Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 15, Number 3
Spring 1993


Caving club explores the dark underside of the Appalachians

by Su Clauson-Wicker

On a cold winter morning, Starnes Cave exudes a light, breath-like steam from its rocky mouth. After a quick rappel over some rocks and a slower slide/drop through Starnes' narrow, vertical windpipe, you're in the dark, moist environs that Virginia Tech Cave Club members call their second home. "A real piece-of-cake cave," says cave club treasurer Dave Warren '94, "a good trainee trip." The fortyish novice, who has emerged shaking after groping for holds on the mud-slick chute, doesn't agree. "Birth was easier," she says.

Inside the cave, the temperature is a constant 54 degrees. Everything within range of the carbide headlamps appears a muddy, butterscotch brown and has the texture of a ripe avocado. Hiking boots feel heavy, clumsy, and the mud is as slippery as it looks. "Airborne," yells a burly caver in army fatigues as the novice slips on a mud bank and plows into him. The best method of getting from here to there is often by the seat of one's pants, so all are soon wearing mud casts of their posteriors on their coveralls.

Another Virginia Tech expedition is surveying a virgin passage somewhere below. After pounding rocks together in several blind passages in an unsuccessful attempt to make contact ("Don't yell. If hibernating bats wake up, they could starve," he warns), Warren leads the group down a boulder-stewn passage. In the silence between footsteps, all you hear is water dripping, splashing, echoing through the cave.

Over the flowstone, water moves noiselessly, leaving deposits that become stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations. "They're still growing," Warren says. "Cavers sometimes take off their shoes and tiptoe barefoot over these formations so that nothing is disturbed." The passage widens into a room of cathedral proportions. Stone drapery formations ripple from the ceiling in perfect 50-foot folds.

"A booming passage," exclaims trainee Sarah, who after only four months has mastered the jargon peculiar to cave club, as well as the ability to slither through a chairback at post-caving parties. She's along to work toward the 40 underground hours she needs to become a full member.

Cavers are drawn underground for many reasons. Some like the exertion; some like conquering primeval fears of heights or dark or the unknown. Some, Warren says, like the exploration. "Imagine being the first person to see these formations," he says. "That's the biggest rush for me." Others cave for the camaraderie.

"For a lot of people, this group is family. This is basically the group they do everything with," says Bill Sydor, a Virginia Tech computer analyst who has caved for more than 20 years. Perhaps a third of those attending the club's weekly meetings are, like Sydor, older staff members, faculty, or alumni who are still actively involved in the club.

Former members from outside the area return again and again for outings and the "Speleo Seminar" parties afterward, as much a part of the group as they ever were. "Caving is a team sport," says Jackie Fields Hoell '75, a faculty member who started caving in 1972. "You develop strong ties with the people you cave with because you rely on each other for your personal safety. Caving requires bonding." More than 50 alumni returned for the club's annual anniversary banquet Feb. 13, a rare opportunity for cavers to see each other wearing something besides mud-covered grungies. The club is comprised of about 25 active student and staff members who vote on such issues as whether to host the 1995 National Speleological Society (NSS) conference. Meetings are attended by another 20-25 associate members, usually former Cave Club members, and 30-50 trainees or unaffiliated students.

One of the main purposes of the club is to promote cave safety. Members would rather escort new cavers than identify caves and their locations. Too many untrained, unequipped people venture into caves already; the results are sometimes tragic. And occasional inconsiderate actions by nonmembers--vandalism, trespassing, cattle gates left open--sometimes jeopardize the good relations with landowners that the club has worked so hard to build. Warren started coming to the cave club with a roommate. Frustrated with club rules and training requirements, the roommate began caving on his own. "He goes into the same well-known caves every few weeks," says Warren. "I stick with the club and go everywhere--Mexico, Georgia, Tennessee, and private caves he'll never know anything about."

The Blacksburg area is considered one of the richest caving territories in the country. "The surrounding counties are honeycombed with caves--probably a 100 good ones within an hour's drive," Hoell says. "Many cavers have to drive three or four hours for an expedition. Here all you have to do is jump on the town bus and walk a few blocks to a cave that will keep you busy for a couple of hours." To become a full member, the Virginia Tech Cave Club hopeful must accomplish a whole string of requirements, beginning with a minimum of six caving trips and 40 hours underground.

The trainee must also know what knots to use where, and how to tie them; how to climb rocks, use a belay (safety line), rappel and ascend a rope in a cave. Trainees are tested on their ability to assemble and light a carbide lamp blindfolded. Last is a nine-page written test, covering information from the chemical reaction of carbide and water to first aid for hypothermia. The training is important not only because it upholds the tradition that Tech cavers are the most proficient cavers anywhere but also because the club is counted on for area cave rescues.

Caving has changed significantly since the club's beginnings in the early 1940s when coeds caved in skirts and no one wore hardhats. Virginia Tech is one of the original grottos (chapters) of the NSS, the national caving organization, and the one with the most rigorous training program. It is also one of the most active grottos, offering six to seven trips a week--the number most grottos provide in a month.

"The club is here to do real caving," says Warren, "to get recruits out caving as much as possible so that they can pick up techniques and knowledge about safety that comes with experience." With Warren's help, everyone turns off the headlamps for a moment to experience the total stimulus deprivation of a cave. Minutes later, after more climbing and sliding, the thin light filtering from Starnes Cave's mouth seems rich, golden, and more blindingly brilliant than anything this earthbound life should so casually bestow.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 3 Spring 1993