COMMENTARY: Climbing out of caves, one foot at a time


I wasn’t stuck so much as petrified. I was wedged between the walls of an 8-feet-tall smooth lava fall. The top of the fall was within an arm’s reach. I could see where I wanted to go, but moving forward meant willfully giving up the friction with the walls that was holding me up. It meant counting on the lift of one foot, tentatively pushing against a small, smooth node of lava and hoping it would give me momentum. I was experiencing a moment of panic and it was stalling me in the one place I could not stay.

In August 2004, Tom and I were exploring the Mt. St. Helen’s area and heard about a lava tube called Ape Cave. The Cascade Range volcanoes are not known for their basaltic flows (typical of Hawaiian volcanoes). The Cascades explode rather than ooze. But about 2,000 years ago a fast, liquid, basaltic flow ran down the southern flank of St. Helens. The surface cooled, but the interior continued to flow out of the interior creating the third longest lava tube in North America.

Ape Cave (its name is a whimsical reference to Bigfoot) is divided into two parts. The Lower Cave is three-quarters of a mile long and is a developed cave with some lighting. The Upper Cave is a different experience. It is undeveloped. You may explore it, but you must bring your own lights (three per person). It is about 1.5 miles long.

The roof of the cave has collapsed over time as the lava cooled and cracked. That means that you scramble over a total of 27 rock falls. Each is some 5 to 20 feet high — jumbled, sharp and precarious. About two-thirds of the way to the far exit (a hole in the roof of the cave, accessed via a metal ladder) you find yourself facing the lava fall. And that is where I found myself, as frozen in time as the lava itself.

My husband had already made it up. He was ready to help me. All I needed was the courage to take that one forward push. I was 56 years old — long past the age of hysterics and I was a good hiker. Tom and I had summited Mt. Lassen earlier on this same trip. Why couldn’t I move? The truth is, just like crossing those boulder fields, I knew that a fall was not going to kill me; it was just going to hurt a whole lot. Maybe it was an accumulation of the day’s stress, or something visceral about being in constant dark, maybe I was just waiting for that damn ape to come and give me a boost from the back, but I could not move.

Every choice seemed impossible and then, after a few deep breaths and a conscious effort to calm myself, rationality returned. Going forward is a matter of moving one foot in front of the other.

“I’m coming on three.”

“Good. I’ll hold you.”

I heaved and was up … safe. We waited long enough for my trembling muscles to lose a little lactic acid and then continued. When we finally got to the exit, fresh air and sunshine never felt so good.

My life was never in danger. My mind had simply defaulted to panic mode. If this is the smallest hint of what those poor Thai children are feeling my heart is out to them. I wish for them that one moment of sanity, that one flood of confidence in the people helping them, that will allow them to continue. To put that one foot in front of another. To move forward because backwards is never an option.

I’m not praying for a miracle. I am praying for sanity. That is how I keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in Edinburg. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.