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Friends in a pinch
Fun underground with the UMass Outing Club

UMass Outing Club

INTO THE BREACH: Jim Laing and Mai Maheigan at the mouth of Morris Cave. (Ben Barnhart photo)

Only a few steps into the throat of Morris Cave in southern Vermont, where brave cavers go from walking to stooping to crawling in the space of a dozen feet, three students turn back, just as the mountain begins to close around them.

 


It is a sign of things to come.

     It isn’t that we haven’t been warned of the difficulties. At the pre-trip meeting three days ago, Jim Laing, BDIC senior and official “locker rat” of the UMass Outing Club, had patiently explained that cave exploration, or “spelunking,” is no walk in the park.

     We’d received classic caving advice: Try not to disturb the bats. Wear wool socks so your feet stay dry. Bring a change of clothes, because by the end your first set will be toast.

     No one at the meeting had seemed discouraged by these warnings. People seemed heartened, in fact, by an account of challenges posed by the last caving trip – an underwater exit and potential hypothermia – which this one would not include.

     After all, we’d allowed ourselves to figure: What’s a little crawling around? “Think of it as if you’re underneath your car, changing the oil,” one experienced caver had advised.

     This metaphor works only until you realize the “car” is actually untold tons of stone so close to your person it feels like body wrap. The metaphor breaks down entirely in the first “wet pinch,” where it occurs to you that the word “spelunking” sounds suspiciously like something being dropped in water.


Squeezing themselves through wet, dark caves for the fun of it is typical kicks for the members of the UMass Outing Club. “We Take People Out In The Woods And Do Things With Them” is the motto of this student group, founded in 1922, which offers literally hundreds of activities for the adventurous each year.

     “It’s a way to try new things,” says Jessica Hagan, junior in biology and club vice president. “It’s definitely a confidence-builder. You conquer what you’re afraid of.”

     In the primal fear department, caving probably takes the cake, but fearless or prudent, veteran or tyro, just about anyone willing to get off the couch and head outdoors will find something enticing among the club’s offerings. (If only the sauna uphill from the group’s “Alumni Cabin” in New Hampshire.)

     Trips range from summer evening hikes near campus to week-long expeditions over spring break: caving in West Virginia, canoeing in Texas, backpacking in the Adironacks. The club also maintains a cache of equipment that Hagan calls “really inexpensive compared to commercial venues.”

     For a fee of $7 a semester or $10 a year, members can rent cross-country skis for $5 a weekend. A canoe is $15. A backpack, $4. Snowshoes, $2. Rentals are even cheaper if the gear is for a club-sponsored outing: $1 for everything you need, plus a small fee for the trip itself.

     This trip to Morris Cave cost a total of $3 per person, which we surely burn through in batteries for our headlamps. After the first few hard knocks cushioned by our Outing Club helmets, those three dollars look like the best investment possible.


The tunnel narrows into the first of a series of pinches: holes so small that only the disappearance of the pair of sneakers ahead of me convinces me I may possibly fit. One of our hardy queue breaks into his own version of “Walk Like a Man” (“Walk like a crab, talk like a crab ...”)

     This is limbo, only lower, and avoiding the floor is not an option.

     Two cavers ahead of me begin to lose heart. Huddled against one side of the tunnel, catching their breath, are Michele Meder, a sophomore in wildlife conservation, and Joanne Makredes, a communications sophomore. Experienced caver Obe Racicot ’00G is talking to them softly: “We won’t force you through,” says Racicot. “We won’t force anyone through.”

     Even in the yellow light of the headlamps the two women look pale, and as the rest of us slip past, we try to encourage them. “You’re doing fine,” I say, and later, as Meder and Makredes come crawling up behind me through a difficult corkscrew passage that changes elevation, I say: “Awesome. You should be proud.”

     My cheerleading is half-selfish. I don’t want to be the only squeamish one. I want company.

     Meder is cheerful, laughing at her previous notions of caving. “I was expecting to crawl – even walk! – not slither,” she says. “And I thought it would be flat – not hills and valleys.”

     Makredes is grouchier. “I thought it would have signs,” she grumbles. “Sort of touristy: ‘Now Entering Blah-Blah Cave.’” Her voice goes dark. “This is what it would be like to be underground, dead.”

     But for all our fears and travails, all three of us make it all the way to the “main room” of Morris Cave. An amorphous chamber the size of a small house – it’s “floor” covered with boulders, split-levels, and sudden dark chasms – the space is probably a couple of stories high at the tallest points.

     It’s taken an hour-and-a-half to make this 300-foot crawl into the mountain, over marble and aggregate rock that’s been rubbed smooth by countless cavers but is still terribly unforgiving to unpadded knees. The sub-tortoise speed is due mostly to pauses as the large group stopped up at each pinch, and as people turning back were led out by a guide.

     Meder is positively beaming at her success. Laing, the group leader, sees her as evidence of the “conquer your fear” theory. “I think everyone would like caving if they tried it,” says Laing. “Like Michele, she wanted to back out but then she did it. There’s no one who really likes small spaces.”

     “I do,” chimes in Mai Maheigan, a junior in natural resource studies. This is her fifth caving trip and she squeezes through virtual pinholes as if she were made of water. “I’ve always liked small, dark spaces,” says Maheigan.“ And crawling around. And total darkness.”


Total darkness comes in odd moments in the tunnel on the way out – generally as we’re waiting at one of the pinches for our group to slowly worm its way through. One caver will shut off his headlamp to save batteries, then another, until only one headlamp is on for a half-dozen people. Then that one person’s hand will reach up and with a quick twist, bring on the dark.

     It’s less frightening than it sounds. The talk continues even as our pupils dilate to try to see the light that isn’t there. The dark is almost a comfort, part of the cave’s decor, the steady 48-degree moist air, the smooth knucklebones of rock.

     At the third and final pinch, we realize we’re waiting longer than we should be: One of the cavers is stuck. The soothing voice of Racicot can be heard giving advice: “Pull her legs slowly. Let her guide you.” The extracted caver emerges looking triumphant. “I’ve been rebirthed,” she says. “The mountain spit me out!”

     Hagan’s dictum has prevailed: Many of us have conquered that which made us afraid. Two-thirds of the original 18-member group made it to the main room. Eight of them even sloshed through an underground creek to explore other passages.

     All of us are filthy in ways that defy description. No one screams when a half dozen bats wake and flicker around our heads. As we troop back to the cars we’re laughing, already telling stories about this experience, already forgetting the mental crush of a mountain’s weight.

     “This does combine a bunch of fun stuff,” sighs Maheigan. “I think I’m hooked.”

– Karen Skolfield ’98G

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