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Into the Abyss


Cavers do practice. In fact, the Woodwards recently hosted a session at their home. A large bolt screwed into a stud in their living room ceiling provides the perfect anchor to attach a rope. On it, members of Philadelphia Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society (NSS), figure out the most comfortable climbing system.

“We never climb a rock,” says Landon Woodward, the newly elected chairman of the caving club, which is now in its 61st year. “We climb the rope.”

It’s called ascending; repelling is the term for coming down. And there are 20 different climbing systems. Preference—or style—is based on a person’s coordination and fitness level. Some systems are hybrids. Some are tailored to a body type. “Really, it’s whatever’s comfortable,” Woodward says.

Then there’s the “squeezebox.” Made of two sheets of reinforced plywood with a pulley that allows the top sheet to be lowered in ¼-inch increments, it’s a frequent feature at meetings and exhibitions. Grotto members compete to see just how narrow an opening each can fit through. Michael Belmonte, a 6-foot, 180-pound growing boy, has made it through a 7 ¾-inch opening. Landon Woodward’s wife, Leslie, and Media’s Amos Mincin share the club record. They’ve both squeezed through a 6 ¾-inch crack, though without gear. “When you do it, you often have to remove things,” Leslie says.

The Woodwards’ 9-year-old daughter, Marlis, has been caving since she was 5. Mom’s only entered a non-commercial cave once, for a half-hour in West Virginia. “It’s not going to happen again,” she says.

Claustrophobic, yes, but more than that, Leslie says, “It’s just something I don’t need. Let it be a father-daughter thing. I did it the one time mostly to prove that I could.”

After all, too many things can go wrong in a cave, says Philly Grotto’s John Belmonte, Michael’s father. There are plenty of don’ts: Don’t walk on water because puddles can be 50 feet deep; don’t pull on rocks and cause a mud slide; don’t bother the bats.

“And I let my kid do this?” Leslie says rhetorically. “But I trust her completely with these guys, because if something goes wrong, the only ones who will save her are these guys.”

Expertise abounds among Philly Grotto’s 50-some members. Leslie says 90 percent of them work in engineering-related or “engineer-esque” fields. Mincin, a 57-year-old structural engineer who designs highway bridges, qualifies. It takes a certain mindset to get in a cave.

“And engineers are all weird,” Leslie says. “I know. I’m married to one.”

COMPARING MEMBERS OF Philadelphia Grotto to miners is as incomprehensible as comparing an experienced caver to a spelunker. “Spelunkers are newer,” explains Amos Mincin, the club’s current vice chair and past chairman. “They’re the ones who aren’t totally prepared, who don’t wear a helmet or who aren’t carrying a flashlight.”

Ken Leipert, a Philly Grotto board member, is more blunt. “They’re the ones we rescue,” he says, mentioning training conferences and courses like the ones sponsored by the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC).

Cavers don’t delve as deep as miners, so the gases aren’t as dangerous. In general, caving is less invasive. Philly Grotto is super-conscientious about safety, education, conservation, ecology and protection laws—and just as protective when it comes to providing locations of any caves on or near the Main Line. Under the motto “Let’s Go Caving Softly,” the club follows National Speleological Society policy: “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time.”

It’s a dirty business for those who like crawling around and getting wet and muddy in caves. Most members are active in other outdoor activities like backpacking, whitewater rafting, hiking, sailing, rock climbing and mountaineering. All are fascinated by the wonders of the underground wilderness.

The Huntsville, Ala.-based NSS boasts 200 grottos with 12,000 total members. Philly Grotto meetings are usually held the first Thursday of the month. To assemble for a recent meeting at a pizza shop in Conshohocken, members had to negotiate their way up a cavernous back staircase, through a small banquet room and down another set of stairs to a cold, narrow meeting room—a chamber of sorts. It was a worthy training exercise in itself for cavers like Jerry DuBeck Jr., a PECO lineman who spends his days in the air and his weekends underground.

Last summer, the club—one of the nation’s oldest—hosted a Mid-Appalachian Regional competition in Dailey, W.Va., over Labor Day weekend to celebrate its 60th anniversary. Almost 300 people showed up. By contrast, most Philly Grotto meetings draw only a third of the club’s membership.

On a trip, a minimum of four cavers is required. If someone gets hurt, another stays with the injured person while the other two get help. Most excursions involve seven or eight members. “Over 10 is too many,” John Belmonte says.

Michael Belmonte is just 16, but he’s already been inside 35 caves. His mother didn’t want him involved until he turned 18. Now John plans his trips around his son’s schedule. “We started him at 13,” John says. “He listens a whole lot better than most adults do.”

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Michael says. “It’s cool, too, because no one else in my school goes caving. Most don’t even know what caving is.”

As a father, John favors caving for how well it teaches physical and emotional control. “You’re going to get the s–t scared out of you a lot, so you have to control your fear and strength,” he says. “Caving tests the limits of what you’re physically and mentally capable of.”

The meeting in Conshohocken begins with scheduling trips, everyone’s chief interest. King of Prussia’s John Vose, who works for Boeing, says he’s heading to Hawaii in January. He owns a property there with cave entrances. Steve Warnek, a plumber from Eagleville who runs an open trip every Sunday, says he’ll soon be walking along a ridge wall in Carbon County in search of “a small hole in the top of a mountain.” Old-timers near there tipped him off. “Now, that’s a good cave,” he says. “Wear some orange if you’re interested in coming. They’re hunting up there.”

“He’ll poke his head into any hole,” says Leipert of Warnek. “It’s called ridge walking, looking for new caves or leads on new ones.”

Other members are heading to West Virginia for several 10-hour-plus trips and also some easier adventures. They discuss splitting budget-motel rooms.

Two young newcomers, Steve Gold and Mitch Davis, are at their first meeting. “We found the club on the Web,” Gold says.

The two are asked about their experience and if they have equipment. If not, the club has loaner gear.

Then the meeting turns into a show-and-tell session. It features photos of recent outings projected from Mincin’s laptop, among them a scouting trip to Dead Dog Cave near Martinsburg, W.Va.

“Did you come out with the same number?” Landon Woodward asks Mincin.

“We didn’t lose anybody,” he responds.

Another expedition landed at Flower Pot Cave, a 22,000-foot adventure near Franklin, W.Va. Club treasurer Nathan Hirneisen led that one. To cave there, the grotto needed special permission, and had to sign in and out at a local general store. Highlights included a 40-foot drop, so cavers needed a rope to repel. Spaces were tight, as narrow as a few feet wide, so squeezebox practice helped. “At one point, we had to stand, crawl, then stand again,” Hirneisen says.

There was plenty of water, then a connection with the so-called Great White Formation. There was Busch Canyon (marked by an unopened can of Busch beer), a climb up a waterfall and then Rip Snort Canyon. “You rip your clothes getting through it’s so tight. Then you snort in disgust,” Hirneisen says.

To find the cave, a pastured donkey hee-hawed and tipped off the entrance. “We kept looking and looking, then we were going the wrong way. But the donkey showed us the way,” Hirneisen says.

“So any ass can find it?” Leslie Woodward poses.

Tony Canike, the club’s webmaster and safety chair, reports on Blarney Stone Cave in Virginia: “It had four drops,” he begins. “Bam, bam, bam … bam. I had to count.” There was a traverse (making your way across an open area—often a deep pit— using rope) across Ghost Hall, a huge white stalagmite, then Leprechaun Forest and a 50-foot belly crawl (the result of mineral formations). “It’s why it takes you so long to crawl—you’re looking at all the formations,” Canike says.

There are closer caves, but most in Pennsylvania are what Mincin calls “shelter caves you can do in 15 minutes.” Caves exist in New Hope, Carlisle and in Berks County, but Eastern Pennsylvania is filled with “little mud holes,” John Belmonte says. “Once you’ve been in those, you look for bigger ones (in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Montana).”

Or you begin thinking about a trip to Alaska, as he is.

One cave in Carlisle is only dry every six or seven years. Most caves are under water. Some are commercial, like Crystal Cave in Kutztown.

At the meeting, everyone grabs a length of rope. It’s knot-of-the-month time. Woodward—who, with his red hair and sideburns, looks like a less-buff Danny Bonaduce—has two lengths of cord. Canike first leads the members through a basic overhand knot as a warm-up. Then it’s on to a figure-8 stopper knot and its application as a belay. Tied correctly, it will never loosen. In a cave, with 100 feet of rope, it could be used as a harness around a big rock. “That’s enough for one night,” says Canike. “What do you want to learn next time?”

“There’s a book up here,” says Woodward. “Pick a knot and let Tony know.”

His announcement is greeted with a collective, “Not!”

A collection is taken for “cave bucks,” $1 donations for every cave each member has explored since the last meeting. At the end of the year, the money is given to one of four cave conservation groups.

AMOS MINCIN WAS a Boy Scout leader for a decade 20 years ago. When he saw other troops were caving, he began taking his scouts. He joined Philadelphia Grotto 10 years ago.

Mostly, he enjoys how the sport pushes its participants to do more than they think they’re capable of. As cavers gain experience, they learn how to best contort their bodies in safer, more efficient ways.

Unmarried, Mincin is a free spirit—and that helps. But he emphasizes that caving is a team sport. In line, on an expedition, an experience caver leads, while another sweeps. In larger groups, an experienced caver is positioned in the middle, too. “This helps keep things safe,” Mincin says. “Still, the perception is that it’s a dangerous sport. It is dangerous—if done improperly. It is possible to get injured. And if you’re not careful, you could end up dead.”

The only time Mincin was ever hurt came during vertical climbing practice. He broke four ribs. “I went 10 years before having a serious accident—and I wasn’t even in a cave,” he says.

New Jersey’s Ken Leipert once broke a wrist in a vertical practice. He fell 10 feet. “After the first time, I always ask whether a new caver was bit,” he says. “Did the cave bug bite you? Some are hooked instantly and love it. Some hate it.”

Regardless, there are never any pretenses—you can’t afford them. There’s complete trust between grotto members. Leipert explores the background of any new caver before going “a couple thousand feet underground” with that person. “You need to know who you can rely on,” he says. “I have your back and you have mine, but if you don’t have much of a background, then I have to watch your back.”

When the two newcomers began asking questions at the meeting, it made Leipert and the others suspicious. “They wanted me to tell them where all the good caves are,” Leipert says. “They wanted to know if I had cave maps and locations. Yeah, I have them—but I’m not telling you. I don’t want to appear selfish and stingy, but we’re tired of having our favorite caves closed.”

Many caves are privately owned, so there’s the need to keep landowners happy. Developers continue to buy up property and develop it. “We end up traveling farther to get to better caves,” Mincin says.

Cavers combat politics, or those who hide behind politics and limit access to caves—for example, closing them for bat hibernation when there isn’t much of a bat population. True cavers also battle people who abuse caves—those who hide there, drink there, vandalize and do irreparable damage. Wind Cave, along the Conestoga Trail in Lancaster County, is a good example. On PECO property near Millersville University, it’s been painted and trashed.

Some conservation money goes to gating caves, so access is limited or controlled by owners or local grottos. “The worst thing is irresponsible spelunkers,” Mincin says. “Then caves are closed to responsible cavers.”

More than anything, though, common sense goes the furthest in caving.

“When we talk to Scouts, we tell them, ‘Tell your mother that this mud will not come out in the wash,’” Leipert says. “If they’re using a book bag as a pack, they won’t be taking that book bag to school on Monday.”

To learn more about Philadelphia Grotto, visit phillygrotto.org.

Caving Basics
On its website, Philadelphia Grotto offers a crystal-clear disclaimer: “Caving is an inherently hazardous activity, with bruises and twisted ankles being common injuries. Broken bones, concussions, entrapment, disabling injuries and deaths have been known to occur during caving trips.”

Without question, caving can be physically and emotionally demanding and stressful. It’s important to be prepared, fit, properly equipped, sober and healthy. By definition, a cave is a natural opening in the ground extending beyond the zone of light, and large enough to permit the entry of a man. Occurring in a wide variety of rock types and caused by widely differing geological processes, caves range in size from single small rooms to interconnecting, multi-mile passages. The scientific study of caves is called speleology, a composite science based on geology, hydrology, biology and archaeology.

Caves are fragile, and it’s illegal to damage or remove formations or anything else. There are four types of caves, but the two most common are solution and tectonic. Solution caves are formed by slowly moving ground water that dissolves the rock to form tunnels, irregular passages and large caverns. Most caves in the world—and the largest ones—are solutional. “These are the show caves, the pretty ones,” Philly Grotto’s Amos Mincin says.

Tectonic caves are formed by fault movement or hillside cleaving due to erosion of the underlying rock. These tend to be small. Stalactites are formed as drops of water trickle through the cracks in the cave’s roof. As each drop hangs, it loses carbon dioxide and deposits a film of calcite. Successive drops add rings until a pendant cylinder forms to make tubular or “soda straw” stalactites; they can enlarge to cones when enough water accumulates.

Stalagmites grow upward from the floor of the cave generally as a result of water dripping from overhanging stalactites. A column forms when a stalactite and a stalagmite grow until they join. A curtain, or drapery, begins to form on an inclined ceiling when drops of water trickle along a slope. Gradually, a thin sheet of calcite grows downward from the ceiling and hangs in decorative folds.

To get started in caving, here’s a list of the equipment you’ll need:• UIAA- or CE-approved, mountaineering-style helmet with a three- or four-point suspension and a non-elastic chinstrap ($60-$80).
Three sources of bright light (carbide or electric), two of which must be helmet mounted; bring extra batteries ($30-$75).
Sturdy synthetic clothing coveralls ($10-$30) and synthetic underwear ($20-$40) to provide warmth when you get wet. Wet cotton makes you vulnerable to hypothermia.
Synthetic warm socks and snug-fitting hiking boots with good treads. Work boots from discount stores will do ($30-$50).
Work gloves. Leather is nice, but cloth gloves with a rubber grip are fine ($5).
Knee and elbow pads ($5-$20).
A small, sturdy backpack ($10).
At least 2 liters of water.
High-energy, non-crushable snacks like energy bars, granola or trail mix.
A plastic garbage bag for use as a heat tent in a cave emergency; it also can hold wet, dirty caving gear.
A change of dry clothes.
A small first-aid kit ($10) for inside the cave, and a large first-aid kit ($40) in your car or by the cave entrance for more serious incidents.
Also recommended: a cave map, compass, watch, whistle and camera.


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