I cannot remember doing any mountain climbing before moving to Korea almost 10 years ago. Since then, however, I have ascended and descended parts of Bukhansan, Seoraksan, Taebaeksan, Gyeryongsan, Songnisan, Woraksan, Chilgapsan, Jirisan, Achasan, Baekdusan, Hallasan and at least a dozen others. It’s an exhilarating and yet somewhat dangerous sport. For that reason, I much prefer “climbing” on parts that are smooth, paved, free of boulders and with ropes on both sides of the path—in other words, civilized climbing. I have never purported to be another Edmund Hillary (the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest).
Much the same can be said about spelunking or caving. Some of the Korean caves into which I have gone include Gosu, Hwanseon and Gwangmyeong. I have had a good time, a lovely time in each instance because others have gone before me to explore and erect walkways, lights and so forth. Oh, occasionally you have to crouch below some rocks, and condensation can cause footing to be less than ideal. But in general, it is s-a-f-e, and I like that. To be able to go below ground and gaze at a big cavern with its eerie stalagmites and stalagtites is something to savor. It hardly counts as spelunking, though. You could call it underground tourism and not be too far off the mark. Hard-core cavers can scoff all they like.
Ask Lukas Cavar, an Indiana University sophomore who recently went with a group to Sullivan Cave, south of Bloomington. He somehow got separated from the others and spent a hellish 58 hours in the dark, alone, before being rescued. I would not want to experience anything like what young Mr. Cavar did.
I had one unpleasant trip inside a cave, however. My friend, Lynne Thompson, was a strong, wiry and unusually intense woman who worked in a vitamin store in Austin in the mid-1980s. Among Lynne’s many interests was spelunking. She thought nothing of going into unmarked caves in central Austin and just looking around. It’s a breeze, she insisted, but I had my doubts. Finally, one summer day, she convinced me to come with her and her daughter Ruth. The name of the place—if in fact it had a name—has since been forgotten. I was just trailing along behind these two fearless females.
In retrospect, it is clear that I should have asked just what we were getting into. Maybe the idea of seeming wimpy was reason enough to desist. (This, if I may digress, reminds me of a somewhat related event a decade earlier. I had a Honda motorcycle and had taken my UT roommate, John Collins, out for a ride west of campus. His fear was so palpable, it drained whatever pleasure we might have derived. From the back seat, John was constantly imploring me, “Slow down!” “Stop!” “Turn left!” “Turn right!” And again, “Slow down!”) Had Lynne been there before? Did she know the nature of this cave?
Lynne, Ruth and I arrived and entered. You might say we got subterranean. At first, I had little trepidation. In time, though, I most surely did. Our passageway grew increasingly narrow as we went down, vertical and then down some more. The first time I felt claustrophobic, I should have bailed. The ladies might have thought badly of me, so I did not. I probably expressed some concern, but on we went. Before long, however, we were tightly surrounded by massive rocks north, south, east and west of us. Progress came one inch at a time. My anxiety level was rising fast, and I could take no more. I told Lynne and her daughter that we had to go back. They concurred. But doing that was no simple matter. We could only start wriggling backwards, trying to follow our “footsteps.” I honestly feared not being able to get out. Had I gotten permanently stuck, Lynne and Ruth would have suffered the same fate. People had died in such circumstances before, as we all knew.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we got to where we had some degree of space. Further on, we could walk. And then, hallelujah, we saw daylight! When we stepped out of that cave, the three of us felt profound relief. Lynne, with all her experience and bravado, could not deny that it had been a challenging trip below ground. Nevertheless, she asked whether I would be interested in doing some more spelunking—perhaps in a different cave? I told her, "Lynne, that was quite possibly the most frightening experience of my life. I would not reprise it for a million dollars."