Into the Darkness
Tim McLain helped put Southern Indiana’s Binkley Cave on the map. When his caving career came to an unexpected end last year, his fellow adventurers pressed on through the deep underground wilderness—one of America’s last unexplored frontiers.
Sooner or later, most cavers pick up a nickname. His was Slim Tim. One hundred and twenty-five pounds of sinew and muscle stretched taught on a lean frame. Part slingshot, part projectile, he zipped through cracks where other bodies wouldn’t fit.
But being skinny didn’t fully account for Tim McLain’s moniker. At 49 years old, he was still a “pusher.” First in the hole. Didn’t matter how wet. How muddy. How tight. Didn’t matter that no one knew what lurked on the other side. With a smile and a whoop, McLain plunged helmet-first into the unknown.
To Dave Everton, president of the Indiana Speleological Survey, McLain was an asset, the “Slim Tim Tool,” a thin bar of flexing human steel who unlocked blocked passages like a thief jimmies open car doors. Half-submerged in frigid water, and writhing in sticky red mud, he’d pivot those pointy shoulders and hips around boulders and rubble, then squirt through, his voice calling out gleefully from somewhere behind the rock, the only sign McLain hadn’t vanished altogether. “C’mon through,” he’d chirp. “C’mon through.” The next caver might follow on McLain’s go-ahead and find a nice big open passage. Or he might squeeze into the gap, huffing, puffing, straining, and, once in, plop down in more of the same cold water and mud, crammed into a dead-end chamber next to a beaming McLain and his steaming breath. McLain’s idea of a joke.
Much as he liked subterranean fun, though, McLain was serious about exploring caves, and he became one of the Indiana Speleological Survey’s best trailblazers. Though nearly 200 years have passed since Indiana was considered frontier territory, recent ISS discoveries have literally shed light on a vast wilderness beneath the state’s surface—one of America’s last unexplored places. Specifically, the group’s expeditions and surveys over the last five years have extended Binkley Cave, near Corydon in Southern Indiana, far enough to rank among the 10 longest in the United States.
McLain was often on the front lines of such feats. Then, last November, he showed up to help a couple of divers who had designs on plumbing a “sump”—a passage full of water, with no air space—in one of the Binkley system’s underground rivers. On that trip, he would be a pack mule for the divers, helping to lug their gear through thousands of feet of waterway that, in places, ran chest-deep.
As Binkley Cave trips go, this was supposed to be an easy outing, all wading, carrying, and waiting. In by noon and, with any luck, out by bedtime. At least, that was the plan.
The caving subculture roughly divides into two separate groups: climbers who descend into deep vertical pits, and moles who burrow far back in damp, dark tunnels. The geology of Indiana strongly favors the latter type. From Bloomington south to the Ohio River, the landscape is dotted with “karst” features—sinkholes, springs, and disappearing streams and rivers—formed when surface water percolates through faults in the limestone bedrock. Over millennia, the water has carved out passages in the earth below, many roomy enough to accommodate human visitors.
Until recent exploits in Binkley, the region’s reputation as an underground hotbed had waned over the years. Into the 1960s, Wyandotte Cave, west of Corydon, was billed as one of the longest in the United States, but unfriendly landowners frustrated exploration efforts there; it currently stands at just over nine miles, barely ranking in the top 100. Indiana’s southern neighbor has always won by a landslide where length is concerned. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, a relatively high-and-dry labyrinth stretching a combined 400 miles, is the longest in the world and more than twice as far as America’s second-longest, in South Dakota. Among the current top 10, however, Binkley is probably the fastest “growing,” running neck and neck with number seven, West Virginia’s Hellhole. ISS stalwarts have a list of dozens of leads—passages within Binkley that cavers have noted but not explored—and plans for dye-tracing tests to track underground water flow to distant openings. They believe the system could one day be Indiana’s first 100-mile cave.
The earliest known Binkley explorations occurred about 80 years ago. A photo from the 1930s, later reprinted in a local newspaper with the caption “Corydon’s Cave Men,” shows 11 jaunty youngsters who’d just ventured into what was then known as Miles Cave, after the family who owned the farm where the entrance was located. In the 1940s, Harvey Binkley bought the land, and the cave assumed its present name. The first organized trips commenced a decade later, by cavers from the Bloomington Indiana Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society. A few men charted several miles, though they found little to suggest that the cramped hole would one day earn national respect.
Nearly a decade later, Gary Roberson, from nearby New Albany, took up Binkley once more. Like most outdoor-minded kids growing up in Southern Indiana, he had ventured into caves early, completing his initial journey with his fellow Boy Scouts at the age of 11 with a handheld gas lantern and flashlights. In his early 20s, he and other locals joined with students from the Purdue University Outing Club, who, starting in the mid-’60s, planned regular weekend adventures in the area. Together, they formed the Indiana Speleological Survey, with the intention of mapping the state’s caves.
At Lamon’s Hardware in Corydon, then an unofficial headquarters for Southern Indiana spelunking, cavers bought carbide fuel and parts for their headlamps. Shopkeeper Lewie Lamon thrilled Roberson and his friends with tales of his own forays into Binkley Cave in the 1930s. Looking for a new ISS project, the group focused on Binkley, and in 1967, Harvey Binkley agreed to meet with Roberson. The farmer, not known for friendliness to cavers, was “somewhat abrupt, blunt, and intimidating in voicing his concerns,” Roberson writes in his caving memoir, 50 Years Under the Sinkhole Plain. “He made it clear that we had better follow his rules to the letter if we wanted access to his cave,” which partly entailed not scaring the chickens on their way to the entrance.
In a clump of trees in the middle of a cow pasture, Roberson and his friends found the mouth of Binkley Cave, a weed-choked, 25-foot sinkhole sloping to a rock overhang perched on loose, crumbling limestone. It was barely an opening at all, and one that looked to be on the verge of collapse.
One by one, the men scooched through the treacherous maw and noticed that it was drawing air, or “breathing,” a sign that sizable, open passages might lie ahead. In a couple of hours, they traversed more than a thousand feet, through wide, standup corridors. Roberson and other members of the fledgling ISS returned a few weeks later for an organized expedition, and in a 12-hour span they retraced many of the routes the Bloomington Indiana Grotto group had pencil-mapped on dirty notebook pages nearly 10 years earlier, passing piles of spent carbide canisters the previous cavers left behind.
The ISS group pressed on and found chambers so high their carbide lamps couldn’t cast beams far enough to illuminate the ceiling. Passages branched off in all directions, each its own mystery, winking at them in the half-light.
Roberson and his cohorts were hooked. They mapped more than 11 miles of the system by 1970 and approached the 20-mile mark by the early ’80s. As the 2000s rolled around, though, Roberson and much of the old ISS contingent were well past middle age, and Binkley exploration slowed to a belly crawl. In 2008, the length stood at just over 22 miles. “We were playing around for 50 years in the smallest part of the cave,” Roberson says.
It would be up to a new generation of ISS cavers to see just how long Binkley could be.
Tim McLain was 3, living in Indianapolis, when Roberson and company took their first steps inside Binkley Cave in 1967. Four decades would pass before McLain did the same, after a winding route that now looks a little like fate. As a child, McLain would go camping with his parents and his two brothers, and he loved being outdoors. When he was about 14, he was out wandering some woods near his house on the far-west side, in Clermont, when he ran into John Shultheis, another boy his age who, as luck would have it, had been on the same peewee baseball team years earlier. Now they lived in neighboring subdivisions, and they quickly grew to be best pals and fishing buddies. They remained friends into high school at Ben Davis, and when the reserved Shultheis fell for a sweet, gregarious girl named Brenda Stokes, his coworker at Burger King, the trio became nearly inseparable—“The Three Amigos,” they called themselves.
They drove all over on the weekends, looking for adventure. McLain discovered the caves around Bloomington, in an area known as Garrison Chapel Valley, turned Shultheis onto the pastime, and eventually they tried to talk Stokes into joining them as well. “I’m not going to go crawling around in the mud,” she protested. Then she saw pictures they’d taken inside the caves, of cool rock formations and mysterious chambers, and she changed her mind.
Shultheis and Stokes married right after graduation, and the Amigos’ caving trips continued, for a time, until the couple started a family and found it increasingly difficult to give up their weekends. They and McLain drifted apart. But his escapades continued. In 1990, he learned that another friend was going rappelling in a pit cave in Tennessee, with a woman named Sharon Walker. As Walker remembers, her friend told her, “I know this skinny guy who wants to come and carry rope.” McLain joined them, and Walker, a single mother, was charmed by his exuberance. The two started dating, and the relationship evolved into a lifelong partnership. They shared a love of adventure, eventually hiking the Appalachian Trail together. McLain came to regard Walker’s two children, and later her seven grandchildren, as his own.
In 2007, the Shultheises made party plans for their 25-year wedding anniversary and realized it had been nearly that long since they’d seen their old friend McLain. They tracked him down, and, in another stroke of serendipity, he happened to reside with Walker in Brownsburg, where the Shultheises lived. Walker’s children were well into adulthood, and the Shultheises’ kids were now mostly grown as well. Despite the interceding decades, when McLain showed up to the Shultheises’ party, it was like no time had passed. After a few beers, they started reminiscing about their old caving trips—and decided to pick up the hobby once again.
Over the next few years, more weekends than not found the friends down in some godforsaken hole, and loving it. McLain and John Shultheis’s trips got especially involved, and they cultivated a kind of running gallows gag when they were really miserable or mired in a tough spot. “Just go on without me,” one of them would wail. “Go ahead and leave me here to die!”
Hoosier cavers form a small network, and it wasn’t long after McLain got back into caving that he caught wind of what was happening in Binkley. Dave Everton, head of the Indiana Speleological Survey, had gotten involved with the languishing enterprise in 2008, going along to take photos with some of the ISS crew who were still at it. Everton was devoted to “project caving” (taking surveys and making maps to document terrain for posterity), and the scope of the Binkley venture captured his imagination. He become president in 2010, and with his leadership and organization, a younger group of intrepid cavers came to the fore, including Rand Heazlitt, a local man who’d tagged along on Binkley trips since he was 15, and Nick Benton, whose father was Roberson’s longtime compatriot. Together, they rejuvenated the ISS. Everton drove down as many as 48 Saturdays a year, and Binkley buzzed again.
Compared to other systems, though, sodden Binkley isn’t exactly inviting. “It’s not pretty, like, for example, if you were to visit Marengo Cave [near Paoli],” says Everton, “which is beautifully decorated with mineral deposits and all that kind of stuff.” Names of Binkley features give glimpses into its character: Pig Wallow, which covers cavers in slick mud. The Grand Ripper, a run of razor-sharp rocks that shred clothes. Chuck’s Sewer Tube, Slime Overflow, and Bung Hole Passage, which are pretty much what they sound like. “As much as I love Binkley, that describes a lot of it,” says Heazlitt. “Greasy, sleazy, and nasty.”
Descriptions like Heazlitt’s might turn off dilettantes, but for McLain, the chance to cave for more than weekend thrills—to build on something meaningful and go where no one else had been—proved irresistible. Around the time Everton became ISS president, McLain and Walker, while still close, took up separate residences, and the life change propelled McLain full-bore into Binkley. “He knew it was going to be something big, and the people he was with were passionate about it, too,” says Walker. “It kind of took on a life of its own.”
McLain soon emerged as one of the ISS’s hardest-charging explorers, and he and Heazlitt, his “push buddy,” along with Everton, Benton, and others, stretched Binkley’s known boundaries. “Tim and Rand were the ones that were always running out ahead,” says John Shultheis. “They would push out all the really horrible stuff.”
They trudged through “suck mud” that tugged at their boots and ventured into “ceiling suckers”—passages with overhead air space so low they had to get on their backs and kiss rock to breathe. They navigated “ear dippers,” where half their faces might be submerged in water for hundreds of feet at a stretch. Armed with a bent, rusty pry bar McLain affectionately called The Relic, they dug dirt and cleared rubble when the way grew too narrow to pass. Then they’d emerge in a virgin chamber, where McLain would fire up a Marlboro to celebrate. “He was a steam-engine smoker,” says Heazlitt. “We’d come back in this pristine area, and he and a few other guys would be smoking, and the whole passage would get smoked up. Here we are, kind of athletes, doing extreme kind of shit, and they’re back here smoking cigarettes.”
Blowing Hole Cave, which lay right on the periphery of the Binkley system, became McLain’s particular passion. Named for the strong air currents that flowed in and out of its entrance, Blowing Hole enticed McLain and the other ISS cavers with the prospect that somewhere, in parts unknown, the two were joined. Making the connection would add several miles to Binkley in one push. They hit Blowing Hole hard, despite the especially inhospitable environs: It was wet, very wet, and exploring it often required wearing a wetsuit in cold water for hours at a time. McLain and John Shultheis ended up working for the same Brownsburg plumbing company; during the week, they scurried around in basements and crawlspaces fixing pipes for a living. Then, for fun, they spent weekends wading Blowing Hole’s maze of natural storm drains—dripping passages like Leaky Submarine and Coast Guard Hall—below Southern Indiana.
A place like Blowing Hole is beset with any number of perils, drowning among them. (At least eight deaths have occurred in Indiana caves since 1961, five of which were due to drowning.) If something bad happens, help can be hours away. But in thousands of trips, no one with the deliberate, weathered ISS team suffered serious injury. They checked rain forecasts and water levels. Followed safety procedures. Calculated the risks.
“Tim is down,” read the text message. “We have to go back in and get him.” Heazlitt thought he was kidding, as cavers do. “Yeah, right.” Heazlitt replied.
McLain had one rare brush with harm that inspired him to write an account many of his friends regard as the greatest trip report ever composed. Under the title “Dave’s Special Recipe Makes Cavers Extra Crispy,” McLain described how he, Everton, Heazlitt, and other cavers erected a makeshift ladder known as a scaling pole to look for a lead near a dome ceiling. Before McLain ascended, Everton gave him a homemade smoke bomb, an accessory used to find unseen passages sucking air.
“I nestled the package firmly in place and lit the fuse,” McLain wrote. “Sparks began falling onto my left boot, and they weren’t going out, but continued to smolder and hiss. The box was only halfway ignited at this point and I seem to remember thinking to myself ‘this could get ugly.’ Indeed it could! As the box became fully engulfed in flame, it erupted into an absolute 360-degree fountain of embers … My left pant leg and shirt sleeve were completely covered in embers, and the box seemed to be getting angrier.” Without a fire extinguisher, and too high up to jump, McLain had one option: “Cower as close to the wall as possible and whimper like a small child” while the incendiary burned itself out.
It was a typical McLain response to hardship: stay positive and move on. He seemed indomitable, going stronger than he ever had, even as a young man. And the harder he pushed, the longer Binkley got.
McLain woke up early on the morning of November 23, 2013, threw his gear in the car, and set off on the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Brownsburg to Corydon, a trip he’d made close to a hundred times in the previous three years.
He was joining Everton, Benton, and other ISS cavers at Blowing Hole, where, about a year earlier, McLain had accomplished a major milestone: After countless hours of exploration, he had squirmed through a claustrophobic opening and emerged in Binkley Cave, extending the system by seven miles. On this trip, though, McLain was merely helping divers carry gear to a spot where they wanted to go under the water. He wasn’t confident the quest would yield much in the way of discovery, and he was having difficulty getting excited about it. But he’d agreed to do it, and now he intended to stay true to his word.
After meeting up in Bloomington, McLain and Everton rode together to the farm where the Blowing Hole entrance was located, then followed a dirt road to a clearing in the woods along Indian Creek. The portions of the cave they would be exploring, a passage known as the Eerie Canal and beyond, were soggy, even by Blowing Hole standards, and would require a two-mile hike in a 54-degree river. With almost no body fat, McLain tended to get cold quickly. He slipped into his wetsuit as a precaution against hypothermia, and then picked up an armload of diving equipment and lugged it to the yawning entrance.
When the nine-person party embarked down the river, McLain’s spirits were high, as usual. Benton shot some video footage as they sloshed through the water. In the recording, the muffled murmur of people talking is barely audible. Then, above the chatter, McLain calls out to another member of the group, a Blowing Hole rookie named Seth Gower.
“Hey, Seth!” McLain shouts. “Hey, Seth!”
“What?!” Seth calls back.
“First time you been in this entrance?”
“That’s good. Nice knowing you.”
John and Brenda Shultheis had planned on joining McLain and the others that day. Despite the wetness, for Brenda, a self-described “weakling,” it was an easier trip. “I always called Blowing Hole like senior aerobics, ” she says. “You’re in waist-deep water, and you just go.” But at the last minute, they decided to stay home; they’d been in caves the past couple of Saturdays, and John had knocked out a 16-hour trip with McLain just two weeks earlier. They needed a break.
Rand Heazlitt sat out the Blowing Hole expedition as well. On the night of the trip, he and his wife were at a restaurant in Clarksville, about 30 minutes away, when he got a text message from Nick Benton. “Tim is down,” Benton wrote. “We have to go back in and get him.”
Heazlitt thought he was kidding, as cavers do. “Yeah, right,” Heazlitt texted.
“No, this is real,” came Benton’s reply. Heazlitt got him on the phone. He could tell Benton was shaken. “Something’s happened,” he told Heazlitt. “We lost Tim. He just collapsed in the cave.”
“Wait a minute,” Heazlitt pleaded “What’s going on?”
“He was just walking along,” said Benton, “and all of a sudden it was like the lights went out.”
Heazlitt headed to Blowing Hole in haste to assist in the emergency. In the meantime, the Shultheises were at home in Brownsburg when their son Johnny called, close to 6 p.m. He’d just heard from a man named Bill Greenwald, as part of a list of cavers who initiate a chain of telephone contact when something goes wrong.
“There’s been an accident,” Greenwald had told Johnny. “It’s Tim.”
Six minutes after the call, the Shultheises were in the jeep with their caving gear and speeding toward Blowing Hole as well. By then, word had spread that a possible rescue was in progress, and their cell phones rang again and again. Brenda drove faster.
First-responders and local cavers began to arrive at Blowing Hole. Benton, who had hightailed it back to the cave entrance for help, tried to describe what had happened. On the way in, the party had waded for close to three hours. McLain carried on as usual, laughing and joking. Then he slipped down into the water. The others rushed around and struggled to hold his chin above the surface while pulling on his limp body, until they found a sandbar wide enough to drag him up and lay him out. They took turns kneeling over McLain, pressing on his chest and trying to blow air into his mouth, while the rest stood in the water or hunkered down on rocks, watching.
Benton didn’t know what had transpired back in the cave after he left McLain and the others. But he feared the worst. On the phone, Heazlitt asked Benton whether he should be prepared to conduct a rescue or a recovery. “I would say it’s a recovery,” answered Benton.
The Shultheises were nearing Corydon when John got another call on his cell phone—Tim was gone. Brenda broke down. She didn’t want to believe the news, until Everton called and told her the story. They had tried reviving McLain for 15 minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. Nothing. They kept trying, and waited, huddled together, the combined glow of their headlamps the only refuge in the pitch-black deep.
When the Shultheises pulled up, the field above the cave was flashing with lights from Department of Natural Resources vehicles and ambulances and squad cars. A telecommunication line was strung into the cave for conveying information back and forth with recovery workers inside. John and his son put on wetsuits, ready to go in after McLain. Brenda had promised McLain’s mother they would “bring back her son.” Now John intended to make good. But an onsite coordinator from the National Cave Rescue Commission held him back, out of concern that he was too emotional.
Eventually, word came over the telecom line that Heazlitt’s recovery team was about an hour from the entrance with McLain’s body, and the coordinator let father and son in to help complete the final leg of the journey. The two of them emerged with McLain, wrapped up and lying on a litter. They helped load him onto a four-wheel-drive gator, Brenda climbed on, and the four of them rode together, up the hill to the ambulance. Fifty or so cavers, some of them wet, muddy, and exhausted, stayed behind, bathed in the red glow of taillights, as the ambulance disappeared down the dirt road.
Nearly a year after Tim McLain’s death, his push buddy Rand Heazlitt returns to Binkley Cave on a mission. He drives past a fancy stone sign and pulls into a big, freshly paved parking lot. He grabs some gear from the back of his SUV and walks into a shiny new pavilion, passes the gift shop and ticket counter, continues through a movie theater, and ends up in a storage room with muddy helmets, boots, coveralls, and tools. He changes, sets off down a long, steep tunnel lined with corrugated steel, and opens a pair of glass doors. He steps onto a metal grate and descends a 120-foot staircase to the floor of Big Bone Mountain.
This is the entrance to a part of Binkley Cave now known as Indiana Caverns. McLain, Everton, Benton, and other ISS members came upon this vast room in 2012. In those days, it was a secret hidden way back in Binkley’s recesses, four hours from the nearest known entrance. They dug, crawled, and climbed to find it.
Big Bone Mountain was the kind of discovery cavers fantasize about—not just soaring and grand, but filled with buried treasure: animal artifacts, virtually undisturbed for tens of thousands of years, half-concealed in mud banks and piled up along the walls. Skeletons from bison and peccary, a deer-size species of boar now extinct in the Midwest. Distinct animal tracks and bear wallows. A priceless paleontological time capsule that could be one of the most significant caches of Pleistocene-era bones ever discovered in an American cave.
Over the years, Gary Roberson, a Vanderbilt grad and businessman, expanded his ISS caving hobby to developing private “show caves” for the public, including Marengo and Squire Boone Caverns, close to the banks of the Ohio south of Corydon. But Binkley was his first love, and he always dreamed of developing a show cave here as well. It just seemed too wet, muddy, cramped, and inaccessible—too wild—to ever be a realistic prospect. Then the ISS team found Big Bone Mountain.
Using special cave radios, Roberson, Heazlitt, and others determined the ceiling was only 25 feet below ground. Roberson scraped up money to acquire the land, open a new entrance, and build out the facilities. All told, he and his partners invested close to $1.5 million. Opened last year, Indiana Caverns is now a tourist attraction—the state’s first new show cave in four decades.
Heazlitt strides down a metal walkway and points to a spot along the wall where a recessed light illuminates an opening no wider than a manhole cover. Two-plus years ago, McLain’s mud-smeared helmet had poked out in this very space when he became the first person ever to crawl into Blowing Hole and emerge in Binkley Cave.
Heazlitt paddles a kayak to the end of a broad stretch of Indiana Caverns that was dammed to create a boat tour. He comes aground where the cave lights end, then switches on his headlamp and plods down the passage they used to call Blowing Hole Boulevard, before it became Sleeping Bear Boulevard for the tourists. He tiptoes along the edge of a canyon, drops down on all fours and scoots under a low ceiling, then flops onto his belly and crawls like a soldier past a curious little slab cavers call Chicken Rock. He stands up in a room where water drip-drip-drips into a clear pool. He lifts his head, and his lamp illuminates a cavity up in the ceiling. “Look at that hollow space,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes you go, ‘Wow, I wonder where that goes! Does that go someplace we can go?’”
Heazlitt locates a crevice at the base of a pile of breakdown boulders. Squeezes in. Snakes headfirst down a tunnel with a little stream trickling along its bottom: an ear-dipper going back a good 200 feet. In 2012, McLain, coming from the other direction, had pulled himself through and cleared rocks from the opening so Heazlitt and the others could follow. When they climbed out, they saw an orange survey flag planted in the mud. They had found a new connection and joined an additional mile to Binkley Cave, another of McLain’s celebrated feats. On a follow-up survey, a caver named Joy Baiz got turned around in an awkward position and found herself facedown with a mouthful of water. She panicked for a moment but managed to calm herself. They named the passage Joy’s Gulp.
Heazlitt scoops some water into a plastic bottle, which looks cloudy brown when he holds it up in the light. A potter, Heazlitt has been shaping ceramic pieces using Binkley clay. He plans to fill some of the vases with this water from Joy’s Gulp and give them to McLain’s close friends as mementos.
As he turns around to head back to Big Bone Mountain, his thoughts turn to the last time he saw McLain. After he received Nick Benton’s text about McLain’s accident, Heazlitt reached out to a couple of other nearby cavers and rushed to Blowing Hole. They were the first to arrive. Conservation officers had already spread out body bags at the mouth of the cave. Heazlitt and the recovery party gathered up the bags and headed in, trudging through the river and climbing a waterfall, until the dim lamps of the cavers waiting with McLain came into view. “People were just sitting there, and standing in water,” says Heazlitt. “They were up on some rocks and sitting on the sandbar. They had been in there too long. They were starting to suffer from exposure issues in those kind of conditions.” The ISS cavers who’d started the trip that day, and then remained with McLain after his accident, finally made the long slog back to the entrance. Heazlitt stayed behind. “Then we bagged up one of my best friends,” he says.
Heazlitt stops and leans on a rock. Somewhere in the invisible distance, water drips into water. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did, putting him in that bag,” he says.
They lifted McLain onto a skiff and slid it into the river. Wrapped in bags and floating, McLain looked like a mummy, Heazlitt thought. They led him down the passage that way. Heazlitt said it resembled a Viking funeral, with LED lamps and rubber floats instead of torches and a wooden boat. The veneration of a fallen weekend warrior.
Heazlitt had set off in search of McLain just after 9 p.m. By they time he returned, it was 4 o’clock in the morning. “We didn’t know how long it would take, but we were going to get him out of there,” he says. “I haven’t left anybody yet. Including Tim.”
The coroner concluded McLain suffered a massive coronary embolism and died almost instantly; reviving him would likely have been difficult even if the heart attack hadn’t struck deep within a cold, damp cave.
An autopsy revealed thickening in the walls of McLain’s heart, indicating that he had perhaps already suffered smaller heart attacks prior to the one he had in Blowing Hole. The news came as a surprise to many of the caving comrades who’d witnessed McLain’s recent exploits. But not to Walker, a registered nurse. “They thought he was such a healthy person, but he wasn’t,” she says. “And he knew he wasn’t.” He had high blood pressure and sometimes mentioned chest pains. He hadn’t visited a doctor since 1989. McLain’s mother, Barbara Akers, had a family history of coronary disease, and she herself battled a serious heart condition. McLain’s father died of a heart attack. “I even went to the point of getting a doctor’s name and number for him to call,” says Akers. “I wanted him to get a complete physical. And he kept putting it off, and putting it off. We couldn’t get him to do it.”
Brenda Shultheis thinks fear kept McLain from seeking medical attention. “He was afraid that if they found something wrong, he would not be able to live his life fully,” she says. “He might not be able to do what he loved to do.”
Despite the fact the heart attack seems to have been unrelated to caving, it cast a brief shadow of doubt over the ISS and the Binkley project. “For awhile, I think a lot of people were like, ‘Wow, is this really what we need to be doing?’” says Heazlitt.
But the ISS regrouped. This past June, Heazlitt, along with five other cavers, pushed out 1,700 feet of fresh passage and discovered a new waterway. They returned in July, followed it several thousand feet farther, and named it the McLain River. When they reemerged some 17 hours later, they had surveyed a total of 7,700 feet of cave, stretching Binkley’s charted length to 40.65 miles—making it one of only nine caves longer than 40 miles in the United States. Soon thereafter, another survey trip pushed Binkley’s length past a 40.7-mile fissure left by a lava flow in Hawaii, moving the Indiana cave from ninth to eighth on the U.S. list.
“I think it was harder for those folks who were there when Tim went down to get closure,” says Heazlitt. “Finding all this new passage has helped to blow life back into the project, but also at the same time it’s blown life back into everybody’s spirits.”
In a quieter moment before those breakthroughs, John and Brenda Shultheis returned to Binkley to find some closure of their own. They walked back to the manhole-sized opening in Indiana Caverns where McLain had connected Binkley and Blowing Hole. The two crawled down into the opening, to a little pool that they knew drained into another chamber below and coursed over Flowstone Falls, one of the loveliest formations in a cave system not known for its beauty. Crying, Brenda opened a small canister and tried, ever so gently, to sprinkle some of McLain’s ashes into the water. In the humidity, the ashes wouldn’t come, so she tapped and then shook the canister. The ashes fell out in a clump, ploop, and splashed water in Brenda’s face. For a moment, she forgot her friend’s death and instead remembered his life. She laughed. That’s exactly what Tim would’ve done, she thought. “Brenda, you’re being WAY too serious about this.”
Then she watched as a small whirlpool drew the swirling ashes away, out of sight and into the darkness.