Spelunking in Robert's Cave - September 1997

A Spelunking Adventure

A low rumbling noise echoed through the bones of the earth. A light, raspy, squeak followed, as if in answer. I lay with my belly pressed close to the cold dirt floor and my head ducked low. The ceiling of the passageway was only inches above my head. I wondered what the classic symptoms of claustrophobia would feel like. Would I recognize them as they started? Was I feeling them already and didn't realize it? Or would they hit me suddenly, once it was too late to do anything about it?

The rumbling noise vibrated the walls again. I could see the soles of Nickola's shoes about 30 feet ahead. The rest of her was out of sight, wedged up into a crevice in the eroded sandstone. Squeaks in two different tones bounced through the cool damp air. I could see drips of water hanging at the ends of a few small icicles of stone near my head. I lifted myself off the floor using my hands and toes and leaned as far forward as my ankles would bend. A grand total of maybe 8 inches. The rumbling sound came again, a little bit clearer this time. Kind of like "hhuhmmm".


When I heard that our trail maintenance group was staying at the Sugar Grove work center this time instead of the Stony Fork campground, I had immediately emailed Parthena. I had been wanting to try spelunking for several years but never had a good opportunity to do so. I knew there was a cave near the work center, having seen the entrance a few years ago. I knew Parthena had caving experience. She graciously agreed to lead me in. Nickola accepted my invitation to go along, assuming I was also experienced at spelunking.

Upon learning of my inexperience on the drive up, Nickola developed a strong case of the "uh-oh"s. I managed to ignore my own anxiety by persuading her that all would be fine. I told her Parthena was very experienced. That worked fairly well until we were 50 feet into the underworld and Parthena shared her Achilles heel with us. It seems that she has terrible sense of direction underground and we would need to pay attention to where we were going so we could find our way back out. That was comforting to know. Especially after Parthena made sure we had rope so we could "unstick" anyone who got stuck in there.

Parthena's warning about directions didn't bother me too much because I fancied myself as having a good sense of direction. But I was slightly disturbed by my headlamp. Apparently what is adequate light for fumbling around in your pack and setting up a tent in the dark is not enough for lighting up the netherworld. Seeing what is beyond your reach comes in handy when trying to find your way around a black hole in the ground. Somehow I managed to adapt to seeing just a five foot circle of rock in front of me.

Exploring a cave for the first time without a tour guide and handrails was actually pretty neat. The passages were wide and tall enough for us to walk upright through most of them without touching the sides. Tony pointed out that no one would yell at you if you did touch the wall, or if you climbed up on it to peer into an interesting looking crack. Apparently his experience with tourist caves had involved a lot of chastizing.

As we explored the cave we saw stalactites and stalagmites. Occasionally we came across flowstone formations that looked like huge piles of melted candlewax oozing down the wall. We saw small crystallizations that looked like tiny mushrooms but were rock hard. We saw others that resembled white roots branching out into the air in all directions. Some formations looked like bunched curtains hanging from the ceiling. Unfortunately we also saw a lot of formations that had been broken off by visitors who did not follow the Leave No Trace ethic.

After a while we found a tunnel near the floor that appeared to lead to a larger cavity beyond. Of course, to get through it you had to first stuff yourself up into a crack in the wall and then swing your legs around and down into the hole. Then you could wiggle through into the room beyond. This maneuver was much closer to the real caving stories I had read and claustrophobicized about. I was still a few steps short of the panic stage, so I did the manly thing and wiggled on in.

We checked out most of the larger nooks and crannies that we came across. We turned off our lights and saw utter darkness. Actually, Nickola was only about 15 feet away crawling into another dead end tunnel at the time, but we couldn't see her light at all, so it really was utter darkness. David squished himself through a nearly impossible crack to reach another chamber, only to find himself on the far side of a rock we had just walked around. It was odd how you could forget which direction you were facing after just a few short steps. To your eyes, all that existed was straight ahead in the light, everything else was black void.


After a while we started encountering places we had already seen before, so we knew we had been through most of the cave. It was time to head out. I walked ahead to lead the way and came to another junction of brown rock tunnels. To the right didn't seem correct, so I went straight ahead. When that ended abruptly, I began to understand Parthena's warning. Looking at the junction again only left me more confused. Panic has such an unpleasant taste. I held it together until I could get the opinion of my hopefully more oriented partners.

Eventually we reached the entrance tunnel again. But not by the same route. We missed the two-point-turn passage somehow, apparently finding a larger passage back to the entrance. This told me that they weren't following the same path back out. They were just going along until they found any way out.

A hot shower and a round or six of pizzas replenished us. Talk soon returned to the subject of the cave and it didn't take long for Nickola and I to round up a few other adventuresome souls. The second time in the cave seemed much smaller. Not tighter, but like it somehow didn't go as far into the mountainside. I guess familiarity made the difference.

We had bats with us this time. They flew by even in the very farthest chamber. I guess they were hunting bugs or something. Perhaps they were just checking us out. It was amazing to see them turn so quickly, barely missing the protruding stalactites and rock curtains. And how they passed so close that you could feel the wind from their wings on your face. It was hard not to duck when they shot into the beam of your lamp just a foot or so from your head. I tried several times to catch them with the camera flash.



The next morning Parthena whet our appetites once more by telling us about another exit from the cave, one that involved a belly crawl most of the way. We had already seen an entrance to a second cave off to the left of the first cave. It didn't take long for Nickola and I to put our muddy clothes back on and head for the hillside again.

The second cave's entrance was so small you had to lie down on your belly and pull yourself in with your elbows. You didn't have to pull hard because the floor sloped downward at a 45 degree angle. It was more of a slide than a crawl. The walls were just barely wider than your shoulders. Eight feet into the ground the tunnel made a sharp right turn and continued on. I was spelling anxiety with all capital letters as I watched Nickola's feet wriggle around the corner. Of course I would have to follow. I couldn't be outdone or left behind.


"Come on in, Don. You can sit up once you get to this spot."

I think I'm actually getting used to asking myself why I'm here/there doing this/that. I've asked that question so many times now. Perched on a rock face looking between my toes at the Linville River five hundred feet below. Trying to stick my crampons into hard ice somewhere near the top of an active volcano. Hurtling down a hill on a mountain bike while trying to refocus my rattled eyeballs before I hit the stream crossing. So far I've always been able to live with whatever answer I came up with.


The low rumbling noise vibrated through the chamber again. Huhhmmm. Huhhm? Summer colds are always the worst. I was so stopped up I could barely breathe at all through my nose. That made my normally deep voice about three octaves lower. "Huhh? What did you say Nickola?"

"Squeak rasp ... bat's not happy... squeak squeak." Nickola's voice was nearly gone due to a recent viral infection. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. We made quite a team: I was so stopped up I couldn't hear and she couldn't talk. I couldn't tell for sure if it was her or the bat that was squeaking. Apparently they both were because Nickola's shoes started crawling back out of the crevice. The bat calmed down and Nickola slithered off down the tunnel. That's what I like about her. Get her past the initial anxiety and off she goes.

"Here's another place you can stand up Don", she yelled back. "And its really big too." I kept doing my toe walk, eight inches at a time. I couldn't find any other semi-comfortable way to make my 6'2" frame move through this tunnel, so I just kept doing my short pushups.

"Oh darn. This is the other cave," she wheezed. I emerged into the big room and saw a familiar sign posted on the wall and daylight streaming in from the left. Indeed, we were about 50' from the entrance we had come in yesterday. Right at the exact spot where Parthena told us about her poor sense of direction. I scratched my head. The entrance we had just gone in was about 60 feet to the left of yesterday's entrance, yet here we were coming into that tunnel from the right side. Apparently we had passed under the first entrance tunnel and then curved back around to intersect it. I would have never guessed we had traveled that far to the right.

We both felt disappointed. In one short slither we knocked out both goals we had for the day: a second cave and an alternate exit. In an attempt to satisfy our new found fever, we poked around the main cave for a third time. We found a few new passages that went on for 20 feet or so, but they all ended too soon.

Eventually we decided it was time to go. Neither one of us had panicked and reached the point of swearing off caves forever. Before I went in I thought I might have a hard time being wedged in a hole in the ground, but it really wasn't like that at all. There were some tight spots, but we were never close to being stuck. I'll bet every time we pass by a dark looking shadow among some rocks on a hillside, we'll probably walk over and poke our heads in, just to see if it goes on a little farther.

Don Childrey
September 1997

Design downloaded from Free Templates - your source for free web templates