The Kentucky Caver Quarterly Proceedings of the
Bluegrass Grotto: the North Central Kentucky Area Chapter of the National Speleological Society
page 08  [contents] (< prev) (next >)
 vol. 40. iss. 1, December 2005
day scrubbing away the subway terminal obscenities from the walls of Climax Cave.  It was nearing eleven p.m. and most of us had been working in the cave since ten in the morning.  But when Pat Johnson, our campground host for the 1996 conservation project of the Ohio Valley Region, suggested that we participate in a “game” in GSP, lacking other options, we followed her lead.

The “game”, apparently of some tradition among the regular volunteers of the cave preserve, was simple and weirdly enticing—the kind of thing that only bona fide cavers would find amusing.  A group of us would be escorted back to the stage area of Echo Auditorium and, after her return to the gate, Pat would shut off the lights, giving us twenty minutes to find our way out.  If we had not succeeded at the end of our time allotment (which she seemed to doubt we would), she would turn on the lights again, catching us at our varied misadventures.

To say now that I had a premonition of the eventual outcome would invite a cynical snort.  I don’t blame you; snort away.  But I honestly did experience a shudder of unwelcome familiarity and a sort of Jean Dixon-ish prescience at the thought of groping about in the cavernous darkness.  For, you see, this is not something new for me.  The first time I engaged in lightless caving was no game, however:  I had broken ribs and hypothermia and knew that I had to continue moving or die.  I crawled toward the faint breeze against my face, feeling my way across damp limestone slabs like a snail, weeping bitterly in the unrelenting darkness.  I could not help but give a moment’s morbid reflection to this miserable event in my caving history when Pat suggested this unusual pastime to close the day. 

I think it is something every caver fantasizes about: 

caving in absolute darkness.  All of us toy with the idea, but reason and fear win out and soon we are twisting our Petzls to re-illuminate the way.  It’s another prospect entirely, however, when light is not a ready option.  Been there, done that; no fun, amigo.  But this was something sporting with a definite time-limit in a cave you can drive a pickup into.  So I said 'sure', and clad only in shorts, tee-shirt and sandals, without so much as a pinlight in my pocket, I helped rally the dozen or so participants up the path to the gate of Great Saltpetre. 

I am reluctant even to mention this “game” in print, considering the howls of conscientious protest it could arouse from the do-gooders of the caving community.  Argue if you must, but cavers take unnecessary risks as a rule—if we didn’t, we’d never get up off our duffs to muddy our coveralls.  There is nothing “necessary” about caving and the risks we take are superfluous to ordinary daily life.  As we know, most topside folk consider us crazy as a matter of course.

Every year we become more refined in our risk-reduction techniques; what was an acceptable rappel five years ago would inspire the condemnation of our peers today.  Yet something so boldly contrary to reasonable risk-taking as blundering around in the darkness to find your way out of a cave as a sort of game—well, that throws guano right in the face of all our ostensible commitment to responsibility, admittedly.  We could break an ankle, knock out our teeth, or worse.  But ‘fess up guys & gals—it sounds like fun, doesn’t it?  And twenty minutes of gingerly picking your way across the void is not so long a stint of stupidity.  We were all experienced cavers, knowing how to move to keep from injuring ourselves needlessly, fully aware of the risks inherent in the game.  When the lights went out, we were giggling like school kids.