Tuesday, August 23, 2011

near death goes down and then up

the last couple of weeks of my summer series for the chronicle herald have been challenging - and a lot of fun.

two weeks ago, i crawled deep under ground to go caving. it was one of the few adventures i thought i might balk on. sometimes, you think you have plenty of courage to tackle something, and then reality says otherwise. i think if my guides hadn't been so patient and encouraging, i might not have gone as deep as i did.

sunday was rock climbing - the two attract a lot of the same people. both are all about careful, slow movement and getting to places that seem impossible, until you advance inch by inch....

Caving Tips: Don't Kick the Porcupine
By Jon Tattrie
I’m halfway through a fissure in a cave deep inside Nova Scotia when I start to panic. My skinny guide Jon Guy scrambled through easily, but the fact that I can’t fully inflate my lungs without getting stuck is causing me mental problems. My arms and legs are stretched Superman style and I pull myself along with fingers and toes. I just want to get out.
I turn my head sideways and my yellow light illuminates dank gypsum a few centimeters to my right. I can feel it by my left, too. This is a no U-turn zone.
Guy encourages me forward while Doug Munroe, a cave rescuer from B.C., reassures me that if need be he can haul me out backwards. I can’t see either of them. It’s dark down here. When we turned our lights out earlier, I couldn’t even see my eyelids in front of my eyes.
“Don’t cave in,” I joke to myself, trying to lighten the mood. I take a deep breath, but my lungs bang into the cave roof. I wheeze out and tug myself further into the darkness. I just want to get out.
The day started well enough, with bright sunlight filtering through the forest canopy as we searched for cave entrances. Guy, the enthusiast behind Cavingnovascotia.org, pointed to the sinkholes where trees had fallen into caves. Soon, we’d see them from underneath.
Caving is off-leash adventuring. While it’s more established in other parts of Canada, it’s still largely unmapped in Nova Scotia. The locations of cave entrances are kept quiet, as unprepared “spelunkers” like me can cause damage to themselves and the caves by barging in. The added danger of spreading White Nose Syndrome among bats means it’s unwise to explore, unless you know what you’re doing. Guy, who uses his caving hobby to help scientists better understand the spread of WNS, has run me through the safety precautions several times and the caves we’re visiting today don’t have bats.
My two cheery guides into Hades brought me to a muddy maw at the side of a hill. “That’s the entrance,” Guy said.
Munroe nodded.  Guy entered first, with Munroe behind me. We had to swim into the mud and eventually the cave narrowed and we turned back. The cave is unnamed – I suggested the Spa, and it stuck. Just like the mud.
The next cave was a rocky cut into gypsum. We crawled over fallen boulders and under narrow passages before reaching a small cavern in the belly of mother earth. The gypsum made extraordinary stucco designs on the roof and fallen clumps looked like crystallized skulls.
Guy told me one of the most startling experiences he’d had caving was in a place like this when he peered deep into the darkness – and the darkness peered back. A porcupine. Munroe assured me it’s not a concern. “Just don’t kick the porcupine,” he advised. It seems like sound advice in any situation.
Back on my belly in Middle Earth I notice a cold breeze on my face. The cave is breathing – that means this crevice eventually leads back to the surface. I just want to get out.
Guy encourages me and I drag myself toward him, scraping my back on the rock as I emerge and we wait for Munroe. Guy is certain he can see light ahead and pushes on. He’s found what he thinks is a way out and starts digging with a little shovel. I try not to think of graves.
He finds light, but we can’t quite press through. Or at least, I can’t. We turn back, re-birthing ourselves out of the cave. The air is unbelievably sweet and bright.  
“No one likes sunlight better than cavers,” Munroe smiles.
Now that I’m safely outside, I just want to go back in and push a little deeper into the unknown.
Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two books: The Hermit of Africville and Black Snow.

Hanging with the rock stars of Sorrow's End

By Jon Tattrie
Peter La Paix and I are standing at the edge of a Prospect cliff called Sorrow’s End when he asks me to pass him a rubber. We only recently met online and this is not how I expected our day to turn out.
There’s a moment of awkward silence as I try to think of a way to let him down gently until he repeats himself and points to a rubber tube used to protect the rope from the rock, so it doesn’t fray and let me down, hard, onto the rocks 16 metres below.
“Ah,” I say, and hand him his rubber.
La Paix secures the ropes and advises me on getting over the precipice. I nod, but this is a no-brainer for my brain. It screams, “DON’T JUMP OVER THE CLIFF!”
But I feel I can trust La Paix. I take a deep breath, and continue standing right where I am.
I take another deep breath and inch my feet over the edge to cheers from the climbers below. “Move your right foot where your left knee was a minute ago,” they helpfully shout, and “Don’t slip!” After an indelicate scramble, my toes find a ledge and I begin belaying to the bottom.
That’s the easy part.
Now I have to climb back up.
The ever-helpful climbers cheer as I grab a crevice with both hands and wedge my feet in below. I inch up. My belayer tightens the rope so the harness is snug. I scramble for a few more centimeters.
The liquid spilling down my hands makes me think I’m sweating, so I reach for the chalk, but notice the sweat is red. Three finger pads on my right hand have split open. Rock is much harder than keyboard.
I’m so focused on centimeters I forget about the metres until I accidentally look down. It’s a vertigo vision that will jolt me awake the rest of the week. I wonder if the pointy boulders would break my neck or just cause massive internal bleeding.
Eventually, I heave myself to the top. The view is stunning; untouched marshlands run to the ocean. The clouds have burned off and the sun is heating up. I can see why wise men live at the top of serene mountains.
I belay down and La Paix explains my next challenge: a “route” with no ropes. He’s going to climb untied and attach anchors as he goes. I’ll follow. He muscles his way up the cliff and makes it looks very hard.
The other climbers helpfully explained that if La Paix falls as I climb, his momentum will probably rip the anchors out one by one and I’ll have a brief moment to wave goodbye to him before he yanks me to the boulders.
I make it up six metres before I run out of ideas. The rock looks impassable and I’m all for calling it a day, but the climbers rally to my cause. I’m told to “smear” myself against the rock and mutter back, “Go belay yourself,” before someone explains the technique of jamming your foot against the flat cliff.
“Trust the rope,” La Paix calls out from the clouds.
“The rope?” I ask.
“You can hang on it if you need a break,” he says.
“I can?”
I let go with one hand, then the other, and discover I can sit in the harness. I dangle for a moment and then press up another half a metre. Rest. Another advance. Rest. This is not pretty, but I am slowly conquering the cliff.  
“Grunt more!” an Earth-bound climber shouts.
Amazingly, it works. Roaring like an angry hyena I haul myself up the rock, jamming my feet into the cracks and balancing on centimetre-wide ledges. I get to the top to cheers and La Paix locks me to the anchor. It’s tight quarters and he’s got some fancy rope work to do before we can get back down.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to straddle you,” he says.
“So long as you’ve got the rubber,” I reply.
Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two books: The Hermit of Africville and Black Snow.

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