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

Coping with a fear of flying: the secret rituals of aviophobics

fear of flyingMy name is Laurel, and I have aviophobia. I, like millions of Americans, am scared shitless of flying. Aviophobia can manifest for a variety of reasons: a traumatic experience on a previous flight; claustrophobia; fear of heights; fear of loss of control (ding, ding, ding!), even a fear of motion sickness. After years of researching the subject, I’ve learned that I fit the classic profile of an aviophobic: female, with sudden onset in my early twenties.

In my situation, there was nothing to precipitate my phobia; I actually loved to fly as a kid. But over a period of 10 years, it progressed until I was not only having anxiety attacks on flights, but suffering frequent nightmares about crashes in the weeks before a trip, no matter how anticipated. The final straw came when, in December of 1999, I was about to embark on a five-week solo backpacking trip of Southeast Asia. It was days before my departure, and I was so terrified by the thought of 21 hours in the air, I was ready to bail on the entire thing.

Fortunately, I got a grip, called my doctor, and explained the situation. He immediately wrote me a prescription for Xanax and my life as a traveler has been the better for it ever since. Why it took me so long is a mystery, but Xanax quells (but not eliminates) my anxiety and enables me to fall into slumber that renders me drooling and pleasantly out of it during flight, but alert enough to awaken should it be necessary.

I know Xanax is a crutch, and that’s okay. I’m not advocating taking drugs to solve all of one’s problems, but in this instance, it’s what worked for me after other methods (including therapy) failed. I know people who no longer fly because of their phobia, and to me, that’s sad. The world becomes a smaller place–literally and figuratively–when you let fear control you.

I still don’t enjoy flying, although my phobia has lessened. There are even the rare flights where I don’t take Xanax. But there’s one thing I must always do before departure that’s far more important than popping a pharmaceutical. I must perform My Ritual.

[Photo credit: Flickr user runningclouds]

fear of flyingEvery aviophobic I’ve talked to (for some reason, most of my friends suffer from it) has a secret mantra they utter, or small ceremony they perform before flight that, in their minds, assures them the Gods of Aviation or whoever will ensure safe passage.

Admittedly, most of my friends are depraved lushes who drink themselves senseless before they fly (another used to rely upon “bong hits,”) but that’s not what I’m referring to. And, for the record, I strongly recommend you not get hammered before departure, especially if you’re taking sleeping pills or other prescription drugs related to your flight. I also recommend you see your doctor and get a prescription, rather than take meds or sleep aids from friends or purchase them in a foreign pharmacy.

For those of you who grapple with a fear of flying, I know you have your little pre-flight ritual. Whenever I board an aircraft I have to touch the outside of the plane with my right hand, and utter a specific phrase to myself. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to doom my next flight.

I asked my fellow Gadling contributors, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, and flight-phobic friends what they do for solace before taking to the skies, and they were very forthcoming. Touching the outside of the plane while boarding was by far the most common response. What a bunch of freaks.

Rebecca Dolan: “I won’t fly without a St. Christopher medal.”
fear of flying
Laurel’s friend L: “Despite not being religious, the act of saying the words to the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer before take-off is just something I have to do. I also can’t step on any metal on the jetway. This means I have to take a big, stretched-out step while boarding the plane.”

Annemarie Dooling: “This is all the Catholic school that was beaten into me as a child: I pray the rosary. I recite the Hail Mary and Our Father on succession; this way if I die, I’ll go to heaven, right? Right?”

Melanie Renzulli: “When I lived in India, I got into this habit of praying to Ganesha when taking off. Now I do a quick little prayer to Buddha, Ganesha, Allah, and Jesus just to cover most of my bases. Cheesy, I know. I mentioned this to a flying enthusiast friend of mine and he said, “I pray to the gods of certification, engineering, manufacturing, and most importantly physics.”

Laurel’s friend J: “I have no rituals except vigilance. Every time I try to nod off, that’s when the Captain comes on to tell us we’ve blown a tire, or that little dip was one of the engines going out, or we’re about to encounter some strong turbulence and the attendants had better strap in….so no distractions for me, just watching and waiting.” [I should add that this particular friend--a strapping fellow--has endured two emergency landings, so I applaud him for flying at all].

Kyle Ellison: “My wife has to take Xanax, pee twice, and snap her hand with a rubber band to calm down. Why? Who knows. I always touch the side of the aircraft with my right palm when walking through the front door. Done it since I was five.”

Laurel’s friend A: Her ritual is taking the train.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user Keturah Stickann; rosary, Flickr user miqui]

Deepak Chopra on How to Overcome Fear of Flying