Extreme cavers: don’t watch these videos if you’re claustrophobic | sport

ILast month, 15-year-old Jacob Sanders found himself stuck deep in a dark cave. He had stripped down to his underwear, his bare chest bleeding from scratches. And he was shivering with cold.

But he was not afraid. His uncle, Calvin Sanders, and his father were nearby, and they were confident they could get him out. In fact, they had helped him into the difficult spot, hoisting him through a small crack in the ceiling to sink deeper into the Pacific Northwest cave, further than any human could. had never been before.

But now, without a boost or anything to push with his legs, he struggled to squeeze through the gap, similar in size to a dog door opening, but lined with basalt rocks. sharp and rough made of lava.

“I took my hoodie off first to fit in,” Jacob explained in a recent video call from Washington state, where he lives. “I was covered in blood and scratches on the walls of the cave. And my belt buckle got stuck. And I couldn’t really breathe. So I had to take my belt off. And then my pants came off. got stuck, so I literally started taking my pants off and everything.

(Warning: do not watch the video below if you are claustrophobic.)

Finally, flayed but smiling, Jacob managed to rejoin his family. The scene wasn’t the subject of a video on Caveman Hikes, their YouTube channel chronicling Jacob and Calvin’s often claustrophobic caving excursions, but it’s similar to the scenarios that helped their videos go viral.

In the video titled “The worst claustrophobic caving you’ll ever see”, for example, Calvin, a 46-year-old military veteran and experienced outdoorsman, and a small team of expert cavers use a drill to dig a long front passage get stuck to access a larger cavern below.

While the chipping allows Calvin to barely squeeze through the passage, it’s excruciating to watch. Holding a GoPro camera on a selfie stick in a slightly bleeding hand, he can barely move his head from side to side. At one point, his slightly taller colleague gets stuck in front of him and has to be dragged by his feet to free himself, nibbling at the boulder to give himself some more room and make another attempt.

As Jacob continues to grow, he is able to fit into even smaller spaces than most. In another video, “The Tightest Cave Squeeze Ever”, his uncle helps him into a 6-by-10-inch hole headfirst; he squirms calmly and deftly to a large cavern on the other side. With a flashlight in hand, he happily runs around the sides of the cave walls, hitting the ceiling with his other hand and taking it. Then he climbs back through the hole, this time “Superman-style”, with his hands and arms. in the front so his uncle could pull it out.

“It was great in there!” he exclaims, laughing. “It was so much fun!”

Jacob and Calvin agreed that even if no one was watching their YouTube videos, they would keep exploring. Photography: Calvin Sanders

Jacob and Calvin agreed that even if no one was watching their YouTube videos, they would still explore the hundreds of local underground lava tubes and tree casts in southern Washington and Oregon created by past eruptions of nearby volcanoes. such as Mount Saint Helens. They both grew up hiking, and sometimes their family chose caves over waterfalls to visit along the way.

But after the Covid-19 pandemic, this infrequent pastime turned into an obsession.

“When I first went into caves I was terrified,” Jacob admits, adding that initially he always let his uncle go first, just in case someone or something nasty happened. would find around the corner. But now, this uncertainty about what lies ahead brings a wave of excitement and wonder.

“Caves will always surprise me,” he said. They always offer something new, falling or bending in unexpected ways, or containing fascinating geological formations or conditions. “Is it going to be wet?” Will it be dry? Is it going to be cold, dirty, muddy, clean? Is it going to be, like, pretty or is it going to be super ugly, you know, like a creepy cave that’s all spiky? »

For Calvin, it’s also a creative outlet, with the element of lighting, shooting and editing thrown into the mix, as well as the opportunity to recite philosophical and often funny monologues about human nature. And he likes the psychological impact the videos have on the audience, which largely seems to be people suffering from claustrophobia and engaging in some sort of exposure therapy.

“This video made me hit pause and exit. TWICE,” wrote one commenter. “I’m better though… I could never watch a whole video before.”

But after encountering a few challenges on their own adventures, the pair decided to join their local ‘cave’, a more formally organized chapter of the National Speleological Society, which began in the 1960s, long before technology like GPS .

The Oregon Cave Librarian, which is a bit of a misnomer as it focuses on southern Washington, is the official custodian of approximately 600 tightly guarded cave maps that reveal the secret locations of every documented cave in the region. . Because the maps can pose a hazard to inexperienced hikers and may appear inviting to vandals and litter when made public, cave members are committed to keeping the locations private.

But it’s not a popular sport, said cave chairman Ahrlin Bauman, who has appeared in a few of the channel’s videos. The group has only about 20 active members, he said, although there are more on the official mailing list. Indeed, most tours involve a long hike of up to three miles through thick forest to the sites. Some caves require rope work, abseiling down a cavern before going through a tunnel or squeezing through sharp, rugged passages. The surfaces made of lava are so rough that a caver’s clothes and shoes only last for one or two excursions.

view from outside a cave with a man in the middle
This year, the cave plans to survey an additional 58,000 feet of caves. Photography: Arhlin Bauman

But with members like Jacob and Calvin, there’s been new energy to keep surveying the caves and “pushing” them – looking closer than the previous generation’s cave to see if the caves are longer than they are. originally thought, sometimes extending them over 1,000 feet. .

Five years ago, Bauman said, he was exploring one of his favorite caves, Scott’s Cave, when he discovered a tree shaft that turned into an erosion cave connected to a lava tube. – a complete visual history of what was under a lava eruption that occurred. 4000 years ago.

“You find something like this and it will invigorate you for a whole year,” he said. “You don’t have to find anything else.”

The exhilaration of discovery, of being somewhere no one else has been, drives cavers to keep pushing. This year, Bauman and the cave plan to survey an additional 58,000 feet, or about 10 miles, of caves.

But the cave is not the official administrator of the regional caves. They sometimes clash with the local Forest Service, who don’t always want them to clean up vandalized caves and may not share their goal of keeping the caves open, but private, with only community members knowing of the locations.

The caves are sometimes closed. One of Bauman’s favorite places, Dynamited Cave, got its name after a group of kids got stuck there decades ago. They had used an extendable rope to rappel into the scenic cave, known for its orange walls that glow under LED lights. But when they let go of the rope, it bounced 10 feet out of their reach. Their parents found them and they were rescued, and the entrance to the cave was sealed off with explosives. But it was later reopened and remains, partly because local townspeople developed a fondness for the cave.

Calvin said the kinds of hazards members of the public are asking for – like poor air quality – weren’t real risks. And you will never encounter dangerous animals – the only wild animals are insects and bats. But there is no cell phone service and it can get cold. The temperature almost always hovers around 48F. After sweating profusely in a strenuous passage, it may feel freezing. Hypothermia is a real risk, as is exhaustion from overuse.

In 2009, John Edward Jones, a 26-year-old medical student, got stuck upside down as he entered headfirst into a passageway in Nutty Putty Cave, Utah. Despite valiant efforts to save it over the course of 28 agonizing hours, Jones died there, leaving behind his pregnant wife and young child. His body was never found and the cave was sealed to prevent anyone else from suffering the same fate.

“Sometimes if I’m really in a tough spot, I’ll just lay down and relax,” Bauman said, adding that having a sense of calm and patience is one of the most important skills a speleologist may have. “A lot of times people panic and start squirming and getting stuck even more. So I learned that the harder you try to fight it, the worse you get. He took this calm to the extreme, falling asleep in cramped places to rest his tired muscles and mind.

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