Today I’d like to tell the story of how a substitution of “a” for “the” caused us a lot of hassle and frustration in a cave. Specifically, the story is about the Ape Cave. This is a lava tube cave in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, right near Mt. St. Helen in Washington State. [Click here for the entire album]. Once you’re in this cave, you can go leftward a bit for an easy stroll, or rightward 1.4 miles through difficult terrain (big piles of boulders, rope up a wall, etc.) to a ladder. That’s your reward: You climb out and stroll back through the forest rather than re-doing the lava tube.
Unfortunately for us… Due to a placard’s awkward use of “a” instead of “the” (well, that and our fast-dying flashlights and one injury), we gave up and turned around 1.2 miles in, at the skylight formation. Why? Because the placard, which we had read right before entering the cave, (1) made it seem like the ladder was right next to the skylight, and (2) referred to the ladder as “a ladder”. Something like “Do not attempt to climb out without a ladder.” So when we didn’t see any ladder, we remembered that wording, and thought “Wait, what? We’re supposed to bring our own ladder? How could a person even do that?!” We didn’t think that made sense, but neither does their saying “a ladder” if they meant their own single ladder that’s permanently there. We did notice that we weren’t at the very end of the tube, but that didn’t seem odd because we had read that it extends for 500 feet beyond the ladder (and that that part wasn’t interesting). So… yeah. We turned around. RIGHT NEAR THE END. And re-hiked it all with near-dead lights.
I could say that the lesson here is a linguistic one, and that Ape Cave should change their sign. Actually, though, I hope anyone reading this fixated on the flashlight issue instead. Why did we enter a cave without fully bright lights and back-up lights? That’s a mistake that could be deadly, in other circumstances. So the real lesson is “Don’t be an idiot about flashlights in caves”!