DRAMA: CAVERS IN PERIL

SIX AD­VEN­TURE-SEEK­ING BUD­DIES SET OFF FOR A DAY OF CAV­ING. BY NIGHT­FALL, ONLY FOUR OF THEM HAD EMERGED FROM THE DEEP.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY LISA FIT­TER­MAN

The rain comes down steady and hard. Ja­son Sto­rie hears it but isn’t wor­ried as he pre­pares for a day of cav­ing with five friends. They’re headed to a re­mote spot 130 kilo­me­tres north­west of Sto­rie’s home in Dun­can, B.C., on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

The 43-year-old is dressed for the wet weather—and for un­pre­dictable tem­per­a­tures: a T-shirt, two sweat­shirts, a pair of over­alls, neo­prene socks, a wa­ter-re­sis­tant jacket and rub­ber boots. Un­der his arm, he car­ries his new hel­met and head­lamp.

“Sleep in,” he whis­pers, bend­ing down to kiss his wife, Caro­line.

“Be care­ful,” she says.

“Al­ways.”

IT’S 6 A.M. ON DE­CEM­BER 5, 2015. A new­comer to the sport, Sto­rie has gone cav­ing only four times. This will be his tough­est out­ing yet: a spot called Cas­cade. It’s dan­ger­ous enough that a locked metal door blocks the en­try to keep out ca­sual spelunkers. The key can be ob­tained only af­ter ev­ery­one in the cav­ing party signs a waiver. At al­most two kilo­me­tres long and about 103 me­tres deep, Cas­cade is full of in­cred­i­bly tight turns and squeezes—a claus­tro­phobe’s night­mare.

Sto­rie is the out­lier among the group, pos­sess­ing the least ex­pe­ri­ence and older by a decade or more. A stocky fa­ther of two young chil­dren, he’s an en­tre­pre­neur, the owner of a win­dow-wash­ing com­pany. It was his friend An­drew Munoz, 33, who in­tro­duced him to the sport. Un­like Sto­rie, Munoz is an ex­pert caver—a for­mer guide, ac­tu­ally—and a wiry para­medic who would know what to do if some­thing were to go wrong.

Munoz, Sto­rie and two more friends—Adam Shep­herd, also a para­medic, and Zac Zorisky, a chef and vol­un­teer fire­fighter—drive through the heavy rain to the park­ing lot of a log-cabin candy store in Port Al­berni, where they get the key to that metal door. There, they meet up with Matt Wat­son and Arthur Tay­lor, both com­puter pro­gram­mers.

The six men drive up an un­marked trail for a kilo­me­tre or so be­fore park­ing in a clear­ing to take in­ven­tory.

Ropes, har­nesses and cara­bin­ers? Check. They’ve also packed two bags that con­tain a small gas-fu­elled Jet­boil stove, food, wa­ter, a first aid kit and a My­lar “space” blan­ket that re­sem­bles alu­minum foil.

They hike for a while be­fore com­ing to the door, which sits in the ground— you’d miss it if you weren’t look­ing for it. It’s 10 a.m. They pull it open and climb nine me­tres down an alu­minum lad­der into the dark­ness, each of them an­chored with cara­bin­ers to a rope. The last one in locks the door be­hind him and ties the key to the bot­tom of the lad­der. It’s damp and chilly, about 5 C. With their way il­lu­mi­nated by

head­lamps, they walk down a nar­row pas­sage stud­ded with jagged boul­ders. The si­lence is bro­ken by a drip-drip­drip from above. Soon the drip turns into a light but steady flow, and the men are wad­ing in wa­ter up to their an­kles, then to their shins.

“Ev­ery­one okay?” Munoz, the de facto leader of the group, calls out.

“Yeah,” come the replies. ABOUT 45 MIN­UTES IN, SHEP­HERD an­nounces he can’t go any fur­ther; his back, in­jured a few weeks ear­lier, is twing­ing. Wat­son es­corts him to the en­trance to let him out, then closes and locks it again be­fore re­join­ing his four wait­ing friends.

For the next 90 min­utes, they’re ex­plor­ers, tak­ing their time as they crawl, stride and slide through the cave’s two very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments: ei­ther pipelike pas­sages barely big enough to fit a grown man or ex­pan­sive cham­bers like the nave of a church. Wher­ever they go, they try to stay within 30 me­tres from the first per­son to the last, con­gre­gat­ing in the open spa­ces be­tween the more chal­leng­ing crawls and climbs.

Sto­rie is in awe of his sur­round­ings. Munoz had once told him, “There are over 1,000 caves and tun­nels on Van­cou­ver Is­land, and one is never the same as an­other.”

Soon they ap­proach one of the fea­tures that make Cas­cade unique: a nar­row pas­sage not big enough to stand up in that leads into a short, tight down­hill. Four streams meet here at so-called Bas­tard’s Crawl, and the wa­ter is flow­ing more quickly.

“Crab walk!” Munoz calls.

Once they emerge from the crawl, the men ap­proach the top of a wa­ter­fall called Dou­ble Trou­ble, where a jut­ting rock splits the stream in two. They set up their ropes to rap­pel down maybe 15 me­tres. Gloved hands claw for lever­age on slip­pery ledges. The wa­ter gushes on ei­ther side of the rock for­ma­tion, land­ing at the bot­tom in a spray of bub­bles.

As Sto­rie de­scends, his heart ham­mers in his chest. You wanted a chal­lenge, he thinks. You got it.

JA­SON STO­RIE’S HEART HAM­MERS IN

HIS CHEST.

YOU WANTED A

CHAL­LENGE, HE THINKS. YOU GOT IT.

A FEW MIN­UTES BE­YOND DOU­BLE Trou­ble, the men stop for a quick bite. It’s just be­fore 1 p.m. and they’ve been in the cave for three hours. Munoz fires up the Jet­boil stove to make stew with rice. Af­ter their quick lunch, the five head out again, slid­ing and crawl­ing their way down to­ward the cave’s end,

less than half a kilo­me­tre away. But they’ve ad­vanced less than 100 me­tres when Zorisky be­gins shiv­er­ing vi­o­lently. Although the tem­per­a­ture hasn’t changed, the cold in­side a cave can hit a per­son un­ex­pect­edly. The friends de­cide to turn back to­gether.

They start to re­trace their route. First Wat­son goes, then Tay­lor, then Sto­rie, Zorisky and Munoz. The sound of rush­ing wa­ter grows louder. There is more mud than there was a few hours ear­lier, and it sticks heav­ily to their boots. Plus, they are now climb­ing up, which is tak­ing much longer than the des­cent had.

As it nears 2:15 p.m., the cavers ap­proach Dou­ble Trou­ble. The sound of the wa­ter has turned into a roar. What had be­fore been a gush­ing but man­age­able flow is now a churn­ing, an­gry white froth. How could this hap­pen so quickly? Sto­rie won­ders. Is it runoff from the rain?

Wat­son hooks the rope left at­tached at the top of Dou­ble Trou­ble to his har­ness and starts haul­ing him­self up. The jour­ney it­self isn’t long, but it’s tough: hoist­ing one leg to find a tiny, wet shelf in the rock wall, then a gloved hand, then the other leg. Once he has climbed to the top, he throws the rope down and Tay­lor fol­lows suit, then Sto­rie. At the top, Sto­rie gets on his stom­ach to pull him­self along Bas­tard’s Crawl. The gla­cial wa­ter, deeper than be­fore, smashes into his face as he pow­ers up the in­cline.

Fi­nally emerg­ing through the open­ing and into the next tight pas­sage, he pauses, puz­zled: there’s a split. He can’t see the two cavers ahead of him and is ner­vous about wait­ing at the top be­cause there is only room there for one per­son at a time. I’ll go back down and ask, he de­cides.

Sto­rie crab walks a few me­tres, but then the wa­ter sud­denly sweeps him onto his back, sub­merg­ing him. He feels the pres­sure of more wa­ter build­ing up be­hind him. If he doesn’t get out of the crawl fast, the surge of wa­ter will pop him out like a cham­pagne cork, over Dou­ble Trou­ble and onto the rocks be­low. But he can’t move—his boot is stuck be­tween two rock shelves.

Ly­ing on his back with the wa­ter rush­ing over him, he tries call­ing for help, but in­stead gasps for air. It has been about five min­utes, but it feels like for­ever. Im­ages of his fam­ily flash be­fore him: Caro­line, his beloved wife of 16 years who had warned him to be

IF STO­RIE

CAN’T GET OUT FAST,

THE SURGE OF WA­TER WILL POP HIM

OUT LIKE A CHAM­PAGNE CORK.

care­ful; Jack, five, who loves air­planes; and three-year-old Poppy, his princess.

Zorisky, hav­ing fol­lowed Sto­rie up, is now atop Dou­ble Trou­ble. He shouts down to Munoz, “Ja­son’s in trou­ble!”

Munoz clam­bers up be­hind Zorisky and goes to the bot­tom of the crawl. “Head up, Jase,” he yells. He can barely see his friend’s face through all the wa­ter. Sto­rie is less than a me­tre away, but he’s in such a tight space, Munoz can’t eas­ily pull him out. “Keep on com­ing, dude. To­ward me! Head up!” Sto­rie is flail­ing.

“Place your feet against me! Lift your butt up and float. C’mon, Jase!”

Sto­rie’s gloved hands emerge from the wa­ter, then his wet face. He is gulp­ing air as if he has hic­cups. “My leg’s caught.” Sto­rie doesn’t rec­og­nize his own voice be­cause it comes out slurred, as if he’d suf­fered a stroke. He tries to dis­lodge his boot. It won’t budge.

“It’s okay, dude,” Munoz says, reach­ing into the rush­ing wa­ter and fish­ing around for the boot. He grasps some­thing solid. “Is this it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, we got our­selves in a jam. Okay, we’ll do this to­gether.”

TWENTY MIN­UTES AF­TER GET­TING stuck, a be­wil­dered Sto­rie emerges from Bas­tard’s Crawl pant­ing, wet through and with his eyes shut tight. Munoz set­tles him on a nar­row ledge cen­time­tres above the wa­ter.

“You’re okay,” Munoz says, grasp­ing his shoul­ders. “Zac, stay with Ja­son while I get the sup­ply bags up ahead.”

It takes him about 15 min­utes. On his re­turn, Munoz tells Zorisky the wa­ter is still ris­ing, so he should join Wat­son and Tay­lor just be­yond Bas­tard’s Crawl. “I have to get Ja­son warmed up be­fore we try to get out,” he says. “If we don’t catch up to you in 30 min­utes, no­tify Search and Res­cue.”

Munoz is wor­ried that Sto­rie is turn­ing hy­pother­mic, so cold that he’s stopped shiv­er­ing. Munoz wraps his friend in the My­lar blan­ket and fires up the Jet­boil. He warms Sto­rie by pour­ing hot wa­ter down the front of his clothes. As he does, Ja­son’s colour starts re­turn­ing to nor­mal.

“Wel­come back, buddy. Do you feel ready to get out of here?”

With an hour hike to the en­trance, they start to climb, bat­tling the rush of wa­ter. It’s also fight­ing them, crush­ing and push­ing the men back. When they fi­nally near the top of the crawl, there are barely 10 cen­time­tres of air left be­tween the wa­ter and the cave’s ceil­ing, not enough for them to keep their heads up­right to breathe.

“It’s too high!” Munoz calls. “Turn back!”

Sto­rie catches sight of a ledge; although the wall is at an awk­ward 45-de­gree an­gle, there is room for the two of them. Munoz perches in front of Sto­rie to take the brunt of the spray, his legs un­com­fort­ably braced against a ledge on the other side of the wa­ter­fall.

The wa­ter keeps ris­ing, al­most to the ledge. It is 6 p.m. They are about 60 me­tres un­der­ground. Zorisky left them three hours ago. The two friends hud­dle to­gether un­der the blan­ket. The Jet­boil is out of fuel.

“If we don’t get out of here, our wives will kill us,” Sto­rie pro­claims drily.

CON­SERV­ING THE BAT­TER­IES IN their head­lamps, the men sit mostly in the dark, help­ing them for­get— al­most—what a tight space they are in.

Sto­rie forces his breath­ing to slow down. He thinks about his fam­ily and won­ders how much life in­sur­ance cov­er­age he has.

Munoz silently re­cites a mantra based on a pas­sage from the novel Dune: fear is the mind killer. Fear is the lit­tle black death that brings to­tal obliv­ion. I will let the fear pass through

me, and when the fear is gone, only I will re­main.

There is no sign of res­cuers. Did the other three even make it out? Maybe they’re ly­ing on the other side of Bas­tard’s Crawl, blocked by wa­ter and in­jured. Or dead.

What the two men don’t know is that their friends did make it out. They called for help, and at around 9 p.m., mem­bers of the Ground and Cave Search and Res­cue squads ar­rived on the scene and en­tered the cave. But the level of the wa­ter, and its fe­roc­ity, forced them to re­treat. They would have to try again later.

THE HOURS PASS. STO­RIE AND Munoz don’t dare move for fear of slip­ping. They doze off, then jerk them­selves awake. They check in with each other ev­ery 20 min­utes or so. “You still with me?” Munoz asks. “Yup. You still good?”

“Yup.”

Ev­ery once in a while, one of them turns on his head­lamp to scan the wa­ter level.

Around 5 a.m., it seems to fi­nally be re­ced­ing.

“Let’s just wait for a bit and see,” Munoz says.

An hour later, the wa­ter level has gone down enough that they can keep their heads above wa­ter and try an es­cape. Stiff from sit­ting in one po­si­tion for 12 hours, they slowly un­fold their bod­ies. Sto­rie screams in pain. He has strained a mus­cle in his groin— but it will not stop him.

Mov­ing through Bas­tard’s Crawl on all fours, noth­ing mat­ters but sur­vival. Still, each time Sto­rie moves a leg, he cries out. “You can do this,” Munoz in­sists. Then they are through.

Over the next 90 min­utes, they make their way to­ward the en­trance, at times in chest-high wa­ter. Now, in a pas­sage high enough for them to walk up­right, Sto­rie sees a flicker in the dis­tance.

“Lights!” Sto­rie plows ahead. Soon they hear voices.

“Hey,” the two friends call out. “We’re here!”

“An­drew? Ja­son?” It’s a mem­ber of the res­cue team.

For the first time since en­ter­ing the cave, over 20 hours ear­lier, Sto­rie’s emo­tions get to him and tears roll down his cheeks. “We made it.”

KEEP ON KEEP­ING ON Don’t think about your er­rors or fail­ures,

oth­er­wise you’ll never do a thing.

BILL MUR­RAY

Sto­rie (far right) at Dou­ble Trou­ble on a later ex­pe­di­tion.

An­drew Munoz (left) and Sto­rie con­tinue to ex­plore area caves to­gether.

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