Saturday, October 24, 2009

Urban Stalactites














Spotted on the uptown-bound platform of the 4/5/6 last weekend. At first glance I took them for the usual peeling paint that can appear on the ceilings of the older subway tunnels (and given what paint used to be made of, isn't that an appealing thought?) but I soon recognized these miniature stalactites for what they are.

Natural stalactites are the result of dripping limestone elements that recombine in almost palindromic chemical reactions as they make contact with water and air, respectively. Stalactites can also form, however, on concrete, through a more rapid reaction fueled by the calcium oxide found in concrete. It's interesting how natural processes can inform a man-made structure -- we tend to focus on the reverse, but nature always has the last word.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Smugglers Build an Underground World"

Via "Smugglers Build an Underground World" NYT, Dec 2007:

Monica Almeida/The New York Times


TECATE, Calif., Dec. 6 — The tunnel opening cut into the floor of a shipping container here drops three levels, each accessible by ladders, first a metal one and then two others fashioned from wood pallets. The tunnel stretches 1,300 feet to the south, crossing the Mexican border some 50 feet below ground and proceeding to a sky-blue office building in sight of the steel-plated border fence.

Three or four feet wide and six feet high, the passageway is illuminated by compact fluorescent bulbs (wired to the Mexican side), supported by carefully placed wooden beams and kept dry by two pumps. The neatly squared walls, carved through solid rock, bear the signs of engineering skill and professional drilling tools.

...

Most of the tunnels are of the “gopher” variety, dug quickly and probably by small-time smugglers who may be engaged in moving either people or limited amounts of drugs across the border. But more than a dozen have been fairly elaborate affairs like this one, with lighting, drainage, ventilation, pulleys for moving loads and other features that point to big spending by drug cartels. Engineers have clearly been consulted in the construction of these detailed corridors.


While a 1300' tunnel isn't exactly an 'Underground World', the idea does have some possibilities to it. What would a more complicated underground complex dedicated to smuggling look like? Where would such a complex be located? What would its inhabitants be like?

1)Where are smuggling tunnels found? Smuggling takes place where some commodity or service is cheaper on one side of a border of some sort, and profit can be made by selling it on the pricier side of the border. Once it's across the border, further smuggling tunnels/complexes/methods may be used to continue the commodity's journey to the center of maximum profit for the smuggler.

Top places to find smuggling tunnels in the real world today are places like the US/Mexico border - there are people who want to cross, and there is also a commodity (drugs) which is easier/cheaper to produce on the Mexican side and smuggle across than it is to produce on the 'denied' US side of the border. Another place smuggling tunnels may be found today is on the Egypt/Gaza Strip border, where weapons and other denied goods that can be obtained in Egypt are smuggled into Gaza. These borders are not 100% hostile, but neither are they tension-free.

2)What is being transported? You name it. Drugs, money, people (with or without their consent), weapons, and other goods get smuggled through a variety of means. Perhaps in a fantasy setting, monsters that have been eradicated and outlawed in a peaceful kingdom are smuggled in for underground bloodsport arenas. Deep elves pay handsomely for surface elves captured and transported below as slaves. Salt is taxed heavily in one kingdom but plentiful next door, and the salt mines connect directly to passages that circumvent the border.

3)What features might a smuggler's complex have? Well, for starters, its about transportation, so there will be systems of pulleys, tracks, elevators, slides, and other means of conveying things from one part of the complex to another with relative ease. Even so, a smuggler must be able to stop things getting from one place to another too easily when law enforcement (or delvers!) show up, so any such transport system will be peppered with defenses, traps, diversions, false pathways, and portions which can be shut off by the complex's controllers. It will have hidden entrances at least on the denied side (but probably on both sides), and may have 'dead drops' for cargo so that suppliers or customers never actually come face to face with the smugglers.

If the complex is inside a borderland mountain, it might have lookout towers on both sides of the border, to warn of pending invasion on the denied side and of incoming shipments on the production side. It might also contain warehouses for storing goods, housing areas for the smugglers (or any living traffic). It might have communication systems of speaking tubes built in to allow various parts of the complex to coordinate moving goods or people. If the complex ever falls into disuse and becomes inhabited by other denizens, these features will still make it distinct from other subterranean complexes. The speaking tubes may instead be used for taunting other denizens, and controlling the chokepoints in the transportation system will always indicate who the real powerholders are.

Am I forgetting anything?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Storing $1,000,000 of treasure

Via Weather Sealed, here's a handy chart of how much space $1,000,000 worth of various goods takes up, the best subterranean hiding place, and the, er, risks associated with each.
Stuff That You Might Put In Your Hole
MaterialValue Per PoundSize Of $1,000,000Bury InProsCons
Wheat$0.09190,000
bushels
subterranean silonever hungrybulky, mildew, mice, locusts
Moonshine$0.13160,000
7gal stills
corked clay jugsmany lovely banjo solosblindness
Gasoline$0.49320,000
gallons
underground tankPeak Oil, baby!fumes, third degree burns
Ammo$2.10525,000
shells
surplus ammo cansgun owners need youyou need owners with matching gun
Vodka$7.801,800,000
shots
Russian-proof bear boxesthe Bloody Maryrequires V8 and Worcestershire
Jerky$1827 tonsduct-taped lawn bagsinfinite lifespaneverything stinks like jerky
Cigarettes$577 palletsbasement of abandoned 7-11captive marketnicotine stains
Guns$602,500
shotguns
water-tight firearm lockersreinforces Alpha Dog imageATF raids, terrorism indictment
Silver$2703,700 poundsrolling plastic totesWerewolves begone!not Gold
Caviar$2,4001,100 servingsArctic tundraendear yourself to power elitemust ice or eat within 3 hours
CPUs$6,0004,000
chips
sealed anti-static traylight weight, inert, brainyloses half of value every two years
Cocaine$9,00050 kiloslegs of faux llama keepsakesworld-wide demandunstable customers, Scarface
Gold$16,500275 bars, 100g eachtreasure chesttime-tested currencymetal detectors, confiscation
$100 Bills$45,00043? stackmason jarsbacked by U.S. Governmentworthless beyond Thunderdome
Diamonds$175,000black velvet pouchfullvault with lasers and trip wiresprofit, intrigue, girl’s best friendlow utility, De Beers assassins
Plutonium$2,000,0001.3 inch sphereargon-filled, lead-lined bunkerultra-compactCIA, critical mass, death by inhalation

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dungeon Design in 'Shadow Complex'


Via MTV Multiplayer, some discussion of how a drawn side-view map of the subterranean complex of a game was crucial to its development:

For [Donald] Mustard, the map was one of his proudest achievements. "We always considered the main character in 'Shadow Complex' to be the world itself. The idea that it's this massively unfolding, layered world, and the more you get the power-ups, the more the world opens up to you."

Clearly it wasn't as simple as just designing as they went. For a game like this it requires a huge amount of planning. Said Mustard, "Even before we started making the game at all, we designed the entire game on paper first. We knew where every power-up was going to be, where every secret was. And that planning phase took a long, long time."


Before you start building, it pays to spend a long time in the design phase. I also like that to the developers, the map is the protagonist. How true that is sometimes for those of us in the subterranean design and construction business. Sure, delvers and denizens come and they fight, but the map itself often sticks more strongly in my mind. More from Donald Mustard:

"We created these little grid blocks and lines. We did a lot of it by hand at first, but then we went and transcribed it all into [Adobe] Illustrator…you could literally see a side view of the map, it was all just gray, with lines and stuff. And we had a stick figure that represented the player, and we'd say, 'Ok, the player can jump this many units high.' And we had a little graph that showed how high you could jump and how long it would take to build up to a speed run and stuff like that. So we'd 'play through' the entire game with this little stick figure guy."


Say, that's not a bad idea - maybe we could take some of the maps of subterranean complexes we've designed and, before committing to building schedules and excavation subcontractors and all the other headaches of production, maybe we could, like, pretend to have imaginary delvers visit the dungeons, but do it all on paper! Oh man, this is going to save me so much trouble. But where am I going to find people willing to pretend to be imaginary dungeon delvers?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bats via Infravision

Remember how in early D&D some races had "infravision" which was essentially thermal predator vision? This is what the entrance to the bat-infested cave system looks like to an elf:


I always thought I wanted infravision, but now it seems a little, well, terrifying. (edit: Of course I still want it though. Don't be silly.)

Via Wired

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lithoautotrophic Cave Engineering

Via Boingboing:

Lechuguilla Cave is part of the Carlsbad Caverns Natural Park in New Mexico and is regarded as one of the most beautiful caves, with some of the most unique geography, in the entire world.

You can't visit.


Because of the delicacy of many of the formations, the cave is only open to scientists and the explorers who are still figuring out what all is down there. Nobody else is allowed in. Or, rather, nobody else but David Attenborough.


This video from the Planet Earth TV series takes you down into Lechuguilla for some amazing sights and fascinating commentary on the chemistry and biology that make this cave so strange and lovely. Even more impressive, nobody knew it was there until 1986.



Psst, Nova has a whole page on Lechiguilla, if you want to read more.



I love that sentiment expressed at the end, that there may yet be many more such subterranean wonders beneath our feet. I also would like to know more about "extremophile bacteria feeding on the very rock" - could their processes be sped up and controlled to create planned caves in a less-than-geologic timescale?

Probably not, but its fun to imagine voracious colonies of lithoautotrophic bacteria carving out new chambers, selectively killed by spraying bleach or some other deterrent or fostered by spreading the dust of their favorite mineral compounds in the direction the cave engineer hopes they'll grow. Imagine if such a colony could grow cave systems on the order of feet per day. Let's limit their behavior to keep from excessive cave-ins by imagining that they leave behind directional cave systems that gradually wind their way down into the earth, with occasional branches but not expansion in every direction. In other words: they create lairs.

Warning: I am not a chemist: What will the bacteria leave behind? Well, as limestone is primarily CaCO3, they'll be breaking it up and creating gorgeous, semi-organic-looking calcium deposits, and it'll be releasing carbon dioxide and oxygen into the air. Would lithophagic bacteria leave behind breathable cave systems? Let's imagine so. Let's also say they're of value to miners, because if you point them at a vein of rock with your favorite precious metal in it, they'll leave it lying around as they pass through it and you just sweep it up in their wake.


In an even more fantastic setting, you could have the equivalent of Gelatinous Cubes, but these 10' cubes eat inorganic matter instead of organic stuff. They excrete a solvent for rock, but only on one side of the cube at a time. Unfortunately they are impossible to control or predict, but their likely movements have carefully been modeled as a particular set of random dungeon-generating tables! All you have to do is add doors, denizens, and treasure! It's a bit over the line from where I like my fantasy, but if you're in a pinch to justify miles and miles of endless dungeon that no sentient being in his/her right mind would ever create (see how I carefully excluded us all there?), you might need rock-eating-cubes doing all your dungeonbuilding for you.

If you do have such things actively building in an underground setting when delvers, adventurers, or other denizens take up residence, it might be fun to track where they are and where the expansion is happening. Like the miners who sweep up gold dust in the wake of our lithoautotrophs, it might benefit a party to hang behind an excavator cube as it works, waiting to see if it connects them to an otherwise hard-to-reach part of the delve (while you roll dice on the 'excavator-cube-movement' [aka random dungeon] table to see what it does).

Or maybe you, a dungeon designer and builder, need to hire some delvers to go deep into the mazes created by such things in order to have them harvest autolithotrophs to bring to your nascent dungeon to get it started or help with that wing you've been meaning to expand. You'll have to pay them well, and I recommend not telling them the actual location of your underground construction lest they come and raid it later, but if you're looking to get your hands on these kinds of creatures, you don't really have many more options than to have those loathsome adventurers go on an underground retrieval mission for you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Central Grandeur

As I research for more exotic adventures (though never knowingly illegal ones, I have to promise -- otherwise, how could I publish them?) my day-to-day travels through New York bring me in contact with more and more underground features that we tend to take for granted. Grand Central Terminal (not "Station," much to my surprise) is an awfully interesting subset of the underground New York. It could almost qualify as an "underground city," were it not for the fact that its underground portions are predominantly for transportation purposes. The main room itself is below street level on the west side, and then the rest of the complex just keeps going on down. With the addition of the MTA's East Side Access project's tracks 140 feet below the surface of Park Avenue, the whole thing will have dimensions reminiscent of an iceberg.

There have been three different buildings, each of increasing size and complexity, on the same site where Grand Central Terminal now stands. As you can see from the cross-section above, even the plans from the early 20th century structure (the extant third iteration itself) demonstrate an impressive hive of subterranean rooms and passages. Though for a short while in the 60s there were plans to build the Terminal upward, all major additions have continued to burrow further down through New York's famous bedrock. The image below of one of the first excavations of the site alone is an exciting glimpse of dieselpunk possibilities, for those of you so inclined.
I was in the GCT last week to meet up with someone, and we spent much of our time in its truly subterranean "dining" concourse -- I must confess, rather by my own design. This concourse is approximately the same floor dimensions as the main one above it, but subdivided by support arches and other foundational structure into rough two areas: the inner hallway of seating, and the outer circumference of food shops and entrances to the tracks. What immediately struck me as I entered it last week was the problem of lighting; here was a space that would cling to its darkness at every opportunity. By and large, the designers overcame this by the sue of hundreds of regular ol' lightbulbs, at regular intervals.

There were plenty of other, more creative solutions to filling some of those pesky lower areas of murk, such as illuminated poles built into each food shop's structure -- a must-have for any underground market, I should think.

The main seating areas (divided in two by a central open, bar-like shop) are cleverly patterned after older-fashioned train cars, including luggage racks. Actually, the whole dining course has rather suffered from a "Disney-fication" along the lines of Times Square, though they have made sure to include some authentic touches to such cheery nostalgia. The inner seating areas also feature warm-feeling wooden cross beams that serve to make the place feel rather like a well-lit vault but also, more importantly, no doubt serve to cut down on the sheer acoustic assault echoing marble can create in such a bustling place.

There are wall sconces, too! Light, light, everywhere! Below is a shot from outside the seating vault, further accenting its vaultiness with arched, spear-tip-gated portals. I'm unsure as to why there is a grand portal, and that wee imitation beside it. Perhaps it's indicative of some aspect of the original support design for the upper concourse.
Gleam also takes care of some of the lighting, as the polished marble reflects a lot of that bulbed light. A glimpse down one of the many track entrances shows just how significant the color of those incandescent bulbs can be. As you can see, too, most of the tracks are in fact further underground from the dining concourse.

There are a good amount of secrets attached to the GTC, of course. One of the best known (and by extension, least covert) is a secret "platform 61" beneath the Waldorf-Astoria, nearly ten blocks north of the terminal building itself. A great write-up about this platform's history and purpose by Joseph Brennan can be found here. In addition, there are various abandoned and converted tracks, as well as some secreted rooms. Sub-basement M42, though it has been explored by a few television programs (including Cities of the Underworld) is in a location still kept secret. As it provides the traction current to the Terminal, its undermining would mean a whole lot of mess. During World War II, Hitler sent spies with the specific intent to find and disable this key component in troop transportation in the US.

As I headed for the 7 train to make my return to Queens, I was reminded of DC's expansive metro platform tunnels. Most of New York's platforms are very modest, function-over-form affairs, and quite small, but the 7 platform beneath the GCT dates from the same period and has a huge, arching ceiling. It is nothing to paint a portrait of, but I wonder at how it was lit before someone installed its current Brutalist fluorescent lighting scheme.

An incandescent set of headlights saves us all (even the dude in the red sport coat) from the lightsaber-like glare...

Vast, subterranean and semi-submerged spaces hold a certain unique appeal. Not all caves and caverns are cramped, or chaotic in their structure. Some are more like mansions, or cathedrals.

Another Tuff Town

Here are a few quick photos from Kandovan, a town in Northern Iran near Tabriz. Like Cappadoccia, it's carved into volcanic tuff rock, making excavation easy but lasting. (via IranProud forum)
































































Monday, October 5, 2009

Hidden in Plain Sight

Throughout New York's subway system there are nooks and crannies that go generally unnoticed by the crowds of commuters. The above is a nestled doorway directly off the track on the north end of the north-bound local R/W platform at 34th Street. On the other side of that same platform are a couple of old doors with new locks -- a sure sign of something old and important/dangerous. Part of the charm of the tunnels that make up the transportation system here is the fact that they are man-made, for largely utilitarian purposes, yet over such an extended period of time that some of its crenelations are actually lost. Others, like this door, are mysteries that simply get overlooked a-thousand-plus times a day.

Open your eyes. The underground is everywhere.

Silo, Sweet Silo

Nothing exciting to add here as to design, per se, but just had to post this: MissileBases.com.

Some Thoughts On Caves

I recently stumbled on a cache of diagrams detailing various Jamaican caves.

Here's Volcano Hole, which looks quite formidable:
The entrance is a vertical shaft that drops 100 meters. This sort of drop serves as a pretty simple barrier between the surface world and the subterranean one, and presents an interesting access challenge. Going down is easier than going up.

Here's Bottom pasture Cave 2:
This looks like a lair. You've got a capacious and obvious entrance, and a second, smaller entrance (exit?) that is easy to conceal. The rear of the cave is extremely confined, narrowing down to sub-one-meter dimensions and going on for a long way. Crawling around back there would make one very vulnerable, and it ends in water.

Here's the St. Clair cave:

This one is topographically interesting, but also illustrates two hazards worth mentioning (and incorporating in your imaginary cave systems) - animal-borne pathogens like histoplasmosis and dangerous gas mixes. The air down there might not be fresh. It might kill you, and if it doesn't, the bat funk eventually might.

One last example, the Vaughensfield cave:

The plan of this cave is very typical - it isn't a crenelated mess of twisting passages - it is a straight line gradually descending into the earth. The occasional vertical shaft pokes through into the forest above, providing some murky light (and perhaps a point of ambush or escape for small, limber creatures that live in the cave).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Urban Subterranea


When I first moved to New York I lived in Park Slope, which has come to be a rather desirable and expensive neighborhood. At the time it was well on its way up, but I was living with my girlfriend in a windowless, 10'x6' room in a basement apartment. Yes, the rumors are true: In New York you can rent and live in a closet. Actually, this was probably more along the lines of a converted pantry, as it had inner closets and such, each rather narrow and the opening of which meant you had just robbed yourself of at least 20% of your maneuverable space. We were subleasing, of course, and it was one of those subleases that reach back so far along a chain of people that the "property" probably fell under some 18th century law that qualified it as a commune, or coven. In New York, "underground" has many implications.

The F train is the one that most readily runs to Park Slope, and it is famous for being the last of the horse-drawn subway trains. (I once heard a very coherent monologue -- from an otherwise very messed-up and deranged homeless man -- on the F platform at Broadway-Lafayette about the history of the F train, by way of explaining or perhaps excusing the train's lateness that evening. It was coherent, that is, apart from being SHOUTED AT THE VERY TOP OF HIS LUNGS.) One day not long after moving into my pantry, I rode in the front car of the F on my way home, late at night, from a rehearsal or some such thing. On the older train cars, the only window at the front of the train is a small square one, at average eye level, fit into the front sliding door. Very often, this window is blacked out, presumably either to prevent ogling at the outside world or to trick people into thinking there's more train to walk through and laugh merrily at them as they break the rules by sliding yet another between-car door open and plunge to their grisly death. I place even odds. At any rate, this window wasn't blackened, and I slouched into the door and observed our forward progress.

Before too long I realized that I was looking at really very old structures. It seemed almost anachronistic, as I listened to my headphones and saw steel girders giving way to a wooden crossbeam here and there, and the concrete walls growing knottier with age and disintegration. The train lights carried detail after detail into view, and I realized that we were in the section of the train that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, under the East River. Under the East River. There's a school of thought that says we take our lives in our hands every day, that even getting out of bed, much less crossing a busy street is risking a chance of death. When I realized just how old the tunnel through which I was hurtling was, I was thrilled. For the first time it occurred to me that there are centuries-old hidden tunnels and chambers and disused passages laced throughout New York's famous bedrock and, odds are, no one person knows everything of what's down there.

I'm very pleased to be joining the enterprise here at Subterranean Design. It's a little like discovering an enthusiasm I had forgotten I have. From time to time I'll be contributing information about Manhattan's underground network -- probably a bit of research, but hopefully quite a bit of personal exploration. The modern world has hidden depths, and it should be great fun to sink to their levels.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Subterranean Mushroom Farming for Pros


Edible Geography has an excellent post on the Li-Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm in Australia, which can serve as a good start to investigating what a large underground food production operation looks like.

Logistics: Li-Sun grows at least eight varieties of edible mushroom, and several varieties of medicinal mushrooms as well.
The tunnel for which these mushrooms have been so carefully developed is 650 metres long and about 30 metres deep. Buried under solid rock and deprived of the New South Wales sunshine, the temperature holds at a steady 15º Celsius. The fluorescent lights flick on at 5:30 a.m. every day, switching off again exactly 12 hours later. The humidity level fluctuates seasonally, and would reach an unacceptable aridity in the winter if Dr. Arrold didn’t wet the floors and run a fogger during the coldest months.


Based on the pictures of the racks they're using, it looks like you can fit ~84 mushroom logs per 5' square area devoted to growing, including room for walkways. It says logs are "made by mixing steamed bran or wheat, sawdust from thirty-year-old eucalyptus, and lime in a concrete mixer, packing it into plastic cylinders, and inoculating them with spawn", but for the sake of argument lets just say you'll be using some decaying vegetation from your nearby forest, used straw from your farmworkers' bedding, bat guano you collect from the pigeonholes your local bats roost in, and plenty of night soil from your growers and the other denizens of your subterranean community. The article also mentions that (at least in the case of Shiitake mushrooms, which he says are the most troublesome to grow) a log is crops after a week of exposure in the light, then goes dormant for about 3 weeks, then is productive again for 3-4 weeks. Let's imagine that every log produces half a pound of mushrooms over a productive week (I made that up, but its maybe believable). Thus, a single log of shiitake produces about 2 lbs of mushrooms over a 2-month-or-so span of time if my productivity guess is somewhere close to reality. Meaning a 5' square growing area produces around 20 lbs a week on average if it can be kept productive.

Of course, that space calculation only applies to growing space, which must receive light somehow for part of the day and be kept at the proper humidity. You'll also need a fully dark place to keep your dormant logs, but as these can be packed without regard for growing space and the logs are dormant for only 3/8 of the growing weeks, you can probably get by with 1/10 as much dark space as growing space, if you put in some nice shelving to keep things organized.

Of course, you'll also need a master mushroom grower and some obedient workers who can harvest the mushrooms, keep the floor properly wet, and rotate growing logs to and from the dark as appropriate. If you're using a humanoid tribe as your crew, your shaman or medicine man may already possess the requisite growing knowledge or be willing to learn it (otherwise you'll have to bring in an outside specialist, which is definitely going to cost you more of the profits). While your males form your war-party and go raiding, hunting, and trading, your females and younglings can be kept reasonably occupied tending the farm.

Economics: Not only are mushrooms a good food source, but some varieties have noteworthy medicinal, hallucinogenic, poisonous, or (depending on your locale) magical effects. You'll want to balance your growing operation to provide as much cheap food as possible for your growing crews and their families, while maximizing the trading possibilities for your surplus crop. Probably this means growing quite a few more edible mushrooms, but special mushrooms can bring a much higher premium for particular clients willing to pay for them. Here's a list of possible client preferences:
  • Demonic cults will often be interested in hallucinogenic mushrooms for their ceremonies

  • Assassins may be willing to pay a premium for particularly potent poisonous mushrooms, but you'll have to balance that against the dangers of growing them

  • Wizards and witches often have need of particular mushrooms as spell components - at first these will probably be special orders but as you gain a sense of what varieties they require you can expand this part of your growing operation

  • If your growers can function in complete darkness, they can grow so-called 'shriekers', which emit a high-pitched noise when light falls upon them. These are useful both around the perimeters of your community (where intruders using light are likely to trigger them, and as trade items for other dark-dwelling denizens.

  • Check with your local sages or shamans to find out more about the local varieties available to you


Happy growing!

Dangers of 'The Game'


Gold mine, Uploaded to flickr by ˙Cаvin 〄 on 29 Dec 08



From The Seattle Times comes this cautionary tale of amateur delving gone wrong. Thanks to Steve Lawson for pointing this one out.

Setup:
The brain trust perched on the dry lake bed seemed able: about 60 bright, adventurous minds from Seattle's high-tech community. Microsoft VPs. Inventors. Start-up founders. Multimillionaires. Serious geeks.

Over the next 28 hours, the race to save Shelby Logan propelled these would-be rescuers across 275 miles, from the arid moonscape of the desert to the neon glare of the Las Vegas strip. They would scuba dive, rock climb, sing karaoke with a drag queen and fire automatic weapons. They would decode the Declaration of Independence inside a prison and befriend a white rat named Templeton, whose shivering little body carried a message.

If this sounds ripped from a Hollywood movie, it essentially was. The race to save Shelby Logan was conceived as a weekend fantasy to be played on the proportions of the big screen, by invitation only.

It was the latest in an annual run of what was simply called The Game. An adventure scavenger hunt. The ultimate test for the Renaissance man or woman. Or just a really good excuse to turn off your Blackberry, forget work, ignore spouses and have a hell-raising good time.


Gear:
Among them was Bob Lord, a then-37-year-old software engineer who'd worked for Microsoft before launching, then selling, his start-up Internet search company, XYZFind. This was his first Game, and when he kissed his wife and three kids goodbye in Palo Alto, Calif., he brought a wet suit, walkie-talkies, laptop, GPS device, extension cords, reference books on compact disc and clothes for any kind of weather.


Note the conspicuous lack of Torch, Rope, or Pole

The Leadup:
The adrenaline kept pumping: a 3-mile race through the pitch-black desert on ATVs; a gun club where a lucky geek on each team fired a 50-round clip from a machine gun; then a gay nightclub where an unlucky geek had to dress in drag and sing "It's Raining Men" on stage. Teams rode the Big Shot, a breathtaking 160-foot plunge from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, and sprinted down the Fremont Street Experience in old Vegas as clues flashed on a four-block-long screen overhead. At a tattoo parlor, a player on each team was supposed to volunteer for a piercing (extra bonus for a non-ear piercing!) or tattoo (The Game), but the tattoo artist took $50 bribes to hand over the clue.


The Delve:
THE MORNING sun was parching a desolate landscape of sagebrush and broken beer bottles when Bob Lord climbed out of the Team Plaid van on a dusty parking lot in the desert foothills southeast of Las Vegas. This was the 17th clue site, and Lord and other players had slept little in 28 hours, which may partly explain what happened next.

Lord and other players didn't know it, but this was the Argentena Mine complex, a warren of abandoned openings left over from a 1927 silver-mining operation. All Lord had were a set of GPS coordinates found at the previous site — a cemetery in the ghost town of Goodsprings — and instructions: Walk exactly 1,133 feet on a precise compass heading and find something called 1306. It was Lord's job to follow the directions. But, wanting to scout the route first, he veered off course to climb up a small hill, then used recalculated bearings he'd figured out using trigonometry on his handheld computer.

The clue also had an unusual message: "1306 is clearly marked. Enter ONLY 1306. Do NOT enter others." To Lord, this was just another clue, perhaps a head-fake from Game Control. Enter 1306? What could there be 1306 of in the desert, he wondered. Parking stalls? Telephone poles?

Lord led the way until his recalculated bearings pointed directly into an opening. He flashed back to the video dropped from the helicopter: This must be the right place, he thought.

The "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" spray-painted in fluorescent orange was no deterrent. Again, Lord flashed back to an earlier point in The Game: "NO!" had been part of a previous clue. Absorbed in his own musings, Lord missed one other salient clue: the number 1296 spray-painted in blue next to the opening.

Followed closely by other team members, Lord walked into the opening nearly 100 feet, until the only light was the LED screen on his GPS.

His team members heard him slip. Bob? they called. Bob?

Nothing.


Bob Lord didn't die, but his fall down a 30' mine shaft crippled him for life, led to lawsuits for The Game's organizers, and has had tragic effect on the rest of his family.

For delvers, the lessons are obvious. Don't go anywhere without the proper gear. Lighting is fundemental. Belaying with rope is also a good idea in unknown delves. Test the ground in front of you before moving onto it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers



















The Cave of the Seven Sleepers is a man-made ritual complex in Turkey, near Ephesus, where seven dudes (and a dog, if you prefer the version in the Koran) were entombed alive during the persecutions of Decius. They went to sleep and woke up 200 years later, which is a pretty cool story.

Click on the image for a larger version. I imagine a setup like this: Forbidden catacombs, sealed off by a cruel emperor ages ago. Intrepid explorers expect the restless dead, but when they crack the seal, they wake up a bunch of confused guys speaking an archaic version of the local language and marveling at tempered steel and bullseye lanterns.