Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cave of the Bells

A couple of weekends ago, J and I had the opportunity to visit Cave of the Bells, which is in the Santa Rita mountains southeast of Tucson. Although we'd been to this cave before, we'd only explored a few hundred yards into it. This would be the first real caving either one of us had ever done.

Yep, that's me, caving!
After a short hike, we reached the entrance, and our guide, a grad student who studies caves, paused to give us her "caving guidelines." These consisted of things like, "try not to touch the pretty stuff," "there's no shame in crawling," and finally, "don't die." ("That's not a guideline," she said, "that's a rule.") Good God, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?

The first obstacle was a squeeze that served as the true entrance to the cave. It took us away from the light- and breeze-filled first chamber and into the steady 71 degrees, 100% humidity, and pitch blackness that would be our environment for the next four-plus hours. These conditions are constant in this particular cave: as I write this, Cave of the Bells sits like a buried dragon, hollow and moist at 71 degrees and 100% humidity.

Gorgeous formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
It is strange to think of this vapid space as just existing, with no knowledge of itself. Something about the cave's darkness caused me to project some kind of consciousness onto it while we were there. Perhaps it was my sense of us as invaders, or at the very least explorers of a highly inhospitable and indifferent environment. Perhaps it was easier to think of the cave as something that cared about us, or at least knew we were there. Perhaps it was the influence of House of Leaves (a novel I highly recommend). In any case, though I knew it was crazy, I thought of the cave itself as something alive.

We moved along slowly, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, the crystals formed all over the walls, and the utter darkness in which our eyes, for lack of stimulation, seemed to create things to see when we turned our lights out. Thick, slippery mud covered every surface. We climbed up and slid down slopes where the cave bottom dropped away on either side into what truly seemed to be oblivion, and what truly was far enough to seriously injure anyone who slipped. We followed an increasingly perilous path, all the while with the knowledge that the only way out was back the way we had come, through belly-scraping squeezes and hand-over-hand mud-covered scrambles. We knew that one slip of a foot or hand would result in a serious fall and probably serious injury. Caving, I discovered, is not for the faint of heart.

More formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
Once we had visited each of the research sites, we decided to do one final route through the cave that we hadn't seen yet, a loop. As soon as we began, it became apparent that this route was far more technical than anything we had done; it also became apparent to me that I was very tired. My arms and core were shaky from climbing and from the tension of maintaining my balance in an almost continuous sequence of precarious positions.

We made slow, tedious progress around the loop. At one point, as we chimneyed across a ravine with our feet on one side of it and our backs on the other, I looked down into the blackness below me and decided that this experience had just passed the point of fun, passed a healthy pushing of my comfort zone and moved firmly into the realm of the stupid. The thing about caves, though, is that once you get yourself in, you have to get yourself out. So this realization was of little consequence aside from provoking my annoyance with myself for voluntarily getting into this situation in the first place.

Finally, one last squeeze stood between us and the climb back out to the cave's entrance. We had been climbing up a formation that required relatively technical climbing skills (considering that we weren't roped in), and I could feel my whole body trembling with fatigue and the day's steady stream of anxiety. I began to make my way into the tight vertical space and quickly realized that my head could barely fit through. For some reason, the scraping of my helmet along the cave walls and the wedged, trapped feeling created by my immobile head felt like the last straw, and I felt panic begin to rise up as if from the darkness all around me.

A scuba diving instructor once told me that "panic is the genie you can't let out of the bottle." I've always remembered that image, and it's true - especially underwater, where panic is very often fatal. And although I'm not an expert, I imagine that it is almost as dangerous in a cave.

My method for dealing with panic is to attempt to detach myself from the situation and try to remove my thoughts from the physical circumstances of my body. I know that mind's power to influence the body is extraordinary, and indeed, I don't think there is any true separation between the two. Of course, I didn't actually think about any of this as I attempted to jam my head through an eight-inch crack God knows how many feet underground. I took a deep breath, mentally removed myself from the situation, hissed, "Get your shit together, Tory!", tilted my head just right, and squeezed through.

I don't mean to over-dramatize this adventure. Not a single bad thing happened, and I'm sure that for the experienced folks in our group, it was just another great day of caving. But it pushed me to my psychological limit - something that I normally enjoy, or at least look back on fondly, but in this case, I just think was stupid. I wish that I could say that I conquered some kind of demon, that there will always be another cave for me to explore. That would be a satisfying, if clich├ęd, ending to this story. But the truth is, I'm not sure there was ever anything that needed conquering. I bow with utmost humility to that cave, unconscious and thoughtless as it is, and leave it to others. I admit, for once, and with great difficulty, that some parts of the earth are better off left unexplored -- at least by me. 

Safe, mostly sound, and pretty damn dirty after a day of caving.


  1. Awesome Post, wonderful imagery. We are headed to this cave on 12/12/11. Looking forward to it.

  2. Thanks, Cody - have fun tomorrow! It's an amazing place.

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