You wouldn’t think it, but the ambience at the bottom of a gigantic limestone sinkhole is really quite different than the ambience at the rim of one. This is a fact for which I’m both thankful and unthankful.
In Pursuit Of Novelty
I’m thankful because were there not something new to see and feel, I would have no reward whatsoever for risking life, limb and sanity to yoyo* these geologic monstrosities. At the same time, I’m unthankful because — well — if there wasn’t anything to pique my interest down there, I would be far more likely to simply forego the whole ordeal of descending/ascending and thereby spare myself no small measure of anxiety, not to mention physical pain.
But things are different down there — marvelously different. And the psychochemical charge you derive from novel experience is like a drug-induced delirium you can’t help but chase after. As many adventurers before me have acknowledged, this is absolutely an addiction we’re talking about. Think about your friends who can’t seem to quit smoking cigarettes, and see if this sounds familiar.
One second, you’re telling yourself that you, “don’t really need to go down into this one today.” A few seconds later, you’re struggling to load your rappel device with your feet dangling off the edge. A few seconds after that you’re a hundred feet down in El Sótano de las Huahuas with three hundred to go — all the while lost in some rapid-cycling fugue state and humming “Jesus Take the Wheel” to yourself.
Like nicotine, curiosity is a powerful imp. Alarmingly powerful really. Even powerful enough to get you killed.
It’s hard to say exactly when the transformation takes place — when you go from the experience-of-the-rim-you-were-growing-tired-of-for-some-inane-reason to the experience-of-the-bottom-you-nearly-died-for.
Where is the line? Or if there isn’t a line, where, at least, is the inflection point?
Unfortunately, I lacked the presence of mind to really focus on the transition from rim-world to floor-world while I was in the midst of it. I was too busy arguing with myself and watching the rope burn through my gloves. Sure, part of me was able to enjoy a speleothem or two — a few ferns and some moss — but the big picture was shattered into a million pieces the way my mind was.
When I think back, it’s as if I was on a stage and the set was rearranged around me in very short order. It was as if the lights were dimmed and props swapped out. The way translating your body a few hundred feet can change your universe is almost miraculous. From breezy sunshine to pacific twilight. From the clapping of leaves to the extraterrestrial echoes of canyon wrens warbling off the walls. From the countless intermingling fragrances of the forest to the domination of a single smell — that of piled-high guano. From feeling big and free and in control of my destiny to feeling like a puny dust mite that’s been cast into a gargantuan oubliette it can never hope to escape from. From one end of the telescope to the other.
Unsettled, in awe, feeling like a hostage to my own reckless decisions, whispering prayers of praise to the variegated stone, meditating upon the weight of empty space, again asking myself: “What about this do you enjoy exactly?”
The Conceptual Dimension
Furthermore, as you might imagine, the conceptual dimension of the experience is every bit as important as the sensory dimension in creating the mood. It’s not just the endlessly reflecting light rays. It’s not just the soundtrack. It’s not just the taste and smell of accumulated feces that lured me into the depths.
Also integral to the experience are the feelings of extreme remoteness, the sensation of being embedded in millions of years of geological processes, the adrenaline-fueled psychotic afterglow from dropping the pit, the anticipation of hauling myself out. You know this isn’t a place by and for people. You know you’re nothing but a fleeting scintilla pressed between the immensity of the past and future. You know a rescue would be next to impossible — not that anyone knows where you are anyway.
You know you are nothing and that nothing in here cares about you. Yet again you wonder why you’ve come. Why you find these feelings so intoxicating. Why it is that you seek such a horrifying brand of mystical ecstasy.
Cave Of The Mind
All of this — the remoteness, the cursory knowledge of local geological history, the buzzing of the sympathetic nervous system, the visual and auditory and olfactory perceptions — all of this make me feel like I’m yo-yoing into new parts of my mind as much as I’m yo-yoing into new parts of the planet’s crust.
The comparison between mind and cave is one that Plato made long, long ago in his Allegory of the Cave — a text virtually everyone who’s taken a philosophy class is going to be familiar with. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed contemplating my entrapment in the world of shadows — my entrapment in my feeble sensory-cognitive faculties. I’ve also enjoyed imagining what it would be like to escape the cave, to transcend the limitations of my mind, and to gaze upon the land of light free from ignorance and stupidity.
Now that I’m a caver, though, I’ve begun to have a different attitude towards the whole thing. Reason being that I’ve learned there’s actually a lot of insight to be gleaned from explorations of dark places. Perhaps infinite insight in fact. In addition, I’ve come to realize that, as much as Plato wanted to escape his brain and wander amongst pure forms, there’s no way to actually do this. We are stuck in our heads. In short, not only is it impossible to leave the cave of the mind, it turns out that the cave of the mind is a splendid (albeit often terrifying) place to explore — a massive and labyrinthian cavern whose “leads”** will never be exhausted.
I’m still working out all the reasons why it is I insist on going underground in spite of the risks and discomforts, but this must be a big part of it. Not only to see new corners of the cosmos — maybe not even principally for this reason. Rather it seems that in order to chart the tortuous internal passages of my consciousness, I must compel my body to traverse the tortuous passages of the underworld.
*As mentioned in Part 1, “yoyo” is caver-speak for rappelling and ascending into and out of pits of various sorts.
**For cavers, “leads” are openings in caves that may take you to undiscovered passages.
(Today’s featured image of the entrance of El Sótano de las Huahuas is courtesy of Scott Christenson, our generous trip leader.)