START OF SUMMER:
My friend: hey I'm president of the MIT Caving Club. you should add yourself to the caving mailing list
Me: *adds self to mailing list* I don't even know what caving is, but sounds cool
MIDDLE OF SUMMER:
Trip leader: hi I'm leading a caving trip in NY for beginners. there's a training and logistics session, then we're going on Sunday
Me: *checks calendar* sure why not? I'm free
THREE DAYS BEFORE THE CAVING TRIP:
Trip leader: So you'll need a wet suit, nylon socks, a helmet, a bag, webbing, gloves, knee pads, an outer layer, a swimsuit, food, plastic bags, two liters of water, two head lamps, a flashlight…
Me: *astounded by the length of this list* I wonder what I signed myself up for?
THE DAY OF THE CAVING TRIP:
Me: *enters cave* Oh, I see now!
What is caving? It's not what you see in movies or read in books, at least not the one I went to. Bentley Cave is not a spacious opening on the side of the mountain that can be used for shelter from a thunderstorm. You do not simply start a fire in Bentley Cave because the air is too cool and damp, and the rock-ground is slick with water, and you might suffocate if you burn up your limited oxygen supply. Bentley Cave is the small cavern in the ground that you have to climb down carefully while carrying a pack and balancing a helmet and headlamp on your head. There are parts of Bentley Cave where you have to inch sideways because the space between the walls slowly squeeze closer together than shoulder-width, and there are parts where you have to army crawl with your stomach in the shallow water to keep moving forward.
And yes, Bentley Cave is a beginner cave.
I was the first one to go down, and already I could feel the temperature drop in the air. Fortunately, although the walls to the left and right of me didn't leave much room, the ceiling was high enough that I didn't feel any claustrophobia. While waiting for the others a distance away, I decided to look up. Wow. The water droplets collected on the boulders above me so that they formed a miniature starry night when they reflected the light from my headlamp. It was incredibly beautiful, and I couldn't believe that a scene like this was hidden away underground.
My second favorite adventure of the trip was the wet crawl, named so because the passageway formed a small, pebbled stream, and the only way to get through was to crawl. So wet + crawl. Now I understood why I was wearing a wet suit, and why I had double bagged any valuables in my pack. There was absolutely no way I could keep myself dry when I was struggling to move forward in the water, awkwardly pushing my pack forward and splashing my arms around. I was also very thankful for the helmet, since I would constantly raise my head wanting to get into a more comfortable position, then constantly bump my head on a sharp rock above me and remember that the ceiling was only two feet higher than the ground.
At the exit of the wet crawl, the path opened onto a large atrium. A space that you could comfortably stand straight and walk around in (though the ground was an uneven, rocky terrain). It was a nice relief from the small tunnel from before. Even so, if I thought about being in a cave too much, like the part about being maybe a hundred feet underground and trapped on all sides by solid rock, I probably would have panicked. A lot. Luckily, the crew I was with were friendly, encouraging, and entertaining, so the conversation was enough to distract me from that scary thought.
While we were eating lunch in the atrium, it was time to turn our lights off. A caving tradition (and maybe a sacrifice to The Cave Monster??) So we pressed the buttons on our headlamps, and we enveloped ourselves in darkness.
"This isn't just any darkness. This is EXTREME darkness."
Imagine blinking, except you can't tell the difference between when your eyes are closed and when your eyes are open. Your brain is just scrambling to comprehend why you can't see anything, and it tries to latch onto any light it can find (which turned out to be the safety beacon of the headlamps flashing on and off). It's crazy. Like an isolation chamber.
"Yep, I can see why lights are so important now. I would definitely die in a cave without them."
When we finally left Bentley cave, I was ecstatic to see the sky and trees and feel the warm, fresh air. My verdict was that you would have to be crazy to stay in a cave for longer than a few hours at a time. But it's quite an adventure, and I'm now insulted by how caves are sometimes used as romantic plot devices when they're so much more.
And you know what? I guess I am a little crazy, because I just signed myself up for another caving trip. It's an incredibly cool experience, and overall I could use more adventure in my life.