Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Look before you leap department

kw: observations, lessons

I have done a bit of spelunking in wild caves, and probably spent even more time reading about caving adventures. I read once of a small young woman who was about to enter a small passage, telling the group leader, "If I can get in, I can get out." The leader said, "Bruises swell. You'll get bigger if you get hurt, and there is nobody in the group small enough to go in after you."

By a bit of sideways thinking, it reminded me of the first time I got into something I couldn't get out of without help. I was twelve, and my father had taken me along on a business trip that happened to be scouting a piece of desert land where a company facility was planned. I wandered off and began climbing a cliff. It had looked sufficiently rough, and for the first twenty feet or so, had handholds and footholds galore. Then I got to a spot where I was out of new holds, and facing the cliff, I couldn't see to find the foothold I'd just left. I was too high to jump.

About this time my father looked around and spotted me. I don't know what he thought, but he didn't say anything until I called out to him. He gave me directions to footholds I could reach, and talked me down. It took a while. I don't recall anything he might have said after I got down, but perhaps he was wise enough to let the lesson teach itself.

Only once as an adult did I think I'd gotten into something too hard, in a cave called Lilburn's, a large cave in California. I had to pass a pullup/chin up test before the survey leader would let me go on the cave survey. That wasn't so hard in the morning, but after twelve hours clambering about in the cave, everyone was quite tired. It turned out, the only way out of the cave is the Corkscrew Chimney. You had to be 5'-9 or taller (I am six feet), and strong enough to lift yourself two feet by arm strength alone, just to get into this passage in the ceiling. It is a point of pride to exit Lilburn's without needing a boost from below.

Though many cavers have been in and out of this cave, I found a brand-new "portable handhold", a head-sized rock that dropped onto my helmet and sat me right down. I got my bearings and tried again, dragging myself up into the chimney with wildly quivering arms. I needed no help, but it was close.

This and similar experiences taught me some of my limitations. "A man's gotta know his limitations", which I recall being said by John Wayne. But I sum up this "Look before you leap" principle with a different proverb: Don't do something you can't undo. The only thing I've started since about age 25 that can't be undone is my marriage, which has so far lasted 35 years.

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