level. And certainly I get how this is "fun." But geez... spending five days trapped in a cave hoping that water will recede sounds like the most horrible thing of all time.
posted by ph00dz at 12:05 PM on April 19

Oh how I wish somebody would do a BELIEVABLE movie based on Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

It's my favourite book because Jules Verne treats the science as seriously as he can. You really feel the claustrophobia, and the time that passes, and he talks of the rocks, and takes measurements. The power of caving is its incredible reality. If your head gets into the zone it's intense. But no, Hollywood just wants CGI and monsters. :(
posted by EnterTheStory at 12:54 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]

so very exciting. The end of the line was in a watefilled passage that needed a short underwater swim to get to the next room. (...) I've very glad we stopped at the plunge pool.

So am I. There's a frequently-visited cave in northern Mexico that has two passages that diverge near the entrance. One leads upstream along a shallow stream that flows down spacious passage - easily walkable. The other goes downstream to a short duck-under, that pops up into another long stream passage. Literally 3 feet under water from one room to the next. However, there's an underwater ledge to one side. Back in the 80's, 5 boy scouts died there as one by one, they all followed the leader the wrong way in the duck-under & all ended up drowning under the ledge instead of popping back up into the room.

Underwater caving is dangerous no matter how well trained you are and is NOT to be undertaken *period* by casual enthusiasts.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:10 PM on April 19

Rhaomi, that picture immediately made me think of House of Leaves.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:17 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]

cilantro, looks like it could be the wild cave tour, which says "Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches; if you are larger you may not physically pass through the crawlspaces."

Yep, though I swear it's not "I walked 10 miles uphill in the snow both ways" memory that makes me think it was previously smaller, I recall specifically giving myself a "whew, glad I didn't put on any extra pounds". It's a requirement for a reason, I didn't get to take a camera because of said warning that it *would* be ruined, but here's a picture that came up when I googled the first place the ranger took our group, he referenced it as "The Bare Hole". As in, you may have to strip naked if you get stuck kinda hole/story/thing.

I was about a 32 or 34 waist at the time and it was seriously tight for me, there's no way 42 inches would have fit.

But yea, we took the bus to the airlock entrance far away from the normal tourists, walked through the lock that keeps the cave airflow from being disturbed overmuch, and the ranger guide (who I swear talked exactly like Jeff Foxworthy) pointed at that hole and said

"This is the tightest place we'll go through all day, it'll make me and you both feel better if we go ahead and do that. After that you'll be confident and I'll be confident that you won't freak out and need to be escorted out, which could take up to 3 hours of walking depending on where you freak out."

Uh, ok.... so the 12 of us start to poke and peek at the tiny orifice and away we go, with a warning that it's "about a 30 or 40 yard crawl on your belly after you go down a 30 degree shaft. Oh and you may have to take off your helmet since it's that tight. There's a small chamber at the end where we will group back up and decide where to go from there."

For no particular reason I end up going last. I make it down the tight crawlspace and into where it levels out and manage to wriggle around and look behind me for the headlamp of the ranger.

... ... ...

Nothing. Pitch black like nothing else has ever been pitch black. Oh shit. Nowhere else to go but forward. So the twelve strangers get out of the crawl and are huddled in this chamber about as big as a small SUV and they ask where the ranger is. I say that I have no idea and that he is 100% not behind me. ... whereupon he pops out from behind a rock and says

"Yeap, you get tired of doing that crawl after you've been a guide here for a while. Everyone ok? Anyone feel like they need to leave and get a refund or go on other tours that aren't like this?"

Four people left right there and were led out by the backup ranger.

It only got more awesome from there on in. Cilantro, I'm gonna memail you so you know the lines of communication are open, do it. Seriously. Reserve early, way early because it fills up months in advance I think. Best $50 I spent in a long time and would gladly do it again.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:21 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]

20 GOTO 10

posted by double block and bleed at 2:41 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]

At last we have discovered the source of all those "found footage" movies.

Somewhere in Hollywood The Descent films are now being rebooted.
Thanks a bunch.

(Chalk me up as a person who loves caves, but the mild kind. This article, the Floyd image... I had to go outside. The human mind is amazing in how it made me feel.)
posted by Mezentian at 6:06 PM on April 19

As a rule, if something keeps needing to be rebooted it's probably time to replace it with something new.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:49 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]

The Descent is arguably one of the best horror films made in the last decade or so.
So claustrophobic.
And dark.
Put me off caves for a long time.
posted by Mezentian at 7:23 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]

Caving is a dialog with death. You can get killed caving, a fact I've often been advised of by angry people who know as much about caves as does my kitchen clock. Why are they so concerned about the possibility of my breaking my neck falling down a pit in a cave that I entered of my own free will is beyond me, when these same people would happily see me off against my will to napalm a bunch of poor bastards in a cave, local residents of some foreign place who are trying to escape from madmen. You see, war is serious business, caving is not -- not business, that is.
-- from Caving by Red Watson (explorer of Mammoth Cave, the longest and most complex known cave in the world). His novel Under Plowman's Floor is a great character study the monomania of these "extreme" cavers, by the way.

And, yes, plenty of spelunkers are women. Think about it: the best cavers are those small enough to fit through the tiniest cracks. The person who surmounted what is called "the Everest of cave exploration" is Patricia Crowther, a careful and cheerful wife & mother, so it's hardly an activity just for macho-tough single men.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:42 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Yangshuo water caves. No submersion required. So much fun.

But darkness AND scuba gear AND tight spaces? No thank you.
posted by jeanmari at 9:19 PM on April 19

Did caving in the Santa Cruz mountains in the 80's. Some of the passages required you to go in with your arms over your head, they were that close fitting.
posted by boilermonster at 11:59 PM on April 19

The person who surmounted what is called "the Everest of cave exploration" is Patricia Crowther, a careful and cheerful wife & mother...

That would be the Patricia Crowther who was married to Willy Crowther.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:29 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]

As a college student, I had the chance to go to Guilin in southern China, which is home to all of those impossible looking mountains that you see in traditional brush and ink paintings. The landscape is riddled with caves, and one in particular, in Seven Star Park (so named for the seven mountains. Don't go to the zoo. Trust me.) had served as a bomb shelter during WW2. A bomb shelter for the entire city of 250,000 people. A classmate and I went to check it out, and we went down the stairs into a giant room under the mountain. It was massive. I can't even begin to do it justice. The entrance was well lit, and there were signs offering tours, but then there was just darkness. The light covered a decent area, but beyond that was just ink.

We decided to walk forward, to see what was there. We made sure to keep the entrance lights visible, and we started walking. The floor was smooth, and possibly tiled, I forget. The further away from the light we got, the more physical the darkness became. We couldn't believe how far we'd come, and how small the lit area behind us seemed. After a certain point, it was hard to keep going. We couldn't even clearly see each other, and we were convinced that, at any moment, we'd walk face first into a wall. I've never experienced anything like it since, such a total perfect blackness.

We had become a bit freaked out, and decided to turn back when a tour of the caves started up, and the lights came on in the cave, showing us that we were standing essentially in the middle of the chamber, halfway between the entrance and a pathway. We did end up joining the tour, following along the cobblestone walkway complete with stairs for each incline, with garish lighting pointing out shapes that vaguely looked like a lion, or a dragon. The tour lasted over an hour, and we came out at the end of the seven mountain chain.

That hall, though, it must have been the size of a small basketball arena, and we were only halfway across, but the darkness felt real, felt like something that not only could we touch, but was touching us back, pressing down on us, telling us to turn around and go back. I've never forgotten how total it was, and how quiet it made us in response.

The older I've gotten, the more claustrophobic I get. Things I did when I was younger, I could never do now, and caves like the one in the story, no, not in any way ever.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:58 AM on April 20 [5 favorites]

We couldn't even clearly see each other, and we were convinced that, at any moment, we'd walk face first into a wall.

I'd be more worried about stepping off into a pit. You really don't want to do that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:07 AM on April 20

As a college student I went on a caving trip to West Virginia with a few other people, led by some guy I had met at the gym. We were in a cave system whose name I've forgotten for over 5 hours with lots of crawling through tight spaces on our bellies along the way. A few hours in I started feeling a bit funny but didn't want to be the person who freaked out and caused everyone else to have to leave so I held it together. Over pizza later we admitted we had all felt that way but no one wanted to speak up. I've been mildly claustrophobic ever since.

It wasn't what I would call beautiful and it all just looked rather monotonous in there. I suppose I just don't have a caverns soul. Give me scuba diving in a beautiful tropical location anyway but I'll leave caving to others.
posted by hazyjane at 10:19 AM on April 20

A few hours in I started feeling a bit funny but didn't want to be the person who freaked out and caused everyone else to have to leave so I held it together. Over pizza later we admitted we had all felt that way but no one wanted to speak up. I've been mildly claustrophobic ever since.

It's possible that you got into an area with a high concentration of CO2. It's heavier than oxygen and will settle lower down in caves that don't have much airflow. Even when there's enough oxygen technically, the CO2 will prevent oxygen absorption past a certain percentage of atmosphere & you can have difficulty breathing & at high percentages, suffocate -- I forget the exact numbers, so I don't want to post misleading numbers here, but here's a simple test:

If you're breathing heavily even at rest & feel like you can't catch your breath, you might be in that zone where the CO2 concentration isn't toxic, but will make it hard to breathe. If you carry a Bic lighter, it will fail to light before you're at the toxic level, but get out of the cave. If it lights, but theres a visible gap between the lighter & the flame, you're okay, but need to proceed cautiously.

I have seen really extreme gradients where the CO2 suddenly gets very strong. I was on rope in Dead Man's Hole out in Burnet Co. and the air seemed like it was getting funky as I rappelled, so I stopped & got my lighter out. If I held it over my head, it lit fine. By the time I lowered it to the middle of my chest, the flame separated from the tip, & by the time I lowered it below my waist, it went out completely.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:18 AM on April 20 [5 favorites]

My Girl Scout troop went spelunking together in 1986. Like hazyjane, it set off lingering claustrophobia for me. It had a slightly different effect on my friend Rene, who was part of the team who in 2006 proved Jewel Cave to be then the second-longest cave system in the world.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:03 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

My takeaway from this thread: "Spelunking" is an awesome word.

Spelunking spelunking spelunking
posted by Omnomnom at 1:37 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Which brings to mind a Calvin & Hobbes strip which you find taped to cavers' refrigerators everywhere.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:35 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

"Spelunking" is an awesome word.

Spelunking spelunking spelunking

For what it's worth, which is perhaps nothing, apparently the ranger who took us traipsing through Mammoth Caves in KY didn't like it as much as you do. His reply when someone used it to ask some question about the activity we were participating in was, roughly, as follows,

"This/that is 'caving'. Done by 'cavers'. Cavers rescue Spelunkers."

I shrugged and assumed I was seeing the evolution of language or etymology mid-shift. I'm sure others have more insight into this than I do.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:23 AM on April 21

Roland, I don't know when you took the Mammoth tour, but that "Cavers rescue spelunkers" line has been in currency for decades. Spelunking was accepted in the caving community at least through the mid '60s, but became an insult some time after that, for reasons unclear to me.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:17 AM on April 21

posted by Omnomnom at 8:35 AM on April 21

Spelunker/Spelunking is not a very mellifluous word and it has fallen out of favor to be more of a pejorative these days, for sure. Texans are funny though -- they say "Oh, yore one o' them SPEE-lunkers," which is a little more comedic than Spu-LUNK-ers.

Caver/Caving works fine -- everyone understands that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:49 AM on April 21

DR, I've never heard it said that second way; the accent is always on the first syllable. And comedians always drag it out a little.

Here's some history:

A spelunker, technically, is a person who goes in caves. Originally derived from the Latin spelunca, (and the related Greek speleios), it comes from the Middle English word, spelunk, meaning cave or grotto. The word, spelunk, apparently went out of common use about 1600, though the adjective, speluncar (pertaining to caves) continued into the mid-19th Century. The name of the French bulletin of Le Societe de Speleologie*--founded by Edouard-Alfred Martel in 1895--was Spelunca. The first modern usage of spelunker in America was probably that reported by Clay Perry in Underground New England in 1939, describing a group of men and boys engaged in "a more or less systematic study of the caves and old mines of the area" who called themselves Spelunkers. Life magazine in the early 1940's may have been the first widespread use of the term in print in an article named, "Life Goes Spelunking." Through the 1950's, spelunker was apparently used as the generic term--with no good or bad connotations. A movie shown at the 1955 NSS Convention by William Hugstrunk, was entitled, "The Spelunkers." The MSM (Missouri School of Mines) Spelunker's Club was founded during this era, and the name continues to be used by that MSS grotto. Other popular publications of the '50s refer to spelunkers and spelunking without the slightest blush.

Sometime in the 1960s (according to Joe Walsh, and probably during an earlier upsurge of interest in venturing underground), spelunker began to take on the connotation of rank amateur, while those "in the know" but not degreed scientists began to refer to themselves as cavers. Steve Knutson (editor of American Caving Accidents) makes the same distinction in a 1995 article given at a Risk Management conference:

..."Note that I use the term "spelunker" to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and "caver" for those who are."
I did not know that there was a Middle English word spelunk, but I did know that Clay Perry was the first in the modern era to write about the word.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:24 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

> Cave diving combines the two ways I would least like to perish into one handy, horrifying package

I was in Australia once and the guide took us to a place where you could dive into a pit of water -- one you wouldn't be able to climb out of -- and then swim through an underwater tunnel into another pit you could climb out of. Nope nope nope. But many of the people in my group did it, including one woman who dove in but didn't make it to the tunnel and had to come back up in the first pit, which meant it was going to be that much harder to make it into the second one. The guide immediately dove in after her, before she could realize what was going on, and led her to the tunnel, and she was fine.

That was over 20 years ago and I was safely up on top, but I still sometimes wake up at night thinking about it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:34 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

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