Saturday, November 19, 2011

2011.11.19 - Caving in Hennigh Cave

Wow! I wish I could give you a better idea of what this was like... but I guess you'll just have to try it yourself!

We left from the White building and traveled about 30 minutes to Centre Hall. The cave is located on the property of an Amish family - luckily they let people park on their land and use the cave (provided you ask politely!). We walked about ten minutes through the fields and came upon the cave. There are two entrances: one requires rappelling and the other requires shimmying down a hole. We all wore helmets and we each had three sources of light. I was nervous just looking at the hole. Earlier in the week, I had considered dropping out of the trip because I was worried about being claustrophobic - but the group convinced me to go - I'm so glad I did!


We started going down, one at a time, and finally it was my turn. I went down feet first, on my back and the mouth of the cave was just big enough to fit through. After shimmying into the cave, the first big open area was filled with rocks and debris. Looking up, you could see where we would have entered if we had rappelled in instead of shimmying through the opening in the sink hole. The walls were slick with water and ribbed.


We continued deeper into the cave through a passage that eventually lead to a large open area called 'the ballroom'. From this room, we first took the longest, easiest path - about 400 ft long. Most of the way to the end of this passage was slick with clay and water. As instructed by the guide, we kept three points of contact with the cave at all times to ensure safety. At certain points, you could choose to go a couple different ways to arrive at the same destination; some ways were trickier than others, though. I was nervous but I opted for the more challenging routes which typically involved scooting on my belly and shimmying between cave walls only about a foot apart. Sometimes, we had to crawl on our bellies because the 'ceiling' was only about a foot high - other times, we had to turn sideways and walk because the path was so narrow but the 'ceiling' was quite high.

At the end of the main passage, we all sat and talked for a while. Our guide talked a little about how the caves were formed and about caving in general. At one point, everyone turned off their headlamps and we sat in the darkness and the quiet. It was such an unsettling and remarkable experience to keep your eyes open and not have them adjust to the darkness - to be able to hold your hand directly in front of your face and not even begin to see it. And the silence - it was deafening. I began to panic sitting there in the dark unable to see or hear anything; sitting there like that was almost scarier than squeezing along through the cave.

Our guide suggested that, as this was a pretty easy cave, it might be interesting for us to see what it was like to travel without our headlamps. Some people went ahead and used their lights because they weren't comfortable trying it in the dark... but I stayed behind and tried to find my way back in the dark. It was an incredibly interesting experience. I stayed on my hands and knees and went very slowly, feeling along. Good thing we had helmets - I bumped my head a handful of times. At one point, I crawled onto a rock and fell over the side of it. It was scary falling blindly but sort of exhilarating at the same time. I landed and rolled a foot or two. I could feel my hands stinging and someone asked if I wanted a light but I wanted to finish the passage in the dark. We saw only two bats in the cave. They were hanging from the walls and didn't move at all when we passed through.

Once we made it back to the ballroom, the guide explained the other passage we could try if we wanted. It was considerably tougher but I wanted to try it, anyway. The whole first part of this passage, maybe 15 feet, required scooting on my belly. It made me panic a little because it was small all around as compared to the other parts of the cave. At one point, the passage turned and I had to maneuver my body around a corner and down a steep section. That was a really scary section; I felt like I was stuck for an instant. The girl in front of me told me to breath, stretch out my arms and shimmy forward - I did, and I made it out but I was definitely panicky. The tiny passage opened up into a big area. It was extremely slippery - a wet layer of clay covered everything and the ground sloped downwards. Every step I took was precarious. I ended up sliding down to the bottom and walking down there. There was one last section to explore - a very, very tight passage about ten feet long. It didn't really go anywhere, but the guide said it was good practice. I tried it, but with the combination of the steep slope and the slippery clay, I had trouble getting started. I had to push my legs out against the walls to keep from falling. The passage turned and when I finally got my body in it, I panicked and stopped.

Going back through the passage to the ballroom was the scariest part of the whole caving trip. I knew how much trouble I had had turning around that corner and the thought of doing it backwards made me very uncomfortable. I thought I could do it, but when I got there, I found I couldn't. Every time I started, I felt panic bubbling up inside of me. It didn't help watching the people in front of me struggle with it. I had tried going over (I didn't know that was an option on the way in) but the rock that I would have had to climb was really slippery and slanted upwards - that made me nervous, too. Finally, someone hoisted me up onto the rock and I was able to climb up it by gripping a rock above me that wasn't too wet. I got to the top and rolled over the side and was able to completely bypass the corner. We got back to the ballroom and found our way out of the cave. It was incredible to be out in the sunlight, again, after spending nearly three and half hours in the cave.

This experience was unforgettable. I liked it because it put me really far out of my comfort zone and I was able to constantly make decisions to challenge myself. It was great practice in getting control and learning how to avoid panic. I would love to try it again (more pictures)!

Monday, October 10, 2011

2011.10.07 - 2011.10.09: Dolly Sods

We left Friday evening around 5pm after getting supplies at the storage center (sleeping pads/bags, headlamps, food, tents, etc.). Before we left, we played an icebreaker game to get to know everyone that was actually fun! Everyone stands in a circle. Someone steps into the center of the circle and says their name followed by random pieces of personal information (e.g. "My name is Lisa and I like taking pictures of mushrooms"). If the person says something that applies to someone standing around the circle, that individual steps into the center of the circle with the person and says "ME!" followed by the name of the person that was sharing previously (e.g. "Me! My name is John and this is Lisa - we both like taking pictures of mushrooms". Then the second person starts sharing. And so on and so forth. We rode in two cars and the ride was really fun. We listened to great music (dubstep!) and talked a lot.

It ended up taking about 7 hours to get to Dolly Sods because we got lost on the way. The plan had been to night hike to our first campsite. When we arrived at 1am (yikes!), we were all pretty tired but we decided to go for it. Will, the trip leader, said that we should only have to hike about .75 miles. After a beautiful .5-mile stretch, Will said that we could stop at any point to camp. However, right after that announcement, the terrain turned to bog and the trail turned to mud and water. The next two miles consisted of jumping from patches of grass to rocks and intermittently sinking ankle- to waist- deep in mud. The trail was lit by moonlight and there was heavy fog all around us. The effect was totally eerie and wonderful. It was awesome! We couldn't stop to camp for two more miles because it was too wet and muddy everywhere. Even though everyone was soaked and incredibly messy... everyone still had a great attitude. We finally found somewhere to camp - I ended up sleeping alone in a tent. The trip leaders all had hammocks - I definitely need to invest in one of those!

The next day was amazing - it was absolutely gorgeous out! We hiked about 6 or 7 miles. Dolly Sods is incredible because there are so many different, interesting types of terrain and foliage. The Fall colors were fantastic! We set up camp next to a river with numerous waterfalls for Saturday night. It was so beautiful (and LOUD)! The water was freezing but I took off my clothes, except for my bra and underwear, and jumped in! We had a campfire and made s'mores that night. Instead of Hershey's chocolate, I used a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup - yum! I decided not to sleep in a tent that night - instead, I set up my sleeping pad and bag next to the river. It was the first time I ever slept outside without a tent. We camped in a valley so it was significantly colder than the night before - probably between 35 and 40 degrees. I was FREEZING the whole night but it was an unforgettable experience. At one point I thought a raccoon was chewing on my leg, but I'm pretty sure that was just a dream. I slept with my sleeping bag completely over my head and sealed - but I still couldn't feel my feet when I woke up in the middle of the night. Before everyone went to bed, the moon was so bright that the stars weren't very visible - in the middle of the night, though, I woke up and peeked out from my sleeping bag and the stars were breathtaking! I think there was a meteor shower that night but it wasn't supposed to be very visible in the USA. I saw a shooting star!

We got a late start Sunday morning. My ankle was hurting really badly for most of the day but it was still such a fantastic day! We had to hike out of the valley so there was some intense elevation change - I kept up with the group with no problem. I had been really worried about that before the trip so it was a relief to know I had no problem. We had to cross over Red Creek at one point. We all took off our shoes and waded across but we had our packs and we were carrying our boots. The water was incredibly cold and the rocks were slippery and painful. The combination of those things and my clumsiness made me fall! My whole lower body got soaked! I probably should have just kept my shoes on and waded across like that. I was shaking so badly by the time I got across. The vista we saw that day was incredible - I can't express how beautiful it was in words (check out more pictures, here:

We finished the hike on Sunday around five pm. Everyone was exhausted but in good spirits. On the way out of the forest, we saw a black bear - first time I've ever seen one outside of the zoo! We drove home and ended up getting a flat tire ten miles out of town!

This trip was unforgettable. I haven't had adventures like that for a long, long time. I can't wait to go on another trip!