I could feel it spreading through me like a heat rash — my stomach twisted, my throat tightened, and my pulse quickened. I tried my usual coping mechanisms of deep breaths, visualization, and repeated mantras. I was in a battle with my own mind — logic was trying to prevail, but panic was winning by a landslide.
I was 2,500 feet underground with nothing more than a kerosene lamp.
Somehow, I had let Heather do it again. First, she convinced me to jump out of a plane 14,000 feet above Earth. This time, she had talked me into going beneath it, deep in the web of caves that lie beneath Sagada. The “Cave Connection” is an epic 3-4 hour underground journey that takes brave spelunkers between the famous Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves, and strikes fear into the heart of the claustrophobic, the still-afraid-of-the-dark, and the generally-prone-to-panic. I am all three of those things.
I am also, unfortunately, very easily talked into things — call it a product of being a Yes Girl.
My anxiety levels had been fluctuating throughout the day — high when we signed up, lessening throughout the short but sunny walk to the starting point, even lower as we fascinated about the stacked coffins at the mouth of the cave, and then right back up again as I watched on of our two guides struggle for forty-five minutes to light the lone kerosene lamp we were taking. When we inquired for the first time if we had any backup lamps or torches, we were met with a giggle. The second time, we got a smile. The third time, they admitted that there was no backup light whatsoever.
So, great then! Let’s just submit ourselves to the possibility of feeling our way for several hours through a narrow cave network in total darkness, shall we?
We had started out slow, getting used to the slipperiness of the cool rocks, the repelling backwards down rocks, the squeezing of shoulders sideways to slip through narrow passages. We were now picking up speed, but I was still busy fighting off anxiety. As we slid down a particularly deep and vertical passage I realized that there was no turning back, an I wondered how I would survive hours of what felt like a low-grade, walking anxiety attack.
How had I gotten myself into this?
Heather kept up small talk with the guides, and I felt myself being calmed by the casual tone of their voices and laughs. The openings in the cave started getting a bit larger, and I grew used to the rhythm of our path. My mantras (I am adventurous, I am physically capable, this will all be over by tonight….) started to wiggle into my consciousness, and I felt my tensed jawline start to slack.
Somewhere deep with the Earth, I started to enjoy myself.
I cannot even begin to imagine how the convoluted route we took was discovered. At times, we squeezed through passages so tiny that they made me think this trip should come with a weight requirement, while at others we trekked across underground rooms so large they felt like cathedrals. In a few places, we used ropes to rappel downwards. In others, we used a human elevator — stepping on the legs and shoulders of our guides and being catapulted upwards.
As we started to approach Sumaguing Cave, we took off our shoes to avoid soaking them in the increasingly present pools of water. At times we were trudging through knee-deep, and I tried to remember if I had ever seen any Discovery Channel specials on Filipino Underground Cave Snakes — but I came up empty.
After so many hours of isolation, we were surprised to see the flashes of others’ headlamps and hear the sounds of others’ voices. We were nearing the mouth of the cave, where less
insane adventurous tourists popped in to see the famous stalactite and stalagmite formations. We took our time enjoying the beautiful designs of nature, and marveling at what we had just done. Our guides were very excited to tell us that we were some of the fastest customers they had had, completing the entire route in just 2.5 hours!
I had just one thing to say to that: fear is a great motivator.
As we emerged into the daylight I was so grateful, once again, that Heather had talked me into something I didn’t want to do. The Cave Connection had tapped into some of my greatest phobias, but I had conquered it. I truly believe that it’s important to do one thing every day that scares you — sometimes it’s just harder than others to put into practice.
Have you ever gone spelunking? Would you sign up for the Cave Connection?