5 Miles from Daylight
Marriage Peril

Douglas Page  © 1998

chapter three

5 Miles From Daylight

Microbiologist Kathy Lavoie wriggled forward in the narrow sluice, inching along on her stomach like a larva, squirming through the close, low, water-crawl deep inside a cave beneath Bloomington, Indiana, following the light tossed from the carbide lamp strapped to a battered hard hat. A canvas backpack trailed behind, like shed skin, tied to her ankle by a short strap. The cramped passage prevented her from raising herself on her elbows. Head low, arms extended in front, shoulders, back and belly scraping the crude limestone gut, she advanced slowly, like a soldier under live fire. A stream of cool, chin-deep water funneled steadily toward her, soaking her t-shirt and cargo shorts, splattering her face. Then the unimaginable happened.

Fascinated by underground biological issues ranging from pollution to evolution, that day Kathy Lavoie and caving partner Dave Wilbur were investigating some seldom visited formation rooms and grubby passages in the remote recesses of Shaft Cave, once a popular training site for learning how to ‘bounce the entrance pit’ - caving vernacular for the ‘drop-in’ technique needed to enter pit-type caves, caves that can’t be walked or crawled into. Pits like this one must be entered by rappelling, ‘bouncing’ down a rope into the waiting darkness.

The spindling stone scabbard Kathy Lavoie twisted through that morning tapered to a such a tightness her shoulders became wedged, forming a dam. Suddenly she couldn’t move. It was as though a rock fist had seized her with a petrifying grip. Now, the spring water, prevented from trickling past, began to pool quickly in the bowl of her outstretched arms. Struggling to lift her chin to keep her nose above the rapidly collecting water, her head hit the coffin-close ceiling, knocking the carbide lamp from her helmet. The lamp, the only light in her instantly contracted world, fell into the forming pool and went out, leaving her in utter, horrible darkness - death darkness - a human cork pinched tightly against the cold bedrock, with water gurgling now against her face. She gasped for air, spitting water away from her lips. This is it, this is how cavers die, she thought, stuck in a hole in unqualified darkness, alone, trapped and terrified. In darkness this complete even sound suffocates.

Caving, some people will tell you, is a form of recreation. In fact, if you enter "speleology" into the Yahoo internet search engine, what comes back first is a listing under the heading "Leisure and Recreation". Speleology is neither. Whoever assigned that categorization has never been in a cave.

When speleologists enter a cave, leisure and recreation are among the comforts abandoned at the surface. Underground, once the light and all that's familiar is left behind and a caving team descends into the dark, alien chambers, senses go on Yellow Alert. Caving can kill you. Even the names of some caves inspire hesitation - Tumbling Rock, Gator Hole, Dark Well, Alien Abduction, Gaping Ghyll, Bleeding Ghyll, Bloody Elbow, Amnesia, Cyclops, Sorcerers, Hurricane Cave, Icy Fate, Hang 'Em High, Better Forgotten, Spasm Chasm, Wilkson Hollow Horror Hole, Lost Creek Siphon, Blunder Hole, Snowhole, Hellhole, Thunder Hole, Twenty Pound Tick, and Prison Den Cave.

The gales at the entrance to Wind Cave in Hot Springs, South Dakota, "the hole in the Black Hills that blows air", howl their peril warnings in excess of 75 mph. Some days, depending on atmospheric pressure, the hole sucks with equal force.

Still, no matter how treacherous, there are those who are drawn to caves with the same compulsion as bats, most of them amateur naturalists lured underground into the aphotic recesses of Nature’s closet. A few descend into the menacing, midnight caverns in the interest of knowledge, to find out what’s down there, professionals pushing through into spaces no one has ever been before, adding new meters to the map, cataloging new creatures, searching for what biological, chemical, and geological clues to the past or future there may be exposed on the surface of the earth’s virgin epithelium. Hidden in the deep, like sand lost in carpet fibers, are hints suggesting how and when caves formed, where they lead, what lives in them, and how.

Science in caves is different than lab science or classroom science, or even most other field science. Cave science is dirt science, one of the few places research is done from the inside. Physics may be performed at a chalkboard through the distinct, sanitary twirl of mathematics, but cave science, the visceral science, is achieved by actually entering the black cavities of the earth, immersing oneself in its profound silence and rasping along the inside through follicle, crypt and cove, often on hands and knees, crouching, crowded by its strange, wonderful mosaic, breathing its mold and musk. The scientist, the intruder, of course, is as alien as light or sound in this netherworld.

Kathy Lavoie, dean of Arts & Science at State University of New York, Plattsburgh when she isn’t clambering through caves, didn’t die in that leaking stone sleeve squeezing down on her beneath Indiana that morning. There is more grit in a caver that what collects in their mouths. She restrained the voices of dread stirring in her head, realizing with each deliberate breath if she succumbed to peremptory panic she was doomed to an appalling death. Instead of yielding to claustrophobic terror, futilely fighting the colossal weight closing in on her, Kathy Lavoie remained calm, collected her strength and somehow jerked loose from the rock’s bite and retreated, wiggling slowly backward, pulling the pool of water with her. This is the component in the character of cavers that separates them from everyone else, the audacious strain of self-reliance that permits them to go places on their stomachs most people aren’t comfortable visiting in their thoughts. Lavoie escaped from her sodden warren, stood up straight, shook loose the gravel and mortal funk, drew in a deep, dry breath, retrieved a backup light from her canvas pack and continued her work that day, in another direction. She admits, however, that "It was a pretty frightening experience."

There is something frightening about any cave. Peril comes packaged as bad air (low oxygen or high levels of methane, ammonia, or carbon dioxide), foul water, snakes, tight crawls, or deep pits. Rare diseases lurk in the darkness, like leishmaniasis (a chronic and sometimes fatal disease caused by the bacterium Leishmania donovani transmitted by sandflies), histoplasmosis (a fungal disease rarely significant in those with a normal immune function, but in the immunocompromised individual it carries a 90 percent fatality rate), ebola (an epidemic viral illness for which there is no treatment and death can occur within 10 days), plague (an acute malignant contagious fever), St. Louis encephalitis (a viral infection of the brain marked in severe cases by a rapid onset, headache, high fever, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, or death), clostridium (also called tetanus or lockjaw, caused by bacteria found in soil), rabies (a viral infection spread by warm-blooded animals, including bats found in caves) and radon radiation (which comes from the natural radioactive decay of radium and uranium found in the soil which some scientists believe is the second leading cause of lung cancer).

Cavers fall, get lost or disoriented, can be pummeled by rock falls, trapped by flash flooding or stranded in pits without equipment. Mineralogist Frederick Luiszer, research associate in the Geological Services Department of the University of Colorado, who has spent 17 years slithering into and out of nature’s grand grottos, fears one thing above all others: injuring himself and then dying slowly from hypothermia, trapped amongst the 40 degree Fahrenheit rock.

Danger is compounded when confronted by the reckless. Lacking common sense, the foolish often find themselves stranded in pits without the proper gear. In Shaft Cave near Bloomington that morning, when Kathy Lavoie returned to the main pit with partner Dave Wilbur, they discovered three ignorant amateurs huddled on the basement floor, 100 feet beneath the entrance skylight. Shaft Cave, aside from being a training cave where novices develop rappelling skills, is also the scene of frequent rescues. Local dilettantes seem tempted by its proximity, drawn like children to the gape of a forbidden cistern, unaware that exploring caves not only requires special nerves, it also requires special equipment. The minimum outfit necessary to forage under the Earth’s porch includes hard hats, helmet lights with triple backups, knee pads and boots that enjoy abuse, ropes and climbing gear of a quality you can trust your life to, packs containing trail bars, fruit, juice, water, and first aid. Clothing tends to primary colors, to aid rescue. Gas masks are frequently necessary, as are wet suits, to protect the caver from the icy, blackwater alcoves that must be negotiated. In the UK, where cave temperatures are frequently less than 50 degrees F, thermal suits are necessary.

Apparently, the three dabblers had seen Lavoie’s rope dangling into the darkness from the surface aperture, then decided to follow it, like ants down a wire, to see where it went. All three then slid down the rope to the bottom, only to find they couldn’t get back up. "I remain amazed to this day," Kathy Lavoie says, rolling her eyes. "We could have climbed out and taken our rope with us, but we did the right thing and spent the next two hours teaching them basic rope work and getting them up the rope."

Some cavers are far less fortunate. In the United States, during a three-year period between 1994 and 1996, 209 cavers were reported injured, lost or trapped underground; 25 of them (including 22 cave divers) died.

Like peril itself, no two caves are alike. Some caves are walk-ins, others crawl-ins. Some are near-vertical drops, requiring rope skill that exceeds U.S. Army Ranger training. It takes two days and 37 rope drops, for instance, to descend nearly 3,280 feet to the floor of Mexico's Sistema Cheve, one of the deepest caves in the world.

If they’re not deep they can be long. Two caves in South Dakota are among the longest in the country; Wind Cave has 84 miles of passages in its system, Jewel Cave 120 miles. Kentucky’s famous Mammoth Cave, easily the longest cave in the world, has been surveyed out to 350 miles. Some are deep and long. New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave sprouts underground for over 100 miles. There’s a lava tube in Hawaii that’s 3,600 feet deep and 38 miles long.

It is this blend of solicitous grandeur and insular danger that cavers find irresistible.

Expert speleologist Peter Hollings, professor of geology at the University of Saskatchewan, describes the entry into the oubliette bowels of Mexico's 3,000 feet deep Sistema Purificacìon cave:

"Entering the cave, it takes 30 minutes to reach a grotto called Dressing Room, where wetsuits are donned, since navigating the cave involves a number of swims. From the Dressing Room you climb up the 45 Chute to the Crack of Doom, followed by a short climb to Mudball Crawl, an extremely slick, 30 foot belly crawl that you must slither through rolling your pack ahead of you. Mudball Crawl opens into Rio Verde, where you descend a series of flowstone climbs into the Canal, a 98 foot wade/crawl through water-filled passages. Leaving Rio Verde via a short crawl through Scallop Speedway, brings you to the World Beyond - over a mile of walking passage, which contains areas that have to be crossed by swimming, the first of which is over 100 yards long."

Louise Hose, the world's leading female caver, once spent eight days in this cave, around the clock, neither recreating nor relaxing. Instead, the professor of geology at Westminister College, Fulton, Missouri, and fellow of the prestigious National Speleological Society (NSS), was threading her way through dark, sometimes close, unmapped underground passages, assisting in the original exploration and mapping of the cave for her masters thesis.

Caving is something that snags you quickly or not at all. "I began caving as a freshman and was immediately hooked," she says. "In a short time I was attracted to the science beyond just pure exploration and started taking geology courses to improve my contributions."

Since first being seduced by the strange, detached rooms below, Louise Hose has explored hundreds of caves. With the instincts of a field geologist and the skills of an explorer, she’s a member of the elite Explorers Club, a 93 year old organization of men and women who have contributed to field research, scientific exploration, and educational dissemination of that knowledge. The Explorers Club numbers among it past presidents and directors Sir Edmund Hillary, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Thor Heyerdahl and Richard E. Leakey.

Hose can frequently be found in holes others avoid - ‘technical’ caves, ones difficult to explore, or caves in remote, hard-to-reach places. Her research contributions have filtered through subterranean science like the caverns to which she is drawn. In fact, a recent expedition to the lower confines has produced such a startling discovery it may one day lead to finding life on Mars. Sometimes the rewards equal the peril.

In January, 1999, a team of 22 caving scientists followed Louise Hose and expedition co-leader Jim Pisarowicz into La Cueva de Villa Luz - the Cave of the Lighted House - in Tabasco, Mexico, a subterranean world well known among the native Chol peoples but unknown in the worldwide caving community.

Concealed in the sable darkness of La Cueva de Villa Luz, which lies submerged less than 30 miles east of the active El Chicon volcano and 40 miles south of Villahermosa, the state capital of Tabasco, the expedition collected samples of microbes so bizarre for centuries no one realized they were alive. If life is ever discovered on Mars, or elsewhere, we may have these cavers to thank, for the life forms they encountered would seem much more suited for survival in the toxic environments of other worlds. These aberrant, underground creatures thrive in a totally lightless world, living on sulfur, a substance lethal to life as we understand it.

Thirteen years earlier Pisarowicz, a psychologist by training who many years ago traded his analyst’s couch for a Wind Cave National Park ranger hat, learned of the cave from local residents. In February, 1986, he and caving companion Warren Netherton followed a curious milky white surface stream underground and entered La Cueva de Villa Luz. It was later learned the stream was white with elemental sulfur.

The cave, generally unknown to the outside world, has been used in indigenous religious ceremonies since prehistoric times. The local Chol people approach the cave each spring for what anthropologists suspect is a festival meant to inspire a signal growing season. According to myth, the Chol believe their spiritual deities inhabit the underworld and enter the cave to consort with them. The results have been providential; the Chol, descendants of the Mayans, have inhabited the area for thousands of years.

Scientists from earlier generations had visited the cave, although the cave’s real significance eluded them. Biologists from the National Geographic Society, the U.S. National Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution explored the cave in the 1940s and 1950s, making simple but relatively accurate maps of the cave’s main passages, taking note of the unusually abundant cave fish. Another systematic investigation of the cave was done in 1962 by biologists Gordon and Rosen, whose work focused on the larger organisms in the cave - fish, insects, spiders, and the four species of free-tail vampire bats from the family Phyllostomid who clung to its Cimmerian walls. The wonders of the gummy masses stuck to the gypsum and sulfur walls remained undiscovered.

It would take another 25 years for the cave’s true significance to emerge from the absolute darkness.

In 37 years of grubbing underground, Pisarowicz, winner of the National Speleology Society’s Lew Bicking Award for career achievement and one of the most experienced cavers in the country, thought he had seen just about everything. But he had never seen anything like this. As soon as he walked into the cave, it hit him.

First, there was the almost suffocating smell of rotten eggs given off by poisonous hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, something rarely found in caves. Much of the cave is a stream passage, milky-white with sulfur. Many passages in the cave have very high levels of H2S, ranging to over 127 parts per million (ppm). Most passages are above 10 ppm. The OSHA threshold for toxicity is only 10 ppm, above which no exposure is allowed, with or without respirator, since H2S may also be absorbed through the skin. Respirator filters are only rated for immediate exit/escape from such conditions. The air in the cave is so toxic Pisarowicz had to sample it continually to make sure it is safe to remain. Then Pisarowicz noticed the grotesque curds hanging like soggy string from the ceiling.

They looked something like stalactites, the icicle–shaped formations common in caves, but Pisarowicz knew instantly they couldn’t possibly be stalactites. Stalactites don’t move. As he edged closer for a better look, he was startled to see the mucus-like mass react, waving back and forth to the heat of his carbide lamp. Not only that, the ’snot’ seemed to be dripping some kind of acidic fluid. Pisarowicz and Netherton exchanged puzzled looks, shaking their heads in disbelief. Later, they named the stringy gobs descriptively, if indelicately, "snottites". Since it was an exploration and not a scientific expedition they weren’t equipped to collect samples. It would be seven years before Pisarowicz returned.

"It was essentially battery acid," Pisarowicz says.

In 1994, Jim Pisarowicz returned to the La Cueva de Villa Luz, this time to collect samples of the snottites, which he sent to a colleague at the U.S. Geological Survey. Much to everyone’s surprise, the samples revealed the presence of a form of sulfur that has been processed by a biological organism. Apparently, the gobs of spit were alive. Plus, the fluid seeping from the mess turned out to be concentrated sulfuric acid - essentially battery acid - so strong that it had dissolved the explorers’ shirts on their first visit.

But the question was, how could anything live in a vacuum of nutrients, in a bath of battery acid?

This time they also catalogued the striking abundance of invertebrate life in the cave. The cave was clearly one of a kind, sui generis. The copious life in the upstream portions of the cave that lacks light for photosynthesis and has little or no guano to supply nutrients suggested a large and complex ecosystem that receives most of its energy from the oxidation of sulfur. There were many questions, foremost among them: how could anything live in complete darkness, in a cave that sometimes contains deadly levels of hydrogen sulfide gas?

Four years later, Pisarowicz enlisted the help of an old caving buddy, Louise Hose. They had explored many caves together in the past. This time he took her to La Cueva de Villa Luz, to assess the scientific importance of his find. Louise Hose scratched her head, too, when she climbed into the cave for the first time. Not only was she dumbfounded by the snottites, but how could there be such an abundance of fish in the toxic sulfur stream flowing through the cave that the battery acid was dripping into.

"There were more fish in this cave than I have ever seen in a natural environment," she says. She estimates if she could have dipped a gallon bucket into the water, she would have caught 15 to 20 of the blind, inch–long, pink fish.

"It’s rare to find fish in a cave," she says, "and this sort of concentration is unheard of." The tiny fish live their entire lives in the darkness of the cave, deprived of the sunlight that gives life to normal, surface fish. Hose wondered how they survived in the sulphuric water and what they ate.

Intrigued, Hose clipped small samples from some of the snottites and delivered them later to another well-known cave explorer, Norman Pace, a microbiologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Pace found the glabrous goo was actually complex webs containing colonies of microorganisms. The ugly, gooey masses are in fact microbial veils, alive with microbial life found nowhere else in the world. Incredibly, the veils thrive in complete darkness, and produce sulfuric acid with a pH of 1.0, which is at least as strong as battery acid - a degree of acidity rare, if not unique, in nature.

"Visually, at 400 magnification, the snot-snottites appear to be colonies of different bacteria," Louise Hose says. "There are multi-cell organisms (mites and worms) associated with them, perhaps grazing on the bacteria." Several billion sulfur-eating microbes can exist in 1 cubic centimeter of snottite. According to Pace, each snottite contains hundreds and maybe thousands of different kinds of microbes representing a richness and diversity of life that rivals that of a coral reef.

"It appears there is a large number of species living in these colonies," she says. Although much still needs to be learned, Hose believes it is apparent what is happening in the Cave of the Lighted House. Sulfur, which is toxic to most living creatures, is the giver of life to the snottites. The microorganisms eat it, and in the process produce oxygen and waste products that drip into the stream, providing a rich food resource for the fish living there in such great abundance.

Hence the connection to Mars, or the Jupiter moon Io, both sulfuric worlds. Jim Pisarowicz and Louise Hose believe their discoveries could offer powerful implications in the search for life elsewhere, especially on Mars.

"Mars has high sulfur, and while the surface of Mars is very inhospitable to life. And we know that Mars has caves," Hose says. The abundant life in the cave in Mexico, she says, suggests that "if there are warm springs entering the caves on Mars there almost certainly would be life there too."

Some scientists believe water may be trapped beneath the surface of Mars. If so, it’s possible Mars isn’t as lifeless as it appears. If we ever find life there, it could look like the dripping curtains sagging from the roof of La Cueva de Villa Luz.

A full-fledged scientific expedition was called for.

So, in January, 1999, Louise Hose and Jim Pisarowicz, carrying the Explorers Club flag, collected their team of five geologists and surveyors, three microbiologists, two hydrologists, a mineralogist, air quality specialist, three photographers, six support cavers and a pilot, and, using grants from NSS and Westminister College, returned once more to La Cueva de Villa Luz.

Studies of the strange organisms dripping the highly concentrated sulphuric acid began immediately, involving microbial biologists Diana Northup, Penny Boston (one of the founders of an organization called Case for Mars), both from the University of New Mexico, and Kathy Lavoie. Louise Hose knew of Kathy Lavoie’s caving talent. The fraternity of caving scientists is small.

Ecology in La Cueva de Villa Luz turned out to be far more complicated than anyone suspected.

Here’s what Louise Hose wrote in her report:

"Identifications of many species are still pending. We were initially attracted by the prospects of investigating a sulfur-based ecosystem, but the actual situation is much more complicated. The pH of the environment was generally more acidic than typically found in a limestone cave. Exceptionally low pHs were associated with "snottites" or microbial veils (pH 0.3-0.7), and in one area we identified a deposit of bat guano mixed with gypsum paste which had a pH of 0.0. Sulfate-reducing bacteria were present in very high numbers (105-106 +) in all sediments. Coliform bacteria survived in the main stream passage, but were not detected in springs entering the cave. Microbial involvement is evident in the formation of white filaments in the cave stream and in microbial veils suspended from gypsum, possibly in association with webs of spiders or fungus gnats. There are also significant organic inputs through numerous skylights and from bat guano and other animals. Previous studies identified four types of phyllostomid bats in the caves. We also observed free-tail bats, probably Tadarida brasiliensis, as well as numerous vampire bats. Bats roosted in good air sections of passages, but flew freely though bad air passages. The most abundant organisms are the midges, Tendipes fulvipilus, which are the main prey for the molly, Poecilia sphaenops, which consumes both the aquatic larvae and adults. The fish are in turn preyed upon by a diving hemipterin (not identified). Both fish and midges are present in very high densities of hundreds to thousands of individuals in relatively small areas. The fish range from a cave-adapted form with reduced eyes and no pigmentation to a dark surface stream form with apparent intergradation between these two extremes. There was a very high density of predatory invertebrates throughout the cave, particularly spiders, fungus gnat larvae, and amblypygids. We found little evidence for terrestrial troglobites, with the possible exception of a spider and nematodes found in highly acidic vermiculations. We noted a surprising general lack of beetles, cave crickets and collembola. Studies to characterize the species collected are on-going, including molecular phylogenetic studies of DNA sequences from microbial communities in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. At the end of the expedition new passages were discovered in the cave. The new areas are typical limestone cave passages with good air; future studies of the types, distributions and abundance of animals in this part of the cave compared with the sulfur passages will be extremely interesting."

Louise Hose has investigated a number of other intriguing caves and participated in other significant expeditions.

The world's deepest cave exploration to date occurred at a depth of 5,255 feet in Reseau Jean-Bernard in France. At 4,547 feet, the eighth deepest is Sistema Cheve, in northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico. Louise Hose has been to the bottom of Sistema Cheve, over 5 miles from daylight, near a water-filled tube in mylonitic marble referred to as the Terminal Sump. The air stops there, but the cave goes on, underwater. A non-toxic red fluorescein dye (C20H12O5) placed in the stream flowing into the main entrance to Sistema Cheve exits eight days and 8,284 feet lower, 11 miles north at a karst spring on the southern side of the Rio Grande in Cañon Santo Domingo. One exploratory scuba dive by Arizona cave diver John Schweyen into the Sump failed to penetrate to an air-filled passage.

Understanding this hydrologic system is important because it demonstrates the vulnerability of high-relief karst terrains to widespread groundwater contamination.

Louise Hose was there in 1994 under a National Geographic grant, to make a study of the geologic setting of Sistema Cheve, both the explored and unexplored portions. The descent to the floor is one of the most difficult in existence. Reaching the cave camp near the bottom is a two-day backpack with a full load of supplies - this is the fissure that takes 37 separate rope drops to reach the bottom, nearly 3,280 feet below the entrance, further than the combined height of the Sears Tower and World Trade Center.

It's no easier going up. It takes another two days to ascend the ropes, and everything they pack in they back out, including human waste. Professional cavers practice strict carry-out policies; cavers understand the frailty of underground resources. "Like wilderness everywhere, we are loving our caves to death," Louise Hose said.

Fred Luiszer - who became a speleologist because he kept asking questions no one could answer, quit a perfectly good job, returned to school, and earned a doctoral degree in geology - betrays the overt impatience serious cavers have with the inconsiderate, the weekender, the amateur, the arrogant vandals who tarnish the pristine underground with leavings of urine, feces and Snickers wrappers. True cavers take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. "The biggest fear that most cavers have nowadays is that stories like this will encourage thrill-seeking yahoos to go caving."

Some concessions are made when working difficult systems like Sistema Cheve. Non-perishable items (stoves, sleeping bags, pots, etc) are cached deep in the hidden hollows of the cave for camp use and rescue needs.

At the bottom of the 37 ropes the cavity becomes a horizontal traverse, though there is "no smooth walking" along the 4.3 mile shaft sloping off to the north toward Terminal Sump. "I assisted the exploration and surveying of the lowermost cave, but I also took solo forays to map the geology. That trip totaled seven days underground," Louise Hose says.

Orientation can be as illusive as light in a slit hundreds of feet beneath the surface. Cavers sometimes become confounded, forgetting the way out. On one of her solo forays Louise Hose got lost, in a penstock 4,265 feet below the entrance and over four miles from the ropes. Exploring virgin ground amplifies the chances of getting lost since traffic trails are not yet distinct. For cavers working new territory, the only footprints are their own. Tracing them backward works sometimes, but more often than not boots leave no mark on stone. In restricted visibility amongst capricious terrain, one erratic wall and its flickering, grotesque shadow look pretty much like the next. It can be unsettling to suddenly wonder if you remember the way out. The ambient chill in an unfriendly cave always seems a little cooler just then.

"I was lost for about three hours near the bottom of Sistema Cheve while doing solo mapping," she recalls. "I wasn't exactly lost since I knew I was on the 'trail', I just couldn't figure out which little hole lead to the way out." That grit again. It takes three hours to play a football game or fly from Dallas to Los Angeles, and during that entire time Louise Hose trusted her light and her nerve not to fail and moused from one passage to the next, concentrating on the business of escape, not the prospects of collapsing in a dying light, hoping her screams could be heard. It wasn’t even her scariest moment.

Louise Hose says her most frightening incident occurred in 1986, dangling with a colleague halfway down a 700 foot rope. "We were both on the same rope, measuring the depth of a virgin pit in Pueblo, Mexico," she says, "when a suitcase-sized rock became dislodged above, falling directly toward me. I flattened myself against the pit wall and waited, hoping it wouldn't hit me or cut the rope. It swept past about a meter away, close enough to make wind. The really scary part was climbing the rope afterwards, trusting it hadn't been damaged."

Of all the risks in caving, one uncontrollable variable worries Louise Hose the most. Floods. "I was trapped once inside Sistema Purificacìon by flooding for about a day," she said. "It was the rainy season. There was no real peril. I knew the cave well from my masters thesis work there. We were in a safe place and just had to wait it out." There was no way out. There was nothing to do. So they sat on a dry ledge and told jokes and nibbled power bars and took turns with the light and none of them wondered out loud who would be the first, or the last, to die if the water didn’t stop coming up on them.

Wise cavers don't go in these holes alone. Professional cavers are connected by more than rope. Hose's main concern while trapped in a pit by rising water wasn't that the party would perish, but that an unwarranted search effort might have been launched. "Fortunately, we were in Mexico and no one would know we were missing for several days, so we didn't have to worry about someone activating an unnecessary and unwarranted rescue."

Canadian caver Justus Hayes explains the uncommon mettle it takes to survive when the world suddenly contracts and you find yourself jammed so tight into a stone tube you can’t move:

"Panic is the caver's worst enemy. When you're worming your way along on your stomach through a tunnel so narrow you have to keep your pack and your arms out in front of you and there's not enough room around your rib cage for a deep breath and you're suddenly aware of the immense weight of tons of rock suspended above you and at that very moment your light dies and you realize you're jammed in there tighter than a cork in a bottle, the very last thing you want to do is panic.

"When you manage to wiggle free and inch your way to the other end, pull yourself through the impossibly tight exit and crawl gasping out onto the floor of a cavern you've never seen before, it's like being reborn, given a second chance, spit out of a rock womb. Then you fish around in your dirt-caked pack for some juice and maybe a granola bar and when you slam that warm juice and chow into that crumbly, smashed bar it's the best goddamn food you've ever tasted."

The taste quickly curdles on the palette of the timid, the craven majority who incubate phobias from the safety of the couch. The chill comes when the realization sets in: if that tight burrow was the only way in, then it’s also the only way out.

Every caver has a chilling story to relate, sometimes around the campfire, sometimes while briefing later expeditions, always when the breathing is easier. Fred Luiszer was once at the breakthrough of a new section of a cave known legitimately as Fixin' To Die Cave, located in northwest Colorado, on the White River Plateau. Fixin’ To Die Cave is at the top of a bonebreaking cliff climb at the end of a treacherous 15 mile winding shelf road. From the entrance to the breakthrough it is hundreds of feet of tight, dangerous passages. Those who venture there are about as isolated as one can be and still have a foot on dry land.

First introduced to caving by friends trying to distract him from the divorce blues, that day Fred Luiszer wormed into a compartment called the Z-bend, a slightly downhill limestone gullet about 6 feet long, 18 inches high and 10 inches wide that looks like a Z in plan view. "When I got almost all the way through I noticed that it didn't look any better ahead. I asked the caver in front of me if it got any better. The several second delay in his luke warm response told me to retreat, which I soon found was impossible." Luiszer was trapped.

Time freezes in moments like this, seizing the soul with a ghastly grip. Instinct takes command. Every cell seems to swell with adrenalin. "For several seconds, which seemed like hours, all I could think of were the 400 feet of solid rock suspended over me and the rescuers trying to get to me before I died from being wedged against 40 degree rock." He didn’t struggle, attempting to lift Colorado with his knees and elbows. Instead he waited, knowing there was help not far behind. The grit again.

"Luckily, the caver behind me grabbed my feet and was able to pull me out."

A year later Fred Luiszer returned and finished surveying the Z-bend. I learned then that if I had kept going I would have had no problem."

In spite of the risks or perhaps because of them, Louise Hose and others like her feel the compulsion to explore. "It's hard to imagine a satisfying life that didn't include original exploration," she says. "My greatest satisfaction and joy have come from literally 'going where no one has gone before'. I think there are some people absolutely driven to explore our natural environment. I'm one of them."

It's never easy science. Louise Hose was once accosted by three drunken locals demanding to know her intent in a too-quiet village in Oaxaca. "They let us go, but we learned the next day that 14 people had been murdered in this town during the previous year. Others were missing and thought to be hidden in local caves. We left a promising area for another generation. Then, there was that rattlesnake blocking the only exit from a cave in Arizona..."

-end -

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