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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Walking through Windflower Cave takes about as much skill and involves about as much risk as walking on a mountain path. Nevertheless, a lot of very good cavers enjoy visiting the cavern because it is such a beautiful place.

Cave scenery is very different, principally because it is so simple. There is no "vegetation, no wind, no clouds, no shifting source of illumination, no life (except for a few blind insects and amphibians) to distract attention from the rock and water sculpture. But the results of water flowing over, under and through limestone, dissolving and redepositing it, are infinitely complex and surprising. In Windflower Cave limestone turrets, wedding cakes, toadstools and sponges grow from the floor, hang from the ceilings and sprout from the walls. There is a section of ceiling covered with soda straws—fragile, almost crystalline tubes of hollow limestone through which absolutely pure water drips slowly. One of the gallery rooms is 60 feet high, and its walls are adorned with graceful, fluted, filigreed ledges. As illuminated by carbide flame, each formation has a different color value and tone, from milk-white through gold and tawny to obsidian.

The impact of the strange color and form is heightened by the perspective. Rather than looking down, up or across at them, as is usually the case above-ground, cave formations are seen from the inside, which creates a three-dimensional effect. There is a surrealistic illusion of great space. In the main gallery room the fancy limestone work quickly soaks up the light from a carbide lamp. The limit of vision is 50 feet. Beyond the rim of flickering light, beyond the last shadow there is total blackness. In fact, just beyond the light there may be a solid rock face, but the darkness suggests immense reaches of space.

A notable feature of Windflower Cave is the Bacon Rind Room. Here, on one wall a hundred peculiar limestone slabs grow. Each is only an inch or two thick, vaguely circular, as much as 10 feet in diameter. They are clustered rank on rank and look like the gills of an enormous petrified fish. If tapped gently each gill gives off a slightly different, vibrant, organlike sound. The musically inclined can make eerie underground music on these gills. John made our music. "Wow," he said, listening to the echoes bouncing off the irregular walls, "if I could take this scene with me, I could absolutely blow the mind of every head in Isla Vista." In many caves there is what might be called esthetic food. There is nothing extraordinary or eccentric about the satisfactions to be found in a place like Windflower Cave. Rather it would be a profoundly unnatural man who could not find enjoyment there.


Pancake's is subtle; Windflower is delicate. There is very little of either quality about Dead Horse Cave, a great brute of a hole with 10 miles of passages that branch off in a bewildering maze. There are circular walks and crawlways and deep wells and high chimneys that connect half a dozen different levels. There are several enormous bowling alley-sized rooms. There are impressive formations that are more massive than intricate. Within the cave, which is dry, there is an abundance of scree and rotten crumbling ledges. Many passages and rooms are littered with great blocks and shards of rock that have fallen like pieces of giant tile from a decaying mansion. All in all it is a place that makes many, including myself, vaguely uneasy. It seems as if it is the kind of hole trolls might inhabit.

The day we decided to inspect Dead Horse we were running low on carbide. We had only enough left for five of us to stay underground for three hours. I was not annoyed about this shortage, which in fact fitted in nicely with the doubts I was having about Dead Horse. I alone had been in the cave, but only twice, and the last time 15 years previously. I was certain that I could not sort out the complex passages. What with carbide and confidence being in short supply I suggested we try to do only one thing: find a big room playfully named Grendel's Pantry by spelunkers. It lay, I thought, within an hour of the entrance and could be reached without too much trouble.

We floundered about for a while probing dead ends before emerging from a crawlway into a passage that seemed headed in the right direction. This passage was deep, narrow and multilevel. Every so often it was interrupted by a wall of rock, a gaping pit or chasm. It was necessary to climb over or go under these obstructions, ascending a chimney or dropping down through a well and continuing on at a different elevation. Some of these downers and uppers were difficult, requiring traverses of flaky ledges that overhung free drops of 30 feet.

Through no failure of skill or nerve, Beth had taken a short but painful fall in Pancake's Cave two days before. She had bruised her back and had stiffened up considerably. Soon we came to a broad ledge, where we sat down for a break. Beth asked if we would come past this place on our return. I said we would, that we did not have enough carbide or a good enough guide to look for alternative passages. "Then I guess I'll stay here and wait for you," Beth said. "I'm sore and I'm getting a little shaky."

Beth is a strong, venturesome woman, a national-class athlete and physically the most talented of all of us. Being this and a woman, she is extremely sensitive to any suggestion of frailty or timidity. Knowing Beth, we were impressed by her decision. Self-possession takes various forms. One is knowing what you can do if you take hold of yourself firmly. Another is knowing what you cannot do, the limit beyond which mind-over-matter games become dangerous fantasies.

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