SI Vault
Journey to the center of the earth
Bil Gilbert
May 20, 1974
A man in the maw of a cave can only wonder what lies beyond. Lured into the depths, he may find hell or heaven but, surely, he will find himself
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May 20, 1974

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

A man in the maw of a cave can only wonder what lies beyond. Lured into the depths, he may find hell or heaven but, surely, he will find himself

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Friends took me to Pancake's Cave the first winter I spelunked. Since then I have returned every few years. The cave is medium-sized (about a mile and a half of passages) and of medium difficulty, providing some interesting crawls and scenery. Any reasonably active person can get through the main passages, but there are optional routes where rope, some skill and self-control are necessary.

The small entranceway is covered by a locked iron plate, the posts of which are set in the solid rock. The owner, J. W. Pancake, covered the entrance many years ago, not to be difficult but as an informal conservation measure. To explore the cave it is necessary to stop by the Pancake farmhouse and get the key, which J. W. sometimes withholds from those who strike him as being insufficiently experienced or responsible. It is a good system since it saves the cave from casual vandals and leg-breakers, and also gives people an excuse for talking with J. W., which is good for anybody. J. W. has a dog that waves goodby to visitors, bees that deposit their comb and honey directly in glass jars, three of the most responsive saddle horses you will see outside the Spanish Riding School and a barnful of clever inventions. J. W. is getting on in years but remains cheerful and entertaining and leaves one feeling better about our species.

Even the foyer, if you want to call it that, of Pancake's Cave has always seemed a pleasant place. It is an open pit, which long ago was probably part of the cave proper. The pit is overhung with the branches of big oaks and maples, which grow on the rim. Water seeps down the rocky sides and forms tiny pools where it is not uncommon to surprise deer drinking. The sides of the pit slope inward. At the very bottom, disappearing under the rock wall, is the small hole through which the cave is entered. The whole arrangement is like an enlarged model of one of the funnels that ant lions dig in the sand to trap insects. Because cavers, too, can find themselves trapped, they are often asked, "Why do you do it?" The cool answer is, "Because it's there," which is not a totally false response but one that has been given so often that nothing more sensible seems possible. Caving is as explicable as, say, gambling, sightseeing or making friends. It is a less common activity than any of these, but like so many entertainments it is an attempt to find stimulation and pleasure by satisfying certain common urges.

Abstract curiosity, for example, is one of the definitive characteristics of mankind, a spur for all sorts of activities from philosophy to space travel. Spelunking may be only a trivial entry well down the list of things for which curiosity is responsible, but it is one. Take my last trip into Pancake's with a group of six. I had been down the entrance tunnel a dozen times. Terry had made the trip three times. The other five had not been there before but had heard about the place from us and had been in other caves. The point is that our curiosity was not virgin. Nevertheless, sitting in the pit, readying our carbide lights, adjusting hard hats, the small hole slanting downward into the darkness was physically and psychologically the dominant feature of the landscape; it probably would be for 999 out of 1,000 people.

Like a river, horizon or mountaintop, a hole in the ground stimulates curiosity. Primitive or civilized, young or old, brave or timid, it is almost impossible for a human to discover a hole and not wonder where it leads, what is down there. Having found the hole, there are many reasons why a man may decide to let it be—it is too small, it may contain poisoned air, snakes or trolls, the man had no light or time. However, if he passes it by, he is going to hurt a little because he could not or would not satisfy his curiosity. This is the elemental reason for caving—to experience the joy that comes from giving in to a deep urge. There almost never is a practical reason for going into a cave. The odds are very long against finding love, wealth or a good meal at the bottom of the hole. Caving is pure hedonism.

The entrance tunnel to Pancake's Cave descends sharply for half a dozen body lengths and then opens up into a wide, level passage that gently slopes into the mountain for a quarter of a mile. It makes a very nice entrance hall, a kind of decompression chamber in reverse. Without worrying about climbing, balancing or falling through a crevice, you can saunter along for a few minutes getting adjusted to underground peculiarities, the most obvious of which are darkness and silence. There is no light except that cast by the carbide flame of the head lamp, and except for an occasional drip of water and the noise one makes moving along, no sound. This is soothing because of the sharp reduction in number and variety of stimuli customarily bombarding our senses above ground. And because the stimuli are drastically cut back, the senses seem to deal more efficiently with them. You are hypersensitive to the shape of a stone under your foot, knowing immediately when and how it moves or gives and being very conscious of what this may mean. Uncommon awareness is one of the delights of caving.

The entrance passage ends abruptly, pinching down to a slit that disappears under the base of a tilted slab of limestone. This slit leads into a 100-foot crawlway. Crawling is the essential mode of travel in caves. In some places one must crawl on all fours like an infant. But there are other passages too small for this, where one must flatten out on the belly or back and lever forward on one's elbows like an awkward snake.

When they first go spelunking, four out of five people experience a certain amount of fright and panic, which for lack of a better word might be called claustrophobia. Most often it strikes in crawlways. Pressed against rock on all sides, inching ahead into absolute darkness under God only knows how many tons of mountain, it is almost impossible not to wonder if whoever built the cave was a careful workman and had the services of a good structural engineer.

Cave fright takes various outward forms: babbling, grim silence, sweats (both hot and cold), cursing, hysteria and involuntary rigidity. I remember one woman setting off on her first weekend of caving. Before the descent, she made some of us uneasy by talking far too much about how she knew she was going to love caving. About 50 feet into the first crawlway she began to whimper. At the next tight spot she froze as solid as an airline dinner. It was pointed out that bigger bodies than hers had gone ahead and that there were others behind who could not possibly advance unless she moved. None of this good counsel was effective. Therefore, the man directly behind the rigid lady took her legs and began to wriggle backward, trying to drag Ms. Muffet out of her tuffet. Her rescuer tugged so hard that the girl's buckles and buttons popped and her jeans ended up around her knees. She instantly regained the use of her limbs and in fact began to scoot backward so smartly that the spelunkers behind her were almost crushed. Coming to a place where she could rise, she did so, drew up her pants and asked to be escorted to the entrance. She was. The moral is that cultural concerns—in this case, modesty—can affect behavior as powerfully as innate fears, such as claustrophobia.

The first crawlway in Pancake's Cave is a snug, squeeze-and-lever operation. It ends at the base of a 10-foot dry well, which must be climbed in order to get to an upper level where the passage continues. Chimneys are vertical crawlways, but this one comes at a good place, allowing one to stretch one's legs while climbing. After a bit the upper passage degenerates into a formation that spelunkers have named the Snakehole, although it is more a narrow crack between two smooth faces of limestone. At the top the crack is two feet wide, but it tapers downward so that at the bottom there is only six inches between the walls of rock. The only way to get through is to raise oneself, push-up fashion, to the top of the fissure. There, with back and butt pressed against the roof, you must suspend yourself, face, feet and hands dangling uselessly in the crevice, and press the rest of your body against the walls. Then you must squirm forward alternately shifting shoulders and hips, all the while staring at the narrows below, thinking if you slip you will remain forever wedged between the two walls like a rusty axhead in a chunk of oak. Well into the Snakehole another comforting fact becomes apparent: it is almost impossible to wriggle backward.

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