Caveman for a night
I can’t read the topographic map. Quite abruptly, the state of conditions is against me. The sun is working banker’s hours, and it’s too dark to read this paper, worn at the creases from excessive folding and unfolding, contours reduced to soggy blotches from rain and snow brushed away during earlier attempts to decipher our whereabouts.I am standing high on a ridge this chilly November eve with four 10-year-old members of the Aspen Middle School Outing Club (Davin Wilkinson, Sam Alexander, Ben Belinski and Max Marolt) and their leader, teacher Peter Westcott. To use the word “outing” with “club” in this instance is as misleading as using “village” with “Snowmass.” It implies lawn bowling or raspberry parfait on the veranda. It’s exactly the fifth time we’ve inadvertently diverted from the correct trail today. Westcott was here 10 years ago, but since then, people scrawling with ATVs have etched dozens of new trails into this BLM land. Things are changing so rapidly that cartographers can’t keep up. There’s no hope for the sign makers. Instead of Hubbard’s Cave here on the rim of Glenwood Canyon, I feel like we’re searching for the elusive Batcave, obfuscated from mechanized villains. It has taken six hours of bushwhacking, mud-slogging and hill-trudging to cover a three-hour hike. Spirits have fallen with the sun. We’re exhausted, hungry, wet and cold. Things are bleak. I edge into survival mode, furtively scouting the landscape for a bivouac site. Thank goodness for my years of experience in the mountains. I firmly believe that Westcott should stay with the kids while I run out through the night to summon help.Westcott suggests we build a fire and cook dinner so we can regroup and make a rational decision. Huh … I wish I’d have thought of that. As the fire roars, we enjoy steaming bowls of teriyaki chicken with rice. Afterwards, I gather a few sticks for roasting marshmallows. With the prodigious weight of a backpack reminding you of it all day long, it’s amazing that you can forget that everything you need to live is only a drop from your shoulder and a thump on the ground away. A full moon helps, too. Refreshed and invigorated we pack up and backtrack to a new nighttime adventure. Only because we are now having fun, the correct trail finally reveals itself. We blindly passed this intersection twice in broad daylight on our way to scaling, descending, and then scaling again 500 vertical feet of sidehill that revealed nothing but agony and blisters. Within 20 minutes we find the cave. It’s 8 o’clock. Our aching bodies say go to bed, but the dark opening in the rock wall is irresistibly intriguing and beckons us. We build another fire to heat water for hot chocolate. While we sip, Westcott reviews proper caving procedure and precautions. Re-energized and each equipped with three different sources of light, we pierce the abyss. There is a combination of two words that I believe were originally paired to describe the inside of a deep cave. They are “pitch” and “black.” They give one a good idea of the ambiance. For physicality the words that come readily to mind, fresh from my own experience, are “son of a,” and another one that rhymes with “ditch.” My depth perception was initially so poor in the surreal dim, I repeatedly battered my head against assorted rock outcroppings and was compelled to use that old verse liberally. A good helmet is a vital caving tool!Caving is exhausting, too. We scrambled up and down and all around, squeezing several times though fissures barely wider than my head. Did I mention that cave exploration is filthy business? Adrenaline is the fuel that keeps you moving.The final thing I will tell you is it’s easy to loose track of time when you are burrowed into Mother Earth’s crust. When eventually one child mentioned he might be getting a little tired, I looked at my watch to discover it was 11 o’clock! We headed out into the faux darkness of the ether world. I’m barely stretching the truth to tell you I was squinting under the intense glare of the moon. Three of the boys and I peer-pressured one another into deciding we wanted to sleep inside the cave. Another was still young enough to be a man and admit he didn’t care for the claustrophobic sleeping quarters, so he and Westcott sacked out at the entrance.I lit a candle so we could ready for slumber. Within minutes I heard snoring and without recollection, I, too, fell fast asleep. As travelers are prone to do, I woke up later and couldn’t decipher where I was. The wick had long burned down. I waited and waited for my eyes to adjust to something familiar. I waved my hands in front of me and saw nothing. “Dear God, I’m dead!” I concluded. Imagine the fear realizing that from where I lay there were no traces of a bright light, harp music or other amenities I had so looked forward to. We walked out the next morning without trouble. We followed the trail with all the clarity of hindsight, which doesn’t count for anything except in hiking. The nine hours it took to trek in morphed into a three-hour skip out. As easy as it is to rail on motorized vehicles when you are traveling through the backwoods, at the end of the trail I felt like kissing our vehicle’s tires. As any backcountry regular knows, that uncontrollable urge is proportionate to the intensity of the wilderness experience.Anyway, I hope parents and students will continue to support the Aspen Middle School Outing Club. The jaunts are nothing short of delightful, and a pleasant time is had by all.Roger Marolt has never caved until now. Bury him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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