Faces of Death

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2017-12-02 Trip Report

With a photo and approximate GPS coordinates, Bennett Lee, Pam Campbell, Mauricio Flores, and Ethan Lee set off in search of karst feature “27-1” for the Government Canyon Karst Survey on Saturday, December 2, 2017. Don’t let the feature’s boring and unassuming name fool you. Little did I know that on this trip I would face death many times that day, not to mention the unbearable pain of ripping out clumps of belly hair.

The cave was on recently annexed parkland across Highway 211. We drove down rarely-used roads that were barely visible through the tall grass and parked in a clearing. As we gathered our gear, I kept smelling the horrible stench of death. It would come and go as I walked around my car, and I finally tracked it down to my driver-side tires. Apparently, somewhere in the tall grass, I ran over a rotting carcass, and now bits of it were embedded in my tire with animal hair literally sprouting from the treads. Death was indeed with us this day, but we carried on, ignoring its putrid warning.

Once geared up, we started our hike. The karst feature was relatively easy to locate, especially after I remembered that I could zoom in on my phone’s GPS map. (“Map shows we’re right on top of it…oh wait…[zoom in]…[zoom in]…it’s way over there somewhere.”) Even easier was that it’s in a low spot for the area, and had tiny, dry stream drains approaching it from all four directions, making a huge X-marks-the-spot. The feature itself was a fissure that runs almost perfectly east-west, about three meters long, 25–50 centimeters wide, and appearing to be at least five meters deep.

Not My Name Cave entrance.
The "spacious" crevice entrance to Not My Name Cave (aka 27-1).

The Tiny Coat Closet

Its length and depth made it seem deceptively spacious, but it was tight. Irregular bulges and protrusions prevented entry from anywhere except the far east side. I stuck my feet into the widest section on the east side, made a bunch of loud thumps with my boots, and listened for snakes. I didn’t hear any rattling, so I lowered into the crevice, then traversed west where it looked like I might be able to descend lower. The fissure was tight. I couldn’t turn my head except in a few spots. Too tight to cross my legs over each other or even rotate my hips. When I got to the slot above the lower area, I made a few attempts to descend, but quickly realized there was no way I was going to fit.

This is what caving is all about to me—that thrill of being in new passages, not knowing what’s beyond or if you’ll be able to get in, and if you do, not knowing if you’ll be able to get out. Plus, when it’s so tight and awkward like this, no one can help. You’re on your own. Sure, I was within arm’s length of the surface, but if my foot gets stuck below me, I can’t reach it, and neither can anyone else. It’s a rush.

I continued to the far west side where there was a small area just large enough to stand and rotate. It was the size of a tiny coat closet where the coat sleeves push against the door when you close it. I was able to squat and poke my head into the fissure just below where I had tried from above. It was too tight here as well. There was a large rock jutting into the opening, and Pam suggested from above that I move it. I tried, but the rock was solid and did not wiggle even the slightest.

The Pit

I focused my attention on the floor and managed to remove enough rocks at the edge to clear an opening. Turning sideways and lowering my legs into the opening, I quickly realized that the fissure curved, and my legs could not bend that way. I turned around to face the left wall and once in that position the descent was tight but manageable. I found myself in a small area just tall and wide enough to sit up with my legs dangling in the opening of a pit about four meters deep.

The pit belled very slightly. Its walls were covered with eroded formations of flowstone, curtains, stalactites, and a shelf of tiny rimstone dams. The formations were likely once beautiful but were now deteriorated remnants of their former glory. I called up to the surface that I was above a pit, it goes, and I was climbing down. The pit was an easy free climb. Even though it was far more spacious than the entrance fissure, it was still narrow enough to touch both walls without extending your arms fully.

The floor was slightly moist and densely-packed black dirt. I squatted down and could see a bellycrawl passage that appeared to extend about five meters before pinching off between a bedrock ceiling and the dirt floor. On the other side of the pit was another passage that curved down and behind a large pile of dirt. It was too tight to see around the dirt but appeared to be the direction of the water flow. Mauricio was just entering the cave when I called to him to bring the shovel and rock pick that Marvin Miller loaned us. He snaked his way down the fissure and climbed down the pit. I showed him both passages, and we decided to follow the potential water flow. I went first.

Belly Hair

The dirt floor was as unyielding as the bedrock ceiling above it. Although I managed to get my chest through the entrance, I couldn’t get my hips through. While I was jammed in the passage, I focused my attention on removing the baseball-sized cobblestones strewn across the dirt. These were a smooth, shiny, tan color with angled ridges. My untrained eye had guessed they were some type of flint. They filled the streambeds on the surface and littered flat areas on the way down into the cave.

The passage was so tight that I couldn’t move my arms in front of me to reach the rocks. I had to back out slightly to wiggle my arm above my head. I couldn’t rotate my head, so I took off my helmet and jammed it to the left of me between the dirt pile and ceiling. At that point, I was able to hook my arm around the loose rocks and then squirm backward, one-handed, with the rocks in tow. After two or three times the rocks were mostly cleared, and I turned things over to Mauricio to dig.

Mauricio crawled in the entrance and then promptly took a nap. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. I didn’t hear any digging sounds. He wasn’t moving. He didn’t grunt or strain. While Mauricio was napping, I turned my attention to my belly. It felt like it was sunburned. Turns out that each time I was backing out with a load of rocks, my shirt didn’t come with me and repeatedly dragged my naked belly across the dirt, rubbing it raw.

While that may sound unpleasant, it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as what I’m about to tell you. Let me preface this by saying that I’m a hairy guy, and my belly is no exception. As my exposed belly dragged across the dirt, the dirt clumped up into marble-sized mudballs densely caked around masses of belly hair. I tried pulling off the mudballs but having huge sections of belly hair pulled taut when the entire region is already rubbed raw is enough to bring any man to tears. I somehow managed not to scream in pain and instead tried to break up the mudballs by squishing them instead of pulling them off. Unfortunately, this only seemed to compress them tighter around my belly hair. I stared at my belly and decided it would be best to just shave it all off when I got home. I hadn’t done any manscaping in a while, and this seemed to be the perfect impetus.

Dying Headlamp

About this time Mauricio awoke from his nap and emerged from the dig, well rested. I wiped away my tears of pain and crawled back into the unchanged passage. Again, my hips were stuck, so I spent my time using Marvin’s rock pick to pry up large chunks of dirt and shove them behind me to the left. Eventually, I cleared enough to squeeze around on the right. Unfortunately, my hips were still wedged, so I backed out to dig open the entrance a bit.

I left my helmet and light wedged in the passage and asked Mauricio to shine his light on the entrance so I could see. Unfortunately, Mauricio’s batteries were almost dead and his light was stuck in a dim low-power mode. I dug blindly for a bit and crawled in. Success at last! I was able to inch forward enough to see around the dirt pile. Even though the passage did dip below the far wall, it ended almost immediately in more dirt. Furthermore, there was no leverage or room to maneuver and thus the bulk of the large dirt pile to my left would have to be removed first to make this section accessible. Disheartened, I backed out.

Based on Mauricio’s ephemeral battery charge and the size of the cave, I decided to return to the surface where Mauricio could change batteries and I could get survey gear to properly map the cave. Before we left, I sent Mauricio down the other passage to do a quick check. He crawled in and moved a few large rocks about halfway back that blocked the passage. He claimed that it did indeed pinch off further back, even though he could barely see his hand in front of his face in the feeble light of his dying headlamp. In hindsight, that’s probably why he didn’t see the rattlesnake a few moments later on the climb out.

Trapped in a Closet with a Rattlesnake

Mauricio climbed up the pit and up the squeeze into the tiny coat closet. That’s when he said he could hear a rattlesnake to his left. Sure enough, I could hear the angry buzzing of rattles somewhere above the pit. Mauricio scurried out above me. Once he was clear, I climbed up the pit with the shovel and pick and then up the squeeze. When I stood up in the tiny closet, my headlamp lit up a rattlesnake that was poised to strike less than 30 centimeters away from my face.

Oh, shit!

I immediately put the shovel between my face and the snake as I quickly ducked back down. It was a small rattlesnake that was less than a meter long with a tiny head just a little bigger than a quarter. Its small size was little consolation to me as I tried to figure out how I was going to slip past an incensed rattlesnake in a fissure so tight that I couldn’t even turn my head. Assuming he didn’t bite me directly in my face, maybe he’d wait until my fleshy neck was exposed. Or my chest. Or my belly. What if he bit me in the groin? I’ve seen David Moore’s mangled, rattlesnake-bitten leg—I don’t want to become Frankenweiner. Just kill me now, please.

As I was contemplating my potential death and discussing options with the surface, I kept an eye on the snake with an occasional glance around the shovel. During one of my glances, I saw that the snake was no longer pointed at my face in its strike pose. Instead, it was slithering behind the rocks in front of my chest. I took this opportunity to make my move.

The Collapse

I pushed up on the rock in front of me and BOOM! The entire wall in front of me collapsed. Probably 300 pounds of rocks crashed down in this confined coat closet. Amazingly, the rocks did not crush me or pin me. Instead, they plugged the entrance to the pit. Note that these were the rocks that I previously tried to move but were solid and that both Mauricio and I used to climb up and down the squeezes above and below. If they had fallen at any other time, they could have easily crushed us or trapped us below. This is the largest rockslide that I have personally been next to, and considering the tight confines, I am frankly amazed to be alive and uninjured. However, the rocks did claim a victim—Marvin’s rock pick. I dropped it during the collapse, and it was buried beneath the rocks. “Guess I’ll be buying Marvin a new rock pick,” flashed through my mind.

All that happened in a split second—the collapse, the horror, the joy at being alive, the thought of buying Marvin a new pick—and my mind immediately returned to the rattlesnake. Crap! These rocks were what the snake was slithering behind, and now they were gone. Where is the snake? The entire wall below the snake had disappeared, all except one small, flat rock about the size of my hand that perched vertically on the remaining wall. The snake hid behind this lone rock with rattles buzzing more furiously than ever. His head was just barely visible above the top of the rock, and his dark, forked tongue flicking rapidly only a few centimeters from my face.

The tongue was flicking straight upward, and I could see that the snake was at an awkward angle to strike with the top of his head facing me. To strike from that position, he would have to launch upward from behind the rock while simultaneously spinning 180° to rotate his fangs toward me. Seeing that the snake was no longer in a good position to strike and that I was partially shielded by the tiny rock, I made my move again using Marvin’s shovel as an additional shield from the potential spinning fangs of death. I was able to squeeze my head, body, and legs past the snake in this tight fissure without disturbing it further, getting bitten, or dislodging the small rock. However, I had trouble exiting because I didn’t want to extend my legs below me within striking distance of the buzzing snake. Pam and Mauricio grabbed my hand and pulled me up until I could get enough leverage with my arms to escape.

Bennett standing next to partial remains of a rock collapse in a cave.
About half the remaining rock wall that collapsed while Bennett Lee was standing in this tiny area. Fortunately, he was not pinned or injured by the rocks. However, they did block the crack in the bottom left that leads to the pit below. Thus, the other rocks had to be broken up hauled out the entrance in a soft-sided bucket. Also, the angry rattlesnake during the previous trip was on a small shelf at the bottom right where the climb out begins.

Will You Marry Me? She Said "No"

On the surface, we regrouped. I gave up all hopes of properly surveying the cave with the lower section plugged by rockfall and subsequently guarded by an angry, venomous snake. Thus, I settled for a sketch from memory. I was happy to escape death multiple times with only a lightly smashed knuckle, raw belly, and mud-laden hair on both my belly and head. (Balls of black mud fell from my hair for a solid ten minutes in the shower back at home.)

I haven’t had that much fun caving in a long time or had such profound experiences to make me rethink what I’m doing with my life. It’s amazing how much soul searching you can do in just a few moments when literally staring death in the face. With that in mind, Pam, I love you. Will you marry me? No? There, Dad, are you happy now? She said no. I told you that we didn’t want to get married. Now, will you drop it and let us live our lives together in peace?

Epilogue

I have since learned that 27-1 is named “Not My Name Cave” because the people who originally discovered it didn’t want to be responsible for naming such a heinous crack. Marvin Miller and I returned to Not My Name Cave on March 10, 2018. No snakes were present, or at least not visible or audible. We cleared the rockfall that blocked the entrance to the lower level and did a proper survey of the cave. It turns out the low passage Mauricio checked out with his dying light did not end but instead opened into a large room with another pile of black dirt.

While Marvin sketched, I took photos and dug in the large room. I cleared a channel almost to the back of the room, which might reconnect to the previous room above the dirt pile there. We definitely need some more digging here to verify and exhaust all the potential leads. This cave takes a lot of water, and it’s all draining somewhere.

Also, I did find Marvin’s rock pick under all the rubble. However, by then I had already purchased a new rock pick for him, so I kept his old one. It’s my lucky rock pick now—survived death twice with it. Maybe it’s unlucky because I faced a double-death whammy with it in my hand, and I only escaped after it was buried under a pile of rocks.

Marvin, do you want your unlucky tool back?

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