April 25, 2008
Filed under Travel
Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. I wanted a caving adventure, one that would deliver the underground physical challenges my previous caving excursions hadn’t. I had seen colorful and impressive stalactites and stalagmites in a couple caves in Missouri, but I hadn’t found the scenery intriguing enough to cause me to make plans to go spelunking again. Then I heard about Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park and the subterranean excursions it offers, and I understood that if the world’s largest known cave couldn’t hook me on caving, nowhere would.
I signed on for the Wild Cave Tour, and the recommendation that I bring gloves and the requirement that I wear over-the-ankle boots with aggressive soles indicated that I’d find my adventure. On the drive south on Interstate 65 from Louisville, my only concern was whether I’d arrive at the visitor center in time for the 9:30 am check-in. At 9:20, I
parked the car, then read the sign that described what I was getting myself into. I didn’t quite panic (I prefer the phrase “my concern became more pronounced”) when I read that the Wild Cave Tour was restricted to people with chests no larger than 42 inches. I know I wear a 44 jacket, but does that mean anything? I’m not a giant, but I carry 200 pounds on my 6-foot 2-inch frame, so I walked into the visitor center and asked an official-looking, tall, thin man in a forest-green
jumpsuit if he thought I’d be able to squeeze my way through the tight spots I’d encounter on the tour. He looked me up and down, then said, “You should be okay.” He emphasized “should,” meaning “maybe not,” which wasn’t entirely comforting.
Moments later, the guide, Taylor Harlow, examined the boots on the feet of the 14 visitors about to descend, deeming our footwear acceptable, then proceeding to explain what we would soon experience. He said the No. 1 response he receives from people who have completed the tour is astonishment that the government allows average folks to take
such a tour at all, let alone without signing a liability waiver. My pulse quickened.
Taylor said we would be crawling through tight, restrictive spaces and that at one point we would have to choose whether we wanted to turn our heads left or right before we attempted to scoot our way through a passage with a total clearance of nine inches from floor to ceiling — the opening in the rock would be too small to allow us to change the
direction we looked. I heard Taylor’s words, but my mind wouldn’t let me visualize the picture he was painting so, after being outfitted with bandanas, kneepads, helmets and headlamps, I found myself aboard the bus heading to the Carmichael Entrance, studying the others, wondering who would be the first to crack.
We secured our kneepads, flipped on our headlamps, then entered the cave, walking down a flight of cement stairs. So far, so good, I thought, then made a bet with myself that I wouldn’t quit until after the small older guy did. We soon stopped to pick someone to go last, a sweeper who would make sure no one was left behind. Taylor told us that Kevin, another guide, would appear time and again in various spots along the route, acting as an omnipresent overseer of this underworld. One of our group made what I considered to be an arrogant comment about not having to wait for her, since she was an avid hiker. Taylor directed us to the first tricky passage we would negotiate, called the Bryce Crawl, and the arrogant woman quit the tour then and there. Kevin led her back out of the cave, and our adventure truly began.
One after the other, we maneuvered through the Bryce Crawl, our right knees taking the brunt of our weight as we scooted forward through the tilted slot. This is intense, I thought, reminding myself to stay calm, reminding myself that the old guy hadn’t quit yet. I was breathing hard, and I suddenly understood why we hadn’t been advised to wear a
sweatshirt or jacket, since the cave is a constant 54? F year round. I was sweating, and we’d gone about eight yards, a fact that didn’t bode well, particularly since we would cover five and a half miles and spend five and a half hours underground on that particular day.
When we plopped out into the room that seemed relatively cavernous (though we were still squatting), my nerves had settled, and I let myself admit that I was having a blast. Soon we were doing a belly crawl, propelling ourselves single file any way we could, through what seemed like a worm hole called Red Rock, a constricting tunnel through the limestone that appeared to dead end. When we reached the section that seemed to be impassable, we pushed and pulled our torsos upward through a gap with only 10 inches of clearance, dragging our legs behind us as we did backbends, then slithering over the rock.
Over the next five hours we negotiated many kinds of terrain in the world’s largest labyrinth (the second and the third largest caves combined fall more than a hundred miles short of the 367 miles of navigable passages in Mammoth Cave). We climbed down rock walls by finding hand- and toeholds, straddled dramatic drops, hoisted ourselves up through holes in the rock, scrambled hand over hand and descended headfirst through a passage called the Birth Canal. I walked like a monkey, snailed my way through the Hell Hole, slithered when necessary, grunted often, pulled with my fingers, employed a one-legged frog kick, banged up my elbow, got drunk on adrenaline, got wet and muddy — and smiled most of the time. Mammoth Cave offers 15 tours that can accommodate all tastes. But I found my adventure on the Wild Cave Tour.
For the record, when I got to the 9-inch clearance, I looked left.
Mammoth Cave National Park, (270) 758-2180, www.nps.gov/maca