When Dan Rogers set out early Saturday morning to explore Ice Cave and Wind Cave up Darby Canyon, he told his wife to call for help if he and his friends weren’t back by 11 p.m.
Rogers and fellow spelunkers Scott Stuntz and Cy Whitling ended up spending nearly 24 hours underground because navigating the cave’s mazelike and poorly marked routes took much longer than they anticipated.
The trio ended up finding their exit, albeit several hours after they had planned.
“We came up with a plan best we could even though the information on that cave isn’t available to the public,” Rogers said in an interview Tuesday.
Rogers’ wife did call Teton County Search and Rescue. Near the exit of Wind Cave on Sunday morning, searchers came across the men, who were uninjured but exhausted.
“It was not super enjoyable, but by and large it was a really cool experience,” Scott Stuntz said. “I felt bad that Search and Rescue had to come out but I’m really glad they were there.”
The misadventure is common for those who decide to explore the caves, Teton County Undersheriff Matt Carr said.
Maps for the underground trail system don’t exist, so plans are made based upon word-of-mouth instructions from recreational spelunkers.
Teton County Search and Rescue personnel train in the caves every summer because the chances of people getting lost or stuck in them is high, Carr said.
“It’s very confusing and takes some serious route finding,” Carr said. “It’s not recommended for anyone who doesn’t have cave experience.”
Rogers and his friends were prepared with the correct equipment, extra headlamps, food, water and layers.
But there are parts of the cave where it’s not clear which opening leads to the exit, which slowed them.
“We went on leads that seemed to jive, and they’d be dead ends or loop into other passageways,” Rogers said. “It was more problem solving than anything.”
Carr said the men did everything they were supposed to do.
They hiked to the exit of Wind Cave before entering Ice Cave and dropped a rope and made sure their exit wasn’t covered in ice, as it sometimes is.
They left a plan with a responsible person who knew to call for help when they were overdue.
And they didn’t panic.
“With any sort of recreational activity in the backcountry it’s so critical to leave a plan behind with somebody who can call for help when you need it,” Carr said.
Rogers said that around midnight they stopped to sleep and eat so they could continue making good decisions on how to get out.
“We had to methodically work our way through,” Rogers said. “We knew it was only a matter of time to finding the way out, but unfortunately there was no way to convey that.”
Inside the cave it was cold, damp, dark and disorienting.
“We only had a finite amount of time with the headlamps,” Stuntz said. “It’s totally black in there.”
If they could go back and do it again, they would factor in more time in order to navigate, Rogers said.
“It was a really cool experience,” he said. “It is more difficult than you think it will be, even if you’re a competent person, because of the lack of information.”
The lack of published information on the caves is for the public’s safety, Carr said. If the caves seem easy or more accessible, he said, there would likely be more injuries or fatalities each year.
“If we have to do a rescue of an injured party in there it’s a multiday event,” he said. “When I read about what happened in Thailand, I feel for those rescuers and families.”
Teton County Search and Rescue crews use unofficial maps they’ve acquired from trainings over the years, and they still question the route once they’re underground, Carr said.
“You come to these large rooms and have to pick which tiny hole to crawl through,” Carr said. “And sometimes on a belly crawl your arms are extended and you’re pushing your pack and you can only maneuver with your toes.”
The high-risk underground maze poses challenges to even the most experienced spelunkers.
“A lot of people have the mountaineering experience to get through it, but the route finding is where it’s challenging,” Carr said. “We’re glad this one turned out to just be an overdue party.”
Whitling, not interviewed for this article, is a columnist for the Sports section of the News&Guide. — Ed.