VALLECITO She looked me up and down with an almost clinical eye as she tightened the straps of my harness. Her expression betrayed nothing. She was the consummate professional. But I could tell she was silently gauging my fitness and demeanor, assessing whether I might be one of those high-maintenance customers.
"Have you ever rappelled down a cavern before?" asked Audrey Benevento, a guide at Moaning Cavern Park.
"Um, no," I said, trying to muster a James Earl Jones tone but fearing it sounded more like Pee Wee Herman.
Here I was, a middle-aged man old enough to be Benevento's father, an unimposing physical specimen with toothpick-thin biceps and all the poise of Woody Allen. And I was about to rappel 165 feet to the floor of what's said to be California's single largest public underground chamber at 61 degrees, a popular haven to escape the summertime heat.
Little wonder, then, why Benevento spoke in a calm, soothing voice often used with mental patients while reviewing, time and again, how to negotiate the descent.
"What's the first rule of rappelling?" she asked, in review.
"Never grasp the J-rack?" I ventured, voice quavering.
"No! It's 'Never let go of the rope.' "
I had no rational reason for this pre-traumatic stress syndrome. As Moaning Cavern owner Stephen E. Fairchild later told me, "150,000 people have jumped" since he bought the cave in 1976 and converted it into a playground for spelunkers and, above ground, zipliners.
Still, all the pre-rappel prep was a tad rattling to this neophyte, even before Benevento's pop quiz.
First, there was the wrist-cramping task of signing the liability waiver, fraught with more clauses and subcategories than Mark Zuckerberg's prenup agreement.
"Has anyone ever read the entire form?" I asked, staring at the 8-point type as the cashier wielded a blue highlighter to mark each spot to initial.
She just smiled and then pointed me to a TV set mounted on a wall of the gift shop.
"You need to watch the safety video first," she said.
I expected the usual badly acted industrial-film quality spiel. Instead, it was like a "Scared Straight" film from back in the day.
"This is not an amusement park ride. Failure to follow these rules could result in injury or death. It is extremely important that you always have at least one hand on the rope. Never hold or grab the J-rack. It could result in an out-of-control situation or death. Every slip could result in an out-of-control situation. Goofing off can lead to serious injury or death."
Enough with the death, already.
Fairchild later told me, for the record, that no one has ever died rappelling to the cavern floor or spelunking its hidden recesses. But the waiver is meant to cover all bases.
"And that release you signed?" he added. "It's been tested in court, only once, and it won. It's an ironclad release."
I was hoping that the harness, ropes and carabiners supporting my vulnerable corpus were just as ironclad.
As Benevento fed the rope through the J-rack, locked in my two carabiners and tugged to test the tension, she tried to reassure me.
"Ninety percent of the time, it's totally fine," she said.
She didn't elaborate until afterward, when pressed about that other 10 percent.
Then, with the brisk efficiency of a TSA screener, she made me hand over my iPhone and reporter's notebook, which I had tucked deep into my jeans.
"You'd be surprised what's fallen out and (threatened to hit) our tour groups," she said.
Her final instructions were simple: Sit in the harness with butt down and legs out, as if lounging on a couch with feet up on a coffee table. (That is second nature to me.) Push off the rock surface when descending. Slide the bars down to increase speed, up to stop. Keep one hand always on the rope. (Oh, no problem there.) Don't worry about slowly spinning during the two free-fall drops; it's normal.
Yes, at Moaning Cavern, there are two drops, one about 30 feet, the other about 60 feet, meaning there's no rock face to give you the (false) appearance of being grounded.
"That's actually the easiest part of the rappel," Benevento said. "I'm serious. It's just gravity taking you down. It's a little more technical going through the hole and dealing with the rock."
With that, she slapped me on the back and flung me down into the hole. Not really. She actually eased me beyond a wooden gate, my back to the gaping maw of the abyss awaiting me. Her last words at least the last that I recalled were, "I'll meet you below." But, in fact, she would follow me down on the spiral staircase that non-rappellers use to access the cavern floor, just to make sure I didn't freak out.
On my own now, I hopped and slightly swayed from rock to rock as I eased myself into the birth canal.
Uh, I meant the cavern opening.
Sorry, but I could not help thinking, as I lowered myself in fits and starts toward the opening below, of the Freudian overtones to this exercise, how supposedly all our anxieties can be traced to birth trauma. If I was re-living that trauma, I had become a breech birth, tush-first.
I soon snapped out of this reverie. Slapping once, then twice, into the smooth marble formations lining the walls is a wonderful reality check. Recovering from the facial, only momentarily shaken, I remembered to look around.
It was a geologic Disneyland. Formations such as the chocolate waterfall, a flowstone tinged a milk-chocolate hue that runs down nearly the entire shaft, cannot be adequately captured in photographs. The calcite deposits, generations in the making, jutted and pierced the cool air. Many textures intermingled, with rocks looking like terry cloth, like rippling draperies, like the world's largest terra cotta pots.
Finally, I reached the expanse of the domed cavern. I have written the adjective "cavernous" more than a few times in my career, but I never fully grasped the meaning until I was dangling like a chandelier looking down upon the spectacle.
Benevento, by the way, was following me down the stairs, occasionally shouting, "Good," and "Doing fine." And I was. Really, I was. Fear and anxiety were replaced with awe and wonder. Down below, I could see tourgoers, who had taken the stairs, craning their necks up at me, the rappeller. From this great height, they looked so small.
Soon, though, I eased the J-rack bars down all the way and nearly zipped the final 40 or so feet to the floor, Benevento running down the stairs to beat me there. She and guide Kaitlyn McGregor then reeled me in to the observation deck, unlocked the carabiners and relieved me of my gloves and miner's helmet.
That quickly, I had gone from a rappeller to utterly repellent the latter because I'd been sweating profusely, even though the cavern always stays 61 degrees. I was given a wide berth by the others.
Benevento assured me I was not suffering from hyperhydrosis, that even under these climate- controlled conditions, the cavern can get a touch humid with all that dripping water.
"That's why we tell people not to bring a jacket," she said, handing me back my notebook and iPhone. "They've got to walk the 235 stairs back up."
Now back on terra firma, Benevento critiqued my descent.
"Most people who do the rappel have experience with it, but you did fine," she said. "You tended to use only one foot and one arm (the left) to push off. But it seemed to work for you. If you'd done something wrong, I'd have yelled, 'Hey, watch out!'
"It happens to some people. It's really their anxiety that we have to deal with. We've done a lot of 'assists,' where we come down on the rappel and talk them down. But nothing major."
McGregor added: "I had someone with anxiety so bad that she hyperventilated and passed out on the rope. We came down and added a safety hook to her. It was this girl with tattoos all over her and dreadlocks. When she woke up, she said, 'I'm ready to zip(line) now.' "
For some, the tour does not end at the main cavern floor, 165 feet underground.
A two-hour Adventure Trip, led by a guide, takes amateur spelunkers down to 265 feet and through holes, shafts and cracks in formations, often crawling on their bellies or scooting on their backs through formations given names such as "Godzilla's Nostrils," "The Meat Grinder" and "Roach Motel."
No one since the early 1990s has traveled to the 410-foot bottom, McGregor said, "because the carbon dioxide settles down there and the air quality is too poor."
But, she added, "People have actually gotten engaged in the Roach Motel. And Stephen, our owner, jokes that more people have been conceived in the cave than have died."
It was at this point that McGregor and Benevento told me what they wisely kept to themselves before my descent: Remains of about 100 American Indians and even prehistoric humans have been found at the cavern's bottom. The theory is that people, curious about all the moaning coming from below, fell through the chimney hole and "rappelled without a rope" to their deaths.
And, about that moaning: Early explorers so named the cavern because the sounds of water dripping onto flowstone made a drumming sound that wafted to the surface as a low moan. These days, the moaning comes mostly in winter during rainy season, though McGregor pounded on flowstone to replicate the sound.
"Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't moan anymore; that's wrong," Fairchild said.
Fairchild, a spelunking enthusiast since childhood, bought Moaning Cavern he owns three others in 1976 from Fred Astaire Jr., son of the legendary entertainer. He set about making the cavern more accessible to tourists and more fun for adventurers.
"About a year after I bought it, I was talking with a bunch of guys and they were saying how people are wimps and won't try anything fun and risky," Fairchild said. "But I said, 'Hell, we could throw a rope down in Moaning Cavern and people would pay to go down it.' I was right. I'd say 150,000 people have now rappelled down."
Make that 150,001.
MOANING CAVERN PARK
5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito
(866) 762-2837 toll-free, www.caverntours.com
Directions from Sacramento: Take Jackson Highway (Highway 16) to Highway 49. Turn right on Highway 49, left on Highway 4, right on Parrots Ferry Road, right on Moaning Cave Road.
Summer hours (through mid-September) 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Cost: Guided tour: $14.95 adult, $7.95 child (ages 3-12); rappel and tour: $65; two-hour Adventure Trip: $130 with rappel, $76 without.
SELECT OTHER NORTHERN CALIFORNIA CAVERNS
Shasta Caverns: http://lakeshastacaverns.com/
California Cavern: www.californiacavern.com
Black Chasm Cavern: www.blackchasmcavern.com