VIII: Swimming Lessons

Copyright (c) 1997 by Ronald Bourret

A muffled shout told us that Bill had reached the top. Ben was next and started up the rope. The air was markedly colder than at the top of the pitch and I pulled out an extra jacket to wear under my cave suit. I looked at Paul, uncomplaining in his leaky rain gear and cloth cave suit, and offered him my other jacket. He accepted with a smile.

The line stopped its characteristic jerking and, although we couldn't hear anything, we assumed Ben was off. Paul clipped in and moved quickly through the cold spray. By the time he was thirty feet up, I lost sight of him except for his light, reflected by the foamy water and the glittering roof above. It paused at the rebelay, moved sideways onto the ledge, and vanished.

I huddled in the far corner of the room, afraid to approach the stream for fear of slipping in and being swept to my death and afraid to turn off my headlamp for fear it would fail and I would be left alone in this cold, wet place. To pass the time, I took off hats and gloves and put them back on, first in one combination and then in another. It didn't help.

The rope went slack again and I clipped in, then started to ascend. It was impossible to climb and hold myself out of the waterfall, so I bowed my head and listened to the water drum on my helmet. Each time I raised an ascender, frigid water cascaded down my sleeve and I understood why Ben had brought long, heavy, rubber gloves.

My hands stung from the cold and I soon tired, aware for the first time just how badly out of shape I was. My whole body wanted to stop, but a rest, I realized, would be inviting hypothermia. Instead, I pushed slowly on, moving in rhythm with my mantra: "Desk jobs are good training. Desk jobs are good training."

Shortly before the rebelay, my hands lost all feeling. I hooked my wrist, now a useless wooden club, into the metal handle of the ascender and pulled. Another foot up the rope. I nudged the ascender higher and repeated the process. Five pulls later, the ascender bumped against the carabiner at the rebelay.

I leaned back to rest and warm my hands, alternately blowing on them and holding them against my neck. Slowly, the blood burned back into them and I continued until they felt almost normal. I then stepped onto the ledge, unthreaded the sling, and continued sluggishly to the top.

I crawled past Bill and plopped onto a rock. Barely able to see the Ben and Paul, I wiped my glasses several times before I realized that the problem was not water on my lenses, but steam rising from our bodies and filling the narrow passage. I took my glasses off and stared incredulously at Bill.

"And you call this a dry cave? What's a wet cave like?"