I didn’t know I was afraid of black spiders the size of my thumb. I had forgotten that I was afraid of the dark. I have always worried about heights, but didn’t know that tight places could make my fingers shake.
I also didn’t know I could face all these fears simultaneously less than 15 minutes from home. Weybridge, and much of Vermont, has karst geology, meaning that beneath your feet probably lie yawning fissures, underground streams and eroded passages of slick limestone.
The Weybridge Cave Natural Area holds one of the larger caves in Vermont. Its entrance is an unassuming sinkhole at the edge of a hay field, though at 458 meters in surveyed length, you could spend days exploring the passages. Like all good things, it requires a bit of work and an indifference to getting one’s clothes dirty. The first hundred feet or so of the cave are accessible without special gear, but to explore its full length you need rope, harness and ascenders.
We visited on Saturday evening, just as the sun was going down. The low natural doorway breathed warm air; deep underground the temperature remains close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round. After an initial pinch and a short rappel, we stood at the sill of a deep pit. Water dripped far below us. All seven of us signed the register book, stored in a PVC tube wired to the limestone; we were the first group since August.
We rappelled to the floor of the cave, which was slick with silt. The walls sweat beads of water, as if the pressure of the ground above was squeezing it through pores. The air was uncomfortably humid.
After some giddy laughter and smearing mud on one another’s faces, we all turned off our headlamps.
“This is what blindness must be like,” someone said, her voice reflecting oddly off the walls.
“I keep thinking there’s light in my peripheral vision,” added the person to her left.
After a minute or two I could feel heat rising off the person next to me. I thought I could locate the other people in the room by the sound of water moving around them, and the slight airflow off their bodies. The darkness amplified the sound of the sound of fluid motions — trickling water, wind curling past stones, and a slight breeze heading up the chimney above us, toward the cold night.
The Weybridge Cave runs along a linear fissure in the rock, extending through tight, contorting pinches alternating with larger rooms. Everything was coated in a thick layer of wet clay. I imagined that the whole passage fills with water in the spring, transporting Addison County clay from farm fields into the limestone caverns beneath them. In one room I found a scrap of birch bark, brought either by a previous caver or swirling floodwaters.
We clicked our lights back on and struck off to the left, the passage cramping smaller with every step. Soon we were on hands and knees. After squeezing through a thin window, we arrived at what I thought to be the end of the line.
“You bail out the pool at the end, then climb under the wall,” said Morgan, a veteran of the cave. We bailed for a few minutes with an old bucket near the pool, and then I slid under the wall, emerging into yet another room. At the far end, another choke. I stripped to my wet t-shirt, breathed all the air out of my lungs, and slipped through on my back.
I felt giddy. I didn’t want to stop. Just one more pinch, one more room, another impossible contortion that somehow my 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound body negotiated. If they got any smaller, I’d have to strip naked.
Even more strangely, to stand on the ground directly above our heads, I would have to return through all the uncomfortable holes, through the bailed out puddle, and ascend vertically another hundred feet. I’ve never felt so far from a point that’s so close.
Finally, after three hours in the cave, we reached a point where I could go no farther. We returned to the chimney, drank some cocoa from a thermos, and prepared to ascend the rope.
When we entered the cave, with the last rays of sunlight, I thought, “This will be like an evening movie. It’ll be totally dark when we get out of here.”
In fact, it was exactly the opposite. As I inched my way through the final squeeze, the waxing gibbous moon was framed perfectly in the entrance. I stepped out into the cold. The night was clear, bright and gigantic. My sense of scale had suddenly ballooned from three feet to thousands of light years. Orion cartwheeled near the horizon and my pants froze into stiff tubes as we walked across the frosted field, back to the car.