Birthday Caving Adventure

By Foot, Roving, , , , ,

I grip my brother’s hand and pull, but he doesn’t budge.  Beneath helmet and headlamp, his eyes are panicked and sweat sheens his face.  He tries again to squirm up the rock on his belly, his legs dangling behind with no purchase to help push.

We’re hundreds of feet underground on the “Adventure Tour” at Moaning Caverns in Calaveras County, California.  As a birthday gift to me, my brother has come along despite his total aversion to adventure.  An aversion that’s growing by the second.

“Breathe, Matt,” I urge.  “You can do this.  Just pretend you’re a snake.”

“I’m too weak!” he gasps.

Our guide, a calm and soft-spoken technophobe, pops into view from further up the tunnel.  “Everything ok?”

After several more endless-seeming minutes of guidance and struggle, Matt comes free.  Unsurprisingly, he takes the early exit just before the “Meat Grinder”, following a rope up and out.

I crawl on with our guide and three friends in their late 20s from San Francisco.  It’s probably best Matt didn’t continue, because it only gets tougher from here.  With our guide coaching us on body positioning, we wiggle on our backs through the “Pancake Squeeze” and force ourselves headfirst through the “Birth Canal”.

I’m thin enough that it comes easy, and the provided pads and helmet spare me from most bruises, but it’s still a moderate workout.  I love the feeling of darkness and rock pressing in on all sides – it’s comforting, not claustrophobic.  Finally, we clamber up “Santa’s Worst Nightmare”, a 30-foot chimney, and out into the main cavern, where the ceiling now soars 180 feet above.

After backing down one final rockface and untying the rope from my waist, I rush over to my pale brother.  He turns to me, a bag in one hand and a water bottle in the other.  “I threw up.”

Choked with guilt, all I can say is, “Thank you for trying.”

One long spiral staircase later, we relax in the light of day, dancing with a cockatoo and watching people scream by on the zipline until our parents pick us up.  I wish I’d known about their birthday specials – even though I don’t feel like ziplines and rappels are worth the money, I certainly would have done them for free! Still, the commercial tour was a great way to get some caving in without joining a speleological society.

But we aren’t done with caves yet, as next we hike down a short, hot, crowded trail to Natural Bridges, where a stream runs through a tunnel in the rock.

I gasp as I slide into the numbingly chill water and set off with determined kicks to the other end.  The water turns inky black in the middle, inciting imaginings of toe-nibbling cave creatures.  Before I know it, my feet are touching down in the shallows by the circle of light on the other side.  I regather my stamina in the quiet before heading back.

“How cold is it?” a hesitant family asks as I re-emerge from the dark.

“Not that bad,” I say through blue lips and chattering teeth.

The water has washed off some of the mud from the earlier caving and keeps me cool on the return walk. We eat gourmet grilled cheese at Roquefort in Murphys (my second of three grilled cheeses that weekend), pick up cupcakes, and play cards at our Arnold rental, resting up for the next day’s adventure under the giant sequoias of Big Trees State Park.

Not a bad start to the next quarter century of my life. 🙂

Calaveras Big Trees (1) Calaveras Big Trees (3) Calaveras Big Trees (2)


  • Moaning Caverns Adventure Tour
    A fun way to safely sample spelunking. Can be done with or without a rappel into the main cavern.
  • Natural Bridges Cave Hike
    Two-mile roundtrip, 300 ft gain hike to a cave-like tunnel you can swim through.
  • Calaveras Big Trees State Park
    Nearby state park worth checking out. Hike the South Grove to the giant Agassiz Tree or stroll through North Grove to see the horrors humans have wrought on some of these ancient sequoias (seriously, we turned the 1200-year-old “Discovery Tree” into a dance floor and skinned the “Mother of the Forest” alive). Beware of swarms of biting ladybugs!

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