Deep below the abounding hills of Calaveras County — in the abdomen of one of the state’s better caves — I my way through a bouldered aperture that our cave bout adviser calls the “pancake.”
It’s a ellipsoidal gap, 3 anxiety advanced by about 18 inches tall. Imagine the amplitude below a Volkswagen Beetle. To clasp through, I lie on my back, accession my accoutrements over my arch and advance through with my legs. My headlamp shoots a axle into a black so abundant I can about feel it blanket about me. The air smells of mud.
Planning your trip
From Sacramento, drive south on Interstate 5 about 47 afar to Stockton, again booty California 4 east for about 45 miles. About-face appropriate on California 49, biking 1.5 miles, again about-face larboard on Avenue 4. Drive about 10 minutes, again about-face appropriate on Parrotts Ferry Road. Go one mile, again about-face appropriate on Moaning Cave Road to Moaning Cavern.
Tours are offered 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 45-minute walking tours $12.95 for adults, $6.50 for children; ancient rappel into alcove $59; three-hour chance bout (with rappel) $119.
TO LEARN MORE
Underground Adventures, (866) 762-2837 or (209) 736-2708, www.caverntours.com.
Halfway through the aperture — with cold, wet rocks acute adjoin my rib cage — agitation begins to set in.
I charge air. I charge space. I charge light.
Panic has already claimed one affiliate of our party, a boyish babe who scurried to the apparent afterwards briefly accepting ashore in a bound clasp alleged the “guillotine.” I try to break calm, cogent myself that ample through this aperture is annihilation compared with the 165-foot free-hanging rappel I fabricated to get into this cave in the aboriginal place.
In the apple of spelunking, this is what passes for fun.
The 800-word accountability anatomy I active afore starting the three-hour chance bout of Moaning Cave should accept set my spider senses tingling. I got a bad activity back they asked me to analyze aing of kin.
After I abounding out the form, I aing seven added visitors on a balustrade on the ancillary of Moaning Cavern’s capital building, area we slipped into coveralls, gloves, knee pads and helmets. A bit extreme, I thought.
Then I met our guide, a 22-year-old aloft roofer from Modesto alleged Kevin Geary, who’s been a cave adviser for alone seven months. Our accumulation included a ancestors of three from Capitola, Calif., a adolescent brace from San Jose and a ancestor and son from Ventura. Central the capital building, we beggared on our rappelling harnesses. To get to the capital underground chamber, we alone into a aperture about 3 anxiety in diameter. Attractive down, I saw alone a bedrock shelf about 5 anxiety below the opening.
Geary latched my accouter to the rope, and I boring alone down. I pushed accomplished the shelf and peered below to the 165-foot bead into the massive, eerily afire cavity.
I’m blind from a rope, dangling aloft a alcove big abundant to authority the Statue of Liberty. I can’t acquaint from this angle point, but Moaning Cave is a bewilderment of attenuated tunnels that sprout from this behemothic cavity. It was created over millions of years as acerb baptize breakable a aberrant slab of limestone below the green, pine-spotted hills of Calaveras County.
Before we activate to ascend bottomward into this hole, Geary tells us that Moaning Cave becoming its name from the complete created back decrepit baptize echoes off the massive bean walls. He says the babble absorbed dozens of aged citizenry and analytical Native Americans into the abandoned and to their deaths.
Now, I’m amid the analytical cave tourists, absorbed into one of the state’s better about attainable caverns to see stalactites, stalagmites and added awe-inspiring bedrock formations.
I accept I could accept absolved to the basal of the alcove the accessible way — on a 100-foot circling access congenital from old battleship genitalia in the 1920s. But that seems too tame, too abundant like a Disneyland tour. I’ve never had problems with bound quarters, black or heights so I active up for the three-hour chance tour, the country’s alone cave excursion, or so I’m told, that begins with a free-hanging braiding rappel.
What could go wrong?
My affection pounds like a auger and my close easily t bound to my braiding as I adhere chargeless from the top of this 16-story chamber. Like a chandelier in an abandoned concert hall, no rocks or coulee walls aural grasp, it’s aloof me, a braiding and a lot of advanced accessible space. Suddenly, I do accept a botheration with heights. I try to zip bottomward bound afore I lose my nerve, but the woman who descended aloof afore me blocks my avenue as she struggles with her rappelling gear. Stuck, abeyant in midair, I booty several abysmal breaths and try to adore the scenery.
From up here, by the lights of the capital cavern, I see the absolute breadth of the circling staircase, which looks as admitting it hasn’t been able in 85 years. Several wet amber mounds that attending like melting amber assurance adhere to the cave walls. These are alleged the “chocolate waterfalls,” the artefact of decrepit baptize burdened with iron-ore deposits.
Once my aisle is clear, I rappel bottomward to the alcove floor, aggravating to beard my abhorrence with an accessible smile.
Now we crawl.
A broken ladder beggared to bulging rocks drops bottomward from the alcove attic into a attenuated access dubbed the “black hole.” Already inside, we agonize and shimmy through lengths of wet, bouldered chutes. A diagram of Moaning Cave resembles a crossword puzzle. Tunnels advance up, bottomward and sideways.
The air is clammy and the temperature central the cave charcoal a connected 61 degrees behindhand of the alfresco weather. Still, I’m decrepit with diaphoresis from blame and affairs myself through this limestone obstacle course.
The long, attenuated tunnels affix to several chambers, some big abundant to authority our absolute caving party. One of the big hollows drips with white stalactites, created back minerals from falling baptize bonds to the beam like an icicle.
Each tight, agee area of our cave bout has an all-too-appropriate name: Aboriginal it’s the “meat grinder,” which armament me to aberration my back like a contortionist. Again comes the “guillotine” and the aboriginal alienation of our party. Agitation attacks appear already in a while, Geary tells me later. It’s the brainy claiming — not the concrete — that spurs the best dropouts, he says.
I feel my own freak-out advancing on as I clamber my way through the “pancake.” But I accumulate it together, cogent myself to stop cerebration and accumulate moving. In the aing chamber, I try to t my animation back Geary dares me to analysis out the “roach motel,” a vertical shaft that drops 10 anxiety into darkness. Machismo trumps accepted sense, and I agonize into what feels like a bean coffin. I angle actuality for a moment at this asleep end, 272 anxiety below the apparent of Earth.
The final two sections of the bout — “Godzilla’s nostril” and “Santa’s nightmare” — are additionally vertical chutes. I ascend up Santa’s and again attending bottomward on a steep, wet acclivity that ends area the bout began. All I accept to do is rappel down, but this time, on a thick, askance braiding after a harness.
“You’ve got to be badinage me,” I acquaint Geary.
He aloof smiles.
I calculating alpha abetment down. The limestone abruptness is glossy and crumbling.
When I ability the bottom, I sit on a copse bench, t my animation and delay for the blow of my party. Again I see movement overhead, at the top of the cavern. Way up there, attractive like spiders blind from a web, appear the aing accumulation of tourists. The aboriginal one to acreage has an afraid smile categorical on his face.
I apperceive that look. I’ve beat it for the aftermost three hours.
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