At one point the stream flowed to a side of the crawl, forcing the wind through a narrow, but relatively dry, natural sluiceway. To pass the squeeze, the two cavers had to slide forward on the exhale; there was so little clearance that they had to keep not only their clothing but also their rib cages from becoming hung up on the rough surface. This time, however, the cave rewarded their determination: Instead of another dead end, the crawl grew to hands-and-knees height and then opened into a narrow fissure large enough for the men to stand.
After walking several hundred yards, Miller and Shifflett reached an easy climb into a towering, canyonlike passage similar to what they had seen on trips along the Lost Worland River. They fought their way up increasingly difficult climbs, including one over an imposing hundred-foot series of cascades. Hours later, Miller stopped to rest. He found a narrow pocket at the side of a 15-foot rock face; it was deep enough to shield him from the spray off a crashing waterfall. As he sat there, waiting for Shifflett to catch up, he recognized a crack running up the wall to the right of the falls. This was the spot where he had turned around on his longest Great X survey trip, two weeks before: He and Shifflett were standing in the deepest known cave in the United States.
Remembering what they had undergone to reach the connection, Miller convinced Shifflett to abandon the idea of surveying back out; instead they named the spot Connection Falls, and pressed forward. Ahead of them lay several grueling climbs—one of more than a hundred feet—that had been rigged with ropes by previous cavers exploring from the upper end. The two excited cavers successfully free-climbed these, working their way steadily up the slick rock to the Great Hall, the crawls beyond it, and finally through the narrow velcro chimneys to the Crisco Crack and the surface.
When they emerged after midnight to a full moon and the heavy smell of sagebrush, they had climbed through five miles of cave and gained 1,403 feet of elevation, scooping booty most of the way. They were elated, they were pioneers of the most daring kind; and, for a while, their names were mud in the caving community. "Tom Miller got to be a dirty word with some people," says Idaho caver Jeb Blakely. "Him and Pete scooping Great X ticked everybody off."
After the Miller-Shifflett connection, a few sporting through-trips were made, but the extreme difficulty of the Grim Crawl of Death continued to discourage survey of the route. No one believed a passage could be so tough until they experienced it. Some cavers came dangerously close to hypothermia when their wet suits were slashed on the velcro; others had lights and gear snatched away by the stream.
Scheltens describes his one—and only—trip through the Grim Crawl in 1980 (which would prove to be the last Great X through-trip anyone would make for the next five years): "It was a definition of hell. I had several holes in my wet suit, and ice water kept shooting in, ballooning the material out. Water got under my helmet and ripped it from my chinstrap. I lay there in the dark, hearing the helmet go tick, tick, tick as the water carried it down the passage ahead of me." Scheltens exited the crawl sharing a single fading flashlight with the four members of his group; each had entered the cave carrying three working light sources.
"If door-to-door trips become the 'in' thing to do, Great X is going to eat someone, someone experienced," he cautions. "Under ideal conditions, the cave is horrible. I don't like body recoveries any more than the next person, but if there is a thunderstorm during a through-trip [which would cause the water level to rise in the cave], or if someone becomes completely hypothermic, or if someone falls during a climb, a body recovery is what you'll have. And a body recovery in that cave could kill someone."
Nevertheless, in 1985 Shifflett put together a team to finally survey the Grim Crawl of Death. It was not to be a through-trip but strictly a mapping expedition, not a long trip but harrowing nonetheless. As Shifflett entered the crawl that summer morning on July 23, he spotted something white bobbing in the six-inch crack where the water disappeared—it was Scheltens' lost helmet, battered but still intact after five years. Shifflett's crew completed the survey. For the next two years, no one explored Great X.
Climbing writer Jon Krakauer once made the distinction between "wanting to climb" the north face of the Eiger and "wanting to have climbed" it. In terms of endurance, tight squeezes, difficult climbs and the odds of "getting eaten," Great Expectations has become the Eiger of American caving. I wanted very much to have done Great X. I had nightmares about actually doing it. Great X began taking on mythic proportions in my mind. This, despite the fact that it no longer held the U.S. depth record. In 1981, several Great X explorers—purposely excluding Miller and Shifflett in retaliation for the scooped Great X connection—dropped a shorter, more vertical cave in Wyoming's Teton Range, called Columbine Crawl. That has set a U.S. depth record of 1,550 feet. But Great X potentially held two miles of cave between the impenetrable crack that had caught Scheltens' helmet and the still unexplored stream resurgence farther down the canyon. The elevation between those points (assuming a way into the presumed passage could be found) would add another 400 feet of depth to Great X, reestablishing the U.S. record. If a team could be organized, I hoped I could wangle my way onto it.
The caving community is small enough that, with perseverance, almost anyone can eventually join an expedition with the living legends. (To put it into context, imagine shagging a few with Darryl Strawberry or inviting Don Garlits to meet you at the local strip.) I had spent enough time in TAG—a prime caving region centered in the area where Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia meet—to have dropped a couple of dozen of the biggies. Along the way I had met some well-known cavers. I figured that would be enough to get me in the door with the western cavers who had experience with Great X. But I found that in the door and into Great X are two different things.