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Black Walls, COLD FEAR

A journey into the bizarre underworld of caving

Imagine a clear alpine stream rushing through a beautiful, primitive mountain range, the sort of icy, frothing scene you see in a beer commercial. Now picture a two-foot hole opening in the streambed, an unexpected rip in the mountain's limestone skin that sucks the stream under like bathwater rushing down a drain. Seven miles away, 1,800 vertical feet nearer to sea level, just as unexpectedly the stream reappears, shooting out of a mossy rock wall with the power of an open city hydrant. Finally, put yourself somewhere beneath those seven missing miles of stream-bed, slithering along in the near-freezing water, snatching desperate breaths from the few inches of airspace between you and the hundreds of tons of rock overhead.

That should give you a pretty good idea of where I am.

Ahead of me in the two-foot-diameter tunnel are the boots of Sheri Engler. I assume that the rest of Engler is attached to the boots and that two other cavers are still in the passage ahead of her. But that's pretty much guesswork: The carbide miner's lamp mounted on my helmet has just been put out by a wave. Somewhere beyond the cavers are silent, enormous chambers, sparkling waterfalls and coal-black fossils that the stream has passed on its way to dousing my lamp.

The water seems a living, angry thing. It wants me out. If I let go of the submerged cracks and stone nubs my cold-deadened fingers cling to, I'll shoot backwards, losing the hundred feet of crawl I've gained. The surrounding rock is a brilliant white dolomite, a limestone containing large amounts of magnesium, the main ingredient of the mythological philosophers' stone and of laxatives. The dolomite also holds thousands of wormlike fossils, the ancient burrows of tiny sea creatures. These fossils protrude from the floor and walls like so many straight razors, forming a surface cavers call "velcro" because of the way it snags and rips any clothing or skin that touches it.

The stream carves bizarre peaks and dips over this gleaming rock meringue. I can breathe well enough by turning my head sideways. But breathing is not the only issue; I must make some progress along this crawl quickly. Although this is potentially one of the country's deepest caves in relation to the surface overhead, I am still 7,500 feet above sea level, where the snow-fed current remains a constant 39° F. Unless I move soon, the giddiness of hypothermia will set in, quickly followed by oppressive fatigue and a sleepy death. Pete Shifflett, the world-class caver who—with 13 crossings—knows this passage better than anyone, has warned: "If you stop in there, you die. Period." So I stare at Engler's immobile boots by the dim light of a lithium-powered backup lamp, wondering what has caused them to become immobile. There's no point in trying to shout over the roar of water. Already cold seeps into my wet suit.

This passage—seen by only 15 people since its discovery in 1980—is called the Grim Crawl of Death. The name makes it sound entirely too pleasant. It is a 1,000-foot tube located in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, in a cave called Great Expectations, and I am here by choice.

Somewhere in the back of every caver's mind is a little kid watching a Saturday matinee. Modern cave explorers scoff at the clichès of the typical Hollywood cavern—monsters, lost cities, glowing jewels, bats tangled in some bimbo's hair—but what lies beyond the next crawlway or at the bottom of a newfound pit still tantalizes them. The world's highest mountains, wildest rapids and steepest ski slopes are visible, and thus within the realm of comprehension—even if intimidating. But the deepest, most challenging caves are never seen in entirety, never conquered in the absolute; they remain forever open to historical revision. A common caving refrain is: "I don't do this 'because it's there.' I do this because of what's not there—yet."

Membership in the National Speleological Society recently topped 7,500 for the first time in its 46-year history; the Huntsville, Ala.-based organization expects it to rise to more than 10,000 by the middle of the next decade. That's more people scrabbling around underground than ever before, but odds are you would never recognize any of them. And it's even more unlikely that you have heard of any of the thousands of wild American caves in which they practice their sport. That's because, as Outside magazine columnist Tim Cahill puts it, "Cavers are, by and large, a closemouthed, introverted, even slightly hostile group."

With reason. Caving is unique in the way it destroys its own irreplaceable environment. A careless nudge can obliterate a latticework of crystal thousands of years old; the oil from the touch of a human hand can permanently halt the growth of a 20-foot stalactite. Even the layered mud of a virgin cave floor is noticeably changed by a single explorer's crossing.

Just gaining access to this underground wilderness can be a delicate matter. Most caves are located on privately owned land; given modern society's litigious mood, many cave owners would sooner bulldoze entrances shut than risk a day in court with the survivors of some careless caver who perished beneath their alfafa crop. So cavers carefully cultivate landowner relationships, keeping names and exact locations of the most spectacular—and potentially dangerous—caves secret from the general public. Not infrequently, caves are kept secret even from other cavers. Most NSS chapters, called grottoes, maintain one or two "sacrificial" caverns for novices, revealing more exciting, if more dangerous, caves to new members only after months of proven dedication and gained experience.

Such secrecy can have a more personal motive, however. Genuine frontiers exist underground—unknown miles of passages to be mapped, vaulted chambers to be named—and cavers often become protective of their "going leads," passages that hold the promise of larger virgin caves to come. For many, the sport's greatest thrill is stepping into subterranean halls, rivers and canyons never before seen by human eyes, to shine the first beam of light on new land. The quiet competition among top cavers to be first is made all the more fierce for the way it is universally denied to exist.

Caving etiquette requires a new passage to be surveyed as soon as it's found. Points of reference within a cave are vague at best, and twisting routes can confuse anyone's sense of direction. Yet by simply looking over their shoulders at major intersections, most experienced cavers have developed the ability to find their way even out of complex multilevel systems. Still, accurately describing where they have been—surveying—requires careful measurement with tape, compass and inclinometer. To overlook this nicety, to plunge hell-bent through passages and crawls, particularly on a going lead provided by someone else, is known as "scooping booty"—and by doing so one would risk being made an outcast by the caving community. Plunging boldly on is not a decision to be made lightly.

A case in point involves Great Expectations, or Great X as it's called by cavers. The upper cave's entrance—a vertical slot dubbed Crisco Crack, which was once so tight cavers had to strip out of coveralls and wet suits to wriggle through—sits in a dolomite hollow just above the point where the surface stream vanishes into the western flank of the Bighorn Mountains. The nine-inch squeeze was first negotiated in the summer of 1977 by a group of cavers from the area, led by Jerry Elkins of Sheridan, Wyo. Elkins went on to survey several hundred feet of narrow fissures, a cobbly streambed winding beneath a five-foot ceiling, and a few unimpressive, mazelike crawls. Word of the cave filtered through the Rocky Mountain region, and in August 1978, caver Andy Flurkey invited John Scheltens, a principal explorer of 51½-mile-long Wind Cave in his home state of South Dakota, to join him on what he said would be a "two-hour survey of a little cave in the Bighorns."

While Flurkey and two other cavers mapped the easier passages, Scheltens, his wife, Pat, Dave Springhetti and his wife, Carole, were sent to survey a network of convoluted crawlways. Scheltens, who is about to become president of the NSS, recalls the trip: "The stuff we were in was cold, damp and tight, and it didn't seem to be going anywhere—the cave just meandered through breakdown [jumbles of loose boulders]. Dave had crawled ahead, and I was sitting between a couple of slabs of breakdown, about fed up with the place, when I noticed a little slot three feet over my head."

Scheltens carefully climbed the chimney he had spotted and was surprised to pop into a dry upper-level passage. A tunnel 15 feet in diameter stretched away into the darkness. No previous footprints marked the sandy floor. Scheltens and Springhetti left their wives in the crawls below while they examined the find. They continued along a hundred yards of unremarkable passageway before they rounded a corner and saw the stuff of every caver's dreams: a hundred-foot-high borehole, stretching ahead as far as they could see.

They ran through a quarter mile of the huge trunk passage, climbing and sliding over a dozen steep, dusty hills of mineral rubble, the gleaming magnesium-white ceiling far overhead, before returning for their wives, who by then had been waiting in the crawls for more than an hour. The four explored the borehole—which they christened the Great Hall—for a length of 2,000 feet. At the end of the enormous room the rocky floor rose almost to the ceiling before dropping away into a 20-foot pit. The four had brought no rope or climbing gear with them, so observing caving etiquette, they began the tedious, 16-hour process of measuring and mapping their way out.

Their discovery soon flashed through the caving community: The Bighorns had a big one going. On a subsequent trip, Scheltens and Springhetti found a narrow side canyon a quarter mile beyond the 20-foot drop that had ended their initial exploration. This passage, called the Lunchroom, led them to a hundred-foot rappel into a roaring, Whitewater stream they named the Lost Worland River. The two were stopped by a series of waterfalls, but the river passage promised miles of cave yet to come.

During the following two summers, survey groups—which came to include a dozen top cavers—mapped almost two miles along the Lost Worland River, working their way down Gonzo Falls, B-52 Falls, Lover's Leap and lesser waterfalls no one took the time to name; swimming and splashing through rapids; rigging slippery traverses above silent, swirling pools. Survey trips became increasingly dangerous and arduous, reaching durations of 20 hours and more. Cavers contemplated an overnight camp along the river, but no one could find a ledge large or dry enough for a safe night's sleep—even in a full wet suit.

Often, the biggest cave discoveries come aboveground, when a freshly drawn map of what's beneath the surface is compared with surface topography to suggest a likely passage trend. The lines of the canyon above Great X led explorers to begin searching for another entrance, closer to the new subterranean finds. Hiking the difficult surface terrain on a downhill slope far beyond the known extent of Great X, an inquisitive caver followed a hunch and found a stream bubbling from a crack in a rock face seven miles down-canyon from the Crisco Crack. Another explorer stumbled upon a small cave, which he appropriately named Dumb Luck, on the floor of the same canyon two miles closer to Crisco Crack. If either opening could be entered and shown to connect with the Lost Worland River, the change in elevation would guarantee a new U.S. depth record. Thus the stage was set for what many consider the greatest single trip in the history of American caving—and one of the most controversial.

Tom Miller and Pete Shifflett, who were with the Great X survey on the strength of previous international discoveries, carried a full complement of gear as they entered Dumb Luck on Aug. 17, 1980. Just 50 feet into the small cave the two found rushing water and wind they were convinced could come only from Great X and the Lost Worland River. But the passage quickly deteriorated into a steep, frigid crawl in a streambed bristling with submerged velcro. They would struggle upstream for a few yards, their heads uncomfortably tilted so that sometimes just a single nostril could be held above the frothing water, only to hit a dead end. Then they would backtrack and try another, equally miserable and ultimately discouraging, lead. To attempt to survey in such conditions, they realized, would be a nightmare. Yet the tantalizing presence of wind suggested that the water level did not reach the ceiling somewhere up ahead in this maze, although they were about to discover that even in the through passage it came close. Shifflett could not shake visions of accidentally wedging his helmet between the uneven floor and the low ceiling, pinning his head facedown and drowning in three inches of water.

At one point the stream flowed to a side of the crawl, forcing the wind through a narrow, but relatively dry, natural sluiceway. To pass the squeeze, the two cavers had to slide forward on the exhale; there was so little clearance that they had to keep not only their clothing but also their rib cages from becoming hung up on the rough surface. This time, however, the cave rewarded their determination: Instead of another dead end, the crawl grew to hands-and-knees height and then opened into a narrow fissure large enough for the men to stand.

After walking several hundred yards, Miller and Shifflett reached an easy climb into a towering, canyonlike passage similar to what they had seen on trips along the Lost Worland River. They fought their way up increasingly difficult climbs, including one over an imposing hundred-foot series of cascades. Hours later, Miller stopped to rest. He found a narrow pocket at the side of a 15-foot rock face; it was deep enough to shield him from the spray off a crashing waterfall. As he sat there, waiting for Shifflett to catch up, he recognized a crack running up the wall to the right of the falls. This was the spot where he had turned around on his longest Great X survey trip, two weeks before: He and Shifflett were standing in the deepest known cave in the United States.

Remembering what they had undergone to reach the connection, Miller convinced Shifflett to abandon the idea of surveying back out; instead they named the spot Connection Falls, and pressed forward. Ahead of them lay several grueling climbs—one of more than a hundred feet—that had been rigged with ropes by previous cavers exploring from the upper end. The two excited cavers successfully free-climbed these, working their way steadily up the slick rock to the Great Hall, the crawls beyond it, and finally through the narrow velcro chimneys to the Crisco Crack and the surface.

When they emerged after midnight to a full moon and the heavy smell of sagebrush, they had climbed through five miles of cave and gained 1,403 feet of elevation, scooping booty most of the way. They were elated, they were pioneers of the most daring kind; and, for a while, their names were mud in the caving community. "Tom Miller got to be a dirty word with some people," says Idaho caver Jeb Blakely. "Him and Pete scooping Great X ticked everybody off."

After the Miller-Shifflett connection, a few sporting through-trips were made, but the extreme difficulty of the Grim Crawl of Death continued to discourage survey of the route. No one believed a passage could be so tough until they experienced it. Some cavers came dangerously close to hypothermia when their wet suits were slashed on the velcro; others had lights and gear snatched away by the stream.

Scheltens describes his one—and only—trip through the Grim Crawl in 1980 (which would prove to be the last Great X through-trip anyone would make for the next five years): "It was a definition of hell. I had several holes in my wet suit, and ice water kept shooting in, ballooning the material out. Water got under my helmet and ripped it from my chinstrap. I lay there in the dark, hearing the helmet go tick, tick, tick as the water carried it down the passage ahead of me." Scheltens exited the crawl sharing a single fading flashlight with the four members of his group; each had entered the cave carrying three working light sources.

"If door-to-door trips become the 'in' thing to do, Great X is going to eat someone, someone experienced," he cautions. "Under ideal conditions, the cave is horrible. I don't like body recoveries any more than the next person, but if there is a thunderstorm during a through-trip [which would cause the water level to rise in the cave], or if someone becomes completely hypothermic, or if someone falls during a climb, a body recovery is what you'll have. And a body recovery in that cave could kill someone."

Nevertheless, in 1985 Shifflett put together a team to finally survey the Grim Crawl of Death. It was not to be a through-trip but strictly a mapping expedition, not a long trip but harrowing nonetheless. As Shifflett entered the crawl that summer morning on July 23, he spotted something white bobbing in the six-inch crack where the water disappeared—it was Scheltens' lost helmet, battered but still intact after five years. Shifflett's crew completed the survey. For the next two years, no one explored Great X.

Climbing writer Jon Krakauer once made the distinction between "wanting to climb" the north face of the Eiger and "wanting to have climbed" it. In terms of endurance, tight squeezes, difficult climbs and the odds of "getting eaten," Great Expectations has become the Eiger of American caving. I wanted very much to have done Great X. I had nightmares about actually doing it. Great X began taking on mythic proportions in my mind. This, despite the fact that it no longer held the U.S. depth record. In 1981, several Great X explorers—purposely excluding Miller and Shifflett in retaliation for the scooped Great X connection—dropped a shorter, more vertical cave in Wyoming's Teton Range, called Columbine Crawl. That has set a U.S. depth record of 1,550 feet. But Great X potentially held two miles of cave between the impenetrable crack that had caught Scheltens' helmet and the still unexplored stream resurgence farther down the canyon. The elevation between those points (assuming a way into the presumed passage could be found) would add another 400 feet of depth to Great X, reestablishing the U.S. record. If a team could be organized, I hoped I could wangle my way onto it.

The caving community is small enough that, with perseverance, almost anyone can eventually join an expedition with the living legends. (To put it into context, imagine shagging a few with Darryl Strawberry or inviting Don Garlits to meet you at the local strip.) I had spent enough time in TAG—a prime caving region centered in the area where Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia meet—to have dropped a couple of dozen of the biggies. Along the way I had met some well-known cavers. I figured that would be enough to get me in the door with the western cavers who had experience with Great X. But I found that in the door and into Great X are two different things.

It was only after months of exchanging letters and phone calls and haggling over dates and personnel that in August 1987 I joined 10 of the country's top cavers in Sheridan for a week at Great Expectations. Shifflett, who had signed most of the team and had actually led a short reconnaissance the previous April, was forced out of the August assault at the last minute by an unexpected job conflict. Blakely, a Great X vet who looks more like a grizzled fur trapper than the systems engineer he is, had stepped in to lead the effort. The rest of the team consisted of three married couples—Bob and Jean Benedict of Idaho Falls, Idaho; Don Coons and his wife, Sheri Engler, of Rutland, Ill.; Jim and Pam Smith of Bowling Green, Ky.—plus me; two Virginians, Keith Goggin and Ron Simmons; and Steve Zeman of Idaho Falls. Six members of the group had participated in at least one of the four previous Great X through-trips. All had worked together at different times on expeditions in Mexico, Virginia and other hot caving regions.

The team had settled on three goals: 1) to seek a means of bypassing the tight, water-filled crack near Great Exit by finding a new passage within the cave; 2) to examine several previously unexplored side passages in the middle cave; 3) to obtain the first-ever professional photos of Great X.

My personal goal was far simpler—to see the cave, and live to tell about it.

Shortly after the Miller-Shifflett connection was found in 1980, another caver blasted the flesh-peeling Crisco Crack to a comfortable width, 12 inches, in order to install the tamper-proof gate that now protects the cave and unauthorized visitors from one another. This upper entrance is on the property of a third-generation rancher who considers a huge cave on his spread more a headache than anything else, and who figures—livestock prices being what they are—he has enough headaches already.

A few days before the expedition, I met Coons and Engler face-to-face for the first time, at the Sheridan airport. They were easy to spot in the crowd: Both were short, wiry and well-muscled, and both were dressed in the ratty Army surplus garb favored by cavers everywhere. The three of us drove out to the ranch to pick up the key to the Crisco Crack gate.

Conversation with the rancher was an awkward amalgam of "yeps" and "nopes" and long silences. Fortunately, Coons and Engler farm 800 acres in central Illinois, and things relaxed a bit when talk turned to U.S. farm policy. But just before we left, the rancher delivered his longest utterance of the day: "First person gets hurt in there, I'll dynamite that sucker shut and be done with it." He was looking me straight in the eye when he said it.

The western flanks of the Bighorns abound in elk, deer and antelope, and the shaggy sheep that give the range its name. In the remote canyons, piles of buffalo skulls can still be found. There are several such piles in the canyon above Great Expectations. The upper campsite for Great X lies about a quarter mile from the Crisco Crack, in a grassy clearing at the head of the canyon. Burned-out campfires indicate that the clearing is used perhaps three times a year by cattle herders and by occasional hunters.

On a pleasantly sunny August day, in such postcard surroundings, it takes a fair amount of peer pressure to force one to wriggle into a grimy wet suit and head into the damp darkness underground. Four days of hard work in the upper cave had yielded a few virgin side passages—which had quickly petered out—several dozen photos, a dented lamp, leg cramps, heat exhaustion, chills and, for me, some sort of stomach virus. By our fifth morning at the cave, I didn't think any sort of pressure, peer or otherwise, would force me into the nasty suit again. I had come prepared for the cold, but no one had warned me of the heat. Before you reach the first stream passage, long before the Lost Worland River, several cramped, dusty chimneys and crawls must be traversed. Climbing and crawling in those dry passages turns the protective clothing combination of coveralls and wet suit into an instant sauna. Each squeeze through the Crisco Crack made me feel I was wearing something advertised in a supermarket tabloid: SWEAT OUT 10 POUNDS A MINUTE OR DOUBLE YOUR MONEY BACK!

It didn't help that I have always lived within five miles of the Atlantic; at the 8,500-foot altitude of campsite, I kept hoping for a Sherpa to appear with an oxygen bottle. True to their reputations, members of the team had proved so gung ho that they were at first frightening. By now I was more disgusted than frightened. My rancid wet suit seemed more alive than its owner. The uncomfortable activity in my stomach was more lively than either of us. Still, on Day 5, I managed to hold down my dehydrated breakfast and suit up, because nine of us, everyone but Engler and Pam Smith, would be attempting the largest through-trip of Great X ever tried.

Once through Crisco Crack, the group spread out. Just inside Great X was a series of three velcro-lined chimneys—each no more than a foot wide—in which a caver had to use rock-climbing techniques while descending to a depth 90 feet below the entrance. The sides of the cave resembled the sort that, sooner or later, rumble together to crush unfortunate souls trapped in adventure movies. The walls of Great X never actually moved, but they did manage continually to snag whichever bit of my clothing or pack was the hardest for me to reach at the moment.

After the chimneys came the first short plunge through water, then an hour of heavy-duty hiking, broken by occasional climbs and crawls, to reach the Great Hall. Part of the time I traveled alongside Coons, who seemed able to float past the grasping rock without touching it. He would range far ahead of the group, drop to the rear, then fall alongside someone in the middle, like a bird dog on the hunt and loving every minute of it.

Ours was not only the largest group ever to try a door-to-door, it was the largest group that had ever been in the cave at one time. As a result, there were long waits as other members of the expedition negotiated the tricky climbs and squeezes encountered along the route. Talk of other caves and cavers, and debates over gear filled the waits: "Damn carbide-lamp cavers, they have to stop every 10 minutes to fiddle with those antiques...." "Oh yeah? I read where an improperly focused electric leaves a dark spot in the center of the beam that can cause severe depression, irritability, dementia and, ultimately, death...." "Listen, you think you might be interested in trying the John Crows in January? Three thousand feet of limestone that's never been checked...."

The talk was engrossing, but when we reached the rope drop at the end of the Great Hall, we were already two hours behind schedule. The toughest miles of climbing and crawling lay ahead. No one said it, but everyone realized that the group was simply too large. For fast, efficient progress, three to five cavers is an ideal number—a larger group tends to bog down.

I was keeping pace with some of the finest cavers alive, but my stomach had suggested a couple of rumbling, unpleasant things it might pull in a waterfall climb or, worse, in the Grim Crawl of Death. Goggin, a lowland Southerner like me, mentioned that he too was experiencing something of an altitude problem.

Jon Krakauer had turned back on the Eiger, I remembered. Mumbling our way into it, speaking as if we each had a mouthful of grits, Goggin and I agreed that we should turn back. We would work our way to the Crisco Crack, hike down the canyon and meet the others at the camp set up at Dumb Luck, now renamed Great Exit. I rationalized that rather than shake hands with the Grim Crawl while I was exhausted and desperate, my first experience of the place would occur when I was fresh, a tourist on the photo trip planned for the following day. So I wished the remaining seven cavers luck, tucked my tail up under my coveralls and slunk out of Great X along with Goggin.

So here I am, 24 hours later, lying in ice water that's swirling by me at a velocity of several feet per second. Finally, Engler's boots move again, and I force my hands—more like numb paddles now—into action. Simmons and Goggin are setting up to take the first professional photos of the Grim Crawl, which means more stops ahead. It's really getting cold. Occasionally we hit a wide bend, and I can see several faces at once, all of them grinning as if being here wasn't a damn fool thing to do.

My helmet scrapes the ceiling and I catch a mouthful of water. I try to imagine this spot the night before, as the seven weary cavers worked their way toward Great Exit. Zeman and Bob Benedict—who had entered the cave without the customary ballistic-nylon coveralls—had paid for their rashness by being caught on sharp rocks in separate waterfall climbs. Zeman lost a flounder-sized fillet of skin from his right thigh; Benedict had scraped his left buttock raw.

Both injuries were aggravated by the Grim Crawl, but more damaging than the missing flesh had been the missing patches of neoprene from their wet suits. That had left their skin unprotected in the 39° water. Benedict was well on his way to hypothermia when the group reached the end of the cave at 2:30 this morning. Still, everyone made it out in good spirits, and now both Benedict and Zeman are sleeping peacefully overhead. The short section of the Grim Crawl that I've seen so far, about 30% of the total length, convinces me that Scheltens was right: This cave will eat someone, swallow them whole, sooner or later. A lesser caver would not have made it out under his own power with a leg injury like the one Zeman suffered. And if you can't exit Great X under your own power, you won't exit at all.

At least Zeman had been moving downstream; I'm going upstream. I fight the water for a few more yards, amazed at what Shifflett accomplished when he entered this passage for the first time, and, more recently, when he made a controversial solo crossing—both times against the current, the same way I am traveling now.

Simmons signals for a pause, and Goggin prepares a homemade waterproof flashgun, tied to his wrist to avoid loss. He will work the flash, Simmons will photograph and Engler will model. I will wait. I stare at Engler's boots one more time as the stream washes over me. This is getting old fast.

My wet suit is a good one, but the velcro rock keeps snatching at my coveralls, holding them open for the current to billow them out. A few more rips will expose the soft neoprene of my wet suit—then what? I missed my one chance to cave through this place—really cave, hell-bent for it—as the result of a prudent decision I made yesterday; now I'm facing another decision. In a few years, I'll probably have another shot at a through-trip, provided no one gets eaten, provided the landowner or the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the territory where the stream resurfaces, doesn't find some other reason to close Great X. For now, I can imagine nothing more embarrassing than becoming hypothermic on a short trip for snapshots.

I grab Engler's boot to get her attention, smile and wave goodbye. I'm outta here. She nods and waves back. The Crawl is just wide enough to let me turn around. It takes only 15 minutes to travel out alone, water shooting through my coveralls and helmet, knocking my glasses askew.

Later in the day, Jim Smith and Jeb Blakely push a small lead near Great Exit into 200 feet of twisting unexplored passage. They follow the noise of rushing water through a tight, dry crawlway, convinced that they have bypassed the low slot at the end of the Grim Crawl of Death—the crack that held Scheltens' helmet for five years—and are headed into virgin depths. Instead they pop out in a spot they recognize immediately from the night before and discover that they have circled a hundred feet upstream from the water-filled crack. It appears that to bypass the crack will require a new entrance down-canyon. Although several of us have combed the rough surface terrain, no one has found the suspected other entrance to the cave, and we're running out of time for the '87 expedition. The depth record will have to wait.

As night falls, the team sits on fallen logs, huddled around a campfire in a tiny clearing 10 feet from Great Exit. It has been drizzling for several hours.

(When we lug our sopping backpacks up through the canyon tomorrow, the drizzle will turn to rain and then hail. We will make it off the mountain just ahead of a snowstorm. On the way out, our Chevy Suburban fishtails over the soupy roads. Coons is grinning and driving with the speed only an Illinois dirt farmer could exhibit in such weather. The radio is pulling in a tribute to Elvis that is being broadcast by a distant 50,000-watt station. When we cross Snowshoe Pass, an amazing sunset will burst through the blue-black clouds.)

But that's tomorrow and this is today; it's drizzling, it's dark and we're sitting near Great Exit, talking caves.

One at a time the through-trip survivors have come back to life—Zeman, the last of them, waking just before the gray dusk. His leg is a horrible sight. As the night wears on, the cavers prepare various canned and freeze-dried dishes, cooking on backpacking stoves or over the smoky fire, passing everything around the damp circle to be shared by all. A pint flask appears and makes the rounds, and someone remembers hiding two beers under a rock when the lower camp was set up. After a brief, successful search operation, the bottles are found and they too circulate.

It is well past midnight when the group splits for the tents pitched in the minute clearings scattered about this end of the canyon. I had planned on sleeping under the stars and I left my bulky dome tent at the upper camp. But there are no stars, so I roam from tent to tent, seeing if anyone has room for an extra. I'm out of luck. I suppose I can make a damp bivey with plastic garbage bags, but then I remember that there is some soft, dry, flat ground nearby—just this side of the Grim Crawl of Death.

I pull on my helmet, fire my lamp, and lug my air mattress and bag down into the hole, along with a sheet of plastic to insulate the bag from the damp cave air. I find a fine sandy spot, in sight of the entrance, where the roar of the crawl—around the corner and down a short fissure—sounds like the gentle rumble of distant surf. I make my bed, douse the light and fall sound asleep in Great Expectations.







CRISCO CRACK: The author (right) squeezes through the narrow entrance to Great X, beyond the rock and rubble.



INTO THE GREAT HALL: At the end of a chimney, Jim Smith prepares to shoot a small falls into the chamber.



NEARING THE HALL'S EXIT: The cavers take a rock-strewn climb through the 100-foot-high chamber to its narrow aperture at the rear.



THE LUNCHROOM: After traversing an area of rocky breakdown, Shifflett finds a brief stretch of relatively clear sailing.



THE GRIM CRAWL OF DEATH: Engler wriggles her way through velcro in the most intimidating stretch of Great X.


The anatomy of a cave that represents a true rite of passage

Rive joins cave

1. CRISCO CRACK: The entrance to the cave descends in a series of one-foot-wide fissures for 90 feet.

2. THE CHIMNEY: Just before entering a three-foot chimney leading to the Great Hall, the river disappears into a "sump.

3. THE GREAT HALL: The chamber is 2,000 feet long and 100 feel high. Near the end, the rocky floor rises almost to the ceiling before dropping into a 20-foot pit.

4. LUNCHROOM INTERSECTION: Main trail ends in "breakdown" (far left); side trail leads to a pit, approximately 125 feet deep, that requires mountain-climbing gear.

5. GONZO FALLS: Must be traversed by upper-level passage.

6. B-52 FALLS: Requires mountain-climbing gear.

7. FORMATIONS: Found along Lost Worland River.


9. GREAT EXIT: Emerges in a streambed. Don Coons says exiting is like crawling among giant marbles.