We’d been wandering underground for hours. Around 10 p.m., my wife Jess and I stood up in a circular chamber maybe 50 feet across. A waterfall at one end blew an icy mist. I flicked my lighter to see which way the air was moving—in this cave, the wind blows from entrance to exit. The flame was dead still.
We thought we’d done this the right way. Every year, we pick an adventure to celebrate my birthday, and for this one, we selected the Darby Ice and Wind Caves, tucked into the western slope of the Tetons. We’d done some caving before, and online videos of rappels over icy cliffs and shimmies through narrow passageways caught my attention. There wasn’t much information, but what we did find was consistent: a 2- to 3-mile underground cave, beginning with a series of rappels and featuring a couple of wades through frigid water. We were both experienced climbers and campers and felt it was within our abilities. We left our young daughter with Jess’s mom and told them to call for help if we didn’t return by midnight.
We stepped out of 80°F heat and into a freezer as we entered the ice cave around midday, expecting to spend three our four hours linking it with Wind Cave. We rappelled a series of frozen waterfalls. At the bottom, we pulled our rope and gathered our wits—the only way out was in.
What limited beta we’d found online didn’t mention offshoots from the main cave, which we assumed meant navigation would be straightforward. So we took our time, stopping often to let our headlamps reveal the crystalline tunnels painted in glitter. For more than four hours, we picked our way through thigh-deep water, narrow passages, and pitch-black caverns. We saw rappel anchors, footprints, and signs of other cavers, but as the darkness stretched on into the ninth hour, we couldn’t help but think we should have reached the exit.
Since we’d pulled the rope, we knew there was no turning back. Our only choice was to keep going, so we kept following the footprints we saw, until we couldn’t see the way forward anymore.
We dead-ended in the 50-foot-wide cavern. At one end, a rope dangled from a small hole in the ceiling from which a waterfall poured. The rocks surrounding it were frosted in ice. Opposite the rope, a large pool of water lapped against the rock wall. We hadn’t read anything about a cul-de-sac; there had to be a way out. We searched the walls of the round room until midnight, but came up empty. The rope was too slick to climb, the water too deep to wade through, and we couldn’t find a break in the rock.
Tired, demoralized, and shivering, we stopped searching and I pulled a couple of energy bars out of my backpack. We cuddled as close as possible on the frozen mud to try and share some body heat, calling out every so often into the dark.
I lit a trash fire from the contents of our packs, hoping it would give us warmth. Thin wisps of smoke curled through the beam of my headlamp, drifting straight up. Wind had been sailing through the corridor until this chamber, but now it was still. We hoped resting might help us see something new in the morning. We shivered more than we slept.
By 5 a.m., we were back to searching, but we felt more and more trapped. We’d both gotten wet again while exploring and, with no real chance to warm up and get dry, hypothermia started to seem inevitable.
I started another fire, and desperation led me to burn my backpack, our extra hats and gloves, items from my wallet, even my knee brace. I saved only our rope, harnesses, and one pack.
In theory, help should have been on the way. We thought the cave was a straight shot, but what if we had made a wrong turn somewhere? In an underground maze like this, we couldn’t take rescue for granted. We had to find our own way out.
As the day wore on and we searched for an escape, I began to reconsider that rope hanging from a hole in the ceiling. We’d dismissed it as unclimbable, but now I wanted to take another look. We ate the last of our food and walked up to the rope once again.
Jess climbed up on my shoulders to reach it and tied a slip knot into the worn nylon. Icy water rained down from the falls next to the rope, soaking us in minutes and numbing our hands. Clipping a piece of webbing to the knot for a step, she stood up and connected her harness and belay device to the rope. From there, another slip knot, another step. Slowly she started inching higher until she had climbed through the hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet up, and sat on a ledge. Once she reached it, I followed. Finally, we were making progress. After a night of helplessly searching and trying to stay warm, we were saving ourselves.
I unclipped and climbed up from the ledge. As I went, the tunnel narrowed, then widened into another chamber with a waterfall. This has to be the way out, I thought. Shining my light up to the source of the water, my heart sank: It gushed through nothing but a tiny crack.
All at once, I became aware that my teeth were chattering. My wet clothes stuck to me, and the grip strength in my fingers was fading. How long could we stay trapped in here? How long could we stay this cold?
Back on the ledge, Jess and I readied ourselves to rappel back to the main chamber where we’d spent the night. I thought I heard something. Silence, then I heard it again. Shouting. I looked at Jess and knew she did, too. We heard our names. Jess blew her safety whistle and I shouted. Lights emerged from around the same corner we’d passed the day before, reflecting off the water in the cave. We’d been found.
When we rappelled down to the rescuers, they told us we were on the right route, but only about halfway through. They estimated we’d hiked 8 miles underground as we tried to find the way out. With the rescuers, we waded into the water of the chamber to find a 4-inch gap between the water and the rock—just enough to breathe. We never saw it during our previous searching. We passed through and a couple hours later, we were out.
It wasn’t until I felt the sun on my face that I remembered it was my birthday.
Key Skills: Navigate a Cave System
Carry a survey.
Just like you would take a map on a hike, bring a cave survey (a map of the cave system) and compass to identify where you are and how to get to safety. Local caving clubs often provide them free of charge. Leave your GPS at home; you won’t get a signal in a cave.
Note your surroundings.
Often, looking over your shoulder periodically (at least at every intersection or turn) and taking a picture as you head into a cave is the only help you’ll need to get back out. Familiarizing yourself with the view in the opposite direction can make the difference in recognizing the way back.
Leave nothing behind.
Never scratch the walls of caves, paint arrows, or otherwise permanently mark the route. On out-and-backs in complex systems, leave removable ice-pop sticks with reflective paint on them to mark your route. Paint one side in one color and the other in a different color to identify which way is out and which is in. Just pick them up on the way out.