Young parents with an affinity for rock climbing and outdoor adventures lose their way in an underground cave.
- Posted on Oct 25, 2019
Had we finally found a way out? I watched from a ledge, shivering, as my husband, Spencer, free-climbed the slick rock walls to the top of a waterfall. We’d been lost in the Darby Ice and Wind Caves in the Tetons for more than 24 hours. He had to be as cold and tired as I was, yet he kept going. Ten feet, 20, 30… There, he made it to the top. He pointed his fading flashlight at the spot where the water gushed from. Was there an opening we could squeeze through?
Exploring the caves was supposed to be a present for Spencer’s thirty-first birthday. We planned a big adventure like it every year—skydiving, hiking Table Mountain—to celebrate. We’re experienced outdoors people. We even got engaged on top of 12,662-foot Mount Borah, Idaho’s tallest peak. We’ve been rock climbing for more than five years, and we’d spent several weeks researching the caves. We couldn’t find much information, but there were consistent reports of a two-mile underground route linking the caves, with rappels, waterfalls, streams, narrow passages. All the things that our adventure-junkie personalities love. Our plan was to enter the ice cave and exit the wind cave, which we’d read could involve six to 12 hours of hiking, climbing and rappelling, depending on conditions underground.
Safely within our abilities, which was especially important now that we had our one-year-old daughter, Aurora, to think about. We’d taken her to stay with my parents on August 10, two days before Spencer’s birthday. Early the next morning, we told my mom to call for help if she didn’t hear from us by midnight that night. Telling someone where you’re going and when you expect to return is a standard backcountry precaution.
Spencer and I drove to the trailhead and hiked the five miles up to the ice cave. By the time we reached the entrance, it was around noon and we were sweating in the midsummer heat. The blast of cool air from the ice cave felt good.
The first rappel, 40 feet over an ice cliff, looked a little scary. “You’ve got this, Jess,” Spencer said. “Keep that back brake locked.” Gripping my rope, I took a deep breath and slid backward, dropping into the dark cave. Spencer went next, letting out a whoop. “Yippee ki-yay!”
This is it, I thought. There’s no turning back. The cliff was too steep to climb up. We’d have to hike through to the wind cave. Let our adventure begin!
Everywhere we turned, ice shimmered on the cave walls. Beautiful. We made our way forward with our helmet lamps, climbing over slippery rocks, squeezing through passages, wading through frigid water. We followed bolts left in the walls by other hikers, using them as guides.
Underground, minutes leaked into hours without any change in light. Around the five-hour mark, I started to wonder if we were still going the right way. There were a lot of offshoots from the main cave.
We were soaking wet from wading and from water dripping onto us, and chilled from wind blasts, by the time we reached a big cavern—maybe 50 feet wide. The rocks were blanketed with ice. We searched. No bolts anywhere. No obvious way out. A waterfall poured from a hole in the ceiling, collecting in a pool at our feet.
We were tired and hungry, so we sat down to eat some energy gels. I treated some water with our purifier. As I took a drink, my headlamp shone on a nylon rope dangling from near the top of the waterfall. I pointed at the rope. “Look!”
“Babe, what if we’re supposed to climb that rope to get out?” Spencer said.
It seemed crazy that a four-foot rope was our way out. Then again, it meant someone had been here and gotten out. The end of the rope was 10 feet above our heads. We had to give it a shot.
I climbed onto Spencer’s shoulders—he’s six foot two—and grabbed for the rope, standing as tall as I could. “You can do it!” he said.
I tried again and again. Every time I managed to grasp the rope, it slipped out of my hands.
We stopped to regroup. Spencer and I sat on the muddy ground, huddling together for warmth. My mind went to Aurora. What if this morning was the last time I would ever see my baby girl? Don’t go there, I told myself. We’re going to make it.
To warm up, we made a fire, burning whatever would burn from our backpacks. Food wrappers. Baseball caps. The leather cover of our binoculars. I looked at my watch. It was 12:03 a.m. Spencer’s birthday. We’d been in the cave for 12 hours. “Happy birthday,” I said. “This is one you’ll never forget.”
Spencer hugged me close. A lot of people would have prayed at this point. We’re not religious, so we just held each other through the night and tried to stay positive.
“We’re gonna be okay, babe,” Spencer said.
“I know,” I said. “Help is coming.” My mom must have called search and rescue by now.
Around 6 a.m., we tried the rope again. No luck. The cold felt as if it were creeping into my bones. We did jumping jacks and squats, but the wind whisked away our body heat faster than we could create it.
We made another fire. We kept our rope, climbing harness and one backpack with a few essentials. Everything else—the other pack, Spencer’s knee brace, our extra gloves and hats, our wallets—went into the fire. I even used a dry piece of my hair as kindling.
I let the warmth of the fire seep into my body. The sound of the water burbling over the rocks and the wind whistling through the cave was like meditative music. It was odd, but I felt an incredible peace in that moment, as if I would be okay, no matter what happened. It was like a reassuring presence.
Around noon, we decided to give the rope one more try. We were out of food, out of things to burn. The batteries for our lights were dying. Spencer hoisted me onto his shoulders. I’m going to get it, I told myself, lunging for the rope. My hand wrapped around the end. Yes!
That’s when I saw a bolt in the cavern wall that we hadn’t noticed before. Holding on to the fixed rope with one hand, I maneuvered myself toward the bolt. I looped and tied our climbing rope through it. Spencer and I came up with a pulley system to lift me another 15 feet to a ledge where I could secure our rope. It took me two hours to get up there. Spencer pulled himself up using the rope I’d set. “We’ve got this, babe,” he said.
The ledge was at the base of another waterfall. Was that an opening up at the top? No bolts. We’d have to free-climb. Slowly I made my way up. I grabbed a shelf in the rock wall, only to have it crumble in my hand. I fell 15 feet and bounced off a boulder. The next thing I knew, Spencer’s arms wrapped around me. Somehow he’d caught me!
Then it was Spencer’s turn to attempt a free climb.
He pointed his flashlight at the top of the waterfall. Then he turned and looked at me. I’d never seen such bleakness in his eyes. I knew without asking that there was no way out.
“It’s just a crack,” Spencer confirmed once he climbed down. “Not big enough to go through.”
My teeth chattered violently, and my whole body was shaking with cold. We’re not going to make it, I thought. Aurora, I’m sorry….
Then I heard something. Voices. Was it just wishful thinking?
“Jess, do you hear that?” Spencer asked.
I heard someone shout my name. I blew my safety whistle. Spencer yelled.
Lights from flashlights filled the cavern below. They’d found us!
The search and rescue team helped us rappel down into the cavern we’d been in earlier. They told us we’d been on the right route, but recent flooding had made it almost impossible to find the exit. All of us waded deep into the pool of water at the foot of the waterfall to find a four-inch gap between the water and the rock above—just enough room to keep our heads tipped to breathe. No wonder we hadn’t seen this route during our searches. We passed through the gap, and our rescuers led us the rest of the way out of the caves.
Thirty-three hours after rappelling into the ice cave, we emerged into the hot air of night. We hiked down to the trailhead. Our friends and family were waiting. Everyone burst into singing “Happy Birthday” to Spencer. Everyone except Aurora, who was fast asleep. Seeing my baby girl and knowing I would get to watch her grow up made my heart full.
A week later, I was in our backyard, picking apples. Spencer mowed the grass. Aurora lay in our hammock with a lap full of apples. I watched her take bites out of every single one, giggling, and I thought back on our adventure in the ice cave. It hadn’t been just Spencer and me down there for those 33 hours. I couldn’t shake the memory of a third presence. Like I said, I’m not a religious person. Still, when we were wading through chilly water, climbing icy walls, making fires—there had been someone with us. Protecting us in the dark.
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