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)!