Eye on KELOLAND: Reliving Wind Cave rescue 30 years later


In 1989, then 18-year-old Rachel Cox, found herself lost in Wind Cave for 36 hours.

It generated the largest search and rescue effort in the parks history.

Now, 30 years later, she’s sharing that experience.

No one really knows what it feels like to be surrounded by complete darkness and enclosed walls until you are in that position.

Rachel Cox knows the feeling all to well.

“It was scary of course, it was dark obviously, it was like a sensory deprivation, no sound except for the sound of my own heartbeat and the noises that I made and absolutely no vision at all,” Rachel Cox, cave explorer, said.

Rachel Cox was caving with her National Outdoor Leadership group until she got into an argument with her partner and ventured off on her own.

“For a little bit I was just mad and then began to get a little panicky, thinking safety is just right back there. I had just gone through a hole for a minute and our other partners are just right up there,” Cox said.

However, that wasn’t the case. As Cox tried to return to her partners, she became even more lost, with no light..

“I had taken off my knee pads and my elbow pads because I knew that the ground was going to take out a lot of my heat.. We spent two weeks studying about the cave, and I laid on those and I tried to just keep myself calm,” Cox said.

Her mind also began playing tricks on her.

“One of the things is a child rhyme that kept going around in my mind. ‘Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear, fuzzy wuzzy had no hair and I couldn’t stand that, I wanted that over,” Cox said.

She was fighting delusion with reality, and with her own self.

“I remember very vividly just being like I am being so stupid, I’m so stupid that I have killed myself by being stupid, by that initial movement. I should’ve waited longer, I should’ve been more patient. But I just turned 18 but you know children, I mean you’re really an adult but children that are 17 and 13 are not very patient,” Cox said.

While she was battling her own thoughts, four rescue teams were searching for her. David Springhetti, a long time cave explorer, was on one of those teams.

“So we made a four leaf clover pattern if you will to go and search for Rachel and so you’d go about 10 or 15 feet, stop yell, call out her name a few times and then stop and listen for a response and then do that over and over agian,” Springhetti said.

“I heard little rocks trickling down and made a lot of noise and then I didn’t hear anything after a little bit and then I was going back and forth in my mind. Did I really hear rocks,” Cox said.

Every time she heard rocks trickle, she would make as much noise as she could.

“When we found her everyone was elated, it was just a relief, makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, right,” Springhetti said.

“There was a light coming down in the fissure, I sat up in the area that I was at and it came down, a big shining light and a beard and that was all I could see and he was like ‘Rachel? are you ready to go up now?’ and I said ‘Are you God?'” Cox said.

Since that event, Cox has had many mixed emotions about telling her story. Now, she has a positive outlook.

“A lot of lessons learned and I’m very thankful and I’m very grateful and more than anything… I get really emotional when I’m here, this is my third time being back here since I was lost… I love this cave very very much and I’m very thankful for the national park service for protecting it and getting it out,” Cox said.

“Rachel is definitely not the first person to be lost in this cave. Being prepared and knowing what might happen has saved me many times,” Springhetti said.

A documentary on Rachel Cox’s experience in the cave is currently in the works.

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