Hit by Rockfall Deep in a Cave

Venture into an intense survival story in a cave so deep and treacherous that explorers must rely solely on their own wits

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The allure of the unknown often draws adventurers into the untouched backcountry, away from the safety of well-trodden paths. That very inaccessibility that entices us can also become our greatest peril when things go awry. We rely on the hope that if lost, injured, or in distress, a team of rescuers will come to our aid. But what if help cannot reach us?

In this episode of Out Alive we explore a location so remote that it’s unreachable on foot, where even a rescue helicopter cannot view or land. This is the harrowing journey of two adult brothers whose passion for spelunking takes a terrifying turn. Exploring the labyrinthine depths of a remote cave, one of them finds themselves caught in a sudden rockfall and severely injured.


Louisa: The inaccessibility of the backcountry is what draws so many of us to go off the beaten path, and at the same time, that remoteness is the very thing that can get us in trouble when things go wrong. Still, we often take for granted that in most places a team of rescuers will be able to come and help if we find ourselves lost, injured, or in distress.

But what if the place you choose to explore isn’t reachable on foot? What if it’s somewhere where a rescue helicopter can’t even view, let alone land? If you knew that venturing to this spot meant being in charge of your own rescue if things went awry, would you go? Today on Out Alive, we’re going underground.

John Lane: My name’s John Lane. I am a geologist. I live in Chico, California, and I’m 58 years old.

Louisa: As a high schooler, John was introduced to caving, kicking off what for him would become a lifelong obsession. 

John Lane: When I was 21 years old, I got a job at Moaning Caverns in Calaveras County, California, and started leading caving adventure tours where people start with 180-foot repel, and then we would go off and crawl around into the passages for about three hours. And so doing it there, I wanted to go find wild caves.

Louisa: Over the years, John had honed a vast set of technical skills, allowing him to travel vertically underground with the use of static ropes.

John Lane: It’s kind of like mountain climbing in reverse, where you start at the top, if you work your way down. Generally you start repelling, you get to the bottom and then you start looking for more passage. And then of course you gotta get out. Also, it involves a lot of squeezing your body through small spaces, and you really can’t be claustrophobic, and you gotta be patient too because sometimes as you’re waiting for somebody to go through a passage, it can take quite a while. And when we really start getting into the squeezes, it could take you two hours to go through a 2-foot squeeze. And when people are going through these really tight passages you can actually feel their heartbeat on the walls around you.

Like anything though, the more you do it and the more you like it, you want to take these skills elsewhere and try to find the best cave you can or the place where nobody’s ever been before. There’s been more people on the moon than a lot of places that I’ve been. 

Louisa: Today, John is one of the most experienced cavers in the country, and back in 2006 he had a number of serious expeditions under his belt, including ones in Borneo, Sumatra, and Central America.

John Lane: There’s no stranger to cave exploration. I hadn’t done a lot of alpine cave exploration, which is where this cave occurred up in the Klamath Mountains, which is a bigger challenge because in the alpine cave environment, you’re dealing with cold, and that makes exploration a lot more difficult because there’s a lot of sitting around in cave exploration.

A lot of times, we don’t necessarily know where we’re going. We’re just following a passage. And oftentimes it can be very mazey. 

Louisa: On this particular trip, John planned to meet a half dozen other cavers at a backcountry campsite where the group would sleep before entering the cave the following morning. The group included John’s younger brother, Michael.

Michael Lane: I’m Michael Lane. I live in Alameda, California. I’m John Lane’s youngest brother. My relationship with my brother was somewhat of a father figure role to me. Growing up, he was the first person that taught me how to ride a bike. I first went into a cave with my brother when he worked at Moaning Caverns in Calaveras County in Northern California when I was, I’d say probably 8 or 9 years old.

Over the years, I’ve been in and out of caves with my brother John. I followed in his footsteps in a lot of ways. Instead of just an older brother, he also became a best friend of mine. I always trust that he’ll find his way in and out of things. It’s led to some fun times and a few nervous times.

John Lane: Michael and I came in late. It was, we hiked in in the dark and we arrived at camp about, I guess about 10 p.m. Some of the others were already there. Once we got into camp, we set up, and went to sleep. Got up the next morning and had breakfast. It was a beautiful, sunny day, a little bit cool.

We started getting our gear together. Our objective was to go into this cave, and I leave the name of the cave out, just it attracts people to go to these places. This one, actually, aside from my experience, it is dangerous. So, the cave was about 2 miles away from where we were camped, and we started getting ready in the morning and our objective was to do some lead climbing inside of the cave and check out some vertical leads.

We were gonna set bolts and see where this passage would go. If you were to think of a sponge that was rock, and it has all those pores in it. These caves are kind of like that. And this particular cave has over 16 miles of passage and over 1,200 vertical feet. 

Louisa: The group was made up of mostly experienced cavers. They were equipped with ropes, harnesses, ascenders, and other equipment in anticipation of some advanced technical maneuvers. It would be a full day’s adventure, and they felt ready. 

John Lane: Having to negotiate rope work with a large group takes an enormous amount of time, especially in this cave. The first drop is about 150 feet, which leads to another one. As soon as you enter the cave, you, there’s wind blowing and it’s cold. It’s 35 degrees in the cave, pretty chilly. It’s not so bad when you’re moving around, but when you’re sitting around waiting for people to come down a rope, it gets very cold. 

Michael Lane: It was described to me that it was gonna be hypothermic conditions if you’re not moving. We were wet throughout the entire experience, so we had to keep moving in order to stay warm. 

John Lane: It’s a marble cave, so the rock surface is extremely white, and the cave formations, the stalactites and stalagmites are very pure. They’re white crystal. And so you could actually take your camera flash and take a picture, and the formations glow as the light refracts off the different crystal facies.

I think about 11 a.m., we were all inside at the bottom of the 300 foot drop. Our goal was to go to this area called the Cthulhu Room. It happens that there’s a lot of cave names from mythology or a TV show called Dr. Who. The Cthulhu Room is the name of a fictional monster created by an author.

HP Lovecraft. That was our goal, was to get into this room and then we’re gonna start our ascent. Getting there was very mazey and crawling and basically having to squeeze your body through an 18-inch passage, and it was very windy and there were a lot of offshoots and pretty confusing as well. It took us about, I guess about five or six hours to get to the Cthulhu Room.

Michael Lane: We went through several corkscrews and extremely tight squeezes and pushed our way forth. Before we came to a large room, we had a plan to take a break and continue maybe 30 minutes to an hour while some of the more experienced cavers scaled the wall. 

Louisa: The group stopped for a dinner break. Then while some of the cavers scoped out a vertical climb, John and some others began looking around for undiscovered passages. 

John Lane: Greg and I had gone down out of the Cthulhu Room, and we had gone through a maze of breakdown where rocks had fallen from the ceiling, and you crawl through them trying to find other passages.

And we’d gone off for, I don’t know, an hour or so and decided to come back and see what kind of progress they were making on the climb. Greg was in front of me, and he was going up through a constriction. It was about 15 feet high, and then it was about 2 feet wide. That led back into the Cthulhu Room.

When I was right behind him, he says, “John, are you clear?” “No, I’m not, I don’t—I’m clear of what?” And then just this cacophony of noise and smells and I just ragdolled. I just fell. 

Michael Lane: I was hanging out in the middle of the room with another person when we heard an extremely large avalanche of rockfall. I had been in caves multiple times throughout my life and I’d never heard anything other than the trickle of water.

I still get chills every time I tell this story, and I’m getting them now when I think of the sound. It must have lasted for only a matter of 10 seconds, but it seemed like it was an hour, and then it was the most silent a few moments after the rock stopped falling. 

John Lane: I think I fell about 10 feet, and I landed on my back, and about a 400-pound boulder landed on my chest and sealed me between the floor and the wall.

And as I was there, I know I screamed, and this car-sized rock just slowly tilted and then it released and it came right on top of me and it hit the wall next to me, and it was probably two inches from just squishing the lower half of my body. So I was stuck there and I knew I was hurt. It was dark at the time. I don’t know if my light went out. 

Michael Lane: The first thought that went through my mind was just to be silent and to listen because everything was practically pitch black, and I just remember dead silence after the rock stopped falling. I began to just listen for my brother, and the first thing that I heard was him screaming for help and it was terrifying, but at the same time, a slight relief just to know that he wasn’t dead. 

John Lane: It smelled like gunpowder from the rocks and smashing, and I knew I was hurt. I didn’t know how bad. But I couldn’t move because I had this big rock on my chest and everybody had heard me scream, and they’d heard the rock fall.

Michael Lane: All of us in the room tried to run, but it felt like we were running in quicksand because you’re in the dark trying to make your way across loose rubble and boulders to try to find him. We all got to John eventually, and I could see that he was on his back probably about 10 feet below the rock that I am standing on, and you could just make out his head and nothing else.

Louisa: Somehow, the rock that landed on John’s chest hadn’t crushed him, but was pinning him into place while another large rock had wedged itself between the floor and the wall, just inches from his body. He was remarkably in one piece, but utterly stuck. 

John Lane: I had to shimmy underneath it and put my head in harm’s way of just squishing me like a watermelon. I was able to square my way out and then I sat there. We realized as the smoke cleared, I was alive. I started doing an assessment, and I hurt all over.

I didn’t see any obvious blood, nothing really too bad. I was mostly just achy. I tried to stand up and when I did that, then I just, holy shit, my knee and my whole bottom leg just went on fire. I collapsed and fell back down. 

Michael Lane: He was in utter shock. He was breathing heavily. I’d never seen fear in his eyes. He is the most confident person that I know and is often doing stunts and taking risks with a smile on his face. He had a look of terror in his eyes and on his face.

John Lane: Greg just happened to have a couple of ibuprofen and an ace bandage and so he gave me the ibuprofen and put the bandage on the outside of my leg, and I knew I was hurt. I knew where I was, and I was worried about going into shock. So the group’s there and we’re trying to figure out what’s gonna be our plan. Exploration over, I gotta get out, we gotta figure this one out. 

Michael Lane: The most experienced cavers were saying that, “Hey, we gotta go. We gotta go get help.” And I’m thinking to myself, well, I’m not the most experienced person in the group, but help is probably four to five hours away, and then it’s gonna take an additional hour or or more for help to arrive. We’re definitely our best chance of saving ourselves.

Louisa: John’s friends began assuring him that they would get help, but the reality of the situation was beginning to sink in.

John Lane: I was just thinking, “Okay, well, I’ll let them take care of me.” And then I started thinking, “There’s no way. It took us six hours to get here. It’s gonna take you at least that long to get out if you can find the way out. I can’t sit here in 35 degree temperature for six hours, let alone however many it’s gonna take.” 

There’s no cell service outside of the cave. There’s no cell service all the way back to the car. There’s no cell service at the car. You’d have to drive 20 something miles back to Fort Jones before there’s cell service. So I started thinking, “Well, I got out from underneath that Boulder. Let’s see how far I can go.” And I asked Michael to see if he could help me stand up, and he did. We limped a little bit and I had to take a break. The pain was extreme. 

Louisa: Still, John knew that his best chances of survival were to self extricate. The route they’d followed was convoluted and physical. It would be nearly impossible on a hurt leg. In order to get back above ground, he’d have to think outside the box.

John Lane: I knew I didn’t want to go back the way we’d come in just because I was gonna have to bend my leg a lot doing that. I decided, let’s try going out through this section called the Lurking Fear. The reason it’s called the lurking fear is because it’s about a quarter-mile long, and it’s about 18 inches high, and it has a creek running through it.

The creek’s about maybe 3 inches of water for a quarter mile, and it’s very mazy and it’s hard to find your way. But I’ve been through it a couple of times before and I felt crawling would be better than trying to use somebody as a crutch. So we packed up our gear and decided to just see what we could do, see how far we could go before somebody had to go for help if they had to.

Over the next few hours, we started looking through the lurking fear. We’re trying to work our way through it, crawling through the creek, and we’d have to take breaks. And when we would take breaks, people would start shivering and they would be incentive to get going faster. 

Michael Lane: That the section of the cave had a river flowing through it, and it would go from the ceilings would be 10 feet high to, to just a few feet high. We’d often have to be army-crawling on our bellies through a shallow stream of water. All the while keeping in mind that if the weather were to change outside the cave of that those rivers could all of a sudden become engorged with water, and we could drown. 

Louisa: John told some other members of the group to go ahead and search for a way to the exit, but time and again over the course of a few hours, the cavers were stymied by dead ends.

Michael Lane: So after several hours of proceeding through this maddening area and coming to dead ends and backtracking multiple times. We came to what seemed to be a dead end and we were all exhausted and cold and distraught with the thought that we might have to turn around and go back the way we’d come. Eventually, the person in our party who had been scaling the wall earlier, he must have weighed 120 pounds and it was as thin as a rail. He found some passage where the water was flowing to that it didn’t look like any human could squeeze through, but he did. And it opened up back into that passage that he had been in the day before. So we, one by one, made our way through the only way out and back to where we had started.

John Lane: So I guess this is probably eight hours since the accident. I’m having to take a lot of breaks and my foot’s, my legs are swelling up and I feel like I’ve got other damage on my chest, my back. But I keep thinking, “Wow, we went through the lurking fear. I’ve gone this far, I’m gonna get outta here.” I was pretty much fueled by adrenaline.

And then after several hours, the adrenaline wears off and it’s just a question of just managing the pain. 

Louisa: Finally, John made it to the bottom of the ropes the crew had repelled down at the start of the day. Eager to get out of the cave, John decided he’d be the first to ascend. 

John Lane: I think I can ascend with one leg. Let me just see if I can get outta here. I did, and it took me probably an hour and a half to get up both lengths of rope. I get out of the cave, and by then it’s probably 3 a.m., and just the smell of the grass, the smell of the dirt, the smell of the cold night air was just heavenly.

It was amazing. I was out. I knew that’s it. Okay, I’m gonna live. And I was thinking “Maybe, I’m not gonna just sit here, it’s still cold.” I’m gonna go back to camp with seven of us. We’re looking at probably another three hours before everybody’s outta here. So I was able to find a branch and use that as a crutch, and I was able to limp the two miles back to camp.

I made a fire, got comfortable with my sleeping bag, and I took my coveralls and my boot off, and it looked like my leg. For my knee down, it looked like a sausage with the skin just about to burst. We had a box of wine and I hit that pretty hard, and a few hours later everybody else showed up.

Michael Lane: John was sitting by the fire with a glass of red wine that I had packed in the day before and he made sure to save me a glass, and I was just so happy to see that he was, he was okay. 

John Lane: We slept for a while and got up the next morning and my leg was huge. I couldn’t put my boot on, and so the rest of the group decided that they were gonna hike out and they volunteered to take my gear and I limped out, taking me about eight hours during the walk or the hike or the drag out of there.

I was able to finally reflect on what had happened. It occurred to me, I should be dead. Watching that big boulder tilt over and come down on me, that was what I thought was gonna be my last memory. I’ve been doing a lot of risk-taking for a long time. This time I got lucky. I got really lucky.

I’ve been lucky before, but just even an injury in an environment like that, a small injury like a broken leg, oftentimes that’s enough to send somebody into a place where they can’t be rescued. 

Louisa: Michael drove John part of the way home and when it was time to part ways, John decided he could safely drive himself since it was his left leg that was injured. When he got home late at night, his wife Anna, could tell something was wrong.

John Lane: Seeing my wife and my daughter, who’s 6 years old, and my son who’s 3, and thinking, boy, it’d be tough to lose a dad at that age and not being able to see them grow up. Being a geologist, I know that rocks fall, and oftentimes, there aren’t people around to see them.

There have been other, many other cases where rocks have fallen and people weren’t so lucky. There were a couple of guys on rope in Tennessee, I believe, and a school best size rock fell and squashed both of them. I know you’ve, I believe they’re both still under that rock. So I figured, okay, I’ll go to the hospital in the morning.

The next morning I told them what had happened and they started taking X-rays and it turns out that I had sheared the tibia, the ball on, on my tibia, on my left leg, and otherwise I was fine. Nothing else was broken, just achy and sore.

Louisa: John spent six weeks in a cast, but soon enough he was back to exploring.

John Lane: I think about that incident. I have been back into this cave, and I’ve been in many caves since. I definitely approach life a little bit more cautiously and doing high-risk activities such as caving or climbing or other things that involve a lot of problem solving, and I think that’s why people like to do a lot of these things.

And as your options diminish, you have to get better at problem solving. And I think that day we were pretty good at problem solving and that’s what got us out of there.

Michael Lane: I can certainly tell you after this experience, we didn’t hesitate to say, “I love you” to each other, because you just never know if it’s gonna be the last time you see someone. We grew up in a very proud and masculine family where we couldn’t say that to each other. So we still do that to this day. Every time we have a phone call and we tell each other that we love each other before we hang up. John’s changed my life in many ways, just knowing that if John invites me on something, that it’s certainly gonna be memorable and most likely there’ll be quite a bit of danger involved, but we always get out of it alive.

John Lane: This was 17 years ago, and I’ve almost lived another life since then. I’ve been able to see my children grow up. I’ve probably slowed down some because of it. Well, I know I have with my wife, I communicate more, and now with my children, when they go and do their exploits that seem alarming or dangerous, try to have a better understanding with them and let them know that it’s real out there. I used to think that as you would approach things, say you’re climbing or caving like that, it’s linear. As I’m stepping towards something, if I realized that it’s dangerous, I can step back. But life is dynamic and unpredictable and no matter how aware you are, curveballs get thrown at you.

It made me realize that it’s not fate, it’s just… things that happen and we don’t have control over them. And so if you put yourself in harm’s way, then harm’s gonna find you. So you have to be a little more calculated about what you do and how you do it. Drive slow, steer fast. 

Louisa: This episode of Out Alive was written and produced by Zoe Gates and me, Louisa Albanese.

Goring and Sound Design was by Jason Patton. Thank you to John and Michael Lane for sharing your stories with us. If you have a survival story that you’d like to share, you can email me at outalive@outsideinc.com. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. Visit outsideonline.com/podplus to learn about all the benefits of membership.


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