Have you ever stopped to reflect on your life and all the amazing things you’ve done? Recently I did. I am amazed that I had the guts and persistence to do some things most people would never attempt to do.
My first amazing adventure took place a few weeks after meeting my husband, Bob. We both lived in the Washington, D.C. area. It was 1970.
A few years earlier; and after being discharged from the Army, Bob spent time in Pendleton County, West Virginia caving with some Army buddies. There were lots of opportunities to go spelunking (the proper name but rarely used by cavers) in West Virginia. So, one day Bob asked me if I would like to go caving. I couldn’t wait!
As a child, my parents would take us into commercial caverns. You know the ones. You follow a man-made path where electric lights and on/off switches have been installed. As a kid, that was fun; but, I always felt drawn to the paths off the main pathway. I wanted to know where they went. In fact, there were many trips into the commercial caverns when I nearly snuck away from the group. Good thing I didn’t, those paths are not lit and there are unseen perils.
The week prior to going caving, Bob bought all the gear we needed. He bought two hard hats and two carbide lamps that slipped down into the front portion of the hard hats.
“Oh,” I said. “These are hard hats made just for caving! Wow, I had no idea!” He also bought a canister of calcium carbide and several baby formula bottles for storing the carbide and water. Of course I had to ask why the water.
When calcium carbide is mixed with water, it creates acetylene gas. As you can see from the drawing, the carbide lamp has two chambers. The bottom chamber is where the calcium carbide is stored. The top chamber is where the water is poured. The physics of the two elements creates the gas which escapes the ignition stem where there’s a striker assembly with a cap, hex nut, spring, flint and a spark wheel.
On the top of the lamp is a valve control stem. Thus, once mounted on the helmet and you’re ready to go caving, the water valve is turned, allowing the water to drip into the calcium carbide. As the mixture creates the gas, it travels through the lamp stem and can be ignited with the flick of a thumb … just like a lighter. The reflector lamp creates a soft light that is perfect for moving through the bowels of the earth.
Well, that’s all well and good, I thought, but I just had to ask Bob why the heck we had to use carbide lamps. “Don’t they make lamps that are battery operated; like a flashlight?”
Bob explained that the carbide lamps are used instead for a very important reason. Caves are prone to produce and contain a scentless gas called methane. Then he asked me what type of animals live in caves.
Thinking I was smart I answered, “Bats live in caves.”
He smirked. “What do you think happens when bat waste decomposes?”
I rolled my eyes. I knew where he was headed.
“Bat waste,” he continued, “Produces an ignitable gas called methane; so, if there’s methane in the cave, the lamps will go out and we will know to get the heck out of the cave.”
He explained that it was why miners used the carbide lamps vs. battery operated ones.
Satisfied that we should definitely stick with the carbide lamps and leave the modern, battery operated lamps out of the equation, I put my hard hat on only to realize it wobbled around on my head.
“Ok, but what if I tip my head with this helmet on my head?” I asked this as I continued to shake my head back and forth demonstrating how the helmet wobbled around. “What if I hit my head on a rock, won’t my helmet fall off? Then what?”
No big deal! Bob had already considered this as he produced a sheet from his linen closet and began ripping a longish strip of cloth off the sheet. He then, turned the helmet, minus the carbide lamp upside down and wove the cloth up through the plastic guts of the helmet so that we could tie the cloth under our chins which would secure the helmet to our heads.
From there I noticed Bob had also bought a really long, thick rope. “What’s that for?”
“In case we need to climb up or down a section of the cave that doesn’t have sufficient hand or foot holes.” At the same time he produced some metal contraptions which he called carabiners which he explained, when used properly, would secure the ropes to our bodies so we wouldn’t fall.
At this point I should have told him he was nuts and run like hell; but I didn’t. I still wanted to know where all those paths went.
That Friday night we gathered old jeans, shirts and light jackets. We also made sure we had good gripping tennis shoes. We were ready to head to West Virginia the following day for a day of caving.
The next morning we left at 5 a.m. and arrived at our destination around 9, stopping only for a pick up breakfast at Dunkin Donuts.
Bob had decided that our first cave adventure would be, Sinnett/Thorn Mountains where we would enter the cave system from an opening in the rocks on the side of Sinnett Mountain. Sinnett Mountain was connected to Thorn Mountain deep in the cave. So, we climbed a bit up to the entrance, put our helmets on, tied the cloth under our chins and ignited our lamps as we walked into mountain, just like walking through an open doorway.
We then walked a bit as the dust in the air caught by the light from outside began to disappear. We were walking down a now slanted path and the air began to cool, but we were ready for the cool air. Earlier, Bob had explained that once in the ground, the temperature would average between 50 and 55 degrees. It was a pleasant temperature for what we were doing.
Bob and his friends had explored this cave a few years earlier, so he was fairly certain he knew where to go. We were headed to the wall which went straight up about 50’. At the top of the wall was the big room which was about as deep and wide as a football field. So, after wandering around for an hour, we found the wall and began climbing. Fortunately there were plenty of hand and foot holds. When we got to the top, we lifted ourselves up into the big room. We sat on the cave floor and pulled out one of the baby formula bottles from a backpack and drank some water, then checked our lamps to make sure we had plenty of carbide and water. We could hear a few bats flying around when Bob asked if I wanted to experience absolute darkness.
“Sure. Why not.”
We snuffed our lamps and sat in the cave. Believe me, if you’ve never been in the guts of the earth with the lights out, you have no idea how absolute the dark is. It’s also totally quiet except for the occasional bat that would swoosh overhead.
We ate a few candy bars for energy of course; then, we were ready to go find the blow hole that connected Sinnett Mountain cave system to that of Thorn Mountain. So, we walked to the opposite side of the big room and began looking for the hole at ground level. We found it and, it’s a good thing we weren’t chunky people because the hole was just high enough to lay on our backs with our back packs on the ground but over our heads. That’s how we moved through the 20’ blow hole, on our backs head first, pushing the back packs along the ground in front of our heads and pushing our bodies with our feet.
They didn’t call it the blow hole for nothing. Once we were inside the hole, our lamps were blown out by the wind. It was howling through the hole.
A few years later we took my sister and her husband on the same caving expedition. My sister panicked when the lamps went out. She was convinced there was methane gas present. I had to talk her down so we could continue.
Finally, we reached the end of the tunnel, pushed our backpacks out and stood up where we could once again ignite the lamps. In front of us was what looked like a slant mountain and it was slick with water. We were fortunate that day.
After we entered Sinnett Mountain, another group of cavers entered through the sink hole on top of Thorn Mountain. They had over 100 feet of rope secured with pins to one side of mountain known as the mud slide. The group of six were coming down one by one using carabiners. They offered to let us climb up the slide using their gear. I went first.
Before we did, however, and as we waited our turn, we walked around the small area at the base of the slide. At the bottom of the slide was a small ledge. The ledge sat at the opening of a big hole in the rock wall. The ledge was on the edge of a crevasse. While waiting, Bob and I threw rocks down into the crevasse. We never heard them hit a floor. No one in the other group had a clue how deep the crevasse was and none of us wanted to find out as we all agreed, a fall down the slide would dump you right into the crevasse! This was the image I had and which led to a little fear mongering as I climbed up the 75 foot extremely slick, slanted mud slide.
I swore the whole way up. It’s what I do when I fear for my life. I swear like a truck driver; and it worked as I swore up my fear. I had to apologize when I reached the top of the slide. But the guy at the top just waved his arm and said, “Don’t worry about it, everyone swears. That’s a scary climb! You’re fine.” Finally Bob climbed up, the last guy shook our hands and climbed down, taking the rope down as he descended.
Left was an easy stroll from the slide on a path that was an upward one as it led us to the sink hole of Thorn Mountain. As we walked we could smell the fresh air filtering down through the hole and the temperature was becoming increasingly warmer. We knew we were close to the exit when we began to once again see particles floating through the now day-lit air.
We arrived at the sink hole and looked up. It was about a 40’ climb. First, however, we had to bend down and walk under a ledge, which, we discovered was covered with brown colored sleeping spiders. It was like something out of a horror film and I for sure didn’t want to wake them up!
Bob climbed out first. Then I began to climb. I made it a little more than half way up the wall of the hole when I realized the last 20+ feet was slick as a baby’s butt. There were no more hand or feet holes. I panicked. I was physically capable, but not that capable. So I froze. I was scared to death of climbing the rest of the way up when there were God knows what kind of spiders down at the bottom of the hole, where, with one slip, I would fall.
We spent the next hour with Bob’s now little head, peaking down at me from the top of the mountain and offering to throw down the rope and pull me out. No way, Jose! If I didn’t learn anything from my abusive childhood, I learned that I could trust no one with my life, let alone this guy I met only a few months prior. I would do it myself. So, I stood on that damned ledge for a long time trying to get up enough nerve to climb out. The entire time Bob tried convincing me to trust that he could pull me out.
Suddenly … and, to this day, I still can’t figure out how I did it … I was up at the top of the hole, crawling out. I guess I just made up my mind to climb out, so out I climbed.
It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun was warm and high in the sky and the grass was as green as could be. I lay on my back and soaked up the rays. I had accomplished a fun, yet very scary feat.
Several years later, as I told the story, I realized how that experience had for me, become an allegory for the similar sink hole of my past I needed to traverse.