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It was only after months of exchanging letters and phone calls and haggling over dates and personnel that in August 1987 I joined 10 of the country's top cavers in Sheridan for a week at Great Expectations. Shifflett, who had signed most of the team and had actually led a short reconnaissance the previous April, was forced out of the August assault at the last minute by an unexpected job conflict. Blakely, a Great X vet who looks more like a grizzled fur trapper than the systems engineer he is, had stepped in to lead the effort. The rest of the team consisted of three married couples—Bob and Jean Benedict of Idaho Falls, Idaho; Don Coons and his wife, Sheri Engler, of Rutland, Ill.; Jim and Pam Smith of Bowling Green, Ky.—plus me; two Virginians, Keith Goggin and Ron Simmons; and Steve Zeman of Idaho Falls. Six members of the group had participated in at least one of the four previous Great X through-trips. All had worked together at different times on expeditions in Mexico, Virginia and other hot caving regions.
The team had settled on three goals: 1) to seek a means of bypassing the tight, water-filled crack near Great Exit by finding a new passage within the cave; 2) to examine several previously unexplored side passages in the middle cave; 3) to obtain the first-ever professional photos of Great X.
My personal goal was far simpler—to see the cave, and live to tell about it.
Shortly after the Miller-Shifflett connection was found in 1980, another caver blasted the flesh-peeling Crisco Crack to a comfortable width, 12 inches, in order to install the tamper-proof gate that now protects the cave and unauthorized visitors from one another. This upper entrance is on the property of a third-generation rancher who considers a huge cave on his spread more a headache than anything else, and who figures—livestock prices being what they are—he has enough headaches already.
A few days before the expedition, I met Coons and Engler face-to-face for the first time, at the Sheridan airport. They were easy to spot in the crowd: Both were short, wiry and well-muscled, and both were dressed in the ratty Army surplus garb favored by cavers everywhere. The three of us drove out to the ranch to pick up the key to the Crisco Crack gate.
Conversation with the rancher was an awkward amalgam of "yeps" and "nopes" and long silences. Fortunately, Coons and Engler farm 800 acres in central Illinois, and things relaxed a bit when talk turned to U.S. farm policy. But just before we left, the rancher delivered his longest utterance of the day: "First person gets hurt in there, I'll dynamite that sucker shut and be done with it." He was looking me straight in the eye when he said it.
The western flanks of the Bighorns abound in elk, deer and antelope, and the shaggy sheep that give the range its name. In the remote canyons, piles of buffalo skulls can still be found. There are several such piles in the canyon above Great Expectations. The upper campsite for Great X lies about a quarter mile from the Crisco Crack, in a grassy clearing at the head of the canyon. Burned-out campfires indicate that the clearing is used perhaps three times a year by cattle herders and by occasional hunters.
On a pleasantly sunny August day, in such postcard surroundings, it takes a fair amount of peer pressure to force one to wriggle into a grimy wet suit and head into the damp darkness underground. Four days of hard work in the upper cave had yielded a few virgin side passages—which had quickly petered out—several dozen photos, a dented lamp, leg cramps, heat exhaustion, chills and, for me, some sort of stomach virus. By our fifth morning at the cave, I didn't think any sort of pressure, peer or otherwise, would force me into the nasty suit again. I had come prepared for the cold, but no one had warned me of the heat. Before you reach the first stream passage, long before the Lost Worland River, several cramped, dusty chimneys and crawls must be traversed. Climbing and crawling in those dry passages turns the protective clothing combination of coveralls and wet suit into an instant sauna. Each squeeze through the Crisco Crack made me feel I was wearing something advertised in a supermarket tabloid: SWEAT OUT 10 POUNDS A MINUTE OR DOUBLE YOUR MONEY BACK!
It didn't help that I have always lived within five miles of the Atlantic; at the 8,500-foot altitude of campsite, I kept hoping for a Sherpa to appear with an oxygen bottle. True to their reputations, members of the team had proved so gung ho that they were at first frightening. By now I was more disgusted than frightened. My rancid wet suit seemed more alive than its owner. The uncomfortable activity in my stomach was more lively than either of us. Still, on Day 5, I managed to hold down my dehydrated breakfast and suit up, because nine of us, everyone but Engler and Pam Smith, would be attempting the largest through-trip of Great X ever tried.
Once through Crisco Crack, the group spread out. Just inside Great X was a series of three velcro-lined chimneys—each no more than a foot wide—in which a caver had to use rock-climbing techniques while descending to a depth 90 feet below the entrance. The sides of the cave resembled the sort that, sooner or later, rumble together to crush unfortunate souls trapped in adventure movies. The walls of Great X never actually moved, but they did manage continually to snag whichever bit of my clothing or pack was the hardest for me to reach at the moment.