VALLECITO -- Deep under the wooded hills of Calaveras County, in the belly of one of the state's largest caves, I worm my way through a rocky slot that our cavern tour guide calls the "pancake." It's a rectangular gap 3 feet wide by about
18 inches tall.
Imagine the space under a Volkswagen Beetle. To squeeze through, I lie on my back, raise my arms over my head and push through with my legs.
My headlamp shoots a beam into a darkness so heavy I can almost feel it wrap around me. The air smells of mud.
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Halfway through the opening, with cold, wet rocks pressing against my rib cage, panic begins to set in.
I need air. I need space. I need light.
Panic already has claimed one member of our party, a teenage girl who scurried to the surface after briefly getting stuck in a tight squeeze called the "guillotine." I try to stay calm, telling myself that crawling through this hole is nothing compared with the 165-foot free-hanging rappel I made to get into this cavern in the first place.
In the world of spelunking, this is what passes for fun.
The 800-word liability form I signed before starting the three-hour adventure tour of Moaning Cavern should have set my spider senses tingling. I got a bad feeling when they asked me to identify next of kin.
After I filled out the form, I joined seven other visitors on a porch on the side of Moaning Cavern's main building, where we slipped into coveralls, gloves, kneepads and helmets. A bit extreme, I thought.
Then I met our guide, a 22-year-old former roofer from Modesto named Kevin Geary, who has been a cave guide for only seven months.
Our group included a family of three from Capitola, a young couple from San Jose, and a father and son from Ventura. Inside the main building, we strapped on our rappelling harnesses. To get to the main underground chamber, we dropped into a hole about 3 feet in diameter.
Looking down, I saw only a rock shelf about 5 feet below the opening.
Geary latched my harness to the rope, and I slowly dropped down. I pushed past the shelf and peered below to the 165-foot drop into the massive, eerily lighted cavity.
I'm hanging from a rope, dangling above a chamber big enough to hold the Statue of Liberty. I can't tell from this vantage point, but Moaning Cavern is a maze of narrow tunnels that sprout from this giant cavity. It was created over millions of years as acidic water eroded a monstrous slab of limestone under the green, pine-spotted hills of Calaveras County.
'Moan' lured the curious
Before we begin to climb down into this hole, Geary tells us that Moaning Cavern earned its name from the sound created when dripping water echoes off the massive stone walls. He says the noise lured dozens of prehistoric dwellers and curious American Indians into the void and to their deaths.
Now I'm among the curious cave tourists, lured into one of the state's largest publicly accessible caverns to see stalactites, stalagmites and other weird rock formations.
I suppose I could have walked to the bottom of the chamber the easy way -- on a 100-foot spiral staircase built from old battleship parts in the 1920s. But that seems too tame, too much like a Disneyland tour.
I've never had problems with tight quarters, darkness or heights, so I signed up for the three-hour adventure tour, the country's only cave excursion, or so I'm told, that begins with a free-hanging rope rappel.
What could go wrong? My heart pounds like a jackhammer and my tense hands clamp tight to my rope as I hang free from the top of this 16-story chamber. Like a chandelier in an empty concert hall, no rocks or canyon walls within grasp, it's just me, a rope and a lot of wide open space.
Suddenly, I do have a problem with heights. I try to zip down quickly before I lose my nerve, but the woman who descended just before me blocks my route as she struggles with her rappelling gear. Stuck, suspended in midair, I take several deep breaths and try to enjoy the scenery.
From up here, by the lights of the main cavern, I see the entire length of the spiral staircase, which looks as though it hasn't been reinforced in 85 years. Several wet brown mounds that look like melting chocolate balls cling to the cave walls. These are called the "chocolate waterfalls," the product of dripping water laden with iron-ore deposits.
Once my path is clear, I rappel down to the chamber floor, trying to disguise my fear with an easy smile.
Now we crawl.
Into the 'black hole'
A rickety ladder strapped to protruding rocks drops down from the chamber floor into a narrow passage dubbed the "black hole." Once inside, we squirm and shimmy through lengths of wet, rocky chutes. A diagram of Moaning Cavern resembles a crossword puzzle. Tunnels lead up, down and sideways.
The air is moist, and the temperature inside the cave remains a constant 61 degrees regardless of the outside weather. Still, I'm drenched with sweat from pushing and pulling myself through this limestone obstacle course.
The long, narrow tunnels connect to several chambers, some big enough to hold our entire caving party. One of the big hollows drips with white stalactites, created when minerals from falling water bond to the ceiling like an icicle.
Each tight, twisting section of our subterranean tour has an all-too-appropriate name: First it's the "meat grinder," which forces me to twist my spine like a contortionist. Then comes the "guillotine" and the first defection of our party. Panic attacks happen once in a while, Geary tells me later. It's the mental challenge -- not the physical -- that spurs the most dropouts, he says.
I feel my own freak-out coming on as I slither my way through the "pancake." But I keep it together, telling myself to stop thinking and keep moving. In the next chamber, I try to catch my breath when Geary dares me to check out the "roach motel," a vertical shaft that drops 10 feet into darkness. Machismo trumps common sense, and I squirm into what feels like a stone coffin. I stand here for a moment at this dead end, 272 feet beneath the surface of Earth.
The final two sections of the tour -- "Godzilla's nostril" and "Santa's nightmare" -- also are vertical chutes. I climb up Santa's and then look down on a steep, wet incline that ends where the tour began. All I have to do is rappel down, but this time, on a thick, knotted rope without a harness.
"You've got to be kidding me," I tell Geary.
He just smiles.
I gingerly start backing down. The limestone slope is slick and crumbling.
When I reach the bottom, I sit on a wood bench, catch my breath and wait for the rest of my party. Then I see movement overhead, at the top of the cavern. Way up there, looking like spiders hanging from a web, come the next group of tourists. The first one to land has an uneasy smile etched on his face.
I know that look. I've worn it for the past three hours.