Into the Cascade
“I don’t know how I feel about the existence of a God,” says Duncan caver Jason Storie, “but I certainly spoke to him that night.”
Trapped and fearing for his life last December, the 44-year-old B.C. man says he “spoke” to his deceased parents and asked them for guidance out of a deep, dark, wet cave on Vancouver Island.
Storie also admits he made peace with the fact that he might die inside Cascade Cave, where he and caver Andrew Munoz were stuck with no way out.
“It’s called Cascade for a reason,” says the 32-year-old Munoz. “There are lots of waterfalls, but nobody could have believed that the water was able to rise to the level it did.”
When Storie and Munoz, also from Duncan, set out on their unforgettable caving expedition with four others on Dec. 5, they never dreamed they wouldn’t make it home safely.
Just outside Port Alberni, the cave entrance is off an unmarked trail. There are no signs. Like old folklore, the location of caves is passed on from caver to caver.
“You need to gain the trust of the old guard before they divulge their secrets,” says Munoz.
At the cave entrance, a fortified steel door keeps the curious public out. To get inside you need a key and a thin, 30-foot aluminum ladder, which rolls out and into the three-storey drop.
“This is not a cave for first-timers,” stresses Munoz. It’s so easy to get hurt down there and — like all caves — it’s easy to destroy sensitive formations.
“Damage done in one second can be visible for 10,000 years. Cascade is a great, deep cave, 300 feet top to bottom, with tight crawls, waterfalls, rappelling and excellent crystal decorations.”
By all accounts, the friends were having a great time that December day. The water was high and challenging, but everyone decided to keep pushing forward. While in the cave, a storm was surging outside, unbeknownst to the cavers.
The rain quickly made its way down, flooding the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels. For the cavers, however, the horror was just beginning. They were about 200 feet down when they encountered problems.
“During the course of exiting the cave,” Munoz recalls, “one of our team members had a very serious near-miss incident in a place called Bastard’s Crawl.”
On the driest of days, this gnarly, 20-foot-long passageway is a wet squeeze. And the only way out.
The crawl is the chokepoint for the entire cave system, the culmination of several creeks converging, rushing out down a pair of waterfalls known as “Double Trouble.”
It was at the mouth of Double Trouble that Storie got swept up in the fast-moving water.
Munoz, a paramedic and the most experienced caver on the trip, rushed to help.
“I found Jason on his back facing the top of the cave, almost up to his neck in the water,” says Munoz. “It was starting to come up around his ears and wash over him. It was draining his strength quickly because the water was so cold.
“It had been a really close call. I didn’t have a thermometer … but if I had to guess, he would have been Stage 2 hypothermia.”
In an attempt to re-warm Storie, Munoz used a pocket stove in which he boiled water to pour down his cave suit.
They made one more attempt to escape before sheltering on a small, 6×10-foot rocky ledge, pitched at a 45-degree angle, a few feet away from the raging water.
“Andrew and I were jammed into that crevice,” Storie remembers, “with a waterfall coming through that tunnel from floor to ceiling, like a giant fire hose.”
The other cavers, who had escaped through the crawl before it was too late, would be calling 911, triggering search and rescue. But that would take hours.
“Jason shivered violently throughout the night,” says Munoz.
“We had a space blanket just wide enough to cover the two of us,” says Storie. “We laid in the dark and checked in with each other every 20 minutes to make sure we were still sane.”
For 14 hours they were trapped, coping in their own way.
Trapped and worried
Storie meditated. “I basically concentrated on my breathing,” he says, “and tried to keep the negative thoughts at bay.”
Munoz chanted, repeating a mantra about letting fear pass through you.
“Having just had my first child,” Munoz says, “my thoughts would drift to her (six-month-old Juniper) wondering: will she grow up without a father?”
One of the lowest points for Munoz was being out of contact with cavers on the other side, worried they’d fallen or had been trapped in another part of Cascade.
Fortunately, their buddies had made it out and did exactly what they were supposed to do.
Within a couple hours, the cave entrance swarmed with rescuers. At one point, there were 50 people at Cascade Cave from B.C. & Alberta Cave Rescue, B.C. Ambulance, RCMP and Alberni Valley Rescue Squad.
“The number of people who had mobilized so quickly to try and help us was exceptional,” says the forever grateful Storie.
Despite flooding, rescuers made it within 25 feet of the pair in the early morning hours, but the crawl remained impassible.
“We didn’t hear or see any sight of them,” Munoz says. “There was absolutely no way for anyone to get to us.”
Storie and Munoz eventually made it out on their own once the water retreated.
Munoz remembers the moment they arrived at the exit, as officials were preparing for their second rescue attempt.
“We called up and said ‘hello,’ ” Munoz says, choking back emotion. One of the rescuers yelled, “We love you,” and then rescue ropes came down.
No Wi-Fi, so why?
Caving, also known as spelunking, is the pastime of exploring holes in the ground.
“If you can fit your body in there and it gets absolutely dark,” Munoz says, “you’re inside a cave.”
The question remains: why go inside? It’s cold, damp, dark and there’s no Wi-Fi.
Turns out, that’s part of the attraction.
“Cavers explore caves for a variety of reasons,” says Munoz. “If you ask 10 cavers, you’ll get 10 reasons. Adventure is definitely on top of the list.”
Beyond adventure, Munoz says it’s beauty that draws people inside, as well as the untapped scientific potential.
“Caves have a special nature to preserve things,” says Munoz. That special something could hold the key to the next groundbreaking antibiotic.
“There are thousands of caves in British Columbia,” he says, of various types, including solution (formed by rainwater), talus (formed by broken rock), and lava tubes (formed by hot magma).
Vancouver Island, which has the largest concentration of caves in North America, has mostly solution caves.
Some of the most popular B.C. caves include: Thanksgiving Cave (Tahsis, B.C.), Fallen Giant (Tahsis), Close to the Edge (Prince George), and Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park (Qualicum Beach), which is Munoz’s favourite and a great place to start for beginners.
“Close to the Edge is one that I’ve only seen, but haven’t made the descent,” he says. “I’ve never had a rope long enough. It’s almost 1,000 feet to rappel from the top to the bottom, just at the start.
“Caves are mysterious. Google and satellites have made the Earth so accessible from your desktop, but caves hide their secrets.”
Earlier this month, Munoz and Storie returned to Cascade to slay some demons and retrieve equipment. They both still struggle with post-traumatic stress.
“It was really important to put that cave to rest,” says Munoz. “We made it deeper than we’ve ever been before and had an absolute blast.”
In the end, Munoz says the rescuers — all volunteers — are the real heroes.
“They leave their jobs, their homes, their kids, in the middle of a pouring rainstorm to go try and help somebody … We owe them our lives.”
For more information about caving and how to get started see cancaver.ca