Updated: Mar 2
By Stetson Holman
While waiting for the 2017 academic year to start in the humid potato fields of southeastern Idaho, another graduate student was also waiting — waiting to be rescued from the Darby Canyon Wind Cave nearly 3,000 ft. above my head. Only fate or happenstance would bring our paths together, but out of sheer luck, both he and I can now laugh at the story.
It was the summer of 2017 and my girlfriend and I quit our jobs and moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho. An unexpected internship opportunity arose after my first year of law school and – following a series of lengthy negotiations – we settled on a summer in my hometown. That summer I traveled to Pocatello, Idaho five days a week for an internship and each weekend we explored the mountains, hot springs, and alpine lakes around Idaho Falls and neighboring Wyoming. After three months in town, one puppy adoption, and signing a lease in Boise, my girlfriend began a new job in a different city– leaving me to wrap up loose ends in our temporary home.
In the few remaining days of my internship, my cousin Jon called me, as he did from time to time, to see if I would help him with his new potato roguing business. Potato roguing is a very niche and local job, requiring individuals, usually teens, to walk up and down potato fields once leaves and branches develop to remove those with visible diseases. If a farmer has too many diseased potatoes in his field, the state of Idaho won’t allow him to sell the seeds. If the state does allow a farmer to sell his seeds, the seeds are given a rating and grade which directly effects the price purchasers are willing to pay. This being the case, farmers contract individuals like Jon to seek out rouge potatoes to dig them out before harvest.
Although roguing potatoes isn’t particularly glamorous or lucrative, while sitting in my small, windowless office, I decided to finally accept my cousin’s offer. Besides, after rouging for five consecutive summers before college, I slightly missed the mud and sprinklers under the Tetons.
Despite my boring internship, the summer of 2017 was the probably the most hyped-up and exciting time to have lived in Idaho Falls. For years, people had talked about the Solar Eclipse’s path of totality, which just so happened to travel directly through Driggs, Rexburg and Idaho Falls as it traveled eastward. As August approached, every conversation had a doomsday tinge: locals discussed an unprecedented surge of campers and tourists; people stocked their groceries and filled their cars for fear of shortages; and local newspapers warned that locals should expect delays or complete absence of emergency services. On August 23, 2017, thousands of people did travel to these usually slow-paced rural towns to experience the Eclipse’s strange phenomenon. Yet, for me and my co-workers, we were in potato fields. And potato fields never change.
Several days before the eclipse, Jon convinced a friend to photograph the crew while out in the field. When the photographer arrived and piled out his equipment, he casually began to set up a drone. After the shoot, we all piled into old pickups and went into Driggs for lunch. Over sandwiches, the photographer began telling us all about a recent hike he had done nearby at the Wind Caves. The photographer explained that the hike was relatively short, with a lot of elevation, but, the real hike was in the cave at the top. The photographer explained that you could exit the cave through one of three passageways, and required warm clothing in the summer because of, as the name implied, wind.
After lunch and in the potato field, I turned to my brother Hayden and our co-worker Michael and said that we should go to the cave that night. Although we wouldn’t arrive until dark, we reasoned that the cave would be pitch black regardless. With a small semblance of a plan and the thought of one last adventure before leaving Idaho Falls, we all agreed: we would hike to the Wind Cave after dinner.
By the time we found the trailhead to the cave, we had driven for almost an hour in my old Jetta on a bumpy road above Driggs, Idaho. All the campsites along the road were filled with RVs and foreign license plates; yet, understandably, the trail head parking lot was empty. As we filled our backpacks with jackets and water, it finally hit everyone that we would be hiking five miles in the dark. Idaho isn’t dangerous, but wildlife in and Grand Teton National Park should be taken seriously. Before we left the car, Michael pulled a handgun from inside the dashboard and attached it to his hip. Finally, at 10:00 p.m., we were off.
Hiking in the dark isn’t necessarily challenging, more than anything, it’s less rewarding. When you hike during the day, you hike for vistas or waterfalls – stopping to admire your surroundings along the way. Yet as we began sloping up the valley, we saw only the outline of huge granite structures and the sound of nature somewhere in the darkness. While hiking at night, your only view is illuminated by a headlight.
After hiking for two miles we finally arrived at a waterfall and a massive indentation in the mountains face. Following an obvious trail, we walked until we were standing in front of a large granite wall. Realizing that the cave was not where we anticipated, all of us fanned out around the bluff, searching for the entrance to a cave we knew very little about. At this point, it was about 11:30 pm. We searched under boulders, off the trail, and even careened down an opening between two large boulders thinking we finally found the entrance. But after twenty unsuccessful minutes, the sense of adventure finally wore off — everyone knew we had an hour long walk to the car and another hour back to our work trailer before we would get to sleep. The rashness of our decision had finally settled in. Reluctantly, we all agreed that it was time to turn back.
As we exited the bluff and waterfall, heading back to the trail, I saw that the trail had a switch back that, in the darkness, only appeared to end at the bluff. With the thrill of finding the trail, we all decided that maybe we could hike for a bit longer. Twelve switchbacks later we appeared at the massive entrance of the Wind Cave – a small stream pouring from somewhere in the darkness within.
Heading into the cave at midnight at nearly 9,000 feet of elevation was a view I’ll never forget. The cave ceiling towered above our heads, cutting out an unpolluted, surreal view of the Milky Way. As we walked in the water, the cave began to narrow, and the stream disappeared under our trail upon the boulders. Soon the wind for which the cave is named began to blow an icy chill from deep within the mountain against our sweaty t-shirts. We stopped just before being consumed by total darkness to put on our thin summer jackets.
After about 400 feet, the massive cave entrance shrunk to a small opening on the cave floor about 40 feet long. While Michael and I had long pants on, my brother, Hayden, did not. Without much discussion we all crawled through the first tiny passageway. As I crawled behind, Hayden complained about his knees being scuffed, as Michael’s pistol scraped against the floor below. After 40 feet the cave suddenly opened to a hallway sized passage and we continued.
After making a few turns and feeling the wind vary depending on the size of the passage at any given time, we approached another small opening at the cave floor. Albeit with more apprehension, we all slid onto our stomachs and carried on. Surely, this would be the final crawling section of the cave, right? As we army crawled in the darkness and walked through another passageway, we again approached a similar small opening, requiring us to crawl. This time, Hayden, who was wearing shorts, showed us his scuffed, wet legs. Being his older brother, but still being curious of what lie ahead, I told him that we would only crawl one more time in the cave. Knowing that we would turn back at the next tiny opening, he agreed to crawl again.
After a few minutes of crawling, the cave opened for a third time. Without many boulders on the floor, we walked comfortably, side-by-side through two twists in the cave. As we walked, each person’s flashlights scanned the cave walls. We walked in silence, driven by curiosity more than conversation. Yet after the second turn, each headlight was pointed at one singular direction. The shrill bellow came low at first, loudened, and then disappeared like a wave waiting to be called back to sea. We all stood motionless, the hair standing on our necks.
The sound was most easily described as a ghoulish moan. Not a single person spoke of the sound, but we all turned and looked at each other. Slowly, Michael placed his hand on the pistol attached to his thigh. We all continued walking.
As we turned a corner, we all spoke much louder than before. A pointless conversation to fill the silence. Yet, as we turned another corner the sound came again. This time much louder. We all let anxiety and adrenaline pump until we finally realized that the sound was human. It wasn’t familiar, but it was something other than a bear or an animal. As I tend to do, my mind immediately rushed to the worst possible scenario: someone was injured up ahead, dehydrated, hypothermic, or worse — in critical condition. We slowly walked around the corner, the cave floor dropped to an unknown depth and then sharply rose at a 90-degree angle back to our current level. Light danced across the hole from our flashlights and whatever was wailing before again yelled. This time the heavily accented word “help” finally computed through our heads.
We approached the hole, loudly saying “hello,” uncertain of what lie below. All three of our lights shined 10 feet below illuminating a pale 26-year old man covering his eyes. He was visibly wet, cold, and looked as confused as us. The first thing he asked was whether we were search and rescue. Obviously, we were far from trained rescuers on a mission. Next, he asked for the time. We told him it was almost 1 a.m. It was now our turn to ask a question: How long have you been down here? He told us that his friend had hiked to the entrance with him around 12 hours ago, his phone and flashlights were dead and he needed help.
What happened after we found Adam is a blur, but I do remember his explanation for breaking the first rule of caving: never go in alone. Adam told us that he was currently traveling around the United States before completing his graduate degree from a university in Europe. Before making his way to Yellowstone, Adam decided to hunker down in Driggs to watch the Solar Eclipse with a fellow traveler he met online. Like us, Adam and his friend learned about the cave through word of mouth and took off for the Wind Cave earlier that day. But when they arrived at the cave entrance, Adam’s companion decided to turn back. Unfortunately, Adam continued into the cave alone. Like us, he too crawled through the narrow passages in the cave floor, eventually reaching the same hole we peered into to find him twelve hours later.
Interestingly, Adam became trapped the same way other hikers have at the Wind Caves over the years. The hole in the cave floor is basically a large box with inverted sides. Each side drops roughly 10 feet and has permanent ropes dangling from the top to assist hikers going down and back up the opposite side. When Adam approached the hole, he quickly descended the first rope and climbed the other. Shortly after this hole, the cave turns into an underground pond with three different passages. Without knowledge of the cave’s layout, Adam waded into the water and tried each passageway. Unable to find the exit, Adam turned back to return the same way he had entered. Returning to the hole in cave floor, Adam repelled down the first rope. After a few steps, Adam reached the next rope and began climbing up out of hole. Unfortunately, the wall had a slight overhang at the top which Adam couldn’t ascend. Unable to overcome the incline, Adam fell to his back onto the sharp rocks below. Quickly Adam tried again only to fall again.
Adam tried three times before he gave up and decided to wait for help. After we arrived, we made our awkward introductions and hoisted him out of the hole. Luckily, someone brought a spare flashlight to light the Adam’s descent to safety. During our moonlit walk back to the car, Adam told us what it was like to be trapped in absolute darkness for twelve hours. He said his thoughts were free to roam; he heard the laughter of children. Contributing to the eeriness was the sound of small creatures in the cave, which were amplified in pure silence. Before his phone died, he also took a video. In a light-hearted fashion, Adam explained why he was stuck in the Wind Cave, lighting overhanging wall with his camera’s remaining battery. Although it was never stated, the video was Adam’s chance to explain what happened in case he never could personally tell the story. Luckily Adam did get the chance to show us, and it even made for a nice blog post later on. The title was Trapped Alone Underground.
To hear the story from Adam’s perspective, visit: https://whatiswildness.tumblr.com/post/164542119032/trapped-alone-underground?fbclid=IwAR3YOmMXA09Gr4OuJL_igidZGmrfWRUv6fsana16Jajv1mkD0e7FOAIMkX0