In company with The Jeff, Alisa, and three other folks (including Our Fearless Leader), I journeyed to Clarksville, NY today, and there kitted up elaborately, clambered into a sinkhole, slithered into a crack between jumbled rocks, and followed far more experienced people around underground for rather a long time.
It was flurrying when we went underground, but the cave itself was cave temperature, which is to say about 55 degrees. The water was plenty cold, though.
The cave is long and narrow, following the course of an underground stream (as caves will). It runs through sedimentary rock scalloped from water wear (imagine the dishlike ripples on a wind-chopped lake, transposed to stone) and speckled with fossils, and there are veins and pipes of chert and calcite running through it. The chert tends to project in shelves and ledges, being harder than the sedimentary rock. The calcite wears away faster, and makes depressions.
There are places where the ceiling is big slabs of schist, which sparkles in the helmet lights, and there's a great deal of walking ducked over, sidling sideways, or crawling on your hands and knees (sometimes through water). There are a few soda straws and other small limestone accretions, but the cave has been known and visited since the 1850s if not longer (I saw one graffito from 1878), and not much fragile remains in there. We went the length of one side of the cave, down to what's called the Lake Room, where there is indeed a small underground lake (about fifteen feet deep and maybe ten feet by twenty-five feet in area), and there our Fearless Leader told us about a caver who had died in the lake, working on a dig--attempting to remove enough sediment to connect an underwater passageway to another nearby cave.
Once I got the hang of moving underground it wasn't bad. I retain heat well, and I'm pretty comfortable with being wet and muddy, so that wasn't too much of a problem. The footing isn't great. The acoustics were wonderful, though--resonant and spooky, amplifying voices and splashes and the trickle of water. One thing I did notice was that I didn't have any problem with the alertness stress and exhaustion some of my caver friends report. Instead, I felt calm and alert, peaceful, more relaxed than I usually do in my daily life. I suspect this may have something to do with post-traumatic anxiety and hypervigilance being put to a purpose, rather than being allowed to feedback loop.
We came back to the entrance where we'd come in and proceeded past it, through a fairly snug crawl (I am assured by experienced cavers that it was not anything like "tight," but it was more than uncomfortable enough for me--I made it through mostly by joking about how it was a perfectly good way to give yourself a double mastectomy) and through another "avenue" (or fairly broad, fairly high stretch) that involved a tiny little waterfall--about ten inches high, but there was a sinkhole fifteen feet deep on the downstream side--which I managed to avoid falling into, go me) and some crawling over tufa dams, which are a rock formation that occurs when mineralized water sits in pools, and builds itself little accretionary dams around the edges. Essentially, picture a terraced hillside, only in rock and water.
Then we scooted on our butts down a chute to another small lake, and this is where I had one of the scariest experiences in my life. I was fine climbing into the lake up to chest level, and edging into the crevice leading to what was described to me as a "sump" (a short submerged passage) but what I hadn't realized was that getting into the sump required getting my body through a narrow space with not one but two projecting chert ridges. Now, I have a pretty deep ribcage, and I'm carrying some extra weight (which is probably helpful in other ways, because I never got cold, despite wading through waist-deep water in a fifty-degree cave for a couple hours) and because I don't have really appropriate caving gear, I was wearing three layers of fabric--thermal cotton, synthetic, and a layer of silk--and anyway, it was painful and extremely awkward getting my body past the first outcrop.
But I did it. And then realized that the free space on the second one was even smaller, and I was going to have to go over it--or at least enough over it that I was sliding my legs past it rather than my pelvis or ribcage. All this while chest-deep in forty- or fifty- degree water, mind you, and without being able to see any potential footholds on the side of the cave (because the water was muddy from the people who went through ahead of me) while wearing bulky, slippery neoprene gloves.
It wasn't actually all that *dangerous* (I know perfectly well that Fearless Leader and the others would have gotten me out of there if anything had gone seriously wrong), but it was absolutely scary as anything I have every done--I remember thinking quite clearly that I was in a position where I could, in fact, do something that would get me killed, and with the water as cold as it was I knew I didn't have a lot of time to act and still have the strength to do it in. I never actually panicked, I don't think, but I could see it from where I was.
I have no idea how I managed to get my leg over that rock and drop back into the water on the other side, but I did--and then once I was over it, between the stark terror of having nearly gotten stuck, the exertion, and the thermal shock, I had another problem, because I'd started to hyperventilate (spasming diaphragm, big gasping panting shallow breaths--true hyperventilation) and couldn't make myself stop. Which makes it hard to get through a narrow underwater passage. (There was about four inches of freeboard, so we could hear the people on the other side.)
The Jeff asked me if I wanted to stick my hand through so I could feel the other side, and I said yes (between spasms), so I did that and he grabbed my hand. And I did the only thing I could think of to do, which was grab a breath, stick my face under the water (that'll interrupt a hyperventilation reflex but good), and swim for it.
And then got out on the other side and had a lovely adrenaline reaction and called him names and then went and hid in the corner until I stopped shaking and we could leave the cave.
I am very bad at admitting any kind of weakness or inability, and I was really very unhappy with how poorly I handled the whole thing. However, apparently I have the minority opinion, as the Jeff, Fearless Leader, and Alisa all seem to think I did very well. I'm trying to decide if I'm every going to try it again, because some of it was pretty nifty, and of course, I am stupidly macho, and the fact that I feel as if I did not acquit myself well makes me feel like I need to go back and do it again to prove I don't suck.
Anyway, I'm still processing. I'm the antithesis of an adrenaline junkie: I hate being scared, and I hate the aftermath of being scared. I also hate the way I treat other people in the aftermath of being scared: my fight or flight reflex is broken, you see. I only have fight left. Which means you really don't want to be around me if I'm scared. But I also feel like being scared is a challenge, and something I should push myself through, because it's a weakness. And I'm apparently not allowed to have those. But I feel like I was a tremendous disappointment, and made a complete ass of myself.
Chaz would have loved it. Especially the part where I was wondering if I was going to die.
The bruises on my ribcage are going to be insane.
And hey, it's all material, isn't it? Someday I'll put that scene in a book.