Last weekend Rob gave us the location of a cave I hadn?t previously been to. His directions were sufficient to get us there. His instructions for actually DIVING the cave let us come up a little short. He mentioned that there is a tight place right at the entrance where digging tools have been left to clear enough sand to get in. He said he dives it on side-mounts, but he knows that Scott and Duane are scootering it so he suspects that they must be passing the restriction while wearing back-mounts. More on that later? This story of me getting my butt kicked by this cave wouldn?t be complete without pointing out that we rowed upstream with no tanks just in case we didn?t find Monz. Then we obviously rowed back to the truck and then rowed BACK upstream. All of this exertion could have been completely made moot by the elation of diving a new cave. As it was though it merely added to the systemic depletion that Kim and I felt after our attempt.
When we found the cave, there was crystal clear water pouring out of the spring run. When we got back with cave gear though there were a bunch of kayakers up the spring run and the water was running milky with little black flecks in it. Our first trip we had been able to look straight down into the water about twenty feet down this slit in the rock. The second trip we couldn?t see down. We tied in a line and headed down only to realize that we couldn?t see a darn thing. This cave has sand and debris piled all around it at such a steep angle that the faintest errant fin or paddle slap has the potential to cause a landslide. The newly formed landslide doesn?t have enough density to go down against the up-rushing spring water. Neither does it have the buoyancy to be carried away by the spring water. So it just swirls in suspension like the chocolate added to chocolate milk.
Lack of clarity aside, the entire basin funnels you right into the cleft that leads down into the cave. One would think it would be an easy task to fall down the crack, but I found myself continually bumping into things. Each time I would be temporarily stopped and thinking maybe I was at the bottom. Then I would work my way past a rotten log or a small ledge and I would be falling again.
I had looked down from the surface about twenty to thirty feet on our first boat trip over the spring, so I started really feeling the walls for an opening when I got below twenty feet. At thirty feet I found a little indent with clear water in it and I thought I had hit pay dirt. As I was exploring this alcove my feet sunk farther down the shaft so I gave that up and kept sinking. Right after that I found the permanent line and realized I had probably been paralleling it for a while. It was on my right but I was holding my reel in my left hand so I had somewhat of an entanglement hazard. Right about then I hit the bottom of the crevasse and I could see! Water was pouring out of a restriction and was completely holding the muck water at bay. The water maintained its speed in a bubble around the restriction before fanning out and slowing down. Beyond this bubble the muck water held sway, but within the bubble the water was crystal clear. Crossed strings consisting of my reel from the left and the main line from the right warded the restriction. I rolled over on my back and pushed both strings to the ceiling so I could go in.
I had just entered what I consider to be the foyer to Monz cave and started looking around when a flashing light from behind me signaled that I needed to turn around and check on Kim. Usually once your buddy starts to respond to your flashing ?ATTENTION? signal you stop flashing and start indicating what the flashing was all about in the first place. Therefore it struck me as strange that Kim continued to flash even as I closed to within a few feet of her. It turns out that she was upside down with her flashing arm in the clear water but her face in the yucky water so she couldn?t see me approach. She was stuck in the line hazard that I just described. After I got her out, we started to explore the foyer together. The ceiling of this room was a fairly constant height, but the entire floor sloped down and to the right at a very steep angle. At the bottom of the room was a hole that was too small for a diver. Clearly the spring flow was barely holding the opening open as without the flow, gravity would have pulled the steep sand bank downhill and closed the opening.
There were some gardening tools at the bottom of the foyer, just like Rob said, so Kim and I started digging right away. There were two little shovels and a little hoe down there. I started off trying to use the hoe. That was completely useless. The flow through the hole was sufficient to roil the sand as I tried to hoe it away. Consequently the sand was flowing back into the hole at least as fast as I hoed it out.
I then switched to a shovel. I repeatedly jabbed my shovel very full and tried to dump it off to the side. Every time I would try to remove a shovel full, more than three quarters of it would blow out of the shovel before I could get the shovel out of the flow. In spite of this Kim and I made steady digging progress about a quarter shovel full at a time.
It occurred to me that I might be the first person to try to dig enough sand to admit back mounted doubles. Rob had dug enough to admit side mounts. He had mentioned the back mount scooter divers, but as I lay there digging it occurred to me that they had certainly used their scooters to BLOW the hole open. On the other hand, what could I do but continue to dig? About a half hour later Kim did a fit check. Although the hole was too small to admit her yet, I got an idea as she lay there. She was partially blocking the flow. This made the remaining flow go faster to get equal volume. Right where her front side touched the sand, the increased flow was actually digging up sand and carrying it away.
I decide to lie in the hole while I dug. That way some sand could be removed without me having to actually pick it up four times. After I lay there digging for a while I tried to push forward and realized that I actually could. The opening was not yet big enough to admit me, but it was within about an inch. I felt I could bulldoze this remaining inch of sand by just continuously pushing forward. Still, something clicked in my head and I decided that I really didn?t want to be on the INSIDE of this restriction until there was actually a little clearance
I decided to back out.
I had just started backing when it felt like someone punched me really hard in the solar plexus. I was suddenly in intense pain and I couldn?t breathe. Between the bruising on my rib cage and the clarity of hindsight, I later concluded that I had shoved my drysuit inflator valve up into my solar plexus right at the bottom of my rib cage. Normally it would just pop right out. In this situation the cave had me pressed so tightly that the valve just stayed pressed into that notch. Of course at the time I had no such rational explanation. All I knew was that my whole world was pain and I couldn?t breathe.
If going backwards causes intense pain, then the natural reaction is to go forward instead. I gave a massive push forward. I managed to skew myself in the opening, but the pain did not abate and I still couldn?t breathe.
Now I couldn?t EVEN back up. I could see into the cave and could tell I was now in the hole at a different angle. It was obvious WHY I couldn?t back up, but there was nothing I could do about it. In addition I believe that I had managed to trap my rib cage into a smaller space than before.
I thought, ?I am going to die right here, stuck in this hole.? My cave diving instructor always said, ?There are OLD cave divers and there are BOLD cave divers, but there are no OLD BOLD cave divers.? I had done something a little too bold. Of course I wasn?t thinking about any cute little rhyming sayings at the time. In fact I wasn?t thinking at all.
My next reaction was to begin to panic. I don?t like to think that I panicked. I don?t like to admit that I panicked. But I can?t think of any other way to describe what happened next.
My entire body rebelled at being stuck in a hole and unable to breathe. My fight or flight response kicked in and I expended all the energy I had in an effort to expand my rib cage and get some air. In relating this story to a friend I was asked, ?Oh, so that worked and you could breath??
I believe that I am a strong fellow. The fact that I regularly do bench-presses over 300 pounds helps to reinforce that opinion. But in this situation I would have had to lift fifty feet of solid rock with the muscles in my rib cage alone.
In fact it was worse than before. When you do not breath it MIGHT, at least, be your idea. In this case I had tried with every fiber of my being to draw a breath and had still failed. My body was freaking out and my eyes were bulging. I felt the weight of all the rock that had me pinned. My mental out look was extremely low. Then something really cool happened.
My free-diving experience kicked in just when I needed it. Several times while free diving out of a cave, I have felt that I really couldn?t wait for a breath. At that point my body wants to panic, but instead I just get really calm and ask myself, ?What else can you really do, other than keep swimming for the surface?? Kicking faster actually makes it worse than just kicking calmly. So I just take nice calm slow kicks and focus on keeping my heart rate low.
A calm washed over me. It was the neatest feeling. I realize that calm is a state of mind rather than a physical thing but that is not quite how it felt. It felt like some liquid warm calm had been poured on my head. I felt it wash down my head to my shoulders and on down my torso towards my stomach. The warm calm didn?t seem to make it passed my aching lower ribs, but you can?t have everything. I really believe that something physical must have happened to make me feel that way. My best working hypothesis is that my anxiety had raised my heart rate and blood pressure and I could feel that pressure reduce when I got calm. That hypothesis may be complete bovine feces, but I certainly felt the calm wash down my body. I wish I could describe it better, but it certainly felt wonderful.
With the calm it seemed that someone had switched my brain from off to on. Once I started actually thinking again I realized that I really didn?t NEED to breath continuously. After all, I had been breathing right up until I couldn?t, so it wasn?t like I was in imminent danger of hypoxia. Secondly I had a couple of options: My arms were free to grab my surgical shears so I could cut my way out of my harness if need be. I also then remembered that part of how I got into this mess in the first place was that I had already determined that I could probably bulldoze forward through the sand. (I had completely forgotten that for a while.) Lastly I discovered that I actually could breath a cup or two in short gasping breaths. I started plowing forward and the first few feet were pretty rough. After that it got steadily easier. In a few more feet I could feel the pressure on my torso ease up. It confused me that I still didn?t feel like I could breathe. Right after that I kicked loose and floated into a chamber eight feet tall.
I clawed at the front of my dry suit while taking huge full breaths. I couldn?t completely ameliorate the feeling of being crushed, but that is because my ribs were bruised. I also had a massive headache from the CO2 buildup from the shallow to zero breathing I had been doing. It was good to be out of the hole, but I still felt pretty bad. There was a part of me that wanted to go down this big cave passage I had worked so hard to get to. There was another bigger part that just wanted to get out.
After seeing me push the hole Kim tried it. She tried upside down and upside right but still couldn?t make it. Then she poked her arm down in the hole and spelled dizzy. That was enough for me. I stuck my arm UP the hole and displayed the UP thumb.
Now I needed to go back through the hole I had recently extricated myself from. The problem is that my tortured ribs couldn?t take it. Not that they might not be able to take it. They CERTAINLY couldn?t take it. I couldn?t even contemplate it without shuddering.
I had an ace up my sleeve and it was time to use it. This whole plan had been conceived with the idea that if we could pass the hole with back mounts the hole would be twice what was needed for no mount. I took my tanks off and went back through the hole easily.
Some of you may be wondering why I didn?t take my tanks off a long time ago. Well the aforementioned two to one escape advantage for one thing. The more important thing though is that cave divers don?t wear weight belts. Our weight is in our steel tanks. Therefore one needs to keep quite the grip on the tanks or you will find yourself pinned to the ceiling by your own buoyancy as your tanks fall to the floor.
On the way home I barely touched my paddle and mostly just let the river take me downstream. At the truck it was seriously painful to lift our tanks up and load them due to my hurt ribs. Like I said,
I got my butt kicked.
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