THE WORST PART about falling down a hole in a cave is the not knowing. I mean, when I reached for that wet outcropping and my fingers slipped, I knew I was going down. But the disorienting blackness you’ll find in a subterranean passage has a funny way of magnifying space and giving your imagination license to turn dark corners into bottomless pits. So as I lost my grip on that ledge and croaked, “Oh shit,” I wasn’t scared because I was falling. I was scared because I wasn’t sure how far I had to fall.
It’s not as if I hadn’t been warned of the risks inherent in descending into the jagged bowels of a mountain. My guide, Michael McCormack, briefed me on the dangers that cavers have to consider before leading me on the two-hour hike from the Alpental parking lot near Snoqualmie Pass up to Cave Ridge. (I’d be more specific about the exact location of the cave we hiked to, but some cavers get skittish about publishing that kind of information for safety and conservation reasons. And, honestly, I couldn’t remember if you paid me.) We talked about getting lost and having your flashlights burn out or having a panic attack in one of the claustrophobia–inducing channels or succumbing to hypothermia—the kind of drama that you can prevent if you pack right and keep your wits.
But falling? No book or meditative practice can prepare you for that.
All of which raises the question, Why exactly would anyone want to go caving in the first place? It’s cold and dank. You have to wear a helmet to keep from braining yourself on random rocks that jut out of the walls. And half of the time, the only way to get from point A to point B is by squeezing your body through crevices like toothpaste out of a tube. “That’s kind of the $60 million question, isn’t it?” McCormack says. “I go caving because it appeals to my sense of solitude and self-sufficiency. Even when you’re caving with someone—and you always cave with others for safety’s sake—you still have this darkness around you, and you’re relying on yourself to get things done.”
About that darkness: It’s absolute. Descend past the mouth of a cave, turn a few corners, and unless you have a flashlight, you are blind. To prove that, McCormack and his caving buddy, Rick Wintch, led me into a narrow but towering chamber they called the cathedral room and instructed me to turn off my headlamp. I sat there waiting for my eyes to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. At McCormack and Wintch’s suggestion, I waved my hand in front of my face and saw a ghostly outline of my fingers, but it was only a residual self-image; my brain knew my hand was there and filled in the blanks. As disconcerting as that seems, it was actually freeing. With only the echoes of water dripping in another cavern to remind me where we were, I’d never felt so disconnected from the world.
McCormack had said that “people who go underground are just a little bit different,” but that’s probably a better description of the types of people willing to go underground without prodding. Anyone who knew what you can find down there—and who can literally and figuratively get past the tight spots—would have to think hard about passing up the chance. While Western Washington’s caves are generally brown, nondescript, and by no means pretty in the Ansel Adams sense of the word, they reward the adventurous who take the time to look for beauty in the details: the cloudy, watery ripples in a pocket of flowstone; the blue and white veins of partially metamorphosed marble; the macabre yet delicate coral-like fungus sprouting from the back of a decaying moth. And there’s a satisfaction that comes from inching your way through a tunnel on your belly—some of the passages we crawled into were so tight that the hood of my sweatshirt would catch on the ceiling—and emerging in massive limestone spaces that few people have ever seen or, for that matter, know exist.
Then again, there is the chance that you’ll fall. If you’re not careful, you might slip into a void, break a leg, and be forced to pray for rescue. Or, if you’re like me, you could just rush while trying to climb up to a ledge and tumble three feet onto your guide who’s spotting you from below. But trust me: In the dark, no fall is a fun one.
On the hike up the mountain, McCormack had told me you can’t get a true caving experience unless you go home with a story to tell. I’d be lying if I didn’t revel a little in the irony that my story involves me landing in a heap on his back.