Excerpt from “Getting in Deep” by Lisa DeLucia.
Lechuguilla Cave Expedition
Carlsbad, New Mexico
Thursday, December 31, 1987
We had planned years for this type of adventure. Finally it was here. On this expedition there was a Top Gun, an astronaut, physicists, geologists, scientists and elite cavers…the types of intellectually achieved men I would least likely bond with working as a publicist in television. But this was no ordinary cave.
It was Lechuguilla, the premiere cave discovery in the late 1980s. It was also the biggest cave mapping project, and my husband Don DeLucia and I were thrilled to be selected for the third expedition. We were part of a carefully culled expedition team, invited to survey in the most significant cave discovery of our era.
Here I was straining to quickly get up the last of the five rope drops of the Apricot Pit, in what was to become known as the bitchy section of Lechuguilla cave. To think that reputation is deserving of the five consecutive rope drops equaling 500 feet deep would stand to reason. But no, it was for the affectionately named “gorilla shit,” tar-like dirt that lined the pit and smeared everywhere, which made for a slippery and messy time on rope.
I was the first one ascending and nearing the top of the last rope drop as we were heading out after surveying. My husband was below me, watching, waiting for me to get off rope so he could ascend. My goal was to be off-rope just in time to ring in the New Year. For us, it was tradition to celebrate New Year’s in a cave. It just seemed to kick- start us into a very good caving year.
Don was on-rope below, touching the contents in his right upper pocket one last time to make sure it didn’t spill out. He was fixated on the moving light beams cast from all of our headlamps, highlighting the glistening features in the deep pit.
“Ten, nine, eight,”…I could hear the countdown echoing up from Ray Keeler, the leader and last person on rope in our survey team. Right as I went from being vertical on the rope, to horizontal on a ledge, I heard “Three, two, one!” and I let out a huge “Happy New Year” joining the chorus in the pit below.
Don pulled a noise maker out of his pocket and starting twirling it around making party sounds as he came up the drop. Then Ray joined in with his party horn making loud toots dangling in the fourth pit. When Don reached the top of the fifth drop he yelled “Happy New Year” and gave me a big kiss as he got off-rope.
Having finished the worst in the best, just in time for the celebrating, I felt more of an elated sense of accomplishment and awe than I’ve ever felt working in Hollywood. Yes, even the land of the beautiful people, bright lights and decadence of entertainment, just couldn’t compare to the natural beauty, serenity and adrenaline rush I got every time I was in places like this.
I was living my dream above ground and underground. I had achieved my chosen passage in life as a television publicist and an expedition caver. Each road was challenging in itself, and for me, trying to balance, or tip-toe actually, between the two, somehow formed the most unlikely complements on my life journey.
From the moment Don and I first heard about the new discovery in Lechuguilla cave, we both knew we wanted in. The Department of the Interior in the state of New Mexico was allowing spelunkers (or ‘cavers’ as we all say) access to survey the cave. We had to prove to the government that we were good enough for the challenge.
To be invited on the expedition, we had to create a ‘caving resume’ and list all the caves we had done in the U.S., including the sporting Mexican river caves. Luckily we had logged significant caving hours underground to make the cut.
We got on the list and gained access into Lechuguilla, the caving rush to beat all. And here we were on New Year’s. We were truly living our dream.