VI: There Really is a Cave

Copyright (c) 1997 by Ronald Bourret

Bill drove up on Saturday morning while we were still drinking our coffee. We hadn't packed yet and scurried about gathering gear, like soldiers with five minutes' warning of a surprise inspection. Hoping that we had everything, we piled into his truck and bumped off toward the cave.

The turnout had an obvious cairn -- a single, large rock enveloped in layer upon layer of pink flagging tape. A trail slid down the wet rocks and bare logs on the hillside below. Someone had hacked a crude staircase into one of the logs and I commented that it had been a wise move to put the trail there, considering the log already had steps cut into it. Bill pointedly ignored me.

The trail ended in a modest sinkhole, on the opposite side of which was the entrance to the cave. It was unlike any I had ever seen -- a perfect oval doorway in a wall of rock, from which a graceful arch ran at ninety degrees.

"So why do they call it Arch Cave?" I asked. My position as trip smart-ass was secure.

The entrance corridor led down a rocky slope to a flat spot beside a stream. We stopped here to change into our cave suits, then followed the stream as it wound through a vadose canyon. The Bitch Pitch, a ten foot drop with smooth, overhanging walls, broke our rhythm, but we passed it with a short rappel and continued downstream.

The others ran ahead, their lights extinguished by the twisting walls and their footsteps swallowed by the rush of the water. I stopped to marvel at the passage, so unlike the breakdown floors and muddy crawlways I was accustomed to. Here, everything was smooth and clean. A thin film of water shimmered on the undulating walls and sparkled on the ragged ceiling twenty feet above. It was like caving in a coffee-table book, spectacular and easy.

Paul was waiting for me at a branch that led through dry passage to Block Pot, the first real drop. I took a last look at the stream and hurried after him. Bill and Ben were already at the edge of the pit, flaking out the rope and sorting hardware. I climbed a short, wet wall to an alcove above and anchored the rope around a large boulder.

One by one, we slid into the gloom. I brought up the rear. Twenty feet from the bottom, a small waterfall entered from the side, spitting on me and lending character to the pitch but adding no real difficulties. At the bottom, I coiled the rope and tucked it to one side, away from the water.

We exited into a large room with a bit of flowstone, then ducked into a low passage and emerged into a second vadose canyon. Although the stream in this canyon was smaller than that in the first, the canyon itself was no less enchanting. Unfortunately, whenever I paused to enjoy it, I looked up to find myself alone.

Every hundred feet or so, one of the others stopped to make sure that I hadn't wandered down the wrong passage or tripped over my own feet, but no sooner would I catch the reflection of their light on the canyon wall than it would disappear again, like the voice of a leprechaun leading ever deeper into an Irish wood. I found the others waiting at the entrance to a low, wide crawlway.

"There's not much room at the top of the next pitch," Bill said. He turned to me. "Follow me and we'll use your rope."

I scooted past Ben and Paul and followed Bill into the passage. The ceiling was just high enough to tempt me onto my knees, but my pack, bulging with rope and hardware, forced me back to the floor. I tried levering myself onto outspread hands and feet, like the touring gymnasts I had seen at a junior high school assembly, but now, as then, I lacked sufficient strength. Resigned, I slithered through the cold stream and watched Bill scuttle ahead like a contented crab.

Laying in the water to catch my breath and silently thanking Bill for lending me his cave suit, I noticed for the first time a dull roar, like the sound of a distant jet. It grew sharply each time I rounded a corner until, by the time I reached Bill waiting patiently at the pitch head, I could feel it in my chest.

"Confluence Pot," he yelled. "This is where we rejoin the main stream."

I peered into the blackness. My light traced the walls of the pit until they faded from sight, but found nothing. I focused the beam and tried again. There, on the right, so faint I had to reassure myself I could actually see it, was the specter of an immense waterfall. The stream had grown ten-fold.