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Why these Seattle-area cavers squeeze through tiny holes to crawl into damp spaces

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 05:00

It’s the rare person who sees a hole in the ground and feels compelled to stick his head in it.

But cavers are “innately curious,” says veteran caver Tom Evans, who himself will not only peer in, but try to squeeze his whole body through a just-big-enough opening into Earth’s damp, dark underbelly.

What lies beneath that calls to these cavers to contort their bodies, risking injury, and go crawling in? Evans offered to show me first-hand, so I joined him and three other members of the Cascade Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society, on a recent visit to a cluster of caves near Snoqualmie Pass.

‘We go caving, because it’s not there’

Tom Evans hikes up the trail. (Martha Kang/KPLU)

The trek to Cave Ridge starts at the bottom of a steep hill that gains 2,200 feet in elevation in just a mile — a merciless incline that quickly hastens breaths and thins conversations.

“The hike up keeps out a lot of the riffraff,” Evans says. By “riffraff,” Evans means beginners. Caving, especially the intermediate-level course at Cave Ridge, isn’t something one attempts on a whim with a six-pack of beer in tow, he says. Unprepared, even a small injury like an ankle sprain can prove catastrophic in the wet caves, which can get down to 40 degrees even on a hot summer day.

“People’s first experience is usually some commercialized placed like the Ape Caves,” says Danny Miller, a Cascade Grotto member since 2000. “Then, if you like it, you start asking around, and hopefully someone steers you to a grotto that can educate you properly.”

Cascade Grotto members avoid publicizing locations of hidden caves to prevent novices from stumbling into dangerous situations. Cave Ridge is a known location, though sections of the trail sit on private property. Grotto members have special permission from the property owner to use the route.

A marmot guides the entrance to Ice Cave at Cave Ridge. (Courtesy of Danny Miller)

Huffing up the ungroomed trail, Evans asks Miller, “Why do we do this again, Danny?”

“Because it’s not there!” Miller jokes. “People climb a mountain because it’s there. We go caving because it’s not there.”

There are some 1,000 caves around western Washington if you include the lava tubes near Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, Miller says. These tubes lie where lava once traveled. As the outer layer of the flowing lava cooled and hardened, the core continued to flow, washing out a tunnel-like structure beneath the shell.

But some purists don’t consider these formations true caves, says Evans; to them, only solution-derived caves — caves formed by acidic water carving into limestone — are the real deal. The 17 caves at Cave Ridge are of the latter variety.

At the top of the hill, the cavers put on thick layers for the cave’s chill. On go the kneepads and elbow pads — to protect the joints from being ground down to “hamburger meat” by the unforgiving surface below, says Evans. Work gloves, a helmet and at least one headlamp are also must-haves.

Cave Ridge’s offerings range in size from a two-person tent to a room that Miller surmises is big enough to house a Boeing 747. First Cave is not quite big enough for two, though its sleek walls of marble exude a cool ambiance. Red Cave flaunts towering jagged columns and a vaulted ceiling a la “Indiana Jones.” Cascade Cave is a tight, labyrinthine maze that unwinds some 1,000 feet inward into the Earth’s gut. All have a faint smell of a musty basement.

Cascade Cave: An ‘Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole’

Just getting into Cascade Cave takes some work. Its entrance is more of a slit than a hole; the narrow opening in between overlapping walls require cavers to flatten their bodies and slide in slowly, twisting as the walls demand.

Inside awaits what caver Mariana Tomas calls an “Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole.” A tight-squeeze portal gives way to a small cavern, which leads to another portal, another cavern. And just when you think you’ve hit the end, you spot another tiny opening that leads on and down, like an ant hole, a winding path into the unknown.

Like a puzzle, each opening poses a new challenge that calls for its own set of creative maneuvers. A drop might require shimmying down on one’s stomach with feet dangling, then jumping down to the ground below. Or a climb might call for wedging oneself between two opposing walls, and using one’s knees to vertically inch up until the ledge above is within reach. If any move knocks a rock loose and causes it to fall, the caver yells, “Rock!” to warn those below to take cover.

Some high drops and precarious bends require cavers to help each other, be it with a hoist up or a pep talk. Cavers do get in a jam from time to time, says Evan, recalling a time he “got stuck and lost it.”

“My head was sticking out. I was wedged in there pretty tight, wasn’t making any progress. So my friend talked me down and just physically pulled me about a foot,” he says. Once freed, he was awash in relief, says Evans, but only for a moment, as he had to crawl through two more openings to get outside.

Some of Cascade’s caverns bear a cold stone façade while others run redder and wetter. Some have walls covered with what looks like a honeycomb — allophane flowstone, an oozing grid of aluminum silicate that looks soft and viscous, but is hard to the touch. Some nooks harbor small pockets of stalactite. One cavern houses the tiny skull of a marmot past.

Approximately 1,000 feet down is the bottom of Cascade Cave — or at least what the cavers know as the bottom. There’s no way to know for sure, but Evans is cautiously confident, having surveyed just about every known inch numerous times.

Just how dark is it? Here’s a photo of Tom Evans lighted only by his headlamp. (Martha Kang/KPLU)

In that last cavern, the cavers introduce me to total darkness. As we all turn off our headlamps, the absolute, inescapable darkness quickly moves in. Everything merges into a disorienting depth of dark, the kind that makes you open your eyes wider in hopes of finding some clue, to no avail.

This is the reason cavers bring extra headlamps and extra batteries, says Evans; it’s hard enough to find one’s way back in the maze, even with proper lighting. Ask a new caver to find his way out of a cave he just crawled in, and he won’t be able to, says Evans. Try, he tells me, and lead the way. I confidently forge ahead as the others stand back, only to find myself in a dead-end hole some 20 feet later. New cavers rarely look back when venturing in, Evans says, which proves problematic come time to climb back out. It’s true, I hadn’t looked back once.

‘When you’re in that cave, there is nothing else’

Whether it’s because they rely on each other for safety or because they spend hours holed up together, the cavers’ camaraderie runs deep. Even between cavers who’ve just met, there’s little pretense and formalities drop off easily.

“Once you’ve done some of these insane things together, you’re like, well, you’re family now,” Evans says. “There’s little cavers won’t do for each other.”

The Cascade Grotto is a club of a few dozen — “more than 10, less than 100; it fluctuates,” says Miller. The members are mostly men, though there are about 10 women in the club, and range in age from children to senior citizens. The club holds meetings to practice rope work, which is necessary to explore more complex caves, and discuss safety measures.

“If you’re learning something new like how to go over a rope on a cliff, it just feels better to try that for the first time in a well-lit gym or outdoors than it is to be learning it the dark in a cave, where you’re wet and cold and can’t really see very well,” Miller says.

“It’s interesting, from an educational standpoint, how much people kind of psych themselves out when it’s dark,” Evans says.

Mariana Tomas examines a cavern wall. (Martha Kang/KPLU)

For the novice caver, it’s easy to get caught up in caving’s rough edges. Even with proper padding, it’s a bruise-prone sport that covers you, from head to toe, in stale dust. It’s not for the claustrophobic, and even those who aren’t might panic when things get tight. And in the near-dark, where the rugged nooks and crannies look deceivingly similar, it’s easy to get lost.

But then again, nothing worth doing is ever easy.

In between the balancing act and the surges of exertion, there starts to emerge an underlying tone, a sense of solitude. While you were focused on finding your next footing, getting through the next squeeze, you’ve led yourself to place that bears no trace of the outside world other than yourself and your companions. There’s no sound, save for the occasional squeak of the tiny hamster-like pika. There’s not even a hint of sunlight or even the movement of air. Only you and your limitations — the unknown — exist.

“When you’re in that cave, there is nothing else,” Tomas says. “The world outside does not exist, because the possibility that you will never see daylight again is always present.”

In a way, caving is like space travel, “the last frontier, the ultimate mission into unknown,” says Tomas. “The promise that it holds is breathtaking beauty, exploration, adventure and, of course, discovery of something we didn’t know about ourselves.”

“You’re testing your own limits, you’re watching your every move, and you’re trying to absorb as much as you can from your surroundings,” she says. “To me, this is very primal.”


Seattle photo exhibit explores the renaissance of the afro

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 05:00

One of the first things you notice about someone is the hair. How people wear hair can say a lot about their politics, religion and even their health.

A photo exhibit currently on display in Seattle focuses entirely on individuals who choose to wear their hair in one type of hairstyle: the afro. This halo of high hair has gone from a symbol of black power to a fashion choice that challenges conventional ideas of beauty.

(Courtesy of Michael July)

‘It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning’

The first image you see when you walk into the photo exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum is a portrait of a toddler wearing a white onesie. Lelani Lewis, the museum’s marketing director, says this is her favorite picture.

“He’s smiling so big and he has this wonderful grin, and [there's] this lovely kinky, curly hair poking out of his head,” Lewis said. “And I think, ‘Ah, this joy!’ It’s a celebration.”

Visitors are surrounded by more than 30 large portraits of artists, students, kids, mothers and social workers all sporting some version of an afro. Most of the subjects are black, but there are also white people, as well as people from Mexico and even someone from Japan with big, poufy hair.

“It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning,” Lewis said. ” It’s celebrating natural beauty — your natural beauty and collectively — and that’s a powerful message.”

Hair as a political statement

Brooklyn-based Michael July is the photographer behind the photos, which are also featured in a hefty coffee table book titled “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair.” The title hints at the pressure African Americans and other minorities feel to conform to the standards of white beauty. According to author Ayana Byrd, it’s a message that dates back to slavery.

“African-textured hair was bad, and hair that was closer to European texture was good,” said Byrd, co-author of “Hair Story, Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”

Plantations gave birth to that perception, says Byrd. Slaves who were multi-racial as a result of plantation rape often had lighter skin and straight hair, and were usually given more opportunities.

“If you were lighter-skinned with straighter hair, you were working in the house as opposed to in the fields, and you might also have had the chance to buy your freedom or buy the freedom of someone in your family,” she said.

Michael July, left, wears his hair in dreadlocks that drape down to his waist. (Courtesy of Michael July)

Straight hair stayed the ideal for decades, and remains favored by many even today. Even Malcolm X straightened his hair until he declared the painful, dangerous process “black self-degradation” in his autobiography.

African Americans started using their hairstyle to speak out against years of oppression in the 1960s when the afro became embraced as a symbol of black power. But there’s earlier evidence of using hair as a political statement. Black women’s magazines in the early 1900s urged women to stop straightening their hair if they didn’t want a colonized mind.

These same feelings are expressed in July’s book, which Byrd calls the first of its kind. Almost every portrait is accompanied by text written by the subject explaining why they choose to wear their hair naturally.

A passage written by Moira Griffin, a film producer in Canada, captures the emotion many express in the 443-page volume: “After a lifetime of braids, relaxers, nightmare hairdressers and one failed attempt to look like Janet Jackson, I went to natural. My hair is my statement to the world that I am free of the constraints that bind so many women to follow a trend.”

‘I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair’

July says these thoughtful, personal statements that appeared in his email box after the fun photo shoots inspired him to turn them into a book.

“When I started getting quotes back from people, it was so powerful because I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair. People would talk about their relationship with their parents, or about people making fun of them, or just how beautiful they felt once they let their hair grow out after being chemically processed all their lives and how liberating that was for them,” July said.

July’s photos document what is happening with the natural hair movement. It’s more acceptable than ever for people with curly hair that defies gravity to go chemical-free. Today, 60 percent of African-American women relax their hair — an all-time low since relaxers have been available, says Byrd.

“Now all of us — regardless of how we wear out hair and regardless of what race we are or where we live in the country — can now turn on music videos and see someone like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, and see books like the afro book and recognize what black people’s hair looks like. And it’s just a normal thing to think of as beautiful,” she said.

Byrd thinks it’s a shame it’s taken hundreds of years to start to embrace the beauty of something that is literally just growing out of someone’s head.

The exhibit “Afros: A Celebration Of Natural Hair” will remain in Seattle through Sept. 8.


Seattle’s annual Dead Baby Downhill bike race ‘like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids’

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 13:02

The Dead Baby Downhill bicycle race only has two rules: “No biting and no eye-gouging,” according to founder Dave Ranstrom. “Outside of that, there are no rules. First one to the party wins.”

That means just about everything else was allowed — running red lights, drinking beer and riding makeshift homebuilt bikes — when hundreds of bicyclists rushed through the streets of Seattle for the 18th annual race on Friday, Aug. 1.

‘Anything can happen’

This year, the Downhill started at The Barrel Tavern, just south of White Center in the Top Hat neighborhood, and ended in Georgetown, as is tradition. A bang of fireworks marked the start of the race, and, as the smoke cleared, riders hurried to gulp down their beers and barrel down hills toward the finish line. The race path was not predetermined, allowing the pack of cyclists to spontaneously choose the route as police officers closed streets and directed traffic around the moving mass.

“Anything can happen. It’s a mass of like-minded, bike-focused individuals,” said Oliver Doriss, a glass blower from Tacoma who has participated in the race for 10 straight years.

“Riding with a large group, taking over the traffic lanes — it’s a fun feeling,” said Zach Lindsey, another rider. “There’s a sense of illegality, but it’s the same sense of community that you get with a legitimate bike club.”

Some are in it for speed and the thrill of reckless abandon while others are in it for the carnivalesque atmosphere.

“The group dynamics of the ride are really what makes it fun,” said Laird Rickard. “I’m usually not competing. Usually I’ll do the race on a funny bike, like a tall bike. The Downhill is an opportunity to see people’s creativity, with the bikes they ride.”

An injured rider was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. (Malcolm Griffes/KPLU)

Accidents are not uncommon — the event was even featured in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” — and many past participants have crash stories they don’t hesitate to share with excitement and bravado.

“The Dead Baby episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy was pretty funny,” said one member who goes by the nickname “the Drunkle.” “The whole episode was about injuries at Dead Baby.”

This year, an ambulance carried away a cyclist who went down while rounding a corner. In his absence, a member of the Dead Baby Bikes club, which organizes the event, picked up the injured bicyclist’s discarded bike, slung it over his shoulders and continued riding.

“Really, though, not a lot of people get hurt,” said club member Chris Quigley.

A homemade trophy constructed out of welded bike parts and passed down through the years goes to the race winner. When the award ceremony took place, however, the first-place winner was nowhere to be found, perhaps already lost in the celebration.

‘It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids’

After the race came what Dead Baby Bikes calls “the greatest party known to mankind.”

“It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids, the party to end all parties,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown and president of the Georgetown Merchants Association.

The annual party is a raucous bicycle-centric celebration, complete with bicycle-powered carnival rides, burlesque-style dances that incorporate bicycles and bottomless beer refills included in the $25 registration fee. This year, freestyle BMX riders took to the air, showing off their mastery to the crowd’s delight.

But the main event was the “tall-bike jousting” — think Knights of the Round Table except on double-decker bicycles (two bike frames with one welded on top of the other). Anyone can sign up and joust, but having a good health insurance plan is not a bad idea. A jousting competitor once broke both of his arms when he was knocked off of his tall bike.

The club and many of the riders embrace a punk aesthetic; studded vests, tattoos and piercings pepper the crowd. Most are young — between 20 and 30, but all are welcome. Even families, presumably with bike-loving parents, stop by.

“[Attendance] is around 3,000, but seems to grow every year,” said club member Colin Northcraft.

How Dead Baby got its name

Founded in 1995 by Ranstrom, a longtime Seattle bike messenger-turned bike shop owner, Dead Baby Bikes got its name from Ranstrom’s first bicycle shop. The name is derived from a relic left at Ranstrom’s shop by a previous tenant: a doll nailed to the inside of the shop’s door.

“We all just laughed and said, ‘Dead Baby,”’ Ranstrom said. “It’s just tongue-in-cheek. If I thought it would have lasted as long as it has, I probably would have thought of a better name.”

The first year’s race began at the now-defunct Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill and ended at what was then the Dead Baby bike shop in Belltown.

“The very first race, we only had 200 people,” Ranstrom said. But there was plenty of chaos, as it so happened the race coincided with the Torchlight Parade.

“They road right through the parade. They knocked over clowns. They knocked over marching bands. And they knocked over cops on motorcycles,” Ranstrom said. “I had more cops at my little bicycle shop than I ever wanted to see in my life.”

This file photo shows the Dead Baby Bikes patch. (AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey)

The club behind the festivities

Dead Baby Bikes club members wears a three-piece patch, or “colors” — an outlaw style reference to motorcycle clubs. But before club members started wearing the colors, Ranstrom wanted to get approval from the local chapter of the motorcycle gang, the Bandidos.

“We rode our bikes from Seattle all the way down to Tacoma, colors in hand,” said Ranstrom, ”We handed these big old bikers our colors, and they said, ‘Lets get this straight. You guys ride bicycles?’ They all started laughing and said, ‘You guys are OK.’ That’s where it started.”

Since then, the underground club has grown to roughly 150 members; Ranstrom wouldn’t give an exact number. Similarly to motorcycle clubs, Dead Baby chapters have popped up in various cities across the U.S., including Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.

First year with a permit

A performer wows the crowd. (Tim Durkan/KPLU)

This was the first year event organizers obtained proper city permits in response to a push from the city.

“I think there was a lot of concern over public safety and city resource,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown. “Last year in particular, SPD showed up in force because they had heard reports of gunshots being fired, when, in fact, it was fireworks.”

But, Reid added, because “the neighborhood completely embraces” the event, “it became pretty clear that we were not only endorsing, but helping to facilitate the event.”

“We did everything we could to facilitate them getting their permits. I think it’s going to work to their benefit,” he said. “We like to think of ourselves as outlaws,” said Northcraft, “[However,] once we started looking into the permitting process, we realized it’s stuff we already do, like provide security and toilets.”

‘The island of misfit toys’

Despite the club’s rough edges and grittier side, both the club and the Downhill embody a community-embracing bicycle counterculture with a come-as-you-are mentality.

“Family is a really important aspect for a lot of members,” said club member Jesse James. “This club is very tight-knit.”

(Tim Durkan/KPLU)

“It’s like the island of misfit toys. They’ve done Christmas at my house for the past six years,” Quigley said.

Riding and building tall bikes are both a part of the Dead Baby ethos. Among club members, wheels that look like Rat Fink hot rods are a more common sight than sleek carbon-fiber bikes meant for racing. The club even has in the works a trash can-turned bike  — a metal garbage can turned sideways with two wheels attached, with a rider straddling the can.

“I used to have Dead Babies come in to teach bike stuff to the kids at school back in the day. Those kids were making tall bikes,” said Quigley, who is also an elementary school teacher. “One year I had seven kids who were in my class or had been in my class doing the race.”

For partygoers, the Downhill offers a peek into the club’s culture and a chance to share cycling’s counterculture.

“The bottom line is it’s fun. Once you come out, you keep coming back,” Quigley said. “At the Dead Baby race, you’re free — free to do what you want to do.”

How blind Seattle-area climber Bruce Stobie fared on North America’s tallest peak

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 12:04

Editor’s note: This piece is an update to our previous story on Bruce Stobie, which ran in May. 

When Bruce Stobie arrived at Denali last month, he could feel the presence of the mountain, even if he couldn’t see it.

“I felt like a guest — not a welcome guest,” said the blind climber from Des Moines, Washington. “All there was: rock, ice and snow. And cold and warm temperatures. And that’s it. There’s nothing else.”

But 51-year-old Stobie was prepared for a difficult journey to the top. He’d been training hard for nine months in hopes of summiting North America’s tallest peak. He’d already summited Mount Rainier five years prior with the help of two guides. This time, he wanted to conquer the peak that towers more than 21,000 feet over Alaska.

And so he and two guides set out for what they expected to be a three-week climb to the top.

Bruce Stobie, left, is seen with a fellow climber. (Courtesy of Mark McCcracken.)

A strong start despite the scorching sun

“We started out strong. There was basically three days of hard climbing. The first day, we carry all the gear, basically for six miles, but it’s all flat. From that point on, the loads are broken up and you carry what you need to up the mountain,” Stobie said.

Stobie felt prepared. Even the wild swings in weather from day to night seemed manageable.

“When the sun came out, it came out hard and strong. And then on the other hand, the cold. We weren’t there for the worst of it. I believe it got down to minus 20 [degrees Fahrenheit], to minus 25, and that was chilling, to say the least,” Stobie said.

The crew aimed for alpine starts, setting out at 1, 2, 3 a.m. to gain ground before the sun grew too strong.

At night, a ‘total void of noises’

“I obviously did not see anything of the environment,” said Stobie. But it so happened it was his guide Josh’s first time on the mountain, too, and Josh’s observations helped fill in the blanks. “So I lived vicariously through Josh, because he was, in a way, gobsmacked.”

But one of the most memorable moments didn’t require Josh’s eyes or words: the “total void of noises” at night.

“I would just hang out at night and it would be totally quiet. No noise. Absolutely no noise,” he said. “I cannot experience that down here. Even in the wilderness down here, there’s noise.”

A change in course

The crew had no problem reaching base camp at 14,000 feet, the height of Mount Rainier. But when they switched from snowshoes to crampons, the terrain  — and the journey — took a turn.

Stobie’s feet began slipping on the steep, 55-degree slopes covered in powdered-sugar snow.

“I was taking two steps instead of every one step, and I wasted a lot of energy,” he said. “Basically I was inefficient in my foot movement, and as the terrain got steeper, that inefficiency became more obvious.”

The crew reached 16,200 feet on the ropes during an especially difficult day that stretched 10 long hours. But it soon became clear their journey would end before the summit.

“I was breathing harder than I needed to. You know, with the higher altitudes, there was no room or tolerance for inefficiency,” Stobie said. “That night, I had an anxiety attack in the tent and had trouble breathing … Imagine being just maxed out on just breathing and not getting enough air.”

The following morning, Stobie went to see a doctor at base camp for a precautionary checkup. A clean bill of health left him with a heavy decision: Push on or turn back?

“I kind of struggled back and forth with it, but I think intuitively, I knew it was the right thing to do. I liked to visualize climbing and moving, and seeing the summit. And I was not seeing that happen, especially after that really long day. I knew what I was going into,” he said. “It was just not getting any better. And it was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’”

Bruce Stobie’s wife, Gwyn Stobie, snapped this photo shortly after his descent from Denali. (Courtesy of Gwyn Stobie)

‘Being on the mountain, it definitely exposed things’

Stobie and his guides decided to come down the mountain. It took eight hours to reverse the efforts of their two-week climb.

“Definitely, being on the mountain, it definitely exposed things, like this inefficiency in movement,” he said.” You know, had I been 10,000 feet lower, that would’ve been fun. I would’ve figured it out. There was just not any luxury of doing that [at high elevation].”

Now, three weeks later, Stobie still hasn’t fully processed his experience. He’s disappointed he didn’t summit, but he says he’s not done trying yet. And when he returns, he plans to be better prepared for tackling steep slopes with crampons.

“I would say that it was an adventure that I was looking for, and it was an adventure that I got. It was both an external one and an internal one,” he said. “The important thing is I was up there, doing my best.”