Friday, April 12, 2013

Crawling through Mud and Guano

Last weekend I paid for the privilege of crawling around in mud and bat poop for over 3 hours. My family was visiting from the U.K. for 2 weeks so as a special treat Steve and I took them to Natural Bridge Caverns for a private caving trip.

We started following the path that all visitors to the caves take. The only thing distinguishing us from all the other tourists was the lighted helmets we were wearing. We walked through well lit caves, cement walk ways, hand rails and artificial stairs that made the journey easy. We reached the final stop in the regular tour and our guides then instructed us to clamber over the safety rail and climb down the rocks.

It is a scary thing to climb over a rail that has been constructed for your protection and begin to descend beyond the reach of the electric lights. We were given basic instructions on how to climb effectively, but a slight panic set in as I swung my legs over the rail and began to descend.

The trail (well lack of trail) soon narrowed and the only way through was a tight crevice between two mud covered rocks. My nephew - who is narrower than I am, had an easy time. I had to clamber up over the rocks and twist sideways simultaneously. Not an easy feat.

We were rewarded with a new cavern with some rock formation that the average paying customer never sees.

The next obstacle was a climb up a 2 story mound of bat guano covered in mud. We had to wait at the bottom while each person ascended to avoid the possibility of them slipping and crashing all of us back down to the bottom in a muddy heap. Our reward for risking humiliation was new formations and some fossils.

We went deeper and deeper into the caves. Through mud sucking at our boots (and destroying some of them), crawling through passages on our hands and knees, and stepping over deep holes in the ground until we reached a point where floor and ceiling met with just a narrow crack.

I was glad we had reached the end of the tour and was looking forward to a rest and some water, when the guide pointed at the hole and said "Through you go!"

This gap was only 14 inches tall, riddled with stalagmites and stalactites blocking the way, and coated with mud floor and ceiling. I had read about the narrow passage (ironically called The Birth Canal) in the tour information, but I had assumed we had passed it when we crawled through the section on our hands and knees. We had even practiced crawling underneath our dining room chairs to simulate the 14 inch gap. 

Nothing prepared us for the real thing. 

I lay flat on my belly and slowly slid across the mud. I grabbed the bases of rock formations when I could to propel myself forward, the rest of the time I wriggled and writhed like a dying fish and tried not to think about rock falls and earthquakes. I reminded myself that if the guide could make it through, so could I. We spaced ourselves far enough apart so as to not kick each other in the face....

....and eventually the gap widened again and we journeyed on.

We had our water break soon after. We reached a point in the cave where the way forward would have involved a 75 foot descent down a wire ladder into the darkness.....this was the point where only professional spelunkers continued. We extinguished our lamps and sat for a while in a darkness so complete our eyes would never adjust, before turning around and taking the same route back to the surface. 

Lessons Learned

There were many places on the tour that I wrongly assumed were our final destination, but the end of the journey is never the end of the journey.
If you are afraid of getting dirty you will never make the journey. 
Each breakthrough comes after a messy squeeze. 
Celebrate for a while and then dive back into the mud. 
Even though we are all travelling the same direction we all experience the journey differently
We all get past obstacles in different ways.
Just because you are in total darkness it doesn't mean you have gone the wrong way.
Some bruises take time to surface.
Be prepared to climb over the safety rail - if the guide asks you too.


Corey Henderson said...

Your experience reminded me of Spider Cave at Carlsbad Caverns. I "misspoke" about my chest circumference on registration and had to squeeze through a very narrow gap like this once. But the bottom was gravelly rocks, 2-3" in "diameter" and I say "diameter" but really they were "triangular". I shredded off some serious skin on those, but I got in there.

I saw cave formations thousands of years old, that in all of history fewer than 1000 human beings have ever observed.

You did miss one lesson, one that I learned then: Sometimes if you really squeeze to get somewhere, you may have to really squeeze to get back out.

... and when you're already bleeding, that squeeze can be worse. But the reward for taking a breath of fresh air on the other side, after accomplishing something like this... incomparable.

Becca said...

That is amazing. And I love the way you tied it all together at the end!