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From the July 13, 2000 Edition

To the Center of the Earth

There are cathedrals under the desert. Getting there is hell. Getting out is worse. But for several Las Vegans, caving is worth the risk

By Andrew Ramsay (ramsay@vegas.com)
Photos by Jenna Bodnar (lasvegasweekly@lasvegasweekly.com)

Andrew Ramsay dangles from a rope... in Hell.

It's a dark so intense that it folds across your face like a wet towel. Somewhere 60 feet across the room, crouched behind a rock is Dave Starling's wristwatch, which I assumed is still emitting its ghostly blue pall, but all I can see is nothing. Complete and utter blackness.

I'm standing on a muddy lip, wide enough only to hold my heels, the front half of my boots hanging out over a 30-foot drop. My hand has found a perfect hold, a smoothly sculpted fin of stone no more than a foot or so above my head. The borrowed helmet, strapped with lights, provides protection for my melon, but at the cost of an agonizing itch to my scalp that I've been fighting all afternoon. Several hundred yards deep within the earth, I sit and wait. And wait.

My mind drifts, sorting through all the ways I could be tossing away this Saturday afternoon. I think of the astounding patience of professional photographers and finally imagine what the story of my demise will look like. Emblazoned across the front page, I hope--maybe even the lead story on the 11 o'clock news.

Rescue crews Tuesday recovered the fourth and final body from Pinnacle Cave on Mt. Potosi, 20 miles southwest of the city.

On Monday, the bodies of two experienced local cavers and a reporter for the Las Vegas Weekly were found near the mouth of the cave. But it wasn't until yesterday that rescuers located the fourth member of the group, a local photographer.

Caver Claire Jacobi descends into Pinnacle Cave.
Rescuers said the woman's body--the names of the deceased were withheld pending notification of relatives--was found slumped over a tripod. "It seems as if she wasn't able to get the tripod into the perfect position and possibly died of frustration," explained U.S. Forest Service workers. They also said that an exposed film roll in the camera may provide clues as to why the four people perished.

"Ok, you guys can turn your lights on," says photographer Jenna Bodnar. "The tripod slipped again."

I twist my headlamp, illuminating a corner of the twisted stone room. The only other member of our group that I can see, 35-year-old constructional engineer Claire Jacobi, is slumped face down on a massive polished boulder. For just a moment I think we may have lost her, then she opened her eyes and smiled in the direction of my light. I realized, and quite to my astonishment, that she couldn't possibly be more at home.

"OK, I think I got it set, lights out."

DANGER

Since the love affair between Madison Avenue and the term "extreme sports" was born, nature and outdoor recreation have never been the same. A mere 30 years ago, activities like snowboarding and personal watercraft mayhem were completely unknown. Rock climbing and even skiing were considered exotic pasttimes. You would have been hard-pressed to find a rock-climbing gym anywhere in this country. But all that has changed with the growing popularity of everything from ATV's to mountain bikes, in-line skates to tandem parachuting--activities that allow anyone with a hand full of spare cash to feel the euphoric high of pure adventure. No longer are the summits of mountains the exclusive right of Chamonix Mountain Guides. An ever-increasing number of people, unsatisfied with the simplicity of "car camping," have raised the bar on what exactly outdoor recreation means.

Caver Dave Starling rigging the ropes.

Of course none of this comes without a price. There arises a range of contradictions that in one way threaten the very nature that the adventurer desperately seeks to enjoy. The danger that the extremists live for can quickly lead to an exit stage death. The sport of caving is a perfect example of this dichotomy. As long as people continue to willingly race headlong into fantastically dangerous places, the question remains: Where do you draw the line between adventure and recklessly baiting the Grim Reaper?

DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON

"I don't like to get myself in hazardous situations," says 35-year-old Las Vegan Dave Starling. Maintaining and repairing pay phones for a living, Starling spends most of his spare time pushing the limits of outdoor adventure. Whether he's dangling off an iron-red cliff on the grace of a nylon rope, sliding feet first into a subterranean crack, or plunging his mountain bike hell-bent over slick rock sandstone, it would seem that Starling tries very hard to contradict this, putting himself specifically into hazardous situations.

"When you step backwards off a cliff, it always scares me," he explains. At the exact moment his weight sinks into the rope, he mentally asks: "How good did I rig this?" If his harness is properly fastened, the metal ring (carabiner) tightly locked, and the descending rack correctly woven with the rope, he feels there is, in fact, no real undue danger at all.

"I'm not a person that thrives on danger," Starling says. But he insists that the thrill of repelling off of a cliff is more about being somewhere a human usually can't go, not about cheating a certain death. "If I respect safety, I don't feel I'll get hurt."

It seems that an initial thrill of danger may spur him to try things for the first time, but testing the odds again and again would seem reckless to him. "I was going to do the running of the bulls in Mesquite," he explains. "Wow, being the prey rather than the predator, that would be great. ... I don't know that I'm crazy enough to do that (year after year), but I'd do it once."

The fact that Starling would never drop into a cave without clearly knowing what the risks and dangers are seems rational. And yet, putting himself in a crowd of people, in front of the horns of a half-ton charging bulls would seem like yet another contradiction. When asked about this, Starling just shrugs: "Yeah, I guess so."

DON'T CALL ME A SPELUNKER

Speleology is essentially the study of caves. A branch of geology, it is the science of the spelunker. But make this clear, anyone who uses the term "spelunking" is not a caver; cavers would never use that word.

"Spelunk is the sound a caver makes when he falls off the rope," laughs Starling.

Ask a room of cavers why they have such a problem with the term and you're bound to get as many answers as people present. A self-ad-mitted odd collection of people who feel most at home in the dank cellars of nature, cavers and their etiquette can be rather complicated.

Even the exact location of Pinnacle Cave is not openly advertised. Local cavers who treat the sanctity of the labyrinths with almost religious regard, at times aggressively trying to dissuade the casual visitor from potentially ruining their church.

"There are what we call garbage caves, party caves," says Starling. "Places where kids go and drink beer, spray paint walls, break bottles. They're (basically) lost caves and we don't mind that much, but something like Pinnacle, that's different."

In a cave there is only geology. Or at least essentially, that is the case in Pinnacle Cave. Outside, the slopes of Mt. Potosi have a range of ecological zones, from the arid alluvial valley floor to cool juniper forests at the higher elevations. Inside the cave is another world. The deepest rooms are carved and molded into fantastic stone galleries. For being a mere 20 miles from downtown Las Vegas it seems incomprehensible that such a National Geographic kinda place exists, and yet the delicious cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites festoon the deeper rooms in bulbous ornaments. Delicate mineral deposits thousands of years old cover the walls, ceilings and floor of many of the rooms, looking like dirty cauliflower, deep-sea corals, perversely phallic ... um, phallic sort of things. Whole stone walls look like a pregnant Antoni Gaudi nightmare. The line between the work of nature and the artifice hand of man are blurred. It is, more than anything else, a beautiful place.

It's also a place that cavers treat with almost fervent respect.

To illustrate Starling's respect for Pinnacle, more than a year ago, while changing out a flashlight in one of the larger rooms near the back of the cave, he dropped two spent batteries. After spending more than a half-hour looking for them, he reluctantly left them. "Oh, it bothered me severely," he admitted a year later. "Those batteries were going to be there decaying, I was sick." It was in the same room that we spent the hour-long photo shoot, and to kill time, Starling returned to his year-old search. Letting out a holler, he was certain he'd at last found them, only to admit that if they were the same ones they would have been further decayed. All the same, he felt a certain vindication knowing that having left two in, he was now taking two out. "I just hope someone else found them and they're not still there."

For Claire Jacobi, her love of caving comes from something more base. When she was a child, perhaps four or five, she would escape into her parents garage and crawl into the mechanics pit under the car. "The thing I remember about it was the smell," she says with a smile. "It may sound strange, but when people ask me what I like about caving, it's the smell."

ODD BEHAVIOR

When it comes to eccentric habits, cavers are certainly not alone. When a pastime becomes enthusiasm, and then leads to fervent passion, many outdoor adventurers border on the elitist. Cavers don't like climbers, climbers don't like mountain bikers, bikers don't like ATVers and, well, everyone hates jet-skiers. Even if a certain degree of rivalry and borderline snobbery does exist, it's hard to say that it's any more than avid golfers, or even hardcore soccer players.

There is something, though, that links all true adventurers--that a Zen-like transcendence, a feeling that they are no longer a spectator of the nature that surrounds them, but a part of it. A feeling of fluid peace that often belies the very real danger that accompanies it. It was this that I saw in the peaceful smile of Jacobi, deep in the bottom of Pinnacle Cave. In a place that rightly should have encouraged fear and danger, she felt complete comfort.

Example: The most spectacular rooms in Pinnacle are the ones that look more like air ducts than doorways. Looking over the options, with each passage looking more ominous than the next, Jacobi sees my apprehension and gives her customary grin and laughs. "Oh no, not that one. Certain death lives down there," she says, pointing to the crack near my feet. "Around the corner is probable death. And up ahead, that's where Mr. Very Messy Death lives ... Come on, let's go."

When it comes to transcending the danger, climber Alex Lowe is unequalled. Considered by many to be the greatest rock/ice climber ever, Lowe is a study of the complexity of a man who lives to push the edge. With a clean-cut demeanor of a Boy Scout, Lowe balanced the fine line between being a family man and being this nations preeminent danger junkie. His effortless climbs on thin-as-a-dime handholds are legendary. When new "superstar" climbers come along, the first thing anyone asks is: How do they compare to Alex Lowe?

His kneejerk smile and humble nature made him the wunderkind of the climbing world. Whether it was in the fantastic reaches of the unnamed peaks of Antarctica or in his backyard of Montana, Lowe was unstoppable, better than anyone at looking death in the eye and finding tranquility.

On October 5th, 1999, Alex Lowe's luck ran out. On the slopes of an immense peak in Chinese Tibet called Shishapangma, a massive avalanche calved off the upper ridge and swept down upon a group of doomed climbers, including Lowe. His body was never found; he was 40 years old and left a wife and two children.

Some people might say that at least he was doing what he loved most when he died, but they'd be wrong. It would be impossible for anyone but him to explain exactly what he loved most, but it'd be safe to say that desperately running away from refrigerator-sized chunks of ice only to be crushed to death was not what Alex Lowe loved to do.

His close friend and fellow climber Conrad Anker was with Lowe when the avalanche hit and managed to survive. It was Anker who had to break the news to Lowe's wife. After having gone through this, one might openly wonder at the sanity of Anker, who continues to return to the high mountains, knowing perfectly well that he could be the next one to go. When his number is up, he might be thinking about Lowe's last words.

"Alex said, 'Oh shit, there's an avalanche. Holy shit, look at that avalanche.' Not too many words..."

GETTING OUT

Mountain climbers often say that when you reach the summit, you must remember, you're only halfway there. After more than six hours of crawling, squeezing and grunting through Pinnacle Cave, the worst part was the last 30 yards.

The entrance to Pinnacle Cave is a shear drop of more than 100 feet. A slight overhang at the top leaves more than 85 feet of rope to dangle freely into the blackness. Knowing how to rappel is the only way you're gonna get in. Knowing how to ascend out is the only way you're gonna live.

There are many forms of rope ascenders on the market these days. The idea is that you have two locking grips that can slide up the rope, but won't slide down. To these are attached a safety line, which is hooked to a harness and two foot straps. By putting all your weight on one lock, you slide the other up six or eight inches at a times.

Sound simple?

Remember the peg-board torture in high school gym? You can practice this sort of stuff all you want--as I did--but faced with looking up a hundred feet to the ground, and knowing there's no other option, it's a different story.

Adventure and thrills are often the jewels we weave into the fabric of our lives. But like so many other things, the dream is often tainted by the reality of actually doing it. We had spent more than eight hours experiencing the "thrill" of caving. Each of us working through levels of joy, euphoria, and yes, personal hell.

Was there any point in asking why? We looked at each other, arms numb, gasping for breath, and you could see it in the faces.

We all knew what the answer was.

For more information on caving in the Las Vegas area, contact the Southern Nevada Grotto Club's Steve Deveny at 870-1618.

 






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