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Carter Caves Crawlathon

Jade Pearce in the Squeezebox finals. Photos by Attila Horvath.

My plan is this: Wear all my clothes, wear my heavy boots – hell, shove rocks in my pockets if I have to. I need to move up to 126 pounds to be one of the smallest people in my weight category for the Squeezebox competition.

Sure, the annual Carter Caves Crawlathon weekend has a lot more to offer – a beautiful karst landscape, a full array of cave tours that satisfy everybody from kids to hard core vertical cavers, rappelling sessions, a photo salon, a keynote speaker, even the corrugated cardboard cave (a.k.a. boxite caving). But I’m not the only one who is most excited about the Squeezebox competition.

The Squeezebox: what you see is what you get. It’s a box, lined with rocks inside the top panel that is set up with a horizontal vice to allow it to be adjusted smaller and smaller to literally put the squeeze on participants. It’s more an end in itself than practice for the tight squeezes underground that some cavers love and others won’t go near.

Brianna Swetnam from Morehead, KY, is a Crawlathon volunteer. She weighs me in. 126.8 pounds. Yes! “A lot of blood has been shed in the Squeezebox,” she tells me nonchalantly. I laugh off her comment and get in line.

In front of me is Brandon Maynard, from nearby Huntington, WV. He is entering the Squeezebox competition for his third year in a row. He was a finalist last year, but went away empty-handed. No gift certificate to the gift shop, no yellow ribbon. Most importantly, no bragging rights for the next year or his signature in permanent marker on the Squeezebox itself.

I can’t help but wonder who did beat Brandon, who, at 6’3” and 151 pounds, is proportioned similarly to the stalactites hanging down from the caves beneath us.

“I’m gonna win,” he predicts.

Brandon says Carter Caves is his favorite place to go. “They’re fun caves for anybody,” he says, echoing the sentiments of most people this weekend. Carter Caves is good for kids, families, beginners – but also more serious cavers who rap down into the caves or rock climb out of them.

He readily admits caving is best reserved for a special breed. “A lot of people are like, ‘Caves? Underground? No.’”

After weigh-in, I go through the box for the first time. Qualifying round. I didn’t suspect that such a controlled environment would be mentally taxing, but it is. I can’t help but worry about getting stuck, unable to breath and unable to gasp, “unscrew it!” It’s hard. It’s slick, I’m not tall enough to use either hands or feet at certain parts …

“You got it! You’re almost there!” Brandon cheers, advising, “Just breathe out and go.”

Little did I know that Brandon’s companion, Karen Nelson, also from Huntington, and Jade Pearce from Lansing, MI, shared my strategy. Both weigh in at between 126 and 130 pounds. We’re all short, but they are skinnier than I am. For the first time in my life, it makes sense for us women to sit around comparing our wide hips, big butts and swollen breasts. That said, I think it’s wise that the Crawlathon staff decided to use the term Heavyweight to describe only the men’s uppermost weight category.

With the Squeezebox at 7¼ inches, I can’t get my chest in, so I crawl back out, hoping to make the alternate list for tonight’s finals.

Good, clean, dirty fun
In the meantime, I strap on my helmet and join Cindy Duncan, who leads a group on the Cascade Gone Wild cave tour. Cindy is a hard-core caver. She got married in the large room at the entrance of this very cave. Cindy says a caver needs to have two qualities: they need to lack claustrophobia and love to explore. She tells us some of the beautiful formations – “pretties,” she calls them – flowery things, soda straws, cave pearls, rimstone dams she’s seen around here over the years. Caving, Cindy sums it up, “is good, clean, dirty fun.”

Her safety speech starts simply. “I don’t do rescue.” She ticks off the basics: cave with a minimum of two people, four is ideal; tell someone where you’re going and exactly when you expect to come out; if you get lost, stay put; bring water, food, helmet, three light sources, emergency poncho.

“It’s just common sense,” she says. “Not everyone in the world has it.”

We walk through the cave, having to crouch sometimes, but never crawl. The floor varies from sandy to rocky to watery. Stalactites and stalagmites are forming. We get an opportunity to view an endangered species up close: the Indiana bat, which hibernates here. Most caves are closed during their hibernation period and we feel pretty lucky to see them. But we’ve bothered them with our presence and their high-pitched screeching creeps us out and moves us along.

This is a tour cave, so there are permanent light fixtures placed discreetly. But we partake in the caving ritual of going deep into it then all turning off our lights. The complete darkness is a bit unsettling. Claustrophobic, even. It would be literally impossible to get out of this cave with no light. A really, really good reminder of why you’re supposed to bring three light sources.

Once outside of the limestone caves, it seems especially bright although the day is overcast. Snow has dusted the ground and the cedar trees that dot the landscape.

I notice how grubby everyone looks and note to Cindy that caving isn’t exactly a fashion show, which is something I like.

“Oh yes it is,” participant Kathy Largen from Dugspur, VA, corrects me. “Everyone has duct tape. That’s a fashion show,” she says, pointing to the generous amount of duct tape attaching homemade knee pads and keeping various pieces of gear together. “The second thing is a chin strap,” she continues, pointing out that new, properly functioning chin straps hold the least amount of caving cred. Old loose straps lend more cred and the most cred goes to those cavers who have long since replaced lost and broken straps with shoe laces. Finally, Kathy shows me the side bags hung diagonally from shoulder to hip. “Real cavers will have those side packs on to move better – and the smaller the side pack, the more hard core they are.”

The main event
After gathering around the lodge fireplace where various and sundry socks, shoes, jackets and other stinky items are hanging to dry, we wait for the main event.

The finalists have been listed and I didn’t make the cut. Both Karen and Jade have. The Squeezebox is placed on a platform so the audience can see better. Jade enters the box, now down to 6¾ inches tall. “Squeeze it!” somebody yells as she gets stuck. “What do you think I’m doin’” she manages to shoot back. Stuck. Karen enters, struggles … pulls it off! “Awesome!” she exclaims. “Three years of this – it’s about time.” Last year, she lost to a woman who has again entered this year, but in the 125 and under weight class.

Brandon faces down last year’s champ, Eli Smith, in the men’s stick category (all right, I made that up). Seven and a half inches – they both fly through. The box goes straight down to 6½ inches and the crowd is sufficiently awed, gauging by the collective ooohhh. Brandon goes first, face up, using the rocks to help pull through. He struggles, nears the 2 minute time limit, and finally pulls it through. Eli, dressed in only long underwear, enters. He gets stuck. Fifteen seconds … 10 seconds … 5 seconds … “You can keep going,” the announcer says into the mic, but ultimately the squeezebox has to be lifted to extract Eli. Brandon is victorious.

Men’s heavyweight. Brothers Jan and Jamie Dzierzak of Huntington face off, along with Rick Eppley from Dayton, OH. Eight and a half inches. Jan is the heftiest of the group, and as he wrestles his way through, the crowd cheering, I chime in – quite loudly – with “Suck it in!” Dead silence sucks the cheer out of the room. I return with full concentration to my reporter’s notebook, writing Suck it in = faux pas. A couple of more rounds and Jamie emerges the champion, blood dripping from his face onto the Squeezebox as he signs it for the fourth time.

Turns out both Brianna and Cindy were right. A lot of blood has been shed in the Squeezebox. And it’s been good, clean, dirty fun.

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