The pothole presented us our first climbing problem. The silolike chamber that held it was maybe 20 feet tall and six feet across, with six feet of water standing in the bottom. The entrance passage came in roughly halfway up the silo, so that where we stopped we were four or five feet above the surface of the water and 10 feet from the ceiling. There was no apparent flow to the water, which probably seeped very slowly out of the well bottom and down the mountain.
Directly across the silo from us the main passage appeared to continue, but it narrowed considerably, becoming only a three-or four-foot-wide crack leading back into the rock. The bottom of this crack disappeared into the water below us. But there was a ledge on the left wall of the crack that seemed wide enough to climb along, if we could get to it. I thought of swimming, but it seemed early in the climb to get wet and cold. Also, since the ledge was six or eight feet above the water, there was a serious question whether or not we could reach it.
The walls of the silo were exasperatingly smooth, and if we were going to cross it dry there seemed only one place to do it. A sloping promontory of limestone extended over the water a foot or so from our side of the well. Directly across was a small niche in the opposite face of the silo that might give a handhold. Above this niche was a hole that looked big enough to crawl through. The hole seemed to be at least level with the ledge we were trying to reach. I thought that by edging forward on our sloping rock, then leaning (actually falling) across the well, you could probably catch the niche with both hands, brace for a moment arched across the water, then reach up with your right hand, grab the rim of the hole and pull yourself through it headfirst.
The maneuver was medium difficult, but not dangerous. Your feet might not hold on the sloping, slippery rock or maybe you would be unable to free your right hand to reach up for the hold on the other side. In either event you would simply fall into the well, and the only penalty for such a fall would be a cold bath, some thrashing around till you climbed out and maybe the end of the trip before it got nicely started.
Studying the formation, I realized this was the first new cave problem I had had in 15 years. I was pleased to have it and pleased to be pleased. The boys seemed impressed with the situation and glad that we had something hard so early. "You want to go first?" I asked Sid, not needling, just saying in another way, "This is a tricky bit."
"Be my guest," Sid said, grinning. Everything worked out more easily than I had expected. The slippery rock held my feet, and there was a good handhold in the notch above. There was really only one doubtful minute. It seemed that maybe the 20 pounds I had put on in the last 15 years might not fit through the hole. But with some grunting I made it. The boys, a couple of inches shorter, had to stretch farther to arch over the water, but a few minutes later we had all made it across.
The ledge turned out to be wide enough to sit on comfortably, and we dangled our feet over the water, knocking the mud off our boot treads. Then I did a thing that had been done for me 20 years ago, the first time I went into a cave. I turned off my light and told the boys to do the same.
"That," I said, when the last flame was snuffed, "is real dark."
Before the obligatory curses, the boys let out a long breath, a sort of ahhh hisss, the sound people are supposed to make but seldom do on first seeing things like the Grand Canyon or a redwood tree. You come across strange things in caves—stone lily pads, cathedral arches, massive pillars, organ pipes—but the single most impressive scenic experience in any cave is its total darkness. You see nothing, absolutely nothing. The only thing left is what's inside you. Having once sat without light in a cave, the blackest night will never seem dark again.
After a time, so sitting and marveling, it seemed appropriate to make another initiatory gesture. All three boys had been smoking that summer, but none were quite sure enough yet to smoke in front of me or their parents. I fumbled around the webbing of my helmet and took out a pack of cigarettes and matches. The flame seemed a veritable floodlight. "You want one?" I asked, extending the pack and feeling around until I found Sid's hand. The intention was to say there's no need for ordinary amenities here. Responding in the same vein, they each took a cigarette and lit up.