Last month, 15-year-old Jacob Sanders found himself stuck deep in the belly of a dark cave. He had stripped down to his underwear, his naked torso bleeding from scratches. And he was shivering from the cold.
But he wasn’t afraid. His uncle, Calvin Sanders, and his dad were nearby, and they were confident they could get him out. In fact, they’d helped him into the tight spot, hoisting him through a small crack in the ceiling to push deeper into the Pacific north-west cave, further in than any human had ever been before.
But now, without a boost or anything to push off of with his legs, he was struggling to squeeze back through the space, similar in size to the opening of a dog door, but lined with sharp, rough, lava-made basalt rock.
“I first took off my hoodie to fit through,” Jacob explained on a recent video call from Washington state, where he lives. “I was covered in blood and scratches from the cave walls. And my belt loop got stuck. And I couldn’t really breathe. So I had to take my belt off. And then my pants got stuck, so I literally started to take off my pants and everything.”
(Warning: do not watch the video below if you are claustrophobic.)
Eventually, scratched up but smiling, Jacob made it back through to his family. The scene didn’t make it into a video on Caveman Hikes, their YouTube channel chronicling Jacob and Calvin’s often claustrophobia-inducing caving excursions, but it’s similar to the scenarios that have helped their videos go viral.
In the video called “The worst claustrophobic caving you will ever see”, for example, Calvin, a 46-year-old military veteran and experienced outdoorsman, and a small team of expert cavers use a drill to chip away at a long passageway before wedging themselves in to access a larger cavern below.
While the chipping makes it possible for Calvin to just barely squeeze through the passageway, it’s excruciating to watch. Gripping a GoPro camera on a selfie stick in a lightly bleeding hand, he can hardly move his head from left to right. At one point, his slightly larger colleague becomes stuck ahead of him and has to be pulled by his feet to free himself, chipping away at the rock to give himself slightly more room and make another attempt.
Since Jacob is still growing, he’s able to wedge himself into even smaller spaces than most of the others. In another video, “The tightest cave squeeze ever recorded”, his uncle helps him into a 6in-by-10in hole headfirst; he calmly and expertly wriggles through to a large cavern on the other side. With a flashlight in hand, he joyfully runs up the sides of the cave walls, slapping the ceiling with the other hand and taking it in. Then he slithers back up through the hole, this time “Superman style”, with his hands and arms out front so his uncle can pull him back out.
“That was awesome in there!” he exclaims, laughing. “That was so much fun!”
Jacob and Calvin agreed that even if no one watched their YouTube videos, they’d still be exploring the hundreds of local underground lava tubes and tree casts of southern Washington and Oregon, created by past eruptions from nearby volcanoes such as Mount Saint Helens. They both grew up hiking, and sometimes their family chose caves over waterfalls to visit along the way.
But after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the infrequent hobby transformed into an obsession.
“When I first went in caves, I was terrified,” Jacob admits, adding that initially, he would always let his uncle go first, just in case someone or something unpleasant was around the corner. But now, that uncertainty about what’s ahead delivers a rush of excitement and wonder.
“Caves will always surprise me,” he said. They always offer something new, dropping off or bending in unexpected ways, or containing fascinating geological formations or conditions. “Is it going to be wet? Is it going to be dry? Is it going to be cold, dirty, muddy, clean? Is it going to be, like, pretty or is it going to be super ugly, you know, like a crawly cave that’s all spiky?”
For Calvin, it’s also a creative outlet, with the lighting, shooting and editing element thrown into the mix, as well as the opportunity to recite philosophical and often funny monologues about human nature. And he loves the psychological impact the videos have on the audience, who largely seem to be people who have claustrophobia and are engaging in a kind of exposure therapy.
“This video made me press pause and go outside. TWICE,” writes one commenter. “I’ve been getting better though … I used to never be able to watch a whole video.”
But after running into a few challenges on their own adventures, the pair decided to join their local “grotto”, a more formally organized chapter of the National Speleological Society, which started in the 1960s, long before technology like GPS.
The librarian of the Oregon Grotto, which is a bit of a misnomer because it’s focused on southern Washington, is the official keeper of approximately 600 tightly protected cave maps that reveal the secret locations of every documented cave in the region. Because the maps can present a danger to inexperienced hikers and can seem inviting to vandals and litterers when they are made public, members of the grotto commit to keeping locations private.
But it’s hardly a popular sport, said the grotto chairman, Ahrlin Bauman, who has appeared in a few of the videos on the channel. The group only has about 20 active members, he said, although there are more on the official mailing list. That’s because most excursions involve a lengthy hike of up to three miles through thick forest to site locations. Some caves require rope work, rappelling down into a cavern before hiking through a tunnel or wedging oneself through sharp, rugged passageways. The lava-made surfaces are so rough, a caver’s clothes and shoes last for just one or two excursions.
But with members like Jacob and Calvin, there has been fresh energy to continue surveying caves and “pushing” them – looking more closely than the previous generation’s grotto did to see if caves are longer than originally thought, sometimes extending them by more than 1,000ft.
Five years ago, Bauman said, he was exploring one of his favorite caves, Scott’s Cave, when he discovered a tree well that expanded into an erosional cave linked to a lava tube – a complete visual history of what lay below a lava eruption that happened 4,000 years ago.
“You find something like that and that will reinvigorate you for a whole year,” he said. “You don’t have to find anything else.”
The exhilaration of discovery, being somewhere that no one else has ever been, drives the cavers to keep pushing. This year, Bauman and the grotto plan to survey an additional 58,000ft, or about 10 miles, of caves.
But the grotto isn’t the official administrator of the regional caves. They sometimes butt heads with the local forestry service, which doesn’t always want them to clean up vandalized caves and may not share their goal of keeping caves open, but private, with only those in the community aware of the locations.
Caves are sometimes closed up. One of Bauman’s favorite spots, Dynamited Cave, was given the name after a group of kids became stuck in it decades ago. They had used a stretchy rope to rappel themselves down into the scenic cave, known for its uniquely orange walls that glow under LED lights. But when they let go of the rope, it bounced up 10ft out of their reach. Their parents found them and they were rescued, and the entrance to the cave was blown shut using explosives. But it was later reopened and remains so, partly because the local townspeople have developed a fondness for the cave.
Calvin said the types of dangers audience members ask about – such as poor air quality – weren’t real risks. And you’d never meet dangerous animals – the only wildlife are insects and bats. But there is no cellphone service, and it can be cold. The temperature is nearly always hovering around 48F. After sweating heavily through an arduous passageway, it can feel frigid. Hypothermia is a real risk, and so is pure exhaustion from over-exertion.
In 2009, John Edward Jones, a 26-year-old medical student, became stuck upside down while going head first into a passageway in Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave. Despite valiant efforts to rescue him over the course of 28 agonizing hours, Jones died there, leaving behind his pregnant wife and young child. His body was never retrieved, and the cave was sealed to prevent anyone from meeting the same fate.
“Sometimes if I’m in a real tight spot, I’ll just lay there and relax,” Bauman said, adding that having a sense of calm and patience is one of the most important skills a caver can have. “A lot of times people panic and start wiggling and getting stuck even more. So I’ve learned that the more you try and fight it, the worse off you are.” He’s taken that calmness to the extreme, falling asleep in tight spots to rest his weary muscles and mind.