How I Nearly Died Caving

Shelly Fagan
May 2, 2019 · 11 min read
Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

“Let’s take this caving class,” my friend said. She handed me one of those cheap newsprint booklets the city mails offering adult general interest programs like self-defense courses or pottery.

Introduction to Caving seemed innocent enough. After all, the course was offered through the Parks and Recreation Department. The class promised to be a great introduction into a fun, family-oriented activity exploring one of the state’s amazing underground wonders.

I envisioned walking through a large cavern while learning about stalactites and stalagmites and other interesting geological features.

“It is practically educational,” I thought.

Before we get into the part of this story describing my sheer terror at almost plummeting to my death, let me stipulate there were plenty of warning signs that this was a very bad idea.

“By Signing This You Acknowledge Caving is a Dangerous and Potentially Deadly Activity”

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

My first clue should have been the three-page legal document we were required to sign holding the company harmless in case of accident, death or dismemberment.

I chalked it up to a mere legal formality. This was Parks and Recreation, after all, so the city required a release. Right?

Throughout this story, I excuse many different red flags this way.

“It is a Parks and Recreation course” became my mantra.

Let’s Explore a Cave!

Photo by James Kemp on Unsplash

We left at 5 a.m. and drove 3 hours to another part of the state. This was more involved than I had anticipated. I had already packed a lunch and paid the fee so I felt committed.

“What the hell,” I said. “What is the worst that can possibly happen?”

Most of our classmates had wisely backed out during the legal-document-signing-a-warning-you’re-probably-going-to-die phase. They didn’t show up at the rendezvous point.

There were only four of us stupid enough to take the course.

My friend and I were both runners, physically fit and slender. A brother and sister team comprised the other part of our group. He was a beefy body builder type and she was a small gymnast.

The instructor, who appeared to have blazed a fatty on her way driving over to the meeting place, was under five feet tall and weighed all of about 80 pounds. She was ideal for cave exploring -- relaxed, blunted and as small as a child.

Why is this description important? I would soon learn my physical size and willingness to engage in recklessness were more important than fitness and a sober fear of death.

There was a new hire for the company, a Brazilian mountain climber with limited English language skills. Carlos was saving up for an expedition to Mount Everest. He was gorgeous, tall, thin and had the sort of deep tan that never fades from a lifetime spent outdoors.

In broken, halting English, he told me of his background. I was distracted by his attractiveness. It did not register the company hired this guy because his experience wasn’t merely a bonus for the job, but a requirement.

The instructor was happy most of the class didn’t show.

“Excellent. We can do way more since we have a small group and everyone is in great shape,” the instructor said.

“You’ve Taken Advanced Rock Climbing, Right?”

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

You know that awkward moment when you can’t understand an accent so you look around for help?

“Fur, we go to ray-pall down cliff,” Carlos said. He gestured toward a black spot on the ground about the size of a street manhole cover.


He held up a rope in one hand and repeated more slowly, “we ray-pall down cliff.”

We looked at each other completely lost. Carlos shook the rope at us annoyed. This was obviously an important clue, but I wasn't getting it.

“First, we rappel down the cliff. Rappel. Rappel with a rope,” Little Miss Stoner said from behind the group. She was already stepping into a harness.

Photo by DiEGO MüLLER on Unsplash

It was now the bodybuilder’s turn to be annoyed. “What are you talking about? What cliff?”

“The cliff in hole,” Carlos said while pointing to the black spot on the ground. “We ray-pall to get in cave. Let’s go.”

He held up a rope in one hand and harnesses in the other. He wanted us to wear this contraption.

“You want us to climb into that hole and rappel down a cliff inside the cave? How in the heck are we supposed to do that?”

The instructor and Carlos exchanged worried glances.

“All of you have taken advanced rock climbing, right?”

Suddenly, I understood Carlos’ special purpose and it wasn’t to flirt with me. He was there to teach students who were taking this course for something other than a fun Saturday activity.

“Oh Hell No.”

Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash

There is a “hell-no” moment in every story like this when the main character had plenty of time to avert disaster but chooses not to do so.

It might be when they came to their senses and didn’t go into the attic to investigate the creepy noise. It could be when they headed back into the bay instead of taking a sailboat out when storm clouds began to form on the horizon. Perhaps it was when they saw something inexplicable and weird and simply left instead of trying to figure it out.

This was the moment for me. I should have climbed into my car, driven to Denny’s and gotten pancakes before heading home. All the warning signs were there.

It didn’t help that I was hungover.

We next learned there were three prerequisite classes on rock climbing before this one but it had not made it into the catalog.

“Well, kids. Today we are going to learn how to rappel inside a cave and some other things you missed.”

This Was the Only Fun Thing We Did All Day

Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

We spent the next 30 minutes with a rope tied around a tree trunk while we pretended to rappel down a cliff. Once everyone was convinced we weren’t going to die, we made our way to the hole.

“Hey, maybe this will be fun,” I thought.

Carlos went first to help us and didn’t bother using a rope. He sort of ran down the rock wall and jumped to the other side.

The tricky part was that it wasn’t exactly vertical, but more of an extreme slope with a ceiling overhead. So you more or less hopped backwards while crouching down trying not to slam your head into the ceiling. Then you lowered yourself to a 6" ledge wide enough for two people to stand. After that, you turned and jumped across about a four foot gap to another ledge.

Below was a three story drop to the bottom of the cave.

What they failed to tell us is that we exit in this location. We would have to pull ourselves out in the same awkward position. Hence the need for the Advanced Rock Climbing skills.

Having completed the only fun activity of the day, it was time to explore the crystal room.

Photo by Vojtech Jurczak on Unsplash

Accessing this place required pulling yourself along a 40-foot long tunnel about the size of a coffin over shards of crushed quartz crystal. I opted to wait at the first opening big enough to sit up, afraid a retreat would require us to go backwards in the tunnel. My legs were already cut up and bloody and my claustrophobia was piqued.

It was a smart move on my part. Only Miss Stoner was small enough to turn around in the tunnel and it took almost an hour for everyone to back out.

Did I Mention the Swimming?

Photo by Johny Hernández on Unsplash

Next we headed over to the swimming hole.

This was two connected chambers partially submerged in frigid water about chest deep. The first chamber was accessed by a hole big enough for one person to squeeze through. The room was large enough for only two people. So the first to enter had to hold their breath and swim through a tunnel to the second, much larger chamber. This other room could accommodate six people.

The instructor stayed behind with the backpacks, and I assume to get baked again.

We spent five minutes in the chamber, mostly because it was freezing. Mr. Bodybuilder swam through first and I joined him. My friend and his sister waited in the second, bigger room. Mr. Bodybuilder cut up his shoulders getting out of the hole and left to doctor it.

My turn came. The women encouraged me to hurry so they could swim out together so that no one was left alone. I had a pack around my waist and the thick webbing of the straps had hung up on the sharp rocks. I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t go back. My hands were too numb to remove it. I couldn’t reach the zipper in the back to open the pack and retrieve my knife so I could cut myself loose. I stayed for a good five minutes that way. I called out to the instructor to help me.

Miss Stoner decided this was a teaching moment. As we will later see, I did not learn from this experience.

She sat at the mouth of the chamber and said to me, “This is what caving is about, learning how to solve problems like this.”

When his sister didn’t emerge, Mr. Bodybuilder returned and asked if I was stuck. I said yes, so he grabbed my arms and pulled so hard, he ripped the pack from the webbing and my jeans clean off my body.

What followed was more of this kind of white knuckle adventure, with plenty of opportunity for all of us to fear for our lives. This lasted until we were all so emotionally exhausted, we demanded to leave.

That is when it really got bad.

Giving Birth

Photo by Vladimir Kramer on Unsplash

In order to exit the cave, we had to negotiate a twisting, vertical rock tunnel. The instructor like to go out this way because she felt it was like experiencing birth.

I am sure it was a lot of fun if you’re 48 inches tall and weigh about as much as a standard poodle. If you’re 180-pound body builder, not so much so.

Miss Stoner had gone out to the top of the cave and left the four of us in the tunnel. Carlos was busy rigging ropes for our ascent.

Mr. Bodybuilder went through the tunnel first, I was second, then came my friend and the gymnast was at the back.

The guy got stuck, really stuck because his upper body was massive. He was on his back moving around a rock overhang at his chest. My own anxiety was already through the roof as I am claustrophobic.

Mr. Bodybuilder could not see which way to go above him. He could not advance and attempted to back up into me so he could turn around and approach it from a different angle. As there were two people behind me, this was not an option.

Mr. Bodybuilder had a full blown panic attack believing he was going to die trapped in a rock tube. He started sobbing and became hysterical.

Behind me, my friend also began to panic and cry because we had been in the tunnel for 20 minutes, she could not go forward nor back up either. I had to convince her we would not suffocate.

After a few minutes of encouraging Mr. Bodybuilder to get angry at the instructor, I was able to convince him to move forward an inch at a time by guiding him where to place his feet so he could push himself up and literally force himself through. He eventually crept forward about five feet.

That was enough for Carlos to be able to pull him from the tunnel. Afterwards, we discovered there was an alternate path and this portion of our adventure was wholly unnecessary.

This is the Part Where I Nearly Die

I went next, grabbed the ropes and started to climb. I got up about 30 feet, less than half way to the top. The two women behind me leapt to the ledge to wait their turn. With our batteries dying, the headlamps did not penetrate more than a few feet in front of us. Above me was a short climb out of the cave, below me was a three story drop.

I simply could not do it. My shoes slipped on the slick rock wall. I no longer had any upper body strength after 9 hours in that cave.

I began to slide toward the women below. I knew there was not enough room for the three of us on that ledge. It was likely I would knock the other two into the drop if I slid into them.

The women could not see what was happening and wouldn’t be able to help me anyway. I attempted to stop my descent by flattening against the rock, distributing my weight across a larger area while clinging to the rope. I felt for any crack or crevice where I could wedge my foot to stop myself, but the wall was smooth. I tried using my knees to stop the slide, but that didn’t work, either.

I was getting rope burns on my hands.

I began to panic, so I screamed. “Help me, I am falling!”

The instructor peered over the edge, the light from her headlamp blinded me.

She called down, “You really need to learn to solve these problems on your own. This is what caving is all about, finding a way to deal with your limitations.”

I was crying and hysterical at this point. While I was panicked about falling, I was more terrified that someone who could help another wouldn’t do so. I realized then she didn’t care if I went over the edge. She was going to allow me to fall.

I had enough of her shit. My response to her is not suitable for print. I began screaming loud enough to get the attention of the guys outside.

Carlos heard the commotion and ran down to me, pulling me up a few feet to a protruding rock where I could hang on. He rigged a different type of rope so I could climb out. He later apologized for the error.

I got to the top, and Mr. Bodybuilder held me while I sobbed. We were all traumatized. It was dark, we were emotionally spent. No one was talking.

As we packed up to leave, the instructor handed us a piece of paper.

It was an evaluation form from the Parks and Recreation Department entitled, “Did you have fun today?”

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Shelly Fagan

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I make complicated subjects accessible. Politics, Basic Income, Philosophy. You clap, I follow. You read mine, I’ll read yours.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment, in mind, body, and soul.

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