For Thanksgiving this year we chose a rather gutsy way to give thanks. Two Connecticut cavers and I headed to Upstate NY over the weekend to spend 4 consecutive days of challenging underground adventures.
With winter weather approaching, we secured a rustic cabin fitted with but a mere wood-burning stove to keep at bay Jack Frost's icy fingertips. Plenty of locally haggled firewood and Wal-Mart provisions nearly completed our arrangements. But it was the key ingredient that excited our stay the most: deep-fried turkey with plenty of fixings.
But we were here to cave...
A quick reminder: all caves we explore are wild, meaning no guides, tours or assistance, even lighting is provided by anyone but ourselves. We occasionally have maps, but otherwise find our way on our own.
Thursday through Saturday consisted of fairly common caves, but we were venturing into the deeper, more difficult sections, points at which most casual cavers turn around. We chose to wear wetsuits for all of the caves we visited as all had significant water passages, often up to your neck. Extensive crawling was necessary as well, for which we were prepared with knee and elbow pads. These caving days proved highly successful, but it was Sunday's trip for which we really came.
Gage: The Lost Passage.
It would be a test of not only our nerves (could we do it?), but also our physical stamina in both low airspace and chilling waters. We also knew the cold night air would only add to the discomfort when we exited. Conditions don't deter the heartiest of adventurers, so we pressed on.
Gage is accessible via a 50-foot entrance pit. It does have a ladder built in, but we prefer the speedier method of rappelling. At the bottom the cave splits. To the left is the "dry section" - easier passage with a fair amount of walking. And to the right is our destination - the "wet section" and finally the Lost Passage.
Initially one must traverse a series of beautiful flowstone dams to reach the Lost Passage. These naturally-occurring dams span the 15-foot wide passage, slowing the water flow and in essence creating what resembles about 6 swimming pools lined up one after another. Some were mere wading pools while the final one rose above our heads. Of course, the first cavers through can see all of this in the clear, undisturbed water, while those following must brave the just-muddied water with cautious steps.
The Lost Passage neither loomed nor appeared before us. Rather the source of the subterranean river was a simple child's yawn with its tiny mouth dribbling forth its freezing fluid. To enter, you must sit down into a water-filled hole, remove your helmet, and slide into the passage feet first.
Remember that the water is freezing. Your first natural conflict occurs here, whereas you desire to pause and look ahead while knowing you are racing the cold and must keep moving. You are in a teardrop-shaped passage 3 feet high with the water level leaving only 3 to 4 inches of airspace on top. This inverted triangle of air allows just your nose to scrape along the ceiling as you glide along. And you must do this for 30 feet.
With your helmet/light in front leading, you slide forward, almost floating. Your wetsuit protects you body somewhat, but nothing covers your head. As your head leans back and dips into the icy water, it is less than 30 seconds before you will experience brain-freeze. Similar to over-indulgence of 7-11 Slurpees or the infamous ice cream headache, this lack of feeling is not only painful, but also an extremely disorienting shock to the system. This is why you must keep moving at a steady pace, quick enough to hit the first "bell," but not too fast as to make waves. The first bell, about 15 feet in, allows you to temporarily pop your head up and take a much-desired breath. Onward you push, finally reaching an area with adequate headroom and breathing space.
Now if you happen not to be first, you will most likely experience a second natural conflict. Caves are usually silent, with but a few dripping sounds or the occasional slip of your footing. However, as the person in front of you navigates the Lost Passage you will most likely hear at some point what resembles a person drowning or severely struggling to not do so. The sound can recall thoughts from the night before that questioned the sanity of this escapade. Once again though you must press on.
Each time someone clears the Lost Passage he or she must wait for the next person, comfortably breathing but hardly out of the cold yet. You continue to float around a few 90-degree corners, then into a crawl before emerging from the icy water. At that point you can rest, shivering even with a wetsuit, but content you made it.
Of course readers will desire to know what lies beyond the Lost Passage, but I will choose to leave that to those who brave its challenge. Suffice it to say it is a mixed wonder. Passage few will ever see, but with the dark cloud of knowing you must exit the same way you came in.