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.
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.
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
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
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?”
“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?”
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.
Storie (far right) at Double Trouble on a later expedition.
Andrew Munoz (left) and Storie continue to explore area caves together.