After we had smoked down to muddy butts, we pitched them out into the dark, the embers arching down like shooting stars through the void, until they hissed out in the water. Then we turned on the carbide lamps and started down the ledge.
Well Cave is a simple one, but as difficult as you'd want to tackle without sophisticated, technical mountaineering equipment and experience. Essentially it consists of a single cut running west-southwest, with no true branching or intersecting tunnels. The difficulty arises from the fact that the cut narrows and deepens as you go, becoming in time a miniature canyon almost 75 feet deep that tends to pinch in from the bottom. The bottom of the passage is filled with water but is too narrow to swim through, and the water too deep to wade. The only way to move ahead was to stay high up in the crack. Occasional ledges along the wall provided walk or crawl passages but more often we had to chimney along the passage. Chimneying consists of bracing your shoulders and back against one wall of the cave, your feet or knees against the other, maintaining yourself with tension and moving ahead by shifting your weight from one tension point to the next. It takes only a little chimneying to rub the tension points raw, and after the first 50 yards or so all of us were bleeding in places.
We moved ahead and gradually upward this way, sometimes hanging 20 or 30 feet above the water. It was easier going for me than for the boys, who are more agile than I but not as strong. Strength is more important than agility in chimneying. Also, I had done all this before, in harder spots, while for them it was all new and therefore the hardest bit of chimney work anyone had ever attempted. Finding it a new and scary experience, they fought the walls, using their strength in unnecessary bursts of exertion, not making good use of small indentations and protrusions that will hold your weight for a moment or two and permit a break from the pressure. The longer you are at it the more difficult it becomes. Fatigue weakens the muscles, slows the reflexes, produces panic. The walls of the minichasm were relatively smooth, so I wasn't too worried about one of the boys losing his hold. The fall itself probably wouldn't give them anything worse than rock burns. But the force of the fall might wedge a body into the V-shaped bottom of the crack and create a rescue problem, so I took a coil of rope out of my pack and slung it over my shoulder, where I could get at it quickly.
There is a particular scene that symbolizes caving as well, say, as a red barn symbolizes farming. This is the interior vision that most cavers carry as a memento: looking back or forward and seeing hard-hatted figures silhouetted in a narrow passage by flickering carbide light. The faces are yellowish, the figures black, but not as black as the void behind them. I stopped, braced in a niche and told the boys to stop and look. We were strung out in a diagonal line; I could see Sid outlined by Terry's light, Terry by Ky's and behind Ky nothing but blank space. Wisps of vapor produced by hot bodies in the frigid cave hung around each figure. Obediently they stopped to look.
"Cool," Sid said and then went back to the practical work of trying to stay on the wall. I saw more here than they did, not just the four of us in Well Cave at that moment, but a lot of old cavers—Hackman, Hugh, Ackie, Nancy, Ellie, Ann, Ivor, Martha, Billy, Shawn—in the passages of other caves: Marshalls, Breathing, Schoolhouse, Grapevine, Tory, strung out in a crack nearly 20 years long.
We followed the narrow slit for a quarter of a mile or so, and then it ended abruptly in another chamber. I eased around an abutment and was suddenly looking into another silo formation, one that dwarfed the earlier one. The circular room was 75 feet high and 30 feet across, with 10 or 12 feet of glassy, clear, motionless water in the bottom. Above, 1 could see some medium-large stalactites, exotic pieces of water-sculpted limestone. But generally the sides of the silo were smooth, worn by ages of water from an underground cataract that had poured through this vertical tunnel.
"There's a great place up here," I called back, not to encourage or goad the boys, but just because it was a great place. The niche where I stood, 10 feet above the water, had hand and footholds for just two, so 1 told Sid to come up first. He looked briefly around the silo, but survival, not scenery, was his concern at the moment—a fact I unfortunately did not note or, if I did, ignored in my excitement.
"Are we going to try to cross here?" he asked soberly.
On the far side of the big pool I could see what looked like an extension of the crack we had been following, topped by a hole in the silo wall. "I told you we were going to the end," I said. "We're not there yet." I did not mean it as I had above ground in the sun, sitting in a lawn chair, as a challenge and needle. Finding this spectacular formation had suddenly given me cave fever, something I had thought I would never catch again. I was not thinking about the boys at all, only about how I felt.
"O.K.," Sid said, not defensive, just agreeing. "But how?"