“So where’s the entrance?” I ask, eyeing the numerous sinkholes surrounding us.
“Well, to find the entrance,” replies Dave Joaquim - trip leader and conservation chair for our grotto, “remember this: line yourself up with that sink,” gesturing towards the largest of the sinks, “that one,” the smallest one now, “and that one over there.” He has now indicated all of the sinkholes within 20 feet of our conversation. “Once you’ve lined up with them, you’re there. Look down.”
I look at my feet. Half covered with pine needles is what appears to be a steel plate set in the ground. My toes are on the plate. A small pile of stones lies nearby, undoubtedly used for additional camouflage. All I can muster at this point is a chuckle and a “wow”. Arizona caving secrecy indeed. The steel plate is square, 18 inches on a side, and has a 4-inch diameter hole cut in the middle. I reach through the hole and can feel the lock hanging underneath, safely protected from the elements. Judging by the sediment buildup, this gate has been in place for some time since dirt and detritus have completely filled the cracks between the plate and the concrete footing in which it rests.
Standing about the entrance are Rick, Holly and Blaze, who complete our intrepid party. By all accounts, this is a strong team. Rick and Blaze have experience caving back east. Holly has been to this cave before, and has an impressive resume of caving experience on her own. Dave’s resume is too impressive to list here. By all accounts, I’m the least experienced person on this trip, but I have youth on my side - I hope that will be enough. As Dave readies a rappel anchor around a convenient nearby tree, the rest of us begin to gear up. This is what cavers refer to as a nuisance drop. It’s nothing to write home about, and effectively serves as a pain in the ass for getting in and out of the cave. Vert gear it is, then: harnesses, rappel devices, and ascending gear. As we prepare, Dave provides us with a bit of beta: “The crack is about 30 feet deep from here. There’s a short initial drop, then you’ll want to traverse out past the far chock stone (boulder wedged in the fissure) and drop from there. There’s not a lot of space at the bottom, so get your gear off and head on down the crack.” The drop is free climbable, but muddy. The rope presents a safer option, and nobody complains.
Since I’m geared up and ready to go, I drop in first. There’s a ledge about 4 feet under the entrance so I place my pack on the ground, swing my legs in and drop to the ledge below. I grab my pack and bring it in after me. Grabbing the rope, I thread my rappel rack, and start making my way down and across the fissure, which is about 2 feet wide, and at this point, 10 to 15 feet deep, sloping away beneath me. After a brief struggle with pack management, I’m down the drop, and unclipping myself from the rope. “Off rope” I call to the surface. “Okay” comes the response. Standing in a crack 18 inches wide now, I shimmy out of my harness and hang it off an outcropping. As I’m disentangling myself from my safety gear, Dave calls down “On rope” and is standing beside me in no time flat. He soon sheds his gear and heads down the fissure, which dips back under the entrance at about a 45-degree angle towards a hole that is about three feet high. A short up-and-over leads us into more fissure passage.
Dave crawls off ahead as I hang back and pass the word on to Blaze that the way is forward, not in the only slightly smaller passage heading off to the left. Once the word is passed on, I move forward and see Dave’s foot disappearing into the ceiling. Much grunting ensues, and Dave clearly doesn’t sound happy. Eventually Dave makes it through and I pop my head up to see what’s happening. What’s happening is that Dave has managed to push his pack and himself through a narrow twisting tunnel, 18 inches in diameter, after crossing a pack-swallowing hole. I decide to hold off while Dave investigates the far side. Dave eventually calls through that it’s clear to proceed, and after much nerve-summoning, I heave my pack across the gap and into the hole through which I must push. I’m not happy about this prospect. As I’m preparing to heave myself at this small hole, Dave calls back “Hold the phone”. I kid you not. My already-low morale plummets. I’m thinking that I’m in over my head. I contemplate trying to quit the trip. My stomach is flip-flopping. I tell the folks lined up behind me that we’re holding while Dave attempts to scout the correct way forward.
After a few minutes, Dave exultantly exclaims that he had indeed found the correct way forward. It’s in the crack beneath me. I had looked at this approach on the way in, and I was not particularly enamored with its prospects. Dave did the same on the way in and elected to go high, to take the miserable pack-eating route. Backing down, I look at the route. The fissure in there is a foot wide and is at the bottom of the pack-eating hole, 6 feet above. Taking a closer look, it appears that the floor of the fissure widens up a bit about 6 feet ahead, but there’s the small problem of fitting my body from the foot-wide upper section into the slightly-more-wide lower section. There appears to be a wider section that will serve, so I toss my pack forward and proceed. We’re still less than 100 feet from the entrance.
Sure enough, my pack fits through the hole, which is about 2 feet long and eighteen inches wide, but the ceiling on the other side is only a foot high. I try all manners of heads-first operations to get through this hole, but it’s no use. I stand up and try going feet first but cannot contort my legs and hips to the proper through and bent configuration, so after a few minutes of struggle I stop and sit for a moment. Finally I rotate onto my right, left hip high and try again, feet-first. Sure enough, I manage to just worm through. Success! I report my technique to everyone behind me and shimmy feet-first through this low crawl. After just a few feet, a larger passage (1.5 foot high, 3 wide) opens up to the left, and I see Dave’s light. This is the way, so I turn around, and crawl through. I pop out into a small room, tall enough to stand up in. I sit down at this point and grab something to eat and drink as the rest of the team negotiates this first selector.
After a few minutes, Dave gets us moving again, and we head back into more low passage. After 30 feet or so we start to pile up again. I’ve taken the rear position in this procession, behind Holly, who eyes the coming obstacle and moans with recollection that this part is going to suck on the way out. What we now face is another fissure, about a foot wide, 7 long and 8 deep. We need to drop in vertically between the scalloped walls and continue forward through the streambed crawl at the bottom. With gravity on our side, I can understand Holly’s resignation. As I get to the crack, I lower my pack to the floor, and roll around so my legs drop into the slot. My initial attempt to shimmy down is stymied by a pinch at my chest. I maneuver to a slightly wider spot a foot to my left and make note of the wider portion for when I need to try and climb back up this thing on the way home.
At the bottom, a hands-and-knees crawl evolves into low stooping passage followed by a junction room of sorts where we can again stand around. Some flowstones are on the walls, and we take a moment to look around and admire formations as Dave scouts ahead, looking for the way forward. He quickly calls back that he’s found the way and we’re off again. I observe that the ceiling is dropping again, and the damp sandy floor is devoid of large rocks. A lot of water comes through here. We’re back to hands-and-knees now as we proceed. Looking forward, the ceiling drops to about 2 feet and peters down to nothingness up ahead. The only apparent way forward is a hole off to the right, 18 inches in diameter, and worn smooth by periodic high-volume water flow. This hole goes in about 4 feet and makes a hard left out of sight. We have reached the Fallopian Tube.
Cavers have a habit of naming memorable cave features for aid in navigation. In one cave, the directions include “Once you get to the dong room, take a right down the small side passage at the witch’s tit.” Other features of that cave include the angel wing, the cathedral room, and the gazebo. Each of these names evokes an image that a newcomer can likely associate immediately with whatever it is that they’re looking at; there is seldom any doubt as to the justification for such names. So here I am looking at the Fallopian tube. By definition, it’s tighter than a birth canal (a caverfavorite), and from what I’ve heard, it features, for your caving enjoyment, a couple of s-turns. Joy.
As the crew starts heading in, they start talking about wishing they could’ve go last so that everyone else could soak up the water. Water? Nobody mentioned water. As my turn comes up, I get my first look. Listening to the grunts and muttered curses, I see a booted foot rotate 180 degrees in the middle of the air and disappear around a corner. The floor is scalloped, and small pools of water dot the floor of the passage. I push my pack into the hole and worm-crawl, both arms forward, into the tube. Getting to the first right turn, I rotate onto my right side so I can make it around the corner. There’s a convenient puddle here, so my right side is quickly sopped. Continuing forward, my legs just barely make it around the corner so I push my pack and continue forward. Coming up after about 6 feet the passage stops, makes a hard right followed almost immediately by a hard left. I make the first turn on my left side (soaking up more of the water in the pool) and make it part way into the S-curve, but then need to flip onto my right so my knees can make the first turn. A few inches further, and I’m back on my left for the knees going in the other direction. About 10 feet further down the passage I cone to another S-turn which I manage to slip through with only one twist, having managed to just pull my legs through the turn. Up ahead I see my companions’ feet and calves standing about, so I crawl ahead and stand up, the ceiling at 15 feet, the room by far larger than the cave has presented us so far.
I ask for a food break and crack open a water bottle to take a sip of Gatorade. I also open up my backpack and remove the 12-volt lead-acid battery that I have pushed, pulled and dragged in to this point. The battery is strapped to a belt that I clip around my waist. I then remove a mating headlamp and fix it to my helmet, sliding the small LED array out of the way. This lamp is good to spotlighting large passage, but it’s overkill for small caves, and the belt-mounted battery pack is a liability when you need to crawl. It tends to flop about from side to side, and the cable running from my waist to my head tends to hang up on small protrusions, and I don’t fancy finding myself without light in the midst of a crawl. There’s no way I could have made it thus far with that rig on, but I would have been foolish to leave it behind on this trip, for the best is yet to come.
Dave suggests that we go in a little bit until we get to a “pretty” room. Heh. We dutifully head on. At this point, the walls are about 15 feet apart and the ceiling is at 20 feet – the cave is getting bigger. We come around a corner and the cave presents us with a velvet flowstone, ten feet wide and 20 high. It’s difficult to describe how soft this formation looked, even though it’s made from the same hard rock as everything else. It’s beautiful, and we pause for just a moment before moving on. As we continue down this canyon passage, the ceiling occasionally dips, but the overall trend is larger, larger. I can only imagine what the first person who wandered in here must have thought when they popped out of the Fallopian crawl into this booming borehole. Unadulterated joy must have been in there somewhere. Oh, and disbelief on the part of his companions from what I understand.
We continue down the canyon, occasionally climbing over VW bug-sized boulders lying in the middle of the passage, and stoop under van-sized boulders wedged in the ceiling. There are intermittent flowstone piles 20 feet in diameter, spanning the width of the passage and which stop four feet above the sandy floor of this subterranean canyon. I imagine that at one point the sand floor was four feet higher and that this was as far as the flowstone could go. Ducking under and looking up at football-sized stream-rocks imbedded in the calcite serves to confirm my hypothesis.
After a bit we come to a series of plunge pools where the streambed drops about twenty feet. The first two pools are easily down-climbed, but the last drop requires a bit of a stretch. I position my hands securely on nearby rocks and lean out with one foot to step onto a rock conveniently located in the midst of the last pool. From there, it’s a short hop to the opposite bank and we’re off again. A few hundred feet down the passage, we encounter another narrow where we need to chimney across a 4-foot deep pool. Placing our feet on the scalloped walls just above the waterline, we search the small ledges for purchase, trying desperately to avoid getting our feet (and legs, and knees, and delicate parts) wet. A similar narrow lies a few minutes further in, but this time it’s about a foot deep, 12 long, and there are no scalloped walls to help us out. Taking a step back, we run at the pool and make track-star leaps, hoping to minimize both the quantity and duration of footsteps. I cross in three steps and am rewarded by just a slow oozing wetness that travels through my socks from the tops of my boots towards the bottom of my feet as we press on down the passage.
Coming around a bend, I spy an alcove to the right. As I twist my head, the spotlight of my headlamp hits the base of a formation. I look up, up, up, up. We have reached “The Pishi”, the signature formation of the cave (depicted in the photo at the beginning of this article). Without a laser range finder, I cannot tell you precisely how tall The Pishi stands, but it is massive. I’d estimate that it’s somewhere around 50 feet tall, and above that, the domed ceiling rises to somewhere around 75 feet. It is the largest stalagmite I’ve ever seen in a wild cave, is the largest in Northern Arizona, and is the second largest I’ve seen anywhere in Arizona. It’s awesome.
Time is wasting however and we soon press on. Ten more minutes of moving finds us at a small boulder off to the side of the floor with an ammo can chained to the rock. This is the register for the cave. There’s a small rite-in-the-rain (waterproof paper) notebook and a pen double bagged in there, along with laminated copies of the old register. Entries go back to the 70s on the laminated copies, and this notebook appears to have been here for almost a decade. The last logged trip in was back in May, four months earlier. I know a couple of the folks on the list. We all sign the register and make a short push further into the cave. We’re running out of time. The cave continues like this for almost two miles, with the passage growing ever larger and larger. We’ve covered perhaps a third of a mile so far, and it would take another 5 hours to get to the back of the cave. We’re expected out in about 3 hours so we resignedly peer off into the darkness and turn around. Food and drink will be waiting for us at camp.
Getting back to the entrance of the Fallopian Tube seems to take less time than it did on the way in. The crawl back through the tube is slightly uphill and upstream, so the scallops no longer work in my favor as I push my pack ahead of me. Still, I make it through unscathed, and almost immediately find myself at the vertical crack. That too poses significantly less trouble than I had feared. Getting through the first selector was similarly relatively easy, since I’d already been through, and the team spent no time worrying about route finding. I quickly find myself waiting in line at the bottom of the entrance drop. Dave has gone out first, followed by Blaze. Rick went next, free climbing instead of ascending. Holly was ahead of me, and started up on ascent. After a minor issue getting over and around a chock stone.
I free climb back up the crack to the entrance, using the rope as a safety. I toss my pack up out of the hole, stand, and heft myself into the open air. First in, last out. Awesome trip.