Mapping An Unexplored Cave

cave
© Dr Michel Royon, Wikimedia Commons

Want to be an explorer? Want to see places nobody has ever seen? You have three options: become an astronaut, become a deep-sea diver or become a caver.

The first isn’t going to happen for a man my age and the second is expensive, so it’s a good thing I live in one of the best regions in the world to do the third. Cantabria in northern Spain has a large amount of karst, a type of stone that often has caves.

One of them is Luna Llena (“Full Moon”), which has yet to be fully mapped. In my fourth caving expedition in Spain I was part of a team that went to look for new passages. I was thrilled. Seeing unexplored parts of the subterranean world was one of the reasons I got into caving. I didn’t think the payoff would come so quickly.

Luna Llena is at the bottom of an abandoned galena mine from the 1920s. The miners were blasting with dynamite one day and opened up a hole into an unknown cave. It’s been regularly explored ever since but there are still many blank spots on its map.

The mineshaft slopes sharply down into the bedrock. Walking along an old narrow-gauge track past ore wagons and rusted equipment, we soon arrived at the cave. There were four of us, two experienced cavers who would be doing the bulk of the mapping, myself, and another relative newbie named Nacho. I quickly discovered that this would be the toughest cave I’d faced in any country.Karst often forms narrow, deep passageways, the product of underground streams cutting away the stone. These passageways can be five, ten, a hundred meters high. There’s no real floor, just a gradual narrowing until you reach water at the bottom. The only way to traverse these is a technique called “chimneying,” in which you straddle the passage with a hand and a foot on each wall. If it gets a bit too wide you press your feet against one wall and your back against the other. You keep tied into a rope running along the wall so you don’t risk falling into the abyss.

This workout led to a payoff – a low chamber filled with soda straws, thin little tubes hanging on the ceiling that eventually form stalactites. We had to crawl on our hands and knees below these beautiful formations for several minutes before getting to a place where we could stand up.

A little more exploring brought us to a long, high passageway. Several small tunnels led away from it, several blanks on the map. We picked one and crawled inside.

This is where it really got interesting. We were off the map in a place nobody had ever seen. Sadly I didn’t have my camera. My Instamatic died the previous week and I wasn’t going to risk my SLR in these conditions. Nacho brought his, but since he was behind me the only shots he got of me were of the bottom of my boots. The tunnel was too small for anything else.

It was almost too small for us to move. Crawling along in a military low crawl, the tops of our helmets scraping against the roof, we came to a spot where the tunnel pinched.

One of the more experienced cavers turned and looked at me.

“You sure you want to do this?” she asked. “Stop and think about it.”

“Of course I want to do it.”

“You’re not claustrophobic?” she asked.

“If I was claustrophobic I would have started freaking out ten meters ago.”

She shrugged and wormed her way into the tunnel. I gave her time to get through and then went in myself. The only way to enter this part was to have both arms stretched out ahead of me. Even then my shoulders barely made it through. I edged my way forward with my forearms and feet, the tunnel pressing in on all sides. Breathing became difficult. There wasn’t enough room to inhale fully, but I was exerting myself and needed the air. Every move was an effort. I wondered if I would make it through. I didn’t panic, though. My only worry was that Nacho was going to have to grab my boots and haul me out.

Any lingering doubt that I have claustrophobia was snuffed out when my headlamp suffered the same fate. An outcropping in the rock hit the power button and the tiny space I was in plunged into darkness.

It didn’t matter. I hadn’t been seeing anything but the rock an inch in front of my nose anyway. Continuing by feel, I made it to a slightly wider part of the tunnel where I could bend my arm and switch on my light. Ahead of me was an even tinier tunnel turning at an acute angle. The caver ahead of me called back.

“Come on through. It’s like a second birth!”

The birth canal I actually had to push off with my legs and force my body through. I exhaled, crushing my chest as flat as it could go. My head and arms emerged in a little cyst in which sat two of our team. Another push and my shoulders made it. A final effort to get the stomach through, swearing all the way to give up beer. I felt the cave walls pressing against my stomach and the small of my back and then I let out a tremendous fart. The cave literally squeezed it out of me.

Poor Nacho. He was right behind me and had nowhere to run. I hoped he didn’t asphyxiate. He was my ride.

We all gathered in the cyst, Nacho looking a bit green around the gills. During all this time our more experienced leaders had been mapping the passageway. Now we got a chance. This was basic mapping, with a compass, tape measure, and clinometer. It was meticulous work in cramped conditions, yet highly rewarding. All my life I’ve studied maps, especially old ones with their tempting blank spots marked Terra Incognita. And now here I was in Subterra Incognita.

I studied every fissure and formation, hoping to find another passage branching away form the one we were in. None were wide enough to push through. The tunnel soon turned back and rejoined one of the main mapped passageways. We’d mapped maybe a couple of hundred meters. In the annals of discovery this is a very minor footnote. I didn’t care. It made all the scrapes and bruises worth it.

So if you want to be an explorer, consider caving. It’s not as hard as you think. I’m 43 years old and only moderately fit. Chances are you can do what I do. If you live in the U.S., the best way to get into it is to join the National Speleological Society. With more than 10,000 members and about 250 local chapters (called “grottoes”), there’s probably a group near you.

10 Minutes Of Terror On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq, Samarra

I’m in Samarra, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the birthplace of the insurgency and a hotspot for sectarian tension in war-torn Iraq. My heart is racing and my mouth is dry. This is the most frightened I’ve been in months.

But I’m not scared of the Sunnis, I’m scared of plummeting to my death.

I’m climbing one of the famous spiral minarets of Samarra, a pair of towers with a narrow staircase snaking up the exterior. They were built in the ninth century. The taller one is 52 meters (171 feet) and the shorter one is 34 meters (112 feet). I’m on the shorter one. It doesn’t feel short to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a fear of heights, a phobia that years of rock climbing never cured. That doesn’t stop me from going up one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture, though. I’m a sucker for medieval buildings.

Up I go, step by step. They’re steep, a bit uneven, and they relentlessly narrow as they rise higher. You can see just how little room there was between me and the abyss in the above photo. That’s my foot at the lower right, and beyond the step you can see our bus, which comfortably seats 20 people.

The stairs are wide enough, I tell myself. I’ve climbed narrow spiral staircases hundreds of times and have never fallen off.

But there was no risk of death on those, a little voice tells me.

“Shut up,” I reply, and keep climbing.

%Gallery-170252%They tell me the muezzin who ascended this minaret five times a day to give to call to prayer was blind. He’d keep one hand on the wall and climb without seeing how high up he was. I can’t decide if that’s a good hiring decision or a bad one.

I keep both my hands gripped on the aging, crumbly brick. I’ve been climbing for what seems like hours. Surely I must almost be there?

“Go back!” someone shouts from below.

You’re kidding me, right?

“Go back, there’s no room!”

From around the corner comes another member of our group, a Norwegian sailor who has no fear of heights. When he sees me he stops.

“Go back,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pass you,” he replies.

“That’s a really bad idea. Go back.”

He comes close. I flatten myself on the wall as he reaches around me, grabs the edge of the brick, and eases past. You can see his brave/foolish move in the photo gallery, as well as the beautiful panorama that awaited me when, a few steps later, I reached the top.

It was worth the climb. Even more rewarding was that sharp-edged feeling I had the entire time going up and the adrenaline rush of the even more hazardous trip down. Colors and sounds were vivid, every step a crucial moment – every moment a lifetime of excitement.

Want to get high? Skip the drugs and grab your fear by the balls.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Sneak Peak At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum of Iraq!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Iraq, Samarra

Gadling + BootsnAll – Picks of the Week (5.29.09)

Gather round dear readers, it’s Friday and that means it’s time for our weekly roundup of links from our friends at BootsnAll. Think of it like a travel website “cage match:” hundreds of travel stories go into the ring, only five of the best come out alive. Got it? Then to the winner the spoils! Here’s what we found this week:

  • Calm Those Flying Fears – I have a secret confession. Despite the fact I write for a travel website, I’m quite a nervous flyer. The fact is, I doubt I’m alone in my fear. Thankfully our BootsnAll friend Katie Hammel is here to help, offering up some great tips on How to Control a Fear of Flying. I’m feeling more relieved already. You can too – check out Katie’s tips.
  • South of France Secrets – travelers have long been drawn to France’s beautiful southern regions, flocking by the planeful to hotspots like Cannes and Aix-en-Provence to experience the pastoral landscapes and wonderful climate. If you’ve ever wanted to visit, make sure to read Christine Cantera’s Seven Secrets About the South of France, offering some insider tips for this highly trafficked region.
  • Scenic European Driving – the image of the European railpass traveler, backpack over shoulder and Eurail in hand, has become such a cliche that it’s easy to forget Europe also has an extensive network of highways Have you ever considered renting a car and taking a scenic drive though mountainous valleys and coastal vistas? Christina Dima has the scoop on Nine of Europe’s Best Drives. Take a look before you buy that Eurail.
  • Use the Crisis: Volunteer! – there’s been much made in recent months of the current economic crisis. Many have lost their jobs and others are struggling just to get by. But instead of bemoaning our bad luck, what if we were to consider the crisis as a hidden opportunity to try something new? Alix Farr has Five Reasons why right now is the perfect opportunity to switch things up and volunteer abroad. Not only can it be personally rewarding, travel can offer surprising cost savings.
  • Amazing Iguazu – along the northern border of Argentina with its neighbor Brazil is one of the world’s great natural wonders, Iguazu Falls. Consisting of a system of over 200 different waterfalls, some rising over 200 feet in height, it’s a must see for any South American traveler. Keivin Lim recently put together a photo tour of the famous falls. Even if you can’t make it to South America any time soon, take a visit with your eyes through his great photo roundup.

This marks the end of yet another week of Gadling + BootsnAll Picks of the Week. Hungry for more travel picks? Check back next Friday for another round of links.

Are you aviophobic?

“You know the only reason we are told to wear seatbelts on a plane, is so that if the plane crashes, they can identify you later from your seat number.”

Yes, my friend has aviophobia — or the fear of flying — and enjoys freaking people out with random snippets like this.

It’s not hard to be paranoid hearing something like that before you get onto a plane; or think the worst when you experience turbulence over an extended period of time.

The two main fears of flying are 1) the plane will crash/explode/get hijacked; 2) to lose of self-control on a flight e.g. panic-attack or claustrophobia.

If you do have symptoms of aviophobia, it might make you feel better that you are far from alone. Approximately every 1 in 8 people are afraid of flying (a high percentage of which are high-powered executives), and approximately 6-million flights are not taken annually because of the same. This explains why the number of courses and programs you can take to overcome this fear is on the increase.

Should you have aviophobia, Flights Without Fear, Fearless Flights and Anxieties are some good places to start your research into getting help. Happy flying!