Out of Darkness
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 EVE SEYFRIED
A Company, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment
The city of Tucson, Arizona, rests in a valley surrounded by four separate mountain ranges. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life exploring those ranges, inside and out. One of my favorite activities is caving. It’s as easy or difficult as you want to make it and you generally have to drive quite a while to find a cave, so there aren’t a lot of crowds when you get there.
One spring, I was looking for a new cave to explore. I lucked upon a locked cavern that was far enough into the Santa Rita Mountains that you had to take a sturdy off-road vehicle to get there. The rangers maintained the keys at their office in the city. I thought this would be the perfect cave to explore with my two friends, George and David, who were in Tucson for their initial flight training with the Air Force.
I signed out the key from the ranger station on a Thursday. The rangers had a four-day weekend, so I wouldn’t be returning the key until their office opened again the following Tuesday. I normally told people when I was going caving, although it was usually just for conversation or bragging purposes rather than safety reasons. This time, however, I didn’t do that. George and David hadn’t told anyone else where they were going either. That was our first mistake.
When we reached the cave, it was night. At this point, I discovered that neither of my companions had headlamps, although one of them brought a flashlight. They also failed to bring food and water. Unfortunately, I had made certain assumptions about their preparation based on their military experience and wild stories. I had also made assumptions based on what I believed was common sense. In my cave pack, I’d brought two extra headlamps and a flashlight. I also had two bottles of water and some munchies. We decided we wouldn’t stay in the cave long enough to need anything other than what I’d brought. Besides, we’d driven a few hours to get to this place. We didn’t want to drive back, failing in our mission to explore a new cave.
The rangers told me this cave required ropes beyond a certain point. I didn’t know my friends’ skill levels, and none of us really wanted to lug the extra gear, so we decided we would not go beyond that point. We dropped into the cavern and, after about an hour of crawling around and admiring Mother Nature, called it a night.
We had gone over a few short ledges to get to an area where we could view an underground lake. The lake sat below another 10-foot ledge. On our way back out, George lost his footing and slipped off the ledge into the lake below, taking one headlamp and the cave pack with him. The headlamp and flashlight in the cave pack were now non-operational, and the food and water were contaminated. To make matters worse, by the time we got George out of the water, we were all soaked.
As we started to make our way back out, nothing looked right. We were lost. We kept coming back to the lake but could not find the path to the entrance. After another hour of futile searching, a second headlamp went out. We were now down to one light source. I turned off the remaining lamp to conserve it. We were all pretty exhausted. As it turned out, George had been up for 36 hours straight. As soon as we stopped to rest, he passed out. As we sat there, the cold set in.
The darkness was very disorienting, even while we were seated. By this point we had been in the cave for five hours. The cave is always 71 F, and it never occurred to me that a person could get hypothermia in that temperature. We were definitely starting to feel the effects, and, combined with the absolute darkness, David and I were bordering on hallucinating. We knew we needed to get out of there soon, so we woke up George and continued our search for the entrance.
After another hour, our last light source started to fade, so we stopped. The cave had many chasms, ledges and bodies of water, so trying to make our way in the dark was not an option. We were in a locked cave, so nobody would just happen to come exploring while we were there. Furthermore, because we were in a remote area of the Santa Ritas, even our attempts to yell for help would be lost on the outside world. The only people who knew we were in the cave were the rangers, and they wouldn’t come looking for us until 24 hours after we failed to return the keys. By then, six days would have passed. We had no food and water, a dying light source and our clothes were soaking wet.
After a couple of days, we accepted the fact that we were going to die in that cave, but some bodily functions continue without regard to impending doom. I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I took our sketchy headlamp to a place a short distance from the guys so I could relieve myself. As soon as I dropped my pants, I felt a very light breeze. I excitedly called George and David over, and we followed the breeze to the entrance. Because we’d been in the dark for so long, the sunlight was incredibly painful. But that didn’t matter because we were alive!
I think the lessons learned from this experience are obvious, but I also believed that certain caving preparations were obvious, so I will list them anyway.
- Bring three light sources per person when you go caving. If you encounter trouble as we did, at least you’ll have extra light. Extra batteries for each light are also a necessity.
- Know the abilities and limitations of your companions. Had we known George had been awake for so long, we probably wouldn’t have gone that day.
- Bring enough liquid and sustenance to get you through at least a day of isolation. It doesn’t have to be much. Beef jerky and power bars would have made a huge difference in our physical states.
- Finally, always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. That way, if you don’t come back, they’ll know when and where to start looking for you.
In addition to the items mentioned above, the National Speleological Society, an organization that promotes safe and responsible caving practices, provides a wide range of information on it’s website for first-time and seasoned cavers. Check it out at https://caves.org/safety/safety.shtml. The organization also produces the brochure “A Guide to Responsible Caving,” which can be downloaded at http://caves.org/brochure/NSS%20Guide%2062309.pdf.