Down In a Hole — Oxford’s Larry Wells Goes Kentucky Caving
My helmet is stuck in the 9 x 12 inch “Barehole.”
I’m thinking that if I can’t get my head through, how can the rest of me make it? Called the Barehole because cavers shed shirts to twist through it, this introduction to claustrophobia is the ultimate challenge in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. My “Guardian Angel,” Don Locke, an attorney from Wisconsin, is on the other side of the hole advising me how to align my helmet. I shove him my fanny pack, thus removing an extra obstruction. I’m sweating in spite of the cool 54 degree temperature. My jeans and jersey are caked with red clay, but I’m determined to make the most of the “Wild Cave Tour.”
To get to this point, our band of fourteen neophyte knee-walkers, led by Park Rangers Keven Neff and Brice Leech, have crawled, duck-walked and climbed for nearly two hours reaching 300-foot depths below the earth’s surface—and we’re not even halfway through the tour. Neff waits patiently on the other side of the Barehole. With my head wedged sideways, I can’t see him, but I remember the cavers’ rule: no push, no pull.
“If someone gets stuck in a crawl,” says tour guide Chuck DeCroix, “we tell them to relax, blow out a little air and use teamwork to help them out. At no point do we pull or push someone deeper into a hole for fear of really getting them stuck. We offer support, but it’s up to them to get through on their own.”
Not exactly comforting words.
“You’re about to be tested,” says Neff, a retired schoolteacher who became a seasonal guide at Mammoth and then a year-round regular. “Getting through the Barehole is a mental thing. You have to believe you can do it. That hole is not for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brute force won’t get you anything but stuck. Take your time, let out some air and make yourself fit.” The Wild Cave Tour offers 6 ½ hours and 5 ½ miles of hiking, crawling, climbing and squeezing through narrow passageways. In addition to crawling after park rangers, you get to see hard-to-reach places not available on regular walking tours. On the other side of the Barehole—if we ever get past it—the tour group will break for 30 minutes in the Snowball Room, a snack bar in a large room in the cave, and proceed to a new set of challenges. We’ll climb through canyons, walk on ledges and goggle at off-the-beaten-track sights such as Hovey’s Cathedral Domes, five connected domes averaging 100 feet high. Helmets, kneepads and lights are provided. High top boots that cover the ankle are required, with lug or deeply treaded soles; gloves and long pants are recommended. One’s chest size should not exceed 42 inches. There is a minimum age of 16 and a limit of 14 persons. The Wild Cave tour typically sells out months in advance.