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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A quarter of a mile past where she stopped we climbed toward the top of the canyon room and came out on a wide ledge where we could walk upright. We then began to encounter shafts angling up through the roof. I investigated these, having the recollection that the final entry into Grendel's Pantry was made through such a chimney. Most of them were obviously not right, extending only a few feet upward through the rock, but one that kept going beyond the range of a headlamp seemed promising.

Chimneying is a technique for ascending an open shaft or advancing horizontally between two faces of rock. It involves bridging the open space with your body by bracing your shoulders, back and hips against one wall, your feet against the other. Pressure keeps you suspended in place, and by shifting your body and the pressure you move ahead. It is not a difficult or strenuous maneuver. Rock walls are seldom smooth. There are projections and niches on and in which you can take a breather.

This particular chimney was big and easy. It started upward to the left and after about 15 feet bent sharply to the right around a knob before continuing for another 20 feet. The top seemed to be wedged shut with assorted slabs, but I went all the way up and braced in the blocked area to make certain that there were no passable crevices. While so engaged I felt a hint of movement, a certain uneasiness in the rock under my left foot. Swinging my light around I saw I was braced on a roundish chunk jammed in between the wall of the chimney and, above, a really formidable 6'x6'x6' block of limestone, which if it ever came down through the shaft would make an effective tombstone. That the small rock was not solid was obvious. How important it was to the stability of the tombstone was not at all obvious, but when the possibilities became apparent, I felt an instant stab like an electric shock starting in my lower stomach and traveling upward rapidly. In response to this flash of panic I started down the chimney, very gingerly at first but swiftly once I had rounded the midway knob. I fell out of the bottom in a shower of scree and sweat.

"What's the verdict?" Sam asked.

"There is a rock up there like a pointy grapefruit which may be holding up another one that weighs approximately eight tons."

"Leave us not linger," advised Sam, and we did not.

We went back and collected Beth, then worked our way to the surface. The group seemed to be feeling very lively. Like kids dashing through a sprinkler trying to avoid the water but not really minding when they didn't, we had done a little flirting with fear.

Without being entirely perverse or contentious there is something that can be said for fear. Pure physical fright can be a tonic, like a very cold shower or 150-proof rum. A wild cave is a fine place to taste this. Darkness and claustrophobia provide a kind of substratum of fear underlying even routine caving. Then there are special circumstances—the prospect of getting lost, falling into an abyss, becoming the permanent cornerstone of a cave—to give extra jolts of stimulation.

Even if all of this can be momentarily accepted—that caves are scary and a little terror can be kicky—there remains the question of why bother to go into a hole or scale a mountain or run rapids to get this thrill. After all, ordinary, everyday life increasingly provides abundant opportunities for being scared to death. Perhaps it is that there is an unsatisfactory abstract quality to the worst contemporary alarms. Poisoned air, rich food, crooked politicians, high taxes, paranoid bosses, predatory junkies and highway traffic are far more threatening than the worst cave chimney. Each day we run the risk of being victims of something or somebody. But these do not cause stabs of pure fear as often as they do insomnia, ulcers, overeating, drinking and smoking. Worry and anxiety seem to stain and deaden the soul while genuine old-fashioned natural fear tends to whiten the teeth, sweeten the breath and make childbearing a pleasure. Faced with the prospect of being ultimately conked by a boulder, a shriek goes up, to be sure, but it is an affirmative one—"Hey, I'm alive, and very glad of it."

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