They pitched themselves into the dark, cold night, 20,000 feet above the earth.
It was a high altitude, low opening descent, HALO for short. The acronym sounds ethereal, but at odds with a free fall dropping thousands of feet, the air rushing by at gale force. Their mother ship, the C-160 aircraft provided by the German allies, vanished into the night sky. The ground, devoid of the lights of modern civilization, floated below. When altimeters on their wrists read 3,000 feet, they pulled their ripcords. The sliders deployed, slowing and silencing the pop of the ram-air elliptical chutes that provided maximum guidance. The four men drifted about each other in the light of a quarter moon, aiming for the same few square meters of desert at the base of a mountain.
On the ground, they suppressed the air billowing their chutes, made their way to the team leader and huddled in silence. Intel indicated that no enemy would be near this spot, but caution prevailed in making their entry as silent and invisible as possible. Hand signals sufficed.
They were a team of experienced specialists, one that Central Command could direct to capture a key enemy mullah. With the chutes disposed of behind a clump of rocks, they made their way up the mountain. In the chill of morning air, the team waited in a secluded place. As dawn broke, they realized, too late, that the enemy knew they were coming.
In war, leaders make precise plans with well-thought-out contingencies. During the heat of battle, these plans go to hell. So it was with this team as the enemy surrounded them and they were hit by fire from all sides. A young Afghan boy who shouldn’t have been there stumbled into the line of fire. No contingency plan for this moment.
A man makes a snap decision that sets in motion events beyond his imagination.
New Mexico – Two Years Later
Experienced cavers formed the team. The moniker ‘spelunker’ did not apply. Spelunkers once were scientists erudite in geology, but now the term is used for the general unwashed cave explorers. Cavers bring sophisticated equipment to navigate through challenges created by nature. “Cavers rescue spelunkers,” say the experts. Tom Littleton, an experienced caver with chambers in the Pyrenees named after him, led the team. Carlsbad Cavern was well explored and tamed to facilitate the paying public. Winding trails bordered by chrome rails lead through limestone openings. Tourists usually were unaware of nearby cave systems much too dangerous for the novice. One, called Lechuguilla, resembled a child’s ant farm enlarged a hundred times. It offered long drops where only rappelling experts could descend. Open chambers and lakes were connected by passages barely wide enough to crawl through. Littleton had already explored Lechuguilla’s furthest known reaches but believed more remained to discover.
Tom had studied reports of a partially explored area. Cavers rumored the possibility of an undiscovered connection to Carlsbad. Littleton had heard of some half-hearted attempts. A suggestion by a stranger, and Tom’s own ego, egged him on. He could do better.
The team winched into the shaft, one-by-one. Previous cavers had hammered and chiseled outcroppings, so that the trip down would be unobstructed. Yet it was laborious to lower equipment for a four-day exploration by means of rope and harness, piece by piece. Littleton and his two teammates worked for hours to get themselves and their gear down and set up a base camp.
The shaft’s floor consisted of powdered limestone trampled by cavers before them. The sides of the shaft, jagged layers like rings of a tree, depicted years of sediment from prehistoric seas. It was a rough chimney through which a man could see the last vestiges of daylight. The air inside was cool and still.
Their bodies remained in tune with the sun. They took advantage of fading daylight seeping into the chamber to rest. After tonight, they would move into the depths of the cave where darkness became perpetual. Littleton shared a simple fare of beef jerky and tea with his teammates, Josh Peabody and Jeremy Miller.
Josh served as tactician for the group. He carried maps of previously explored areas and constantly referred to them. He was the man who assembled the gear for this trip and who checked each item to be sure nothing was omitted. In his early thirties and slight of build, Josh had blue eyes seldom seen. They were usually looking down, focused on a map or book, even as he walked along cave paths. It was no mystery why his helmet bore the most dings.
Jeremy was the contrast to Josh. Redheaded, sporting an inch-long matching beard, his fiery hair matching his lively personality. A mid-twenties man with a quick wit and a smart mouth, he was the teammate who constantly looked above and around.
Littleton was not a tall man. Growing up, the boys picked on him since his name fit his stature. But no boy ever picked on him twice. Quick to use his fists from an early age, he pelted his tormentors in an undisciplined series of punches, but they did the job. He had wanted to be an athlete. Baseball or track presented the only way forward for a small, but quick, boy. So, he became a pitcher from little league through high school. Then he discovered caving in his junior year.
Exploring caves was perfect for a man who could squeeze through tight spots. Yet something more made caving right for Littleton. Caves were another world, hidden from the one above. There, in that world, Littleton felt at home.
Littleton possessed a trait he took for granted, but one which his caving teammates assured him was rare. He had a well-developed ‘proximity sense.’ Many people experience that sense when they feel some unseen person is looking at them. Scientists suspect when we were prehistoric hunters, we had a well-developed proximity sense necessary for our survival. Even today, the blind demonstrate a sense for unseen objects in their path. For Littleton, that sense allowed him to know where the walls of caves were, even in the dark when he couldn’t see anything. He sensed his teammates' positions without looking.
“You got everything?” Littleton asked Josh going through the checklist. Of course, Josh had everything. When did he not? Yet Josh, always the self-doubter, hedged with “I believe so.” For Josh, 99% signaled failure.
“Well, that was easy,” Jeremy quipped at the end of his descent. “This place looks like crowds have been here. Tell me again, why are we here?” He directed the question to Littleton who had convinced the team to come along. “Remind me.”
Littleton took time to formulate an answer. How do you rationalize following a random rumor passed along by someone you don’t know, mixed with a portion of gut feeling?
“It’s all about the proximity to Carlsbad. No expert team’s been here,” Littleton explained, “Until now, that is.” A modest boast.
Josh and Jeremy grinned. They were experts, and knew it, even the doubting Josh.
“I suspect there's a connection to Carlsbad,” said Tom.
“And no one has found it because…?” Jeremy asked leaving Littleton to complete the statement.
“Because they looked in obvious places,” Littleton responded. “Look, most cavers have tried to connect through the shortest distance between two points. That makes sense sometimes, but not always. I think we should try the path less traveled.”
“Which means?” Jeremy asked.
“Which means, Carlsbad is to the east,” said Littleton, pointing over Josh’s shoulder. “So we go west.” He smiled as he leaned back, pointing a thumb in the opposite direction.
Josh had done his homework. “Well, it’s true the teams before us went east. Few went in the other direction. But in that direction, it peters out. I imagine most thought it was a dead end.”
“How far has anyone gone?” Littleton asked Josh, already knowing the answer.
“About 3,000 feet.”
“We can do that in a day, maybe two.”
“Yeah,” sneered Jeremy, “If we have to crawl all the way.”
“Some deep knee bends may be necessary,” laughed Littleton.
The exertion of lowering gear and setting up camp made sleep come easily; each man cocooned in his sleeping bag to ward off the coolness of the cave.
The next day, Littleton led the team into the “path less traveled.” The first 3,000 feet were mapped as Josh pointed out the previous day. The team maneuvered over fallen rock and pits dropping hundreds of feet. It resembled a roadway crumbled by a major earthquake. As they continued, they descended 500 feet below the surface, still short of the 750 feet to the floor of Carlsbad. If successful in connecting to Carlsbad, they would have to find a passage that dropped further.
After hours of arduous climbing over rocks scattered along the way, the channel opened into a room the size of a small cottage. The team sat for a rest as they drank hot tea from their thermoses and considered their next move. Hot tea offered the antidote to both dehydration and the chill they would feel when the sweat evaporated after their climb. Above ground was the dry New Mexico air where perspiration disappeared as fast as it formed. But this was another world and another climate.
The walls of the room were made of limestone with its dusty white surfaces streaked with the browns and reds of iron oxide and occasional blues of carbon deposits. Although the path was cluttered with rock, the entrance to the room contained only a few that had rolled in eons ago. The rest of the room appeared clear. Josh and Jeremy sat on rocks the size of inverted kettledrums sipping tea. Littleton walked the perimeter of the room studying the walls. He examined each crack carefully.
Something is here.
“Well, so much for this idea. No way out,” groused Jeremy.
Littleton stayed mute, focused on the cracks in the wall. Josh and Jeremy wondered if Littleton’s rumored proximity sense was at work. Then, he announced “Here!”
Jeremy and Josh rushed over to Littleton. “What?” asked Jeremy.
“There’s another channel behind this crack.”
Littleton stood aside as Josh, then Jeremy, looked into the crack, shining their helmet lamps deep into the darkness. “There’s nothing,” Jeremy said.
“Look down,” smiled Littleton.
Jeremy stood on his toes directing the light downward. Josh followed him, returning Littleton’s smile at his discovery.
“I see it. There’s something there,” Josh confirmed.
“Yeah,” said Jeremy. “We just need to shrink to ten inches wide to squeeze in.”
“Not necessarily,” said Littleton as he turned his back to the wall, took out his pick, and struck the wall at knee level near the crack. The soft limestone crumbled into the opening. He looked at his teammates and asked, “Shall we get busy?”
The men took turns hammering away. The first blows pushed through thin limestone at the edges of the crack, but later hammering worked against thicker layers and the progress slowed. Three hours of work provided a fissure just wide enough for each member to squeeze through. Though exhausted, adrenaline motivated each man to push on.
Littleton took a coil of rope and a large piton from his pack. He hammered the piton into the rock outside the fissure, snaked the rope through it and wrapped it under his arms, tying off with a bowline. Josh and Jeremy slipped on their rough cowhide gloves and grabbed the other end of the rope as Littleton lowered himself into the opening. He hammered another piton on the inside of the opening near the top and clicked his rope into it. His teammates would use that one to lower themselves down.
Littleton rappelled down the wall for seventy feet when he reached the floor. “Clear!” he yelled up to Josh and Jeremy as he unknotted the rope. The men each rappelled in turn.
Caves may be wet or dry. Under the surface of the arid New Mexico desert, Littleton had discovered a wet one. His helmet lamp illuminated stalactites and stalagmites surrounding him in a narrow passage, their sweating surfaces reflecting light brought into this chasm for the first time. A small stream flowed on the opposite side. The perfect clarity of the water allowed a view of the bottom only a few inches below. It was a narrow stream in a narrow cave. The water flowed deeper and swifter in another age. The floor of the cave offered a flat path carved by the much larger river parent. Small rocky rubble, falling every century or so, littered the path. Littleton felt like the first man on a secret moon. Josh and Jeremy were soon the second and third man to step foot in this hidden place.
“Wow,” the simple exclamation from Josh.
“Yes, wow,” responded Littleton. “And look which way it leads. West that way and east this way,” pointing behind them and then forward.
“And east leads to Carlsbad,” smiled Josh.
“So, we crawled 3,000 feet west to turn around and walk east?” questioned Jeremy.
Littleton grinned. “Well, at least it appears to be an easy walk.”
“Yes, but for how long? And 3,000 feet just gets us back to where we started. Carlsbad is beyond that,” stated tactician Josh.
“Guess we better rest,” said Littleton. “And get our supplies closer.”
“Which are up that way,” Jeremy grimaced pointing back up the way they came.
“After you,” Littleton responded with a wide wave of his hand.
Caving is hard work, but one never wants to be far from supplies. So, the team had no choice but make their way back to base camp. They returned over the same rocky path, exhausted by their efforts and immediately fell asleep. After eight hours of sleep and a dose of hot oatmeal washed down with tea, they returned to the same path, this time taking supplies to last the next extension of their exploration. They set up camp in the limestone room that once appeared to be the end of the line. Each man lowered himself through the crack and down to where they stood the previous day, now armed with food in their bellies and fresh batteries in their helmet lamps.
Once down to the stream bed, they made rapid progress over flat terrain. The team walked cautiously, but easily, along the path. The bright light from their helmet lamps enabled a view of their surroundings. As they walked upstream, seeking the source of the water, they calculated they had passed the 3,000-foot mark. That put them approximately where they started, only far lower.
Forward is Carlsbad!
Without speaking, each man’s excitement grew at the prospect they might discover a new connection. They progressed well along the way for another 2,500 feet as the water flow increased. The stream generated a gurgling noise. But as they moved forward, it was joined gradually by the sound of a distant waterfall.
“Listen,” said Littleton.
“I hear it,” responded Josh, not hiding his exhilaration.
A hundred feet more revealed a shimmering waterfall cascading eighty feet from ceiling to floor. They stopped in silent wonder. Then reality took hold.
“Seems to be the end of the line,” observed Jeremy.
No exit appeared. The waterfall covered the back of the chamber. Once again, Littleton refused to accept there was no way out, but back. He walked on a small ledge to the right of the waterfall. “It’s not the end. Come on,” he yelled over the roar of the water. Then he disappeared behind the fall. Josh and Jeremy rushed to follow.
Emerging from behind the waterfall, wet with a mixture of salty sweat and pristine water, they entered a small chamber. Just large enough to squeeze through, it led from behind the waterfall for a little more than sixty feet, and then opened into a larger area. It was much larger than the limestone room from which they started, and equally dry. As each man entered, their helmet lamps searched the wall surfaces. This time, no way out but back seemed evident. Even Littleton appeared less optimistic. Jeremy put his hand on Littleton’s shoulder. “Not bad, my friend. I believe we’ve discovered a large arm of this cave. Looks like we have naming rights. What do you think? The Jeremy and Friends Cave?” He laughed.
“Wait!’ Littleton said. “Look at the floor.” Littleton walked across the room, pointing down as he neared a cascade of boulders on the opposite side.
“What about it?” asked Jeremy.
“The floor here is smooth, as if graded, and not by water. There is a place in Carlsbad with the same surface.” Littleton’s smile expanded as he patted one of the boulders. “I bet Carlsbad is on the other side of these rocks!”
Littleton had walked to the rocks around the left edge of the room. He returned walking directly across the middle. When he took a few steps toward his teammates, the earth gave way beneath him. He fell into an opening and disappeared from sight with only a cloud of dust remaining. Josh and Jeremy rushed over to the hole shouting Tom’s name. Then light shown up from the opening. It beamed from Littleton’s helmet lamp and bounced in all directions as though reflected from a large mirror.
At last, Littleton spoke. In a slow cadence he reported, “You are not going to believe what I found.”