After the chimneys came the first short plunge through water, then an hour of heavy-duty hiking, broken by occasional climbs and crawls, to reach the Great Hall. Part of the time I traveled alongside Coons, who seemed able to float past the grasping rock without touching it. He would range far ahead of the group, drop to the rear, then fall alongside someone in the middle, like a bird dog on the hunt and loving every minute of it.
Ours was not only the largest group ever to try a door-to-door, it was the largest group that had ever been in the cave at one time. As a result, there were long waits as other members of the expedition negotiated the tricky climbs and squeezes encountered along the route. Talk of other caves and cavers, and debates over gear filled the waits: "Damn carbide-lamp cavers, they have to stop every 10 minutes to fiddle with those antiques...." "Oh yeah? I read where an improperly focused electric leaves a dark spot in the center of the beam that can cause severe depression, irritability, dementia and, ultimately, death...." "Listen, you think you might be interested in trying the John Crows in January? Three thousand feet of limestone that's never been checked...."
The talk was engrossing, but when we reached the rope drop at the end of the Great Hall, we were already two hours behind schedule. The toughest miles of climbing and crawling lay ahead. No one said it, but everyone realized that the group was simply too large. For fast, efficient progress, three to five cavers is an ideal number—a larger group tends to bog down.
I was keeping pace with some of the finest cavers alive, but my stomach had suggested a couple of rumbling, unpleasant things it might pull in a waterfall climb or, worse, in the Grim Crawl of Death. Goggin, a lowland Southerner like me, mentioned that he too was experiencing something of an altitude problem.
Jon Krakauer had turned back on the Eiger, I remembered. Mumbling our way into it, speaking as if we each had a mouthful of grits, Goggin and I agreed that we should turn back. We would work our way to the Crisco Crack, hike down the canyon and meet the others at the camp set up at Dumb Luck, now renamed Great Exit. I rationalized that rather than shake hands with the Grim Crawl while I was exhausted and desperate, my first experience of the place would occur when I was fresh, a tourist on the photo trip planned for the following day. So I wished the remaining seven cavers luck, tucked my tail up under my coveralls and slunk out of Great X along with Goggin.
So here I am, 24 hours later, lying in ice water that's swirling by me at a velocity of several feet per second. Finally, Engler's boots move again, and I force my hands—more like numb paddles now—into action. Simmons and Goggin are setting up to take the first professional photos of the Grim Crawl, which means more stops ahead. It's really getting cold. Occasionally we hit a wide bend, and I can see several faces at once, all of them grinning as if being here wasn't a damn fool thing to do.
My helmet scrapes the ceiling and I catch a mouthful of water. I try to imagine this spot the night before, as the seven weary cavers worked their way toward Great Exit. Zeman and Bob Benedict—who had entered the cave without the customary ballistic-nylon coveralls—had paid for their rashness by being caught on sharp rocks in separate waterfall climbs. Zeman lost a flounder-sized fillet of skin from his right thigh; Benedict had scraped his left buttock raw.
Both injuries were aggravated by the Grim Crawl, but more damaging than the missing flesh had been the missing patches of neoprene from their wet suits. That had left their skin unprotected in the 39° water. Benedict was well on his way to hypothermia when the group reached the end of the cave at 2:30 this morning. Still, everyone made it out in good spirits, and now both Benedict and Zeman are sleeping peacefully overhead. The short section of the Grim Crawl that I've seen so far, about 30% of the total length, convinces me that Scheltens was right: This cave will eat someone, swallow them whole, sooner or later. A lesser caver would not have made it out under his own power with a leg injury like the one Zeman suffered. And if you can't exit Great X under your own power, you won't exit at all.
At least Zeman had been moving downstream; I'm going upstream. I fight the water for a few more yards, amazed at what Shifflett accomplished when he entered this passage for the first time, and, more recently, when he made a controversial solo crossing—both times against the current, the same way I am traveling now.
Simmons signals for a pause, and Goggin prepares a homemade waterproof flashgun, tied to his wrist to avoid loss. He will work the flash, Simmons will photograph and Engler will model. I will wait. I stare at Engler's boots one more time as the stream washes over me. This is getting old fast.