After watching the mandatory safety video, Brandon Chapel looks over a railing into a small rocky opening that leads down to the vast belly of Moaning Cavern in Calaveras County. The huge vertical chamber is so deep that the Statue of Liberty could fit inside it. With these dimensions, it's not surprising that tourists have descended the cavern for nearly a century.
"I'm scared 'cause I've never done this before. It's my 30th birthday," Chapel says. "This is what you do on a midlife crisis."
He's one of five people, including myself, about to rappel into the cavern. Rappelling involves a controlled descent down a cliff or wall using a rope. Harnesses and carabineers connect the rope to our bodies. As a few of us step into these harnesses, Brandon Chapel notices he's perspiring.
But Moaning Caverns didn't get its name from the fact that some people get a little nervous before descending it by rope. Tour guide Serena Deininger says the sound once came from water plunking onto numerous bottle shaped holes on the stalagmites.
"Similar to someone crying actually, moaning for help," she says.
The cave's acoustics amplified the plunking noises, but much of the moaning stopped after a steel staircase erected for tourists in 1922 absorbed the sounds. It's clear from the calcified bone pile at the bottom of the cave that people have fallen in over 1,000s of years, some perhaps trying to explore where the moaning sound originated. Rappel guide Haley Howard gave us a mental map of the cave.
"Once you guys come out of that chimney, you guys are going to be in our main chamber, known as a free descent area, so that means you have no wall. Drop your feet and let them dangle," she directs us.
I make it through the small space called the "chimney" by pushing my legs against the limestone formations and keeping both hands on the rope. Then I'm dangling in a huge open space with shiny stalagmites and stalactites all around. Howard points out a translucent rock as I rappel down further into the chamber, bump against another formation, and twirl around.
At the bottom, we remove our ropes and harnesses but leave our helmets and head lamps on. Then we slide through a small opening in the chamber wall and begin exploring the cave's narrow arteries. After I push my way through a very tight spot, Howard tells me there is another way around. She says in the early 1900s, visitors were charged 10 cents to be lowered into the cave in a bucket.
"And when they wanted to come back up they charged them 25 cents," Howard says.
These days, visitors can rappel down Moaning Cavern every day of the year. But they still have to climb 234 steps to get back out.