We drove to a place called Argenta, which is one of those broken-down Western mining towns that's essentially a ghost town except people still live there. On the way, we talked caving. James told me about his encounters with bats, some of which have been less than pleasant, though he's never been bitten. Then he told me about people getting stuck in caves, in tight pinches. "Don't worry," said James, "once a person goes unconscious, they're fairly easy to remove."
I also learned that cavers do not like to be called spelunkers. There's something hoity-toity about the word that cavers don't like. Caving is mostly about slithering around in old clothing in the muddy dark. Spelunking sounds like an activity one might do at a tea party, right after croquet.
Past Argenta, we drove on old unpaved mining roads for a few miles until we reached a place that seemed to correspond with the spot on our topo map labeled Argenta Cave. This was James' first visit to the cave.
We changed into caving gear. James had instructed me on what to bring, and I slipped on knee and elbow pads, a helmet, an old pair of work pants, a ratty jacket, and a climbing harness. James put on a frayed, one-piece Army flight suit, olive green, that he said cost him $19 at the local Army-Navy outlet. He stuffed a small pack with a climbing rope, two pairs of ascenders, and a compact shovel. We each had three light sources. My primary one was a battery-powered headlamp. James had a carbide lamp. A carbide lamp, which has been used by miners for more than a century, is like a tiny blowtorch. Its open flame produces a soft, lambent glow, vastly superior to a headlamp's jaundiced beam. But the lamp requires continual maintenance, and also poses the chance of unhappy surprise."One guy on rappel stopped to take a picture," James told me, "and he didn't realize his flame was against the rope. He burned through the rope. That was it for him."
A few hundred feet off the road we came upon the mouth of Argenta Cave. It was a nondescript opening, really no more than a rock-lined gash in the earth. It plunged straight down like a well, into blackness. James tied the climbing rope around a nearby tree and tossed the free end into the pit. Then he sparked his carbide lamp, threaded the rope through his rappel device, and spidered down into the dark.
When I heard James shout that he'd reached the bottom, about 50 feet below, I clipped in and began my own rappel, sliding out of the brightness of the day, through a brief realm of perpetual gloaming the rocks fuzzy with lime-green lichen and into the throat of the cave. The air felt dank and stagnant, as if I'd crawled into my gym bag. It was also cold. A cave's temperature is constant year-round; Argenta Cave is always 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication