Swift water frothed against the cave opening's walls. We stood, unblinking, at the overflowing creek's edge.
"Looks about halfway up," Marty said.
I nodded. "Think you're right."
The boy, we'd forgotten his name several times, stood back down the bank, arms crossed, hair wet with drizzle and sweat. The helmeted park naturalist sat with the backboard and rescue gear, having packed it around the valley for the last six hours.
A decision needed made.
When we'd arrived earlier, as volunteer callouts for a cave rescue, we came decked out in overalls, kneepads, helmets, lights, cave packs. Cavers. The officials stared, like our equipment somehow made us better, or at least more capable, and waited -- a pregnant pause that put us in charge.
So, we hunkered over a map, made X's where we knew cave entrances might match the survivor's description. Roundish, against the hill, with a creek running into it.
"We walked in, and got some ways back ... I don't know, it was dark, but not too dark, you know, and Roy kept going, and we went straight back, and then we heard this sound. And when turned around, there was just this wall of water, and ..."
The boy trailed off. He made it out, thrashing against the water. His friend did not.
In the hours that followed, we split into teams. Those of us who knew the caves better would go out first. We stuck to the trails, the heavy rain having made hillsides too treacherous, especially in the dark now.
Our coveralls induced sweat almost immediately as we climbed. It took a half hour or so to reach where the trail bent around into the hanging valley -- a miles-long valley that sat above the lower creek level. Probably dozens of caves had formed in this valley. And all water, rain or otherwise, drained through most of them. Wet, muddy fun on dry days, as I'd discovered years before. Off limits during storms.
We'd brought the boy along, despite the chance it would slow us down, as the best bet for finding the correct cave. They'd not asked about the caves or tried to learn their names. They'd just armed themselves with flashlights, and ignored the weather. True spelunkers.
We surveyed the first opening, the back entrance to a major mostly-walking cave. The creek swirled in a giant whirpool in front of it, emptying out through an underground water tube to waterfalls over the hillside. Not it, though, or so the boy thought.
We trudged on up the valley, eliminating cave candidates one by one. We stuck to a methodical search pattern, yet never forgot a life was at risk. Although, in the back of our heads, we played out the worst scenario. I mean, by this time, it had been hours, and hours.
Eventually, we found ourselves in the upper, wider reaches of the valley where the creek turned sharply and ran along the hillside.
From across the way, I heard the boy yelp. I knew he'd recognized it. Marty called out, and made my way over to stand with them in front of the black, gaping water-filled hole.
We leaned around the edge, staying clear of the rapids. It roared so loudly we almost couldn't hear ourselves yell out Roy's name.
That's when we stood back, unblinking, and assessed the entrance, and its water level.
A decision needed made.
Now, we had rope. We could tie off on a tree alongside the creek bank, snake it out, walk into the abyss, and search. But how far could we get? Maybe two hundred feet? If the cave dipped, we could be underwater quickly, or swimming. Likely. With our lights we could see the air pocket shrank to minimal, or nothing, some fifty feet inside. Should we send in a life jacket, or buoy, and see if anyone grabbed it?
It's true we discussed all this, even if we already knew the answer. I think Chris first voiced it.
"First, don't become a victim."
We'd heard that mantra countless times. The first lesson in cave exploration, and cave rescue training. Some of us had taken a class a couple years before.
Heroics, well, are just that. They look good when they turn out on good, on TV.
Here, facing a maw of emotionless Earth, dripping with sweat and wet of night, hearts heavy, watching a boy who knew his friend was dead, it didn't mean anything, even if we wanted it to.
The cave didn't care. The planet didn't care. It would swallow us, no matter how desperate our feelings.
We turned away. The naturalist set up camp, waited for dawn.
The next morning, when the water subsided, Marty pulled Roy's body out of a crevice hundreds of feet inside the cave.
He talked to him all the way out, telling him he'd take care of him, make sure he got cleaned up and dressed for his family, stuff like that.
I didn't go. Couldn't go. It's like that sometimes when you're underground, or planning to go. We make no judgements.
But, we do make decisions. They must always be made.
You just learn to live with it.