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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The tragic death of a 26-year-old caver in Utah on Thanksgiving confirmed my long-held feeling: Cavers are nuts. Of course, many cavers likely say the same thing about climbers. When I tried caving the first time last summer, I got a lesson in perspective and humility that gave me a lot more sympathy for people who are afraid of heights.

My own fear is claustrophobia. It's not a severe case, but it's bad enough. I first noticed it years ago during a big snowstorm in the Adirondacks, with three of us crammed into a two-man tent. As the walls pressed inward, I felt discomfort rising to panic, and I had to open the door to let fresh air wash over my face—and fresh snow fill the tent. My claustrophobia has gotten slightly worse over time, and now snow caves and squeeze chimneys may give me serious concern. Sometimes on a cold night, with my mummy bag zipped up tight, I'll wake and go into a panic, grasping for the zipper.

I wasn't a prime candidate for caving.

Yet I'd always wanted to try it. I loved the various tourist caves I'd visited—no problem for me in those vast chambers. And if it weren't for my claustrophobia, I knew I'd love caving: the climbing aspect, the feeling of exploration, the strange geologic forms. It was all me. And so when my wife and I visited friends in southwest England last summer, and they offered to take us into a famous local cave, I had to sign on.

People have been exploring Swildon's Hole for more than a century. It's the biggest known cave in the Mendip Hills. The rock inside is polished smooth from thousands of hands and boots, and the floor is clear of obstacles. Our host, a friend and local caver named Steve Cosh, had been inside Swildon's dozens of times. He used to lead youth groups through the cave (we borrowed our headlamps, helmets, wellington boots, and spiffy jumpsuits from his old boss). Swildon's has some serious caving, including many underwater passages, but we weren't going that far. How bad it could be?

Pretty freakin bad. Swildon's has a tiny hut atop its entrance, which is like a manhole with a short ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, the passage turns horizontal and narrows to the point where you have to squirm on your back or stomach. I was third in our party of five, and as soon as I got into the narrows, the old familiar panic began to rise. I squirmed back again, bumping into the feet of a friend, which only made it worse. I've got to get OUT! I shouted. Back on top, I told the others to go ahead. I might or might not follow.

After a moment, I decided to try again. Going last helped. I could still see a glimmer of daylight as I shimmied through that initial passage, and I rationalized that I could always escape, with no one to block my way, if things got bad. My wife and friends were just ahead, encouraging me to follow. The passage was wider now, and I could scurry along on my feet, ducking under the ceiling. But then it narrowed past crawling size again—mandatory belly or back scraping. It was only 10 or 15 feet, and I could hear Steve talking to me from the other side. "Once you're through this one, it gets bigger for quite some time," he said, as if talking to a 14-year-old from one of his hoods in the woods programs. "Just give it a try. If you don't like it, you can go back out."

I was ready to go back out. But I also really wanted to continue. I narrowed my focus to the wall beside me, to the rivulets of water on the limestone, the strange knobs and tendrils of rock. Slowly, I felt my breathing slow, the panicky feeling subside. I decided to go for it. I squirmed through to Steve, and he smiled and pointed the way ahead. "No way," I said. "You go first—I've got to be last in line.

We were underground nearly two hours, exploring Swildon's upper passages. We clambered up and down drop-offs and through streams running along the floor. We climbed down and then back up a eight-foot waterfall. We had to boulder up through a hole named the Toilet Bowl. It was fascinating and beautiful, and at times even fun. My claustrophobia never got too severe after the initial panics, but it was always there, just under the surface, ready to rear up and smother me. I was glad to have entered Swildon's, but I was also very glad to get out.

Walking back to the car, Chris, my wife, was hopping with enthusiasm. She had loved it, couldn't wait to go again. "You're on your own, honey," I told her. Once was enough for me.

At times, I've been known to grow impatient with gripped climbers or with friends who are spooked by heights on a mountain scramble. What is wrong with them? I'll think. But now that I've felt a little taste of what they must be feeling, I hope I remember it the next time I'm with an acrophobe. Neither claustrophia nor acrophobia is an irrational fear, after all. And, of the two, acrophobia has more power to preserve one's life. But caving still seems nuts to me. Get me back to the airy perils of cliffs and ice falls.

In the photo: Yup, that's me, smiling for the camera, but not because I'm enjoying myself. OK, maybe just a little.... Photo by Steve Cosh 


fellow claustrophobe said...

You're a brave man, Dougald. I have claustrophobia, too, and lived vicariously though your tale. Thanks for sharing, and glad that no irreparable damage was done.


James said...

Great reading!!! I feel the same way as you and could not go down in a cave without getting claustrophobia. Put me on a mountain any day! Great story!

Kim Graves said...

I went into a small cave as a child and turned off my light just to see what it was light. The complete darkness is something I'll never forget. Very scary.

Pamela said...

Nice story! Reminds me of something I wrote 11-12 years ago:

George said...

I'm more afraid of heights than closed spaces. But I have learned to control my fear of heights while climbing, and it is not nearly as bad as it once was.

Last summer I visited the "tactile dome" in San Francisco's Exploratorium, and found it surprisingly terrifying (maybe my mild claustrophobia is getting worse). It is pitch dark and you don't have any light, squirming around in passages of unknown size. Having no light at all made it much scarier for me, but my kids loved it. No way was my wife going near that dome!