Down Below

Delicate Maneuver
Page 5 of 5   |  
Tight fit
Tight fit

And so James decided to attempt to maneuver through the hole at the back of Argenta. The opening appeared impossibly small — a third the diameter of a manhole. Then again, most good cavers are able to contort their bodies in such a way that they can fit through a wire coat hanger that has been bent into an oval. James lifted his arms above his head, Superman style —"this compacts your shoulders to their skinniest" — and plunged into the tunnel, which was steeply upward sloping. Bit by bit he worked his way in, using only his toes to propel him forward, like diving flippers, and moving his back in a type of wormy, Brownian motion. Soon all I could see of him was the ends of his legs. Then he disappeared completely, leaving behind only a steady monologue of grunts.

He was gone for several minutes and I wondered if he'd found something. But then he reappeared, doing the flipper motion in reverse. "It goes on," he said, "but I can't fit. It's an inch too narrow."

I'm smaller than James, so I decided to give it a try. I raised my arms and entered the hole. I did the toe-trick, and moved forward. The rock was all around me, tight. I moved up some more. The passage got narrower. The fit was so constricting I felt the rock pushing against me from all sides at once, pressing against my spine and my chest and both shoulders. Instinctively, I tried to pull back, but the rock seemed only to tighten, as if I'd been cast into some giant version of a Chinese thumb trap. Breathing was suddenly difficult — there wasn't enough room for my chest to fully expand. I'd like to say I was calm in this situation, but I'd be lying. My breathing became clipped, and the air in front of me clouded with vapor. Prickles of sweat came over me. I could see that three or four feet in front of me the pinch ended and the passage seemed to widen a bit before it bent around a corner and disappeared from view. To move forward I had to inhale and then push with my toes. I did so, and immediately felt I'd become stuck. I was hanging there, suspended, caught between the rocks. I started thinking to myself, "Once I pass out, I'll be easier to remove," and it was then I realized I'd had enough. Carefully, methodically, I backed out of the hole.

In the main passage once again, safe, I noticed that James was grinning. He had a distant look in his eye. I asked him what he was thinking.

"Well," he said, "I was figuring that if we brought along a chisel and just chipped away a tiny bit of rock we could get through there." Standard caving ethics, James explained, allows a person to chip away some rock if it will likely lead to additional cave. A serious caving bum, I garnered, is almost pathologically unable to leave a tantalizing opening unexplored. James is a serious caving bum. "I know there's more passage there," he said. "I can feel it in the air. So I was thinking, I guess we need to come back."

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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