Remember the Thai soccer team that got stranded in a cave with rising water, and a global effort was required to rescue them? That story felt a little personal to me. I had a cave experience once that clued me to how fast and unexpectedly you can get in trouble, in a cave.
Back in, maybe, 1977 or ’78, I was caving with a friend in Tennessee. We went down a long, twisting incline, walked around the perimeter of a subterranean lake, and crawled through a low horizontal passage. Its ceiling was so low we had to take our packs off and pull them behind us.
The horizontal passage opened into a chamber with a vertical wall. Which we scaled, and found a labyrinth of delightful new passages we’d never found before. These we explored for a couple hours (seeing only a small part of them), and returned to climb back down the vertical wall.
Which we did, and setting a foot down onto the level of the horizontal passage, felt… water.
The passage, maybe fifty feet long, had about four inches of water in it.
Outside, it had begun to rain. We could hear water pouring down the incline leading to the lake. Shining a light down the horizontal passage, we could see small waves coming toward us. The water was rising.
We could have climbed the wall and stayed in the high part of the cave for an undetermined period of time. Days? Longer?
How fast can you crawl? My answer to that right now would be “not very fast and not very far”. But when I was twenty? A lot faster, and a lot farther.
We race-crawled through the water in the passage to the lake. The walkway we had taken around the lake was now submerged. The incline had become a creek, feeding the lake.
Fortunately the water was very clear, so we could shine our lights through it and see the walkway. Then we climbed the incline back to the surface. When we emerged the rain was tapering off. It had been a brief event.
I have another story to tell of that cave, sometime. And others near it.
- By the way, what a moving, amazing story the Thai cave rescue was. When I look at the hate and fear in a world bristling with pointless weapons, I wish we could all grasp the common fate of humanity and pull together for each other and the future like this.
- Sadly, one of the rescuers just succumbed to an infection he contracted during the rescue one year ago.
- In the excellent NOVA documentary, Elon Musk’s goofy plan to deliver an aluminum submarine for rescue got exactly the amount of attention it deserved.