No caving for me in Vang Vieng, Laos, because I survived a freak accident years before.
There were four of us on that fateful trip, all University of Georgia students. Brad was our experienced leader. I had known him for a while, but it was the first time I had met the two other guys who were from Germany.
We were going to explore a North Georgia cave system, and our goal was to reach a vast cavern known for its dramatic formations. It was my first full-day trip underground.
Into the darkness
As dawn was breaking, we crawled into a muddy hole in the middle of a field. The darkness within the hole kept going and going.
For hours, we crawled over and around boulders, slid down muddy banks and squeezed through tight passage ways. With the humidity about 95 percent, everything was damp or slick or tacky. I felt confident that I was ready for the challenge and felt secure following the glow of Brad’s carbide head lamp as two more bobbed behind me.
Brad’s short stocky build served him well. He could crawl along on hands and knees while I had to drag my body on my elbows, sometimes with my belly in a shallow stream with hundreds of feet of dirt and rock inches above my head.
I liked the physical challenge. Every movement forward had to be customized. Every crouch or bend or step had to conform to the organically shaped world of rock, mud and water. And the longer we adapted and preservered, the more dazzling our destination grew in my mind. I had visions of stalactites and stalgamites like teeth in a dragon’s mouth.
I had trouble, however, with the mental challenge. Concerns floated into my mind. What if there was an earthquake? In some of the passages we would be squeezed flat like the cream in an Oreo cookie. Our lights were our Achilles’ heel. Without them we would never find our way out. Exactly how long would our lights last if we got stuck for some reason?
After a few hours, the novelty of the experience started to wear off and I started to think about what I would do when I got home.
Shivers of trouble
When we stopped for a snack in a large room a short way from our goal, I asked if anyone else was shivering a lot. I chalked it up to being sweaty for hours in the 54-degree air.
“Are you bumping into things more than when you started?” Brad asked seriously.
“Yeah, but I’m getting a little tired. This is a lot of work.”
“Or you may be getting hypothermic.” Brad furrowed his brow.
The two Germans exchanged a few sentences in their native language, then one of them said in English, “I will stay with her here. You two go on.”
“Is it that serious?” I asked. “I don’t feel bad or anything. Just cold.”
“That’s not good,” Brad said. “If you get hypothermia and can’t get yourself back out, we’re screwed. Think of how far we’ve come. How long would take for two of us to get out of here and get some help, and then the rescuers to get in here and get you out. At least a couple days. It’s not worth the risk. We need to be safe.”
One of the Germans took off his dirty outer shirt so I could put it over my wool sweater.
“Let’s get your body temperature up,” he said.
As I was doing jumping jacks, Brad and the other German disappeared into a narrow tunnel.
I had spent about twenty minutes vigorously moving about (and running my mouth with idle chitchat) when the duo returned, gushing with excitement. I pouted. I did not have it in me to make this trip again. This was as close as I would ever get.
Going from bad to worse
“Okay, time to go home.” Brad took the lead, and we fell in behind him. All went well until we passed through an area about the size of a double car garage.
There was a sharp sudden noise like a gun shot, made even more piercing as it reverberated off the walls. Rocks start raining down on top of us. They thumped into my helmet and bashed my shoulders and back. Displaced air and dirt blew out our carbide lights.
In the total darkness, I tried to scramble to the far wall where I last saw Brad, but the rocky ground beneath my boots was sliding downhill.
And then everything stopped moving, and all went silent. I was too petrified to ask if everyone was okay. What if they didn’t answer?
“Talk to me,” Brad finally said with a shakey voice.
You didn’t need to speak German to know the two guys started swearing. One finally said, “We are okay.”
“I’m banged up but nothing major, but what the fuck was that?” I demanded with false bravado.
There was a flash as Brad relit his carbide light and looked upward. The ceiling was oddly bright colored and flat where giant pieces had fallen to the ground and broken into rocks that tumbled down the embankment we had been trying to climp up.
“A layer of the ceiling collapsed.”
“Oh, I am so done,” I said lighting my lamp. My legs were shin deep in rubble. “Get me out of here.”
An hour later, tears came to my eyes when we could finally see the sky as the sun was setting. I laid down in the soft green grass and petted it like cherished pet.
In the years after the freak accident, I slowly convinced myself that there was no permanent damage done. The cuts and bruises healed. We four lost touch with each other. The whole thing became a good story.
Dozens of steps into a Laotian cave, my first cave since the accident, and I knew I was wrong. Panic clenched my heart, and I had to back away as if my life depended on it. Caves will darken my confidence for the rest of my life.