Exhale, Then Move
By Sally Bjork
“How many times do you find yourself in a situation where the best advice is “Exhale, then move?,” my friend Nikos asked with a chuckle as we listened to our guide, Ranger John. Ranger John was a retired art teacher turned adventure-tour leader. Fit and fearless, he paced as he prepared us for the six-hour caving journey ahead. With his astute observations of nature, he clearly exhibited the sensibilities of an artist. But, as his grave disposition and stern expression revealed, he also possessed the discipline and soberness of an army sergeant.
“You can decrease your chest capacity by that much,” exclaimed Ranger John holding his fingers two to three inches apart, “if you simply expel all the air from your lungs.”
“Expel all the air?!” I whispered to Nikos in disbelief. “How do you pull yourself from danger if you don’t have any air in your lungs?”
“In a moment of panic,” Ranger John continued, “you’ll want to inhale. But, in a cave, the opposite is required in dire situations.” He sized up the group of ten, mostly novice, spelunkers surrounding him. “Relax and exhale,” he said, straight-faced, “then move.”
My friend Nikos was a papyrologist who worked at our local university a few months each summer. Not a stranger to caving, he had studied 2000-year old graffiti in his homeland, Crete, and had a near-giddy enthusiasm to see “the world’s longest continuous cave”—as he referred to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We opted for the Wild Cave Tour to take us away from the dynamited “avenues” that accompanied hundreds at a time.
Our fellow cavers were, like us, an odd lot—evident in the garb of the woman to my right. Emily was a Ducks Unlimited aficionado who came at the urging of her husband, kneeling by her side. She was equipped with knee-high, waterproof hunting boots, now smeared with cave dust from our crawl through a narrowing tunnel after veering off the main avenue. We emerged into a “room” as Ranger John called the four-foot high circular opening where we had our first rendezvous point. We sat, encircling him—two hundred feet below the surface and heading deeper—in this dome lined with tunnels heading off in different directions. Already feeling parched, I wondered, as Ranger John dispensed the rules for our five-and-a-half mile journey, how I’d make it through with very little water. For the first time I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be there.
Over the course of the next several hours, we traversed formations I didn’t think possible without ropes or other gear. We scaled down the 30-foot crevice between the walls at Pinson’s Pass. We squeezed through the small opening at Bare Hole—so named for the tendency of articles of clothing to remain behind. We contorted our frames in ways that didn’t seem possible, like crawling through a tunnel and bending upward then sideways in order to slide through the cantilevered slabs at Split Rock. We crawled through three-foot high passages filled midway with water, and waded through streams up to our knees. Emily’s boots held out through it all. But, the one thing none of us were prepared for was the claustrophobic-inducing pass that lie ahead.
“What we’ll be coming up on next is No-Name Pass,” announced Ranger John,“sixty yards of belly crawl through two layers of solid rock, narrowing to approximately nine inches for a third of the way.” Faces washed in disbelief. “So narrow, in fact,” he continued, “that your head must remain sideways through most of it.”
“At the narrowest point,” Ranger John said raising his eyebrows, “your helmet will scrape rock on both sides, requiring you to push it through,” he paused, eyeing the disbelievers before continuing, “with considerable force.”
We approached the opening single-file. I dropped to my hands and knees and followed Nikos inside. Crawling quickly became impossible, so I scurried along. Scurry turned to shimmy as the rock closed in. Gladly, my park-provisioned canvas suit slid along with ease as I began to worm my way through No-Name Pass.
“This isn’t so bad,” I said to Nikos, whose boots were right in front of my head. “Ranger John was just trying to scare us.”
Nikos laughed, already feeling the squeeze I had yet to encounter.
The rock lowered above and I had to turn my helmet to the side. With no ability to look ahead, I moved my arms forward, like antennae. In a sweeping motion, I felt for the widest points through which to navigate. A pit of dread formed in my stomach. “Niko?” I said, checking in. “How is it going?”
“Good,” he called back. “It’s tight. But, good.”
My chest was uncomfortably squeezed and I was thankful that I wasn’t wearing the wire-support sports bra I initially packed. As Ranger John predicted, my helmet scraped through rock on both sides. Doubt filled my entire being as I inched my way forward. This must be the narrowest point, I thought. Then, my helmet scraped to a stop just as my chest became wedged between a raised area pressing up on my sternum and the solid unending slab of rock above my spine. My breath increased rapidly as my mind raced to the severity of the situation if I was, indeed, stuck. Am I going to get out of this? I thought.
While the pass was wide enough to stretch my arms outward, the unevenness of the bedrock made it impossible to turn around. What’s more, there were five people behind me. Feeling trapped, images of the hundreds of feet of rock and dirt above me weighed my mind. What if there’s an earthquake? I thought. Even a tremor, a vibration—I am at the complete mercy of nature. Faces of family and friends popped to mind. One hiccup of the earth could crush me in an instant, I thought, offering no chance for goodbyes. As my thoughts sped along, so did my breathing. Shallow breaths were the only possibility. This did nothing to calm me. Panic rose until I clenched my entire body in fear, increasing the unyielding “squeeze” of the rock all around me.
“Niko?” I called out. His voice, a mere muffle in response, sounded far off in the distance.
Then, loudly, I hear… “Aahhh!” It’s Emily, behind me. “I’m stuck,” she shrieked. “I can’t move.” Her husband’s low voice emerged, trying to calm her. “So help me, if I get out of this alive….” I heard her say in response.
“Niko?” I cried. “Are you there?”
Nothing now, but the screams of Emily interspersed with her swearing at her husband for suggesting the trip in the first place.
“We coulda been in Chattanooga by now,” she yelled, “in a hotel . . . with a hot tub!”
Suddenly, her sobs echoed off of the rock all around. I panicked in the chaotic din, until, suddenly the wise words of Ranger John quieted my mind: exhale, then move.
Yes! That’s it! I reassured myself, relaxing my muscles. Exhale, then move. Exhale, then push.
I expelled all the air from my lungs and pushed with my feet. My excitement was quickly deflated as my boots slipped futilely on the smooth rock behind me. Okay, I thought, trying to remain calm. That doesn’t work. Exhale then PULL! I reach ahead to feel for something—a bump, a divot, a rough spot—anything to grab hold of in the bare rock. Just as anxiety wriggled to the surface of my skin and stinging sweat dripped into my eyes, I felt it—a small protrusion on the bedrock. I relaxed for a moment as my fingertips wrapped around it. Exhale, PULL.
My chest squeezed through the bedrock, forcing out air I didn’t realize I still had within me. I moved forward to the point where, yet again, the sides of my helmet scraped to a halt between the rock. Dampened but not defeated, I breathed as deeply as is possible, mentally chanting my new mantra. Relax, exhale, pull. Repeat. Exhale, pull. Repeat. I did this again and again until I pulled myself to an opening high enough to raise my head. For the first time in what seemed an hour, I looked forward.
Helmet lights in the distance assured me that I was not alone. It was clear that it was still too low for me to crawl on my hands and knees. But, I had experienced enough of the belly crawl. So, despite Ranger John’s insinuation that rolling was considered poor form in some caving circles, I turned my body sideways and began to roll. I rolled, side over side in a full stretch, with my arms extended over my head in order to clear the rock. I rolled with glee at this newfound freedom. Freedom of movement. Of body. Of spirit. I rolled, covered head to foot in cave dust sticking to sweat. Giggling like a child, I rolled until I reached the tunnel at the other end, where I stopped, and inhaled.
Sally Bjork is a photographer and writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She highly recommends the Wild Cave Tour!