One thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth I hover in unexplored space. I’m alone and on rope. Beneath me, the chord on which I descend disappears into darkness. I look up and see the same. The only object of familiarity other than my own persona comes from the rock wall 15 feet to my side.
All around me the air is saturated with 38 degree moisture. Two years previous I hung in this very place. Not as a photographer, but as an explorer. Our rope was too short and I was left hanging 5 feet from the end of the rope peering into blackness. For all I knew at that time, the floor of the pit was 1000 feet below.
I continue downward, wondering if I remembered to lock down the carabiner on my harnass that secures the 15 pounds of camera gear I carry with me: My Nikon D70, a sturdy, but light weight tripod, two Vivitar flashes, and a PVC tube full of flashbulbs I bought on eBay.
At -1100 feet into the cave at the bottom this 150-foot pit I yell “Off Rope” and listen to my voice reverberate through the massive chamber. At the same time I begin making my way down a canyon off to the right, following the stream down cave.
The ceiling of the meandering canyon begins to dip as I progress down the hallway, until I end up on my hands and knees, forcing my way through a 2.5 foot high by 1.5 foot wide passage half filled with 35 degree water.
My legs instantly begin to throb from the frigid water. The pain is inescapable. With one arm underwater, I do everything I can to keep my camera bag dry with the other. My dry arm begins to tire from the weight of my bag as I inch through the passage. And just as my arm gives way I emerge from the tube onto relatively dry ground.
Immediately the cave opens up and a subway-sized passage fades to black. I pace back and forth, shivering uncontrollably, as I wait for my friend to catch up. I’m alone.
Soon, the water filling my neoprene socks and rubber boots warms to my core temperature or thereabouts. I hear my friend emerge from the near-ice water. And today, what only seven people on earth have seen by the faded light of their headlamps, hundreds or even thousands will see in the comfort of their homes.