Tighter than I Remember

I’ve been reading a book off and on for about a year now called, Being Wrong : Adventures in the Margin of Error. It ties into my interest in meta-cognition and how we think.

We build a model in our head of how the world is. Often times it’s accurate, but often times it’s wrong. In my model of the world, the Sun rises in the East. This model is accurate and corresponds with the model most of us have. But I can easily construct related models that are wrong. Looking back I can remember that it was sunny on a particular day, only to find if I check the records, it was raining. My memory is wrong, but it created the model I had for that day. I can also create a model going forward. Last night, going to bed, the world I was going to wake up to was sunny. This was based on the weather forecast and the fact that the Sun rises in the East. Well, the Sun may have risen today, but it’s not sunny. There’s far too many clouds. So that model was wrong.

This all comes to mind because of a caving trip I did this weekend. There’s a fine little cave near here called Ella Armstrong. It’s really not much of a cave, perhaps 250′ of walkable passage total. But I’ve always liked it even though I hadn’t been there in 15-20 years. It’s got a nice vertical drop at the entrance that’s great for beginners. And it has an easy walk-in entrance.  As a result, I had been considering using it for some cave rescue training next year.

So you can imagine my surprise when two of my fellow cavers who had been there just a few weeks ago said I was in fact wrong and it’s not a walk-in entrance and that in fact it’s rather tight. I was surprised. I didn’t really doubt them, but figured perhaps we had a different definition of what we considered a tight entrance.

Now, let me take a little detour here and mention that almost every caver will at some point joke about how a particular cave has gotten smaller over the years. It’s a little lie we tell ourselves to account for the fact that many of us have put on a few pounds since we first started caving and some passages are in fact harder to get through.  The truth is, rarely due caves get smaller, though sometimes passages sometimes do get larger. There’s a cave in Vermont where I’m pretty sure fitting through 2 of the 3 tightest spots is probably close to impossible for me now. And I know the cave didn’t change sizes, so I’ll have to admit I have.

But back to Ella Armstrong. If you had asked me to describe the entrance prior to this weekend I’d have described it as about 12′ tall at its tallest and 3′-4′ wide most of the way to the top of the drop.

Well, as Saturday proved, the model in my head was only half right. The map lists the entrance as 8′. I’ll call that close enough to 12′ since it simply means there’s no chance to hit my head on the ceiling.

On the other hand, most of the entrance from the surface to the top of the drop is NOT 3′-4′ wide. It probably averages 18″ at most and in parts is just wide enough for me to work my chest through with some contortions. My first reaction when I got to the entrance was, “perhaps some rocks have fallen in and narrowed this from what I remember.” But, after I started to scramble beyond some of the rocks on the surface, I got to the bedrock, which I know hadn’t moved and realized that my model was dramatically wrong. It was tight enough that at one point I considered calling off our trip. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I couldn’t make it further down and past a particular spot; gravity would see to that. It was more that I was afraid I might not get back UP past that spot. Finally after some mental gymnastics I figured a way I could not only get down past the choke point, but felt comfortable thinking I could get back up past it. As I’m writing this from the comfort and safety of my home, you can see my mental gymnastics worked.  Actually, it turned out the crux move on the way out was a bit further up that wasn’t nearly as tight, but had a short shelf about 3′ up in a spot that wasn’t great on foot or handholds. On the way in, that spot didn’t appear to be an issue at all. So again, in the narrow space of about 20 minutes my mental model failed me.

The truth is, we make mental models all the time. It’s how we operate in the world. But sometimes those models are wrong. Sometimes in a positive way, the tight spot getting out wasn’t as bad as I thought, or in a negative way, the spot I thought would be easy, was in fact the hardest sport. But regardless of the errors in many of our models, we generally navigate the world in a successful manner. Being wrong isn’t necessarily the end of the world.

Unfortunately though, as much as I love this cave, it really is too tight to be practical for cave rescue exercises. Which is a shame, because it is a great little cave. And if you’re ever in the area and want to check it out, let me know. I’d love to take you. But I’ll warn you, it’s a bit tight in spots!

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