Ardeche

We launched boats

and jumped of cliffs 

and clipped carabiners onto a wire that took us through a obstacle course in the treetops. There was no turning back once we started. There was no way to unclip and say, “Ok. That’s it. I’ve had enough fear for the day” and get down. We had to keep going until we reached the end of the wire,  no matter what crazy nonsense we were facing. But nothing could have prepared me for the cave trip on our last day.

We arrived at 9 a.m. and we were outfitted in a jumpsuit, big clunky rubber boots, gloves and a helmet with a light. How cute, I thought. Just like real cave explorers.

As our guide explained to the eight of us what our adventure entailed, he said something about it lasting three hours. David, Regis and I looked at each other and shrugged.

“Welcome in France” is what David says every time something like this happens. I was secretly happy. Like most things I’ve done that turned out horribly “character building” I hadn’t really thought this through, and 8 hours hundreds of feet underground wasn’t sounding as fun as it had a year ago when we heard about the off trail tour. Last year we went to the cave on a rainy day, not expecting anything special. It was insane. Like a Harry Potter movie. We marched down steep steps for an hour and it kept getting better and better. The first room alone is a hundred feet high and 300 feet wide.

Our group clumped down into the cave and stepped over the rail, off the cement trail for the normal guided tours and onto the actual rocks. Fancy pants.

Ten feet into it was a metal ladder, not as wide as a normal ladder which was propped up on some boulders. We had to turn around in our clunky boots and step on to it backwards to climb down, and once at the bottom  we had to step and turn and jump in a specific way to get off the boulders. It was wet and muddy and dark and slippery and I wanted to die. As I waited impatiently for my turn so I could get it over with I cursed myself over and over again for getting myself into this mess, because I had no one to blame but me. This was all MY idea.

I made it down alive and we started at a brisk pace hiking, crouching, crawling and sliding down stagalites. A few feet away was a drop off of about thirty feet. After a few steps I thanked my lucky stars that it was only going to be three hours long because I was absolutely terrified. Imagine a craggy iceberg, with a thin layer of mud, which you are trying to get climb down in pitch black darkness with rain boots on and a small head lamp to guide you. I felt like any moment I would step wrong and slip over the edge.

After a few hours of hiking up and mostly down we reached a small metal grate. I assumed it was an air vent and looked around frantically trying to spot the door that would release me from this hellish experience. Then our tour guide popped it open and instructed us to crawl though it. After that, it just kept getting worse. The tunnels got smaller and smaller, until I found myself on my stomach, following a pair of boots kicking in front of my face, with my chin scraping the rocks below me and my helmet scraping the rocks above me, only able to raise up enough to pull myself though using my fingers and forearms. I tried to forget that I was in a tiny crevasse with tons of rocks going up 300 feet above me and prayed and prayed that today was not the day there was a cave in.

We finally stopped for lunch and our guide laid down two white paper tablecloths (so French). At first the eight of us sat in silence with our sandwiches and water. It’s really silent underground. I know David, Regis and I were a little shellshocked. This was seriously dangerous, difficult and scary and we had been going very fast with only one short break for water. After a while the group started chatting while I surreptitiously looked around for the door. Surely it had been three hours by now?!? All I could see in the measly beam of my headlamp was another drop off five feet from us. This one was about 70 feet down, and we had walked along it on a tiny muddy ledge about two feet wide.

Then I overheard something that made my blood run cold. We were going to be down here until 4 or 4:30, and it was only 12 o’clock. My stupid ass had once again bit off more than I could chew and gotten myself into a place I didn’t like being. I was crawling out of my skin. And there was no one else who could help me. There were no emergency exits. No shortcuts. My little feet had carried me down into this cavernous cave, and my little feet were the only thing that could get me out.

In the impregnable darkness, in the belly of the beast, I kept telling myself, “You can do this.” And I had to believe it because that was the only way I was going to get through it.

The sad thing is that even though I was in one the largest, most beautiful caves in the world, crawling over 15,000 year old staglamites, using the knobby small ones for hauling myself up or as a foot hold for sliding down, I was so worried about surviving I couldn’t relax and enjoy the environment, which is pretty much what it’s like to live in France. Sometimes I get so caught up struggling to find my footing, I forget to admire the view.

We emerged 4 hours later, covered in mud and bruises with shaky legs. I felt like I had accomplished something huge. I would have never done it if I had known what it entailed, but I was proud that I had survived. I will never, ever do it again, but I will certainly go back and admire the beauty from the safety of the cement sidewalk. 
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