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Mammoth Cave National Park campground was busy, but thankfully not crowded. Kids ran around and shouted gleefully on bikes and scooters and adults sat back in camp chairs swigging beer. I curled up in my hammock and fretted over the next day - whether McCrae and I would be accepted on the wild cave tour or if we’d make it through all the obstacles without getting stuck and (for my part) without having a mental freak-out. There was little information online about the Mammoth Cave Wild Cave tour, a major spelunking trip lasting 6 hours and covering 5 miles underground through some truly wild and rugged paths. I had discovered the tour back in March when I was looking into a spring break trip to Mammoth Cave, and this little excerpt sold me on the specific tour:
However, the earliest tour availability was the end of June, so I made the rare decision to plan a trip well in advance. Well, “plan” as in sign up for the tour at least. (I waited to sign up for campsites and bed and breakfasts and similar necessities until a couple weeks before the actual trip of course.)
But the website for the tour didn’t provide much more detail. There’s a warning against White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that has been wiping out bat populations, that says caving gear will be provided. There were some requirements for sturdy, over-the-ankle boots (to keep you from breaking an ankle in the cave and needing to be carried out). And there was the requirement that chest or hip measurements greater than 42 inches won’t be allowed since you can’t fit through some of the obstacles.
And that’s it in terms of description and information. A paragraph of teaser for some underground excitement, and then a bunch of warnings to scare everyone else off. At the time of sign-up I was stoked, but in the days preceding the tour I worked up my nerves, especially as I tried to find more information on the tour on blogs or TripAdvisor (never a good idea) and only succeeded in freaking myself out about the heights and the tight spots and the totally subjective requirements about my boots, and the fact that McCrae and I were definitely over 42 inches in a couple spots.
I woke up the next morning bright and early partly because of nerves and partly because it was central time (another “I’ve never felt so great at 8am!” experience because of the time difference). We got to the visitor’s center 30 minutes early and I went to the information kiosk to get, well, some information (like what kind of lunch should we bring? How much water? Can we bring anything else, like a camera or GoPro? I had no clue).
“Hi,” I said to the smiling older lady in National Park Service uniform. “I signed up for the wild cave tour, so I just wanted to get a little more information on it than what was on the website.”
“Oh! The wild cave tour? Oh no, I don’t do that, I can’t help you there. Oh no, the closest I’ve ever come to that is the little kid’s tour, but that’s nothing like the wild cave tour. And I don’t see any rangers who do that tour right now who can help, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, okay,” I said a little dejected and not at all reassured about what I might have signed up for.
McCrae and I meandered around the visitor’s center for a few minutes looking at guides and t-shirts for the cave and the NPS centennial (#NPS100 #FindYourPark). We found a nervous-looking couple in ankle high boots - obvious in the crowd of flip flops and cheap sneakers. We chatted them up and sure enough, wild cave tour, from Michigan, engaged, with an organic small-scale orchard (cool!), and the tour as a late Father’s Day gift.
When two rangers arrived at the information kiosk in full caving gear I felt slightly reassured. One was a burly guy - shorter than McCrae but just as broad - so I assumed we would be in good shape to get through the obstacles. They didn’t offer much more information except to meet outside, don’t bring any camera you’re fond of, and they would inspect our shoes. McCrae’s and my shoes passed with flying colors and next they loaded us onto a bus - straight from middle school with the brown vinyl seats and zero leg room (our first obstacle of the day) - to a dormitory style building where they eyed us up for cave gear sizes: coveralls, gloves, bandanas, caving bag, and helmets with headlamps. I have a tiny head and was given a bright orange child’s helmet. In the troupe of identical-looking members in the same grey coveralls, gloves, and grey helmets I bobbed along in my little orange child’s helmet - always the black sheep in the crowd.
We were loaded onto the bus again and taken to an entrance with little ado - a simple pavilion, a handrail and concrete path, and a heavy metal door into the deep. And from there we descended while I hummed to myself, “the ants go marching one by one…”
For the longest time it was just concrete stairs and handrails down down down - past the sound of dripping water, past rock slime, past long-legged and long-antennaed crickets, down down down. I didn’t look back to see the light of Earth aboveground receding until we had gone through so many bends and twists that all there was and all there ever could be was the cave and the little spots of light from each of our headlamps.
Our guides Jim and Chris were laid-back as they gave us the 101 - welcome to the cave, info on the cave and history, and good caving techniques like how vital it is to communicate and work together. “Caving,” Chris said, “is a group activity.” He went on about how important it is to always have sight of the partner in front of you and to call out if you drop behind. He also stressed how we should help each other through obstacles and asked for a volunteer to be “caboose” to make sure we always had everyone accounted for before moving on.
After that we started our first crawl - some easier tunnels that just required hands and knees to get through. Easy enough, and I handled the confined space better than expected. It didn’t actually bother me to crawl through tunnels, so I easily loped along, hands and knees, hands and knees. I knew though that these first obstacles were just a test - a way for the guides to determine how fast we were and how well we’d handle being in the cave and if anyone was in over their head.
The cave is a funny place. You have no idea how you’ll react to it until you’re in there. Are you claustrophobic and can’t handle the tight spaces - tight! Very tight! Are you just going to get down there and realize the weight of the world is literally resting above your shoulders? Tons and tons of rock, hundreds and hundreds of feet of limestone and sandstone above you, not to mention all those trees, buildings, people, and roads on the surface. Will you panic? Or how about the narrow tunnels and the fact that at any moment the place you’re standing or sitting or crawling may be buried under rubble, maybe from some miniscule shift in the rock or maybe from some innocuous drip drip drip of ever so slightly acidic water through the calcium-based limestone layer? Will you hyperventilate? Will you panic? Will you yearn for the surface? Will you wheeze through the gritty cave dust - the caves are so dirty! - and wish you’d never descended? You never know until you’re down there.
On that very first crawl - single-file, down and around some neat, gentle corkscrew formations - McCrae checked behind him and didn’t see a light, so he called ahead, “Hold up! I can’t see anyone behind me!”
“Bless your heart for checking,” the guide said, only slightly facetious and annoyed and worried that we had already lost half the team. The hold up, it turned out, was a middle-aged woman who wheezed and panted as she finally caught up. She was trying hard but her panic was evident. Sympathetically we all crawled from the tunnel into a space maybe four feet high where we could all comfortably sit and we regrouped. The woman, the whites of her eyes glowing in our headlamps and her shallow breaths fogging in the cool air, was relieved when one of the guides said he could take her on a roundabout way to an elevator where she could return to the surface. She happily agreed and our party was one fewer.
Next though was our first obstacle and one of the reasons they tell you the size limit is 42 inches. It’s called “Split Rock” - an s-shaped hole created from two rocks that requires belly crawling through a tunnel and then slithering up with toes and elbows through the tiny space. Most of the group passed through fine, all of them being rather lithe. For me it was a tight squeeze and it took me a tiny bit longer to wriggle through. It takes a certain kind of determination to force yourself through a hole where the rock just seems to squeeze at your ribs and hips like a clenching fist. Pass the Vaseline, please, but with a little help from a fellow caver’s boot (they wouldn’t let them put a hand down to help pull me up for safety reasons, but they were allowed to put a foot down to give me something to hold onto), I finally made it up and out.
What a rush! I ran my hands over my head, arms, and legs just to reassure myself I was in one piece while the next person appeared, crown of the helmet first and then slowly inching forward, gasping into the open space.
We repeated our wriggling with another crawl through an obstacle called “Bare Hole” - aptly named because, one guide said, back before they provided caving gear people used to do the tour in whatever clothes they had and one time a guy’s pants got caught in the obstacle and when he came out the other side he was as bare as a baby.
Who knows if it’s true though? The guides seemed to enjoy pulling our legs. And in the shadows of the cave you just might be inclined to believe anything.
The guides seemed to have no set route in mind after the first few obstacles, relying instead on the group’s behavior and their good judgment to determine the best route for the individuals on the tour.
“So should we do the ‘Birth Canal’ or should we -”
“Shh, no, don’t tell them that name.”
The guides conversed together as the last few people pushed their way through Bare Hole.
“I think we can do the other one.”
“Okay. Just don’t tell them the name.”
“Okay, everyone!” Jim announced to the entire group as we resisted brushing off dust from our clothes and into a cloud of lung-killing grit. “We had a couple options on where to take you next. So far you’ve made it through Split Rock and Bare Hole and a couple crawls. Since you all have been through one birth canal already in your life then we won’t send you through one again. Instead we’ll take you to this next one.”
We walked about a quarter mile down a wide, tall cave - a long cavern with a neat trail and box lights that our guides didn’t switch on and old landline telephones for emergency calls to the surface. It was a section our guides called “the tourist trail” - a place for flip flops and sneakers and jeans shorts along wide, safe trails. But we didn’t stay on the tourist trail for long; Jim and Chris pointed us to a turn-off that was really just a hole at the base of the cavern.
“So when you go down there you’ll see a pit on your right that you’ll want to avoid, so make sure you crawl to the left. Then 50 yards ahead you’ll see an even bigger pit to your left, so you’ll want to crawl to the right. Be really careful down there because you don’t want to go left when you should go right, and you don’t want to go right when you should go left and end up in a really deep pit.”
We all stared at him wide-eyed, but we were still willing to give it a try.
“Okay. So just remember keep to the right first, and then left.”
“No, no, you said left first, then right,” the other guide corrected him. Our eyes went wider. Do these guys even know what they’re talking about?! But even so we approached the obstacle entrance and were about to crawl in before one of the guides stopped us and said, “Oh, we’re just joking. It’s a straight shot, but it’s about a 600 foot crawl or so. Just go down and go straight until you pop out the other side and we’ll see you there. There is a world record of doing this in a minute and eleven seconds, so see if you all can break that.”
Who knows if they were pulling our leg again, but with that the first person ducked into the hole and started crawling and we all followed.
This was the only crawl where I started to feel the creep of claustrophobia. Down there in the crawling tunnel that seemed like it would never end I felt the tiniest bit of panic well up, more from tiredness and not being able to see the exit than anything else, but it was bubbling nonetheless. How do you control that rising bubble, that quiet voice in your mind that echoes in the smallest spaces until it’s a din? Only by stopping - thank the invisible and long-forgotten heavens above that the guy ahead of me paused to catch his breath - could I tap into that zen place in my brain that I had been storing up with careful meditation the week prior in anticipation of such a need. I acknowledged my feelings, listened to my body’s needs, took a few deep inhales - gritty from all the cave dirt - let my mind clear, release, relax, and I continued on.
Only when we all finally emerged (“More than eight minutes for everyone, sorry, no world record today”) did they tell us the name of the obstacle: Hell Hole.
“It’s actually just one of three ‘Hell Holes’ in this cave system. You’ll notice we did not go on the crawl with you because you only need to go through Hell once,” Chris smirked in his heavy western Kentucky accent.
We did some easier crawling then, and one last obstacle before lunch.
“This is called ‘No Name,’” Jim said, “Because the only words you say coming out of it are words we’re not allowed to repeat.” This obstacle as it turns out is truly only 9 inches high, and required quite a bit of squeezing and belly-crawling to get through, and at one point you have to pick a direction to point your head because in the helmet you can’t move your head around once you’ve committed to your route.
And then, suddenly, we were free, we were out, it was lunchtime, and we entered “Snowball dining hall” so named for the snowy-like balls of gypsum that dot the ceiling. We all sat at picnic tables and munched on our (smushed, warm, grimy) lunches while Jim and Chris told stories about their caving adventures in exotic places like Utah (where Jim is from) or even some of Chris’s expeditions in jungles along the Pacific Rim.
“We’re not doing any more crawls this afternoon,” Jim said as we pulled on gloves and helmets again, “but we will do things like canyon walking and things that involve heights. We’re going to go deep into the cave and there are no bail-out options once we’re down there, so if you have any reservations now’s your chance to speak up and we’ll gladly escort you to the surface.” No one spoke up, even though I had plenty of reservations about anything that involved heights. But I wasn’t about to back out before I’d even seen what was ahead, so on I went, keeping close to Chris who talked about the cave as we entered passageways that became narrower and narrower.
“Here,” Chris said, “is Rose’s Pass. If you’re ever looking at a map of the cave you’ll see this marked, and beyond it is an arrow marked ‘WC.’ ‘WC’ stands for ‘wild cave’ and that’s where we’re heading. You won’t see any tourist trails down here. This section is truly wild. Last chance to turn back is now.” Silence. “Okay. Nobody? Alright then, off we go!” And so we left the unilluminated boxes of spotlights, the wide and neat tourist paths, the last of the box telephones, and pressed into the deep.
That afternoon really was impressive. We saw massive domes and cathedral rooms. “Even on the ‘Domes and Dripstones’ tour you don’t see anything like this,” Chris assured us as we gawked up at ceilings so high - hundreds of feet tall - that our little spotlights from our headlamps disappeared into the dark. Chris had an extremely powerful headlamp and he turned it on bright for us to see the highest heights. Jim climbed up a bit of rock face and let out a blood-curdling “YEE-HAW-HAW-HAWWW!” that echoed so loudly in the cathedral room it hurt my ears. The whole cavern shook with the noise and I wondered that the rocks didn’t collapse with the vibration. Next Jim picked up an old rusted horseshoe - probably hundreds of years old - and with the horseshoe Jim began to tap, tap, tap on hollow columns of rock that reverberated like some devil’s pipe organ. Incredible? Absolutely.
That wasn’t the end of the sights though. There were rock flows from limestone that was dissolved and deposited by water (okay, water ions from autoprotolysis and occasionally from carbonic acid, if you must know, blah blah blah college chemistry nerd stuff...who am I kidding? I totally ran through the reactions in my head as we climbed:
CaCO3(s) + H3O+(aq) = Ca2+(aq) + HCO3-(aq)
HCO3- + H3O+(aq) = CO2(aq) + 2 H2O(l)
H3O+(aq) + CO32-(aq) = HCO3-(aq) + H2O(l)
And so on)
There were also pits - massive pits! The first, surrounded by jagged rocks, was thirty feet deep. “Oh, but this isn’t even that interesting,” Jim assured us. “Come along, there’s more!” and we skirted past a pit that was fifty feet deep.
“Be careful of your footing,” Chris said. “If you slip and fall into that pit and we have to go after you, it’s not going to be a rescue, trust me.”
“Clean up instead,” I said.
“Mmhmm. So don’t slip! Be very careful. But if you do fall, there is a rail there - an old, rickety galvanized rail that’s from the 1920s. I wouldn’t hold my breath that it will save you, but if you do slip, grab for the rail at least. It’s your best bet, though I wouldn’t count on it.”
And yes, the rail was just as rickety as he’d described, and as we passed the pit there was the sound of dripping water, a wide well in the floor, and a darkness that just continued and continued.
There were cave crickets aplenty throughout the “wild cave” area. “And spiders,” Chris said. “We’re in their realm now. All this is the kingdom of spiders!” There were some grumblings about Lord of the Rings’s Shelob before Chris pointed out one cricket on a rock ledge.
“Marshmallow cricket,” he said, pointing to a cricket that looked like it had been splatted and was all puffy and white. “It’s a fungus that actually attacks crickets, knocks ‘em dead, kills ‘em from the inside out.” We all recoiled at the thought of being hunted down by a fungus.
We experienced a few obstacles that afternoon too, including one big canyon walk. Jim guided us from above and Chris guided us from below, directing us one at a time on where to put our hands and feet. At first we straddled the canyon like we were on skis and shuffled forward on the two narrow ledges, but then one ledge disappeared so we shifted both feet to one side and put our hands on the wall opposite us so we were sashaying with hands and feet down a widening canyon in a real-life game of Twister (left hand to that handhold twelve inches to your left, right foot come forward to meet the left) and so on until I was looking directly down into the canyon as McCrae passed underneath me while I wedged myself in the slot like an American Ninja Warrior on the spider wall.
Finally the canyon spiralled down in a tight little corkscrew and I eased myself onto the slot canyon floor, very glad to be upright again. There wasn’t much more canyon-walking that afternoon, but we did a lot of bouldering up through the Compass Needle passage - a path that is essentially where a lot of rock has collapsed and you pick (well, more like climb/haul/crawl/pull/strain/force) your way up and through the rubble. A leap over one canyon, a jump down a narrow ledge, a “wedge yourself up 10 feet to that next ledge” experience, and plenty of bruises later and we were already at the end of the tour.
And what an incredible tour! Only because I was so tired and bumped and bruised was I willing to resurface. Because the cave system is so massive and each tour is different, you’re pretty much guaranteed a unique experience every time you enter the cave. Of course, your guides and your fellow tour members will influence what you see and do, but for me it was worth every minute of the tour, and I can’t wait to go back and do it again...and this time I’ll bring the GoPro, I promise.
P.S. - Sorry for the lack of photos. I really didn't have a clue what all I could bring on the tour so I figured better safe than sorry down in the cave. There are some photos and videos of the tour if you search online, but I couldn't ever find a decent narrative of the adventure, so here you go! If you're interested, I'm planning on a tips and tricks post for the wild cave tour, so look for that soon!
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