SEEKING INNER SECRETS Cavers really dig getting down to earth as often as possible


What sort of person would drive all morning to the beautiful mountains of West Virginia only to crawl in a hole in the ground and not come out for 24 hours?

The answer: an experienced caver looking for a good time.

Cavers, those who spend their leisure time poking around in the mysterious other world that only bats, cave crickets and a few other subterranean critters call home insist they are having the -- time of their lives.

They thrive on the cold, dark and wet wonderland that has been a source of both fear and fascination to man since prehistoric time. Wearing hard hats with carbide lamps, heavy hiking boots and several layers of water-resistant clothing, and possessing a huge tolerance for mud, these modern-day explorers head below ground for a realistic look at what the rest of us might only envision through the fictionalized adventures of Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe.

"You get a really good feeling when you've done something that you thought you couldn't do," says Carol Tiderman, a local administrator for IBM who's been caving 25 years. "It looks like there's no way you could possibly climb that hill or . . . get through that tiny little squeeze. And you do it. And you get a rush."

Cavers -- or spelunkers, as they are often called by non-participants -- might work during the week as school teachers, businessmen or window washers, but on weekends they become equal parts rock climber, hiker and pioneer.

Across the United States there are an estimated 9,500 cavers who are official members of the National Speleological Society, which promotes the preservation of caves and caving. If folks from the local grottos, or chapters, are any indication, they are an unpretentious and hardy lot who think nothing of crawling a mile on their bellies, wading in knee-deep mud or neck-high water, squeezing through crevices only inches wide or dangling by a 1/2 -inch-thick rope over a deadly chasm in search of a new passageway.

After all, what sort of adventure would this be if there were no danger involved?

"It's sort of like the last frontier," says Norm Alt, a retired U.S. Immigration Service investigator and member of the Baltimore Grotto of the Speleological Society. "Everyone's dream is to find a piece of virgin cave."

Indeed, being the first to discover a cave or to walk along a passage that hasn't been walked before is what inspires many people to venture down into the unknown, never quite knowing what's around the next bend.

Others head underground for what they might see -- the "pretties," as cavers call them, that "decorate" the walls, ceiling and floors of a cave. They are sparkling limestone and gypsum formations that take thousands of years to develop from the dripping and evaporation of mineral water.

Still other cavers explore as an extension of their life's work -- geology or cartography -- or of their other avocations -- photography, rock climbing, diving.

Mr. Alt, who is 65 and lives in Bowie, has been climbing around in caves since he was an 8-year-old in Missouri, which just happens to be called "the cave state" for its thousands of caves. His favorite haunt today is Greenbrier County, W.Va., where he likes to spend weekends exploring a 45-mile-long system of interconnected caves with several entrances.

Craig Hindman, of Fulton, and Ms. Tiderman were among the first half-dozen cavers to explore Scott Hollow, a limestone cave discovered in Monroe County, W.Va. The Baltimore Grotto members estimate they have spent at least one weekend a month surveying the cave since it was discovered in 1984 on the property of a fellow grotto member. Since then, cavers have measured and recorded more than 19 1/2 miles of passages and have pushed to within 1,300 feet of another cave in a neighboring county.

At one point in the exploration, professional divers were called in to forge through "sumps," lakes too deep or close to the ceiling to traverse on foot, which were the only route to more passageways. So far, says Mr. Hindman, in surveying the various passages, they have found the lowest point of the cave at 564 feet below the surface and the highest point at 52 feet above the entrance.

"There are tens of thousands of caves in the United States, and new ones are being discovered all the time," says Jay Jorden, a Texas caver and public relations chairman for the speleological society. While some, like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Lechugilla Cave in New Mexico, are in national parks, the great majority of caves are on private property.

In this part of the country, most caves are "solution" caves, which means they're formed by the action of ground water slowly dissolving rock such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum to form tunnels, irregular passages and even large caverns.

Mr. Hindman believes no one else had ever been in Scott Hollow Cave "because there's only one entrance to it, and we dug it open." Ms. Tiderman described the experience of the first explorers in the cave: inching down a hole about 30 inches wide for 26 feet until it "finally opened up into a room that was probably 100 feet across and 50 feet high."

"Less than 50 feet into the cave, we found a young specimen of a mastodon," adds Mr. Hindman. The bone was analyzed by Smithsonian Institution paleontologists and found to be the upper jawbone of a juvenile mastodon, at least 10,000 years old.

Such exciting discoveries are rare, but they are all part of caving. Indeed, cave history is full of stories of desert dwellers leaving prehistoric art on stone walls, of ancient pot chards and handmade beads found in caves of the Southwest.

In the Southeast, it's widely known that bat guano was collected from caves to produce saltpeter which in turn was used for ammunition during the Civil War. And around the turn of the century in Kentucky, asthmatic and respiratory patients were routinely taken to the stone buildings inside Mammoth Cave. It was believed the cool, damp air would speed their recovery, says the Mr. Jorden.

But Mammoth Cave, and even Scott Hollow, are unusually large caves. The great majority of caves, particularly in Maryland, are less than a mile in total length, says Mr. Jorden. A good number of Maryland's 175 caves are simply cliff shelters.

Ms. Tiderman says, "The running joke in Maryland is, if you can get into those caves and your feet don't hang out, you're caving."

"To get into caves that are over 1,500 feet long, you have to go out to Washington County," says Mr. Hindman. "Fifteen hundred feet doesn't sound like a long ways, but if it's all on your stomach, in contortions, it can take you a long time to get there."

Most of the 125 members of the Baltimore Grotto cave in Virginia, West Virginia and even Kentucky on a long weekend. While many, like Ms. Tiderman, usually spend a day at a time in a cave, some hardy souls can last 24 hours or more underground. In some cases of surveying long caves, people will set up camp and stay underground three or four days.

Besides wearing quick-drying clothing, coveralls to handle the mud, and sturdy shoes, cavers carry a pack with food and water, backup sources of light, including candles, and ropes, if they'll be doing any vertical work. Their hard hat with carbide or electric lamp may be their closest friend.

The temperature in a cave is constant, based on the average annual temperature above ground in that area. Around here, it's about 54 degrees -- and damp. Fictional tales notwithstanding, there are few life forms deep in a cave. Most salamanders, spiders, cave crickets and crayfish stay close to the cave's entrance, since that's where their food source can be found. Even bats, which use echolocation to find their way out of a cave to eat, don't venture too far into a deep cave.

But many caves are well-decorated with stalactites, which hang from the ceiling, stalagmites, which rise from the floor, and other calcite formations with such names as flowstone, cave corals, rimstone dams and draperies. These dripstone features created by water trickling into the cave range in color from white to orange to almost crystalline and can be found in large and small caves.

Britt Griswold, a Severna Park caver and member of the Annapolis Grotto, describes a cave's interior as a picture of the past. A Jules Verne fan since adolescence, Mr. Griswold has been caving 18 years and has adopted photography as a special interest.

"There's a beauty . . . to see what water and time have done," he says. "In some cases it's something of a time tunnel. You see glimpses of the past."

Grotto information

The Baltimore Grotto is one of about 150 chapters of the National Speleological Society across the United States. Most of these local groups sponsor trips, offer training, teach and practice cave conservation and provide a network for enjoying and studying caves.

The Baltimore Grotto has about 125 members and meets the first Wednesday of the month at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in Catonsville. For more information, call Carol Tiderman at 792-0742.

There are also grottos in Annapolis, (301) 974-4224; Frederick, (301) 694-7529; and Washington, (703) 765-0669, all of which hold monthly meetings.

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