Caving: Into the heart of darkness

Inching our way though caverns measurable to man
By PHIL BERTONI  |  July 1, 2008

This article originally appeared in the June 20, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Outside it’s a sweltering 95 degrees. Muggy, too. Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city. Back of people’s necks getting dirty and gritty.

But not for you. No, because it’s a good 40 degrees cooler where you’re situated, alongside a clear, cool rippling stream, watching tiny lights dance over a gorgeous 30-foot waterfall, admiring the sumptuous decor, antique yet somehow modern. Why, God bless you, it’s the lobby of the Hyatt hotel!

Don’t delude yourself. The way you look, they wouldn’t let you pot the palms at the Hyatt, much less loiter there. Every apprehensible inch of you is coated with aromatic, nitrate-rich mud, some of it bloody. And shapeless J.C. Penney cover-alls do not a Cardin jumpsuit make, particularly when they’re laden with ten or 12 hours’ worth of unevaporated sweat. No, don’t trouble to scrape off the mud. Please.

And, look, you ninny, if you were in a Hyatt hotel, would most of your body be wedged in a hole only marginally wider than your thorax while one arm and a head dangle inches from cold running water? Not in the lobby, certainly. And would your hardhat, which carries your only source of light, and whose chin strap you refrained from buckling in a fit of jaunty bravado, be even now falling from your head with a gentle splash to plunge you into total, absolute, impenetrable, “that’s all right, scream your head off my dear, no one will hear you” darkness? Not likely.

No, I’d say you’re in a cave, some hundreds of feet beneath the warm bright surface of the earth, your only hope of assistance two or three comrades inconveniently located behind you, in the tube in which you perform so effectively and admirably the function of stopper. Things could be worse. There could be a flash flood roaring like a locomotive around the bend upstream. Or you could have emerged from the hole above a canyon onto a rotten ledge which crumbled under your weight, to plummet you headfirst into a fissure, with the force of impact driving you like a piton into the crack. See, you’re not so bad off. As to your present fix, I’m sure you’ll think of something before hypothermia sets in. I’ll check back later.

Why do cavers do these things? (“Spelunker,” incidentally, is a word most often used by writers of articles on underground exploration; the people who do the exploring generally prefer the less whimsical “caver.”) Several theories attempt to account for the serious psychological flaw which exempts the caver from the desire to live forever in safety and comfort, a salutary aim to which everyone else subscribes. Mostly, though, simple excitement is the caver’s chief motivation. There are few realms left where good old-fashioned adventure can be indulged in without government sponsorship. With so much unexplored cave available, and so few non-claustrophobes to fill it, a dedicated caver is bound at some point to tread ground previously untrodden. Or to fall into a hole previously untenanted.

Let us digress for a geological instant, and discuss how those untenanted holes came to be.

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