What it’s like to be trapped in a cave

It’s hard to stay calm when you’re stuck, says ex­plorer Laura De­marest

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Ins tag ram :@ lady laura de mar est

I’d been swad­dled in a cold, sop­ping-wet trash bag for ap­prox­i­mately 20 hours, lis­ten­ing to six other cavers shiv­er­ing and breath­ing qui­etly. We were hud­dled close on the hard ground of a muddy crawl­way, a space barely tall enough for sit­ting up, in an In­di­ana cave sys­tem. De­spite my cozy wet­suit socks and the light of a tiny tealight can­dle, sen­sa­tion in my outer ex­trem­i­ties was a dis­tant mem­ory. My mind raced. My mind was empty. Now and then, I could have sworn I heard the voices of our would-be res­cuers, but there was noth­ing. We were deep un­der­ground, fac­ing a re­al­ity for which ex­pe­ri­enced cave ex­plor­ers pre­pare but hope to never en­counter: an ex­tended flood en­trap­ment.

My story played out in De­cem­ber 2016, but I’ve been think­ing about it again as I re­peat­edly re­fresh Twit­ter for news of a Thai youth soc­cer team and its coach, trapped in a cave for about two weeks. Though my story is dif­fer­ent — we were en­tombed for a mere 40 hours — I know all too well what it’s like to be trapped, re­liant on those around you and un­able to con­nect with those who might be able to help.

Cavers are care­ful peo­ple. We take cal­cu­lated risks. We check the weather ob­ses­sively, never want­ing to rush into dan­ger blindly. We are well-pre­pared to care for our­selves and oth­ers, hav­ing learned through years of ex­pe­ri­ence, men­tor­ship and, in some cases, vol­un­tary res­cue train­ing. We make sure to in­form friends above­ground of our in­tended des­ti­na­tion and ex­pected time to exit the cave. Af­ter all, we know cave res­cues can be com­plex un­der­tak­ings. But we are also hu­man and ca­pa­ble of mis­cal­cu­la­tions.

On a nor­mal-seem­ing Sat­ur­day, seven of us, with more than a cen­tury of com­bined cav­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, en­tered Bink­ley Cave in In­di­ana af­ter as­sess­ing a rain­fall fore­cast of 0.19 inches as non­threat­en­ing. Af­ter sev­eral hours of oneway travel into the cave, we found our­selves quickly re­treat­ing from a wide, low crawl­way when a small trickle of wa­ter nearby started to rush faster and back up into drier por­tions of our con­stricted space. We later learned that un­ex­pected heavy rains had dumped four inches of wa­ter on the sur­face dur­ing our trip, leav­ing our group un­able to exit.

We sought high ground in this mid-level tier of the cave and tried to play it cool. We waited and snacked, eye­ing the small stream be­low for any changes, mi­nor or ma­jor. We knew it had rained out­side, but how much? Had the rain stopped? Was more com­ing? This was the first frus­trat­ing co­nun­drum: lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the sur­face. When you’re stuck, as we later re­al­ized we were, you’re of­ten de­pen­dent on those out­side for res­cue, but con­tact­ing them is al­most im­pos­si­ble.

When you’re un­der­ground, you have just the peo­ple you’re with and the stuff in your packs. Most cavers pre­pare to be self-suf­fi­cient for at least 24 hours with gear to keep warm, light first-aid sup­plies, food and wa­ter. But pack weight is al­ways a trade-off. The more you carry, the more dif­fi­cult it is to lug your pack through stren­u­ous pas­sages. We had placed bot­tles of wa­ter along our re­turn route (to lighten our loads), though these had doubtlessly been washed away in the flood. So we emp­tied our sup­plies into a pile and were able to share gra­nola bars, dried fruit and even some sum­mer sausage that a fel­low caver had thought­fully packed.

When our group even­tu­ally re­turned to the main river route we’d need to tra­verse to exit, the wa­ter that had been a gen­tle stream on our way in was now a rush­ing, clod-brown tor­rent. It had risen more than five feet in an hour. We guessed, based on the amount of wa­ter mov­ing through the pas­sage, that it reached the ceil­ing in places along our exit route. Dis­ap­pointed, we re­signed our­selves to wait. Snap­ping into con­ser­va­tion mode, we shared food, wa­ter, light, body heat. We didn’t laugh much or take photos. We didn’t cry or lose it. We were in sta­sis.

Try to re­call the last time you sat idle. To­day, we are rarely with­out com­mu­ni­ca­tion; many cavers en­joy these peace­ful ad­ven­tures to the quiet un­der­ground with good friends, away from life’s screens and press­ing con­cerns. But when you’re trapped, be­ing cut off no longer seems quite so de­sir­able. I re­mem­ber won­der­ing what my hus­band was think­ing and whether my fam­ily knew. “If only I could give them a sign,” I thought. “They prob­a­bly think we are all dead.”

Cave res­cue train­ing, of the kind I’ve re­ceived through the Na­tional Cave Res­cue Com­mis­sion’s sem­i­nars, let me play the du­ti­ful strate­gist in my head, though our po­si­tion of­fered us lim­ited op­tions. First, we could at­tempt to exit through a much longer river route, but since that pas­sage was tak­ing on much of the drainage, do­ing so meant mov­ing through faster, more treach­er­ous wa­ter, which would in­crease the risk of hy­pother­mia, in­jury and fur­ther ex­haus­tion in the par­tially sub­merged pas­sage­way. Sec­ond, we could try a shorter route with more crawl­ing, though that en­tailed many of the same dan­gers. Third, we could send a few in­trepid cavers to go out for help along one of these routes while oth­ers re­mained be­hind, but there, too, the risks were ob­vi­ous, and di­vid­ing the party threat­ened to leave us with fewer re­sources.

That left us with a fourth op­tion. Stay put, con­serve re­sources, wait for help. Be pa­tient. Ugh.

At least we had each other, though that brought com­pli­ca­tions of its own. Our cav­ing group was a team, which was crit­i­cal to our sur­vival. But we were a team made up of adults with unique ex­pe­ri­ences, ideas and abil­ity lev­els. If we hadn’t ul­ti­mately agreed to wait pa­tiently — and a mul­ti­tude of ideas came up, rang­ing from rea­son­able to risky — it could have been a recipe for folly. We didn’t for­mally vote or or­ga­nize a coun­cil, in­stead mak­ing de­ci­sions or­gan­i­cally, in­formed by our con­fi­dence in each other. Trust­ing each other also meant hav­ing faith in our sur­face sup­port, be­liev­ing that those above­ground would fig­ure out where we were and find a way to help. Your sur­vival is con­tin­gent on oth­ers — fel­low cavers and po­ten­tial res­cuers alike — and that means you’re con­fined by your en­tan­gle­ment with them, too.

In the end, a team of wel­come faces came to our aid as the wa­ters were receding: fel­low cavers, trained res­cue per­son­nel — both vol­un­teers and Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources work­ers. All were per­sonal friends I con­sider part of my beloved “cave fam­ily.” They brought us food, wa­ter, warm clothes and smiles. One later com­mented that when he reached our lit­tle hovel, the smell was fan­tas­ti­cally ter­ri­ble from all of us clus­tered to­gether for so long in our stinky cave gear. He said it was the best thing he had ever in­haled. We made the long trek out of the cave, all of us un­der our own power, but greatly buoyed by the res­cuers who es­corted us along the safest route, along the river, and as­sisted along the way. It took at least four hours of ex­hausted trekking, wad­ing, scram­bling and crawl­ing for all of us to exit. What greeted us on the sur­face, in ad­di­tion to re­lieved and ju­bi­lant fam­ily and friends: bright lights, med­i­cal per­son­nel, fried chicken, a wor­ried landowner and a very invit­ing camp­fire. It was sur­real. I wanted to cel­e­brate over beers with friends. I wanted to go home and sleep for­ever.

Time has passed, and I still main­tain an ac­tive cav­ing sched­ule with all of the fa­mil­iar faces — we shared an ex­pe­ri­ence and be­came stronger for it in many ways. I sincerely hope that the soc­cer team in Thai­land is res­cued soon. I can only be­gin to re­late to their ex­tended en­trap­ment, but I also feel a cer­tain kin­ship to­ward them. Like me and my cav­ing friends, they were drawn to the beauty of the un­der­ground and sim­ply wanted to ex­plore. Laura De­marest livesin south­ern In­di­ana, where she has been cav­ing for 19 years.

SAKCHAI LALIT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

THAM LUANG RES­CUE OP­ER­A­TION CEN­TER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A res­cuer, top, makes his way Wed­nes­day into the flooded Thai cave where 12 mem­bers of a boys soc­cer team, above, and their coach have been stranded for about two weeks. Get­ting them out will be a long, com­plex op­er­a­tion.

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