National Geographic : 2009 Jun
drag tray, instead using my hands as scoops to maneuver the dirt around my body. A er 30 minutes I ve moved perhaps ve feet forward, my arms are aching, and I m soaked in sweat. I m about to back out when my shovel breaks through. I feverishly round out the hole and cram my head through. There is a low, triangle-shaped crawlway ahead of me. Surging with adrenaline, I try dragging myself into this new passage, but my chest gets stuck. From the beginning I have been hyper- focused on digging in order to stave o dark, horrifying feelings of claustrophobia. But now, stuck like a rat in the throat of a snake, a sickly anxiousness sweeps over me. I violently kick my legs, but to no avail: I m swimming in dirt. I realize that by not using the drag tray to remove the dirt, I ve buried myself. I try to calm my racing thoughts, but my mind is preoccupied with the millions of tons of rock above me. I ve been told that caves sel- dom collapse, and yet here I am, trapped at the bottom of a breakdown, in a cave that obviously did collapse. I try to slow my frantic breathing because I ve also been told that hyperventilat- ing expands one s lungs and only tightens the squeeze, which is exactly what s happening. Suddenly I m thrashing shamelessly, kicking Mark Jenkins is a Geographic contributing writer. Tennessee-based photographer Stephen Alvarez is completing a book on the world s greatest caves. The Tennessee River sculpts the east side of the Cumberland Plateau.