The 27-Year-Old (caving) Virgin
Feb. 24, 2007
by Tom Svercl
Ready or Not
When Rob (aka BOB aka SPONGEBOB aka MY LITTLE BRO) asked if I wanted to go caving with him, I was psyched; I’d never gone caving before. He told me to bring some clothes I didn’t care much about, check the MUSG website, and he’d provide the rest. So I blindly followed his advice, packed some clothes, waved goodbye to the concrete jungle of NOVA, and welcomed the fresh air and livestock animals of the ‘Burg.
We met up with the other cavers, Terry and Jay, on-campus at Burruss. Apparently Geoff’s date from the night before (Jim Beam?) forgot to set the alarm and wake him up to meet us in time – so the four of us headed off for some good hangover breakfast and packed our stomachs before hitting the highway. Coming from the city, I was looking forward to experiencing the beauty of the mountains I don’t see very often. Unfortunately Rob was driving, so my scenic views were more like blurs as he was trying to earn his Dodge Neon racing stripes that day. I believe I re-tasted my breakfast a few times during that kamikaze car ride. Well, at least I didn’t have to drive. Naturally the conversation in the car surrounded the cave we’d be exploring and somehow it was never relayed to me until just then that we’d be going into the hardest cave the MUSG explores. Needless to say my rookie-ass was thrilled – NOT.
Into the Mouth of the Beast
We arrived, got our caving gear on, held a safety briefing (Rob told us not to blind each other in the cave with our headlights and then proceeded to hit Jay in the helmet with a rock for our safety demo), and we hiked to the mouth of the cave. Here I thought we’d be going in from the bottom of the mountain, but we had to hike halfway up instead. That would definitely not be the last surprise of the day. We headed into the cave and I immediately started hearing voice – coming from the cave – turns out that in the first large opening (the place that has the official “do’s and dont’s” sign) there was another group of cavers. After an awkward and forced chat, we discovered there was a MUSG alumnus in the bunch. Rob tried naming every person at JMU before finding a degree or two of separation with this unknown caver. Satisfied with having bullied them into taking a picture of all four of us (how else could that have happened?), we set off on our adventure. Conversations came up about everything from other caving experiences to how some of our crew wished they had longer body parts that others (I’m talking about legs – what were you thinking about?) to why we need pinkies. Rob’s answer? “Well what else are you going to stick out while drinking wine and eating cheese? Those UVA preps need something to do at football games!” Nicely put.
Any expectations of caving were quickly destroyed as we started descending into the dark abyss of Marshalls. My prior thoughts of caving involved the luminescent stalagmites and stalactites and walkways of the Luray Caverns brochure I’d once seen. Boy was I in for a rude awakening. Can you say “claustrophobic, blinded, rock-climbing”? Near-death faced me at every point of the journey, or at least that’s what I thought. One of the first things the rest of the crew commented on was how great the low water level was – while I was thinking, “Oh joy, that just means that when I fall from 10 feet up, instead of being cushioned by the water, I’ll be greeted by hard rock, upon which I’ll still get wet because of the foot of standing water”. Of course I didn’t say this aloud or I might risk being called a wimp.
My adrenaline was in full force with each step, grab, hold, pull, and stretch of my body – I couldn’t stop thinking about the effect of each successive choice I made – and how I could end up at the bottom of the cave. The hardest part for me wasn’t the endurance, the technicalities, or the cave itself – I was content with my athletic ability to complete what the cave threw at me. The shear terror I felt was most challenging and in the end would be what I most respected about caving – having to face your fears from the inside-out.
We pressed on, through some real tight squeezes and difficult maneuverings. I was beginning to get the “hang” of things. This foot here, that hand over on the stalagmite, my rear against that wall – and I was blinding the others far less with my headlight at this point. Then we got to a really tight crawl that required each caver to pass through arms-and-face-first, on the belly, and slither along – the “birthing opening.” I say this for two reasons:
1. Each time we passed through, Rob gave us his best impression of a baby’s birth. “MMMM-OOOOOHHHH-AAARRRGGGHHHH-AAAAHHH!!!!”
2. There was a delicately placed stalagmite directly in the middle of the crawl space that not-so-gently reminded each of the males on the trip which body part allows for reproduction…
Now if those reasons weren’t funny enough, as I followed Rob on the first time through, my pants got caught on that stalagmite in the middle of the crawl – with my hands in front of me – ruling out any attempt to pull them up. Not knowing what else to do, I had to contort myself on the way out to let my legs dangle from out behind me to keep from falling. At this point my pants were around my ankles, I was holding on by my two hands, and I couldn’t cross the crevasse since I couldn’t split my legs – so I had to ask Rob to come back and pull them up for me. Lucky for Rob I was wearing a pair of sweatpants under the ski pants (although I heard that wasn’t so much the case for Rob in an earlier run-in with Lee’s belt buckle and pants – Ahhhhh, brotherly love.
Darkness and Mud Falls
Crisis now avoided, we journeyed on, up and down, until reaching the “Leap of Faith.” Since I was a first-time caver, I was thinking to myself, “With a name as enticing as that, this will most likely be where we turn around.” Yea, HELL NO. I was put more at ease when Rob pulled out safety webbing from his pack. Although it was quite difficult to pass over, I was happy we were continuing on. We passed interesting ribbon formations which turned out to play like chords on a pipe-organ, of which Jay and I would later strike up a pretty sweet reggae beat with. We ended up in an opening that reached at least 30-40 feet up, covered with beautiful patterns of rock. I fathomed over how many thousands of years it took them to form. From behind me Jay piped in with “ten years!” Being the gullible rookie I was, I amazed at how quickly that had happened. At least until I heard a quick, “Just kidding!” HAHA. “Asshole.” Moving on, we continued climbing up until reaching a “bench” to rest on, and I became witness to the “lights out” phenomenon. I think my eyes just about popped out of their sockets trying to find some source of light or movement or something. I nearly poked my eye out as I tried moving my hand close enough to my face to see it – nothing but pitch black – waaaaaay cool.
Our next journey took us on a wild-goose chase. Rob’s spidey-senses detected water flowing, so of course we had to find the source. Down the little stream we went, ducking (well, most of us) under the 4-foot ceiling and playing leap frog with the loose rock shards strewn throughout. The occasional shout of “Helmet-check!” would indicate a misjudged low-ceiling bump while the slightly louder “DAMMIT” would indicate another caver unintentionally washing off his/her mud-caked boots in the water. Our scavenger hunt ended in a dead-end, so we back-tracked and went up a particularly muddy vein of the cave. I had just caught a picture of Terry making a clay creation of the letters of JMU when I heard (and felt) something cold and slimy slap my ear – a mud-sling sent by Rob. As I flashed him with the light, I caught a few pellets being chucked at the two unsuspecting freshmen. I guess mud really can make you look (and act) younger. Going back down that mud-chute would remind me of the movie The Goonies and the giant water-slide in the cave, upon which I let out a good “HEEEY YOUUUU GUU-UUYYYSSS!!!!!”
B.A. in Caving
The return journey was much easier that the entrance – as I now knew what to expect and I could visualize myself actually seeing fresh air again. This would also be the part of the trip where Terry would earn her BA. No, not a degree in caving, but a title: BAD ASS. You see, there was a particularly tricky part where multiple giant rocks came close together, but were far enough apart to make things just slightly out of reach for the vertically-challenged caver. After watching Rob and I not-so-gracefully pass up and over, Terry decided she’d try another approach â€“ flip herself upside-down and scale the side of the rock with her feet first. It was like someone was playing a videotape in reverse, as she performed the first inverted climb I’d ever seen. Newfound respect for that girl? Definitely. Demoralized self-image as a guy? You got it.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Terry had to continue putting the pressure on by performing her next feat of gravity – the superwoman shimmy. When faced with small ledges on each side of the crevasse, instead of placing four points extended out with one hand and foot on each side like a spread-eagle (like the rest of us), BA Terry decided she’d go for the superman effect and positioned her hands together on one side while her feet on the other. And she made it look easy. The rest of the way back was more of a blur, as we were getting tired, hungry, and were looking forward to shedding our newly-gained skins of mud.
Jump, Swing, and Wail
We finally exited the cave and headed back towards the car, but decided to stop by the giant rope-swing for a little last-second fun. Jay elegantly swung from the treetop perch across the river and back again while almost having a heart-attack in mid-flight, thinking he’d smack right back into the tree, George-of-the-Jungle-style. Rob gently reminded him about the physics of oscillation and how gravity has an inverse effect on your motion by shouting out, “You’re not gonna hit the tree, you idiot!” It looked liked fun, so I gave it a try myself. Rob quickly eyeballed my grip before I jumped out of the tree and told me my lanky-ass needed to hold it above the top knot in the rope. So I leapt out over the river attached as high as I could to this giant gizzard. Thinking I’d out-do Jay with a cool jump-dismount (aka those daring playground-swing jumps), I let go while over the rocky shore – but the only thing was, since Iâ€™d gripped the top knot I forgot about the four others underneath, which all proceeded to rack me in the balls with a fury of force. The others winced as I weakly told them I was okay, my ego a little tattered.
The tension bridge was the last obstacle to cross before returning home. At the middle of the bridge we began to jump at the same time, attempting to form the world’s largest rubber-band rocket. I didn’t really know where we were going with this until I saw Rob suddenly break the pattern and launch his 225 LB ASS 6 feet into the air – his boots were seriously parallel with the side-grips of the bridge. I guess that’s why he’s president. The road trip home beckoned us to sleep while Rob’s driving once again screamed at us to stay awake. In the end, it would be his CD full of least-greatest-hits that would give everyone the final KO punch. All in all? An awesome experience with some great cavers and my favorite bro.
Thus concluded the journey of this 27-year-old (caving) virgin. POP.
PS: Much love, appreciation, and respect to all the MUSG cavers. This will NOT be my last cave, I guarantee that.
|Cool and Not Cool Things About Caving|
|Going caving for the first time||Being told you’re going to the hardest cave there is on the car-ride there|
|Scenic views while riding through the mountains||Hairpin curves taken at 50 MPH by Rob that remind you of what you last ate|
|Having your brother calmly help problem-solve a nerve-racking part with you||Hanging by your arms while your brother calmly helps you pull your pants back up|
|Grabbing stalactites for extra support||Grabbing bats you thought were stalactites|
|Swinging 40 feet across a river on a rope||Hitting your balls with the rope knots while attempting to dismount|
|Knocking on stalactite and stalagmite formations to make music||Body parts that make music (Rob!)|
“Pinky? Who needs a pinky?”
“I just got pants-ed by that stalagmite!”
“HEEEY YOUUUU GUU-UUYYYSSS!!!!!”
“Did you see the way she inverted herself to get up on that rock! Terry is definitely BA. BAD ASS.”