The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Caves and Power Animals

Where does it lead? To your cave. Step forward into your cave. That’s right. You’re going deeper into your cave. And you’re going to find your power animal…

Fight Club had as much influence on me as on the next semi-alcoholic teenager from Eastern Europe. Naturally, we established our own Fight Club and used to beat each other to pulp when we got drunk.

We did not, however, pay enough attention to finding our power animal. Fast-forward a decade and a half, I received an invitation to visit a wet cave with a complete underground river hidden inside. Although it was dead of winter, I could not resist the temptation, and immediately remembered the narrator’s power animal in the icy cave. I was hoping I would find at least a power cave worm that would tell me to slide.

I expected a literal entry to the cave and a figurative entry to my cave. Absurd forms of physical exertion, such as swimming across an ice-cold underground river, have the magical property of altering the mind. Although the mind is horrifyingly efficient in regaining its own equilibrium and reverting to boredom, the more unusual and more extreme the physical exercise is, the longer it takes for the mind the rebalance itself. So we rented a vehicle and and drove four hundred kilometres deep into the Pyrenees. The following morning we drove up to the entrance of the national park. It was snowing heavily.

We put our boots and gaiters on and began our ascend through an access road. The first hour or so was easy uphill. Then we had to leave the road and continue through the woods up to the cave entrance. The endurance part started here. The snow made orientation difficult and the kind trees also deposited their stocks of frozen material in our neck. We got mildly lost and the undergrowth was dense enough to force us on detours. The cave entrance made its appearance after about two and half hours of hiking.

"Step forward into your cave." It is right next to the exciting village of Torla.

“Step forward into your cave.” It is right next to the exciting village of Torla.

The fun part started with the change of clothes. If you never had to squeeze into a neoprene suit while standing in snow and wearing only your swimming trunks, you don’t know what the word `fun’ actually means. It was a long process, though, almost an hour. We were not doing great with time. Then we stepped in through the entrance and immediately realized that we could have changed there in much more comfortable circumstances.

Everything about the cave was superb. We started with a few hundred meters of squeezing, where I learned how painful it is to repeatedly put my weight on my knees, which are in turn supported by nasty small rocks. We descended through a series of fixed ropes and went through a long row of boulders in a sequence of enormous caverns and tunnels.

On my first encounter with the river, I had to submerse myself up to my waist. The ice-cold water penetrated my crotch, sending waves of pain across my body, but a few seconds later it was surprisingly warm, as if I suffered from incontinence. The encounters with the river became more and more frequent. Then we had to swim a short, maybe 15 meter stretch, which redefined my notion of cold-induced pain.

The part after this was easily the coolest. We had to ascend on a series of water falls. On the better ones, we could climb in the waterfall, with the cold water falling right in our face. On more boring ones, we had to go around. The river between two waterfalls flew in narrow tunnels and was not very deep. Except at unexpected places, where I often found myself in water up to my chest. Wandering through these tunnels was also the mentally most interesting bit, although I did not quite get to my cave animal.

Our destination was an underground reservoir of water in a perfectly domed cavern. This was the source of the river. Looking down, we could see the bottom some ten-fifteen meters below, and a major turn, indicating that the water was, in fact, coming from somewhere else. Where from? Well, nobody dragged a scuba equipment there yet to find out. Although I seriously doubt if tanks of compressed air could be squeezed through the initial part of the cave.

We did not have time to linger around much, so we started back soon. It felt a lot shorter to go back. The only bad part was the ascending on the first series of ropes, as I had no prior experience with jumaring up on vertical slopes and did not have an intrinsic talent either. After the squeeze back to the main entrance, I was disappointed for not encountering my power animal, but I kept silent.

Things got surreal from here. As my friend and myself belong to different genders of our species, I offered her to change in the nicely sheltered cave entrance, while I deemed myself ready to go butt-naked in the snow and the wind outside. Dusk was settling in.

It was going okay for a while. I got my thermal layer on, then the rest of it. Then I had to unfold and refold the wet neoprene clothes. I felt that my hands were cold in the wind, I kept warming them up inside my jacket during the packing process. All of a sudden, I felt that the tips of some of my fingers were frozen. I tried harder to warm them up, but segment by segment they got stiffer and stiffer. I had a panic attack, I started hyperventilating and I had no control over myself for about two minutes. This was a first and I was very surprised, as I have been to much colder and more miserable circumstances.

When I gathered myself, I called out to my friend, who promptly appeared, lent me her gloves, and packed the outstanding bits of my stuff. My fingers came alive almost the moment they were inside the otherwise wet gloves, so it was probably just the sensation than a real brush with a frostbite. The gloves were soon transferred back to their owner.

By this time, it was dark. My second set of batteries for my headlight went flat and we relied on my friend’s caving-grade light source to find our way. We did not want to follow the way we came, as that was a massive detour, and the snow also covered parts of our tracks.

One would think it is easy to find the way down from a mountain, but if large rocks and lush Mediterranean undergrowth are factored in, the task becomes more involved. We just couldn’t find a way down, each potential trail we tried was a dead-end. We kept slipping, and each time it happened, my bare hands had to dive into the snow to arrest my fall.

We were tired, hungry and very cold. This went on for hours. As we got more desperate, we took bigger risks and crossed some rock ledges. Then at some point my great clumsiness forced me to slip, and I slid down a series of rock ledges for about thirty or forty meters down. The snow was thick, so my fall was cushioned and I suffered no injury. In the end, I did not even need my power animal to tell me to slide.

After my friend caught up with me and we could actually see with her headlight, we realized we were extremely lucky: I landed on the very path we took in the morning, close to the access road. It was another fifteen minutes out of the forest, then the time spent on walking on the road did not even register in our brains.

We reached the car around 9.30pm and sat in. We looked forward to a hot meal and shower. And the best part? The car did not start. It had to be towed away the next morning.

The bastard of a car at the park entrance in the morning before the hike. It looked so innocent we did not suspect it was scheming to break its own engine in our absence.

The bastard of a car at the park entrance in the morning before the hike. It looked so innocent we did not suspect it was scheming to break its own engine in our absence.

This trip illustrates the problem with life. You ask for a strawberry sorbet, you expect an exam in statistical physics, but what you get is a couple of enamoured newts. They are kind of interesting to look at, but you did not ask for them, did not expect them, and you will never figure out what to do with them. My power animal is probably a newt. Slide!

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