It’s the rare person who sees a hole in the ground and feels compelled to stick his head in it.
But cavers are “innately curious,” says veteran caver Tom Evans, who himself will not only peer in, but try to squeeze his whole body through a just-big-enough opening into Earth’s damp, dark underbelly.
What lies beneath that calls to these cavers to contort their bodies, risking injury, and go crawling in? Evans offered to show me first-hand, so I joined him and three other members of the Cascade Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society, on a recent visit to a cluster of caves near Snoqualmie Pass.
‘We go caving, because it’s not there’
The trek to Cave Ridge starts at the bottom of a steep hill that gains 2,200 feet in elevation in just a mile — a merciless incline that quickly hastens breaths and thins conversations.
“The hike up keeps out a lot of the riffraff,” Evans says. By “riffraff,” Evans means beginners. Caving, especially the intermediate-level course at Cave Ridge, isn’t something one attempts on a whim with a six-pack of beer in tow, he says. Unprepared, even a small injury like an ankle sprain can prove catastrophic in the wet caves, which can get down to 40 degrees even on a hot summer day.
“People’s first experience is usually some commercialized placed like the Ape Caves,” says Danny Miller, a Cascade Grotto member since 2000. “Then, if you like it, you start asking around, and hopefully someone steers you to a grotto that can educate you properly.”
Cascade Grotto members avoid publicizing locations of hidden caves to prevent novices from stumbling into dangerous situations. Cave Ridge is a known location, though sections of the trail sit on private property. Grotto members have special permission from the property owner to use the route.
Huffing up the ungroomed trail, Evans asks Miller, “Why do we do this again, Danny?”
“Because it’s not there!” Miller jokes. “People climb a mountain because it’s there. We go caving because it’s not there.”
There are some 1,000 caves around western Washington if you include the lava tubes near Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, Miller says. These tubes lie where lava once traveled. As the outer layer of the flowing lava cooled and hardened, the core continued to flow, washing out a tunnel-like structure beneath the shell.
But some purists don’t consider these formations true caves, says Evans; to them, only solution-derived caves — caves formed by acidic water carving into limestone — are the real deal. The 17 caves at Cave Ridge are of the latter variety.
At the top of the hill, the cavers put on thick layers for the cave’s chill. On go the kneepads and elbow pads — to protect the joints from being ground down to “hamburger meat” by the unforgiving surface below, says Evans. Work gloves, a helmet and at least one headlamp are also must-haves.
Cave Ridge’s offerings range in size from a two-person tent to a room that Miller surmises is big enough to house a Boeing 747. First Cave is not quite big enough for two, though its sleek walls of marble exude a cool ambiance. Red Cave flaunts towering jagged columns and a vaulted ceiling a la “Indiana Jones.” Cascade Cave is a tight, labyrinthine maze that unwinds some 1,000 feet inward into the Earth’s gut. All have a faint smell of a musty basement.
Cascade Cave: An “Alice-in-Wonderland’ rabbit hole’
Just getting into Cascade Cave takes some work. Its entrance is more of a slit than a hole; the narrow opening in between overlapping walls require cavers to flatten their bodies and slide in slowly, twisting as the walls demand.
Inside awaits what caver Mariana Tomas calls an “’Alice-in-Wonderland’ rabbit hole.” A tight-squeeze portal gives way to a small cavern, which leads to another portal, another cavern. And just when you think you’ve hit the end, you spot another tiny opening that leads on and down, like an ant hole, a winding path into the unknown.
Like a puzzle, each opening poses a new challenge that calls for its own set of creative maneuvers. A drop might require shimmying down on one’s stomach with feet dangling, then jumping down to the ground below. Or a climb might call for wedging oneself between two opposing walls, and using one’s knees to vertically inch up until the ledge above is within reach. If any move knocks a rock loose and causes it to fall, the caver yells, “Rock!” to warn those below to take cover.
Some high drops and precarious bends require cavers to help each other, be it with a hoist up or a pep talk. Cavers do get in a jam from time to time, says Evan, recalling a time he “got stuck and lost it.”
“My head was sticking out. I was wedged in there pretty tight, wasn’t making any progress. So my friend talked me down and just physically pulled me about a foot,” he says. Once freed, he was awash in relief, says Evans, but only for a moment, as he had to crawl through two more openings to get outside.
Some of Cascade’s caverns bear a cold stone façade while others run redder and wetter. Some have walls covered with what looks like a honeycomb — allophane flowstone, an oozing grid of aluminum silicate that looks soft and viscous, but is hard to the touch. Some nooks harbor small pockets of stalactite. One cavern houses the tiny skull of a marmot past.
Approximately 1,000 feet down is the bottom of Cascade Cave — or at least what the cavers know as the bottom. There’s no way to know for sure, but Evans is cautiously confident, having surveyed just about every known inch numerous times.
In that last cavern, the cavers introduce me to total darkness. As we all turn off our headlamps, the absolute, inescapable darkness quickly moves in. Everything merges into a disorienting depth of dark, the kind that makes you open your eyes wider in hopes of finding some clue, to no avail.
This is the reason cavers bring extra headlamps and extra batteries, says Evans; it’s hard enough to find one’s way back in the maze, even with proper lighting. Ask a new caver to find his way out of a cave he just crawled in, and he won’t be able to, says Evans. Try, he tells me, and lead the way. I confidently forge ahead as the others stand back, only to find myself in a dead-end hole some 20 feet later. New cavers rarely look back when venturing in, Evans says, which proves problematic come time to climb back out. It’s true, I hadn’t looked back once.
‘When you’re in that cave, there is nothing else’
Whether it’s because they rely on each other for safety or because they spend hours holed up together, the cavers’ camaraderie runs deep. Even between cavers who’ve just met, there’s little pretense and formalities drop off easily.
“Once you’ve done some of these insane things together, you’re like, well, you’re family now,” Evans says. “There’s little cavers won’t do for each other.”
The Cascade Grotto is a club of a few dozen — “more than 10, less than 100; it fluctuates,” says Miller. The members are mostly men, though there are about 10 women in the club, and range in age from children to senior citizens. The club holds meetings to practice rope work, which is necessary to explore more complex caves, and discuss safety measures.
“If you’re learning something new like how to go over a rope on a cliff, it just feels better to try that for the first time in a well-lit gym or outdoors than it is to be learning it the dark in a cave, where you’re wet and cold and can’t really see very well,” Miller says.
“It’s interesting, from an educational standpoint, how much people kind of psych themselves out when it’s dark,” Evans says.
For the novice caver, it’s easy to get caught up in caving’s rough edges. Even with proper padding, it’s a bruise-prone sport that covers you, from head to toe, in stale dust. It’s not for the claustrophobic, and even those who aren’t might panic when things get tight. And in the near-dark, where the rugged nooks and crannies look deceivingly similar, it’s easy to get lost.
But then again, nothing worth doing is ever easy.
In between the balancing act and the surges of exertion, there starts to emerge an underlying tone, a sense of solitude. While you were focused on finding your next footing, getting through the next squeeze, you’ve led yourself to place that bears no trace of the outside world other than yourself and your companions. There’s no sound, save for the occasional squeak of the tiny hamster-like pika. There’s not even a hint of sunlight or even the movement of air. Only you and your limitations — the unknown — exist.
“When you’re in that cave, there is nothing else,” Tomas says. “The world outside does not exist, because the possibility that you will never see daylight again is always present.”
In a way, caving is like space travel, “the last frontier, the ultimate mission into unknown,” says Tomas. “The promise that it holds is breathtaking beauty, exploration, adventure and, of course, discovery of something we didn’t know about ourselves.”
“You’re testing your own limits, you’re watching your every move, and you’re trying to absorb as much as you can from your surroundings,” she says. “To me, this is very primal.”