April 21, 1980
As a 20-year-old senior at Florida State University, I have begun to climb and crawl into the air-filled caverns dotting the Florida Panhandle, crystal-lined tunnels scoured by the springs of a previous geologic age. I have joined a university cave club, progressing to the complex passages of Climax Cave, an eight-mile labyrinth in south Georgia.
The muddy rooms of Climax are punctuated with sumps, or cave pools, some of them leading to known tunnels flooded in the 1950s, when construction of a dam 30 miles away raised the area's water table. Our club suspects that other sumps lead to virgin territory. This weekend five cave divers and 50 cave sherpas—volunteer labor to hump tanks and gear—have gathered at Climax for a major underwater push. One of my roommates and I are sherpas. The support teams work 10-hour shifts, hauling gear to and from three distant in-cave sites, unlikely blue holes opening amid the muck and limestone.
My job is to lower heavy air tanks down a 30-foot entrance pit and then ferry them, one at a time, through a twisted 300-foot crawlway, a sandy tube punctuated by tight squeezes. Other sherpas move tanks from the end of the crawls to the widely separated pools. We work well in advance of the divers, who are to arrive "fresh" for the penetration effort.
The divers have varied backgrounds. There's a clean-cut aerospace engineer and a long-haired, tie-dyed Southerner whose main source of income is selling his own plasma. Yet they all seem pretty much alike. Each is quietly determined, detail-oriented, picky. After the divers trickle in, I watch two of them unpack (each carries about four large duffels) and gear up for a sump. It is impossible to observe such a highly regimented routine without thinking of a preflight check.
One of the quietest in the group is Exley. Of medium height, powerfully built, he looks as if he stepped from a turn of the century boxing poster: thick mustache balanced on a sharp face; short, wavy brown hair; muscular chest and arms; skin as pale as a shark's belly.
Exley asks my roommate to lead him to his sump, in the room called Batman's Den. There's no questioning the quiet authority in his voice. They push on.
Later I learn that my friend took Exley down a wrong fork. They spent four hours lost, eventually finding their way from the maze of passages to Batman's Den. Exley, fatigued from the difficult caving, decided to call off his dive, saying that a primary safety rule is never to dive when tired.
The other two teams dive without incident but also without major discovery.
The haul out proves as long and difficult as the haul in. As I shove an unused air tank back through the crawls, a protective valve cover malfunctions. Nudged by the tunnel wall, the valve twists open, spewing air and sand in my face. The sudden wind extinguishes my carbide miner's lamp and shoots sand down my coveralls. I can't reach the valve, so I lie in darkness for the few minutes it takes the tank to empty, my eyes shut tight against the grit.