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The Dark Fantastic

To explore the earth’s deepest, darkest secrets, consider traveling to earth’s deepest, darkest places. Discover the draw of caving, and decide if you, too, want to probe to new depths.

How far away is wilderness? How far must you travel to completely escape the sounds of the modern world, of airplanes and automobiles? How distant – how mythical – is a place so remote your cell phone won’t ring and your BlackBerry will go black?

The answer may be right under your feet.

The United States boasts more than 50,000 caves (you probably live within a few hours’ drive of one), including the world’s longest – Mammoth Cave in Kentucky – as well as some of the planet’s most spectacular, such as Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, which bristles with rare and delicate mineral formations.

Many caves trace the twisting trails of subterranean rivers, with thundering waterfalls tumbling into sunless seas. Others are dry and dusty, with labyrinthine passageways connecting silent amphitheaters. Some were carved by molten lava, leaving behind a maze of subway-sized tubes.

Most feature delicate rock formations called speleothems. In addition to stalactites and stalagmites, these include flowstone stairways, convoluted draperies and perfectly round “cave pearls.” And many are home to unique plant and animal life – some of which have only recently been discovered.

“People are attracted by the excitement of going someplace that not many others have visited,” says William Tozer, president of the 12,000-plus-member National Speleological Society (NSS). “Youth groups enjoy the physical activity of traveling through the cave, while many older cavers enjoy studying the formations and elaborate passageways.”

Get Muddy

Guided tours are an easy way to get your feet wet underground – in some cases, literally. A professional cave guide will supply you with the proper equipment, instruct you on how to cave safely and show you how to protect the fragile underground environment.

Most tours follow established trails in public caves. Be sure to ask about the cave’s level of remoteness before booking a tour. A “show cave” festooned with colored lights and piped-in sound could disappoint those seeking a pristine environment. Likewise, a rugged daylong tour that ends with a steep hike back to the surface could prove difficult for seniors or young children.

Ask questions about the guide, as well. In addition to having experience underground, the guide leading a wild-cave tour should be certified in wilderness first aid and trained in cave rescue techniques. The best guides often volunteer on local cave-rescue squads and are active members of recognized caving organizations, such as the NSS.

Caving clubs offer another way to get started. Often called “grottos,” clubs meet to socialize, learn and plan local outings. Most grottos welcome visitors and invite newcomers to tag along on appropriate trips. Be sure to ask the same pre-excursion questions of an amateur-trip leader that you would of a professional guide.

In addition to being a less expensive and more social way to begin caving, clubs offer something that commercial cave guides never will: Once they trust you, they’ll show you where the really good caves are.

Like fishermen, cavers tend to be quite secretive about the locations of their favorite holes. Safety is the main reason; no one wants to be responsible for a lost or injured novice. Conservation of the cave is another concern; cave life is extremely fragile, and speleothems that took a thousand years to form can be easily destroyed with the careless bump of a helmet. Landowner relations are also an issue; permission must be obtained before entering caves located on private property.

For these and other reasons, cave maps are rarely sold to the public – but they’re often shared freely among cavers. And, yes, North American hobbyists prefer to be called “cavers.” In the 1960s, the term “spelunker” came to refer to inexperienced cave explorers. The sentiment persists today. A popular bumper sticker boasts: “Cavers rescue spelunkers.”

Go Deeper

Once you’ve learned how to travel underground without endangering yourself or the cave, you might be surprised to discover how many different ways you can stay active below the earth’s surface.

Because there are thousands of unmapped caves in the United States (and around the world), serious cavers learn to survey underground terrain. Surveying is the process of exploring and charting new cave passageways and then using the information that has been gathered to make maps of the cave. Knowing how to survey underground is an essential skill for explorers, who must submit a verifiable survey to claim any new discovery, and for cave biologists, who study animal life in caves.

Subterranean biology is itself a burgeoning area of interest for cavers. Animals that spend their entire lives underground are called troglobites. Blind and without skin pigment, these organisms are uniquely adapted to their harsh, sunless environment. During the past three years alone, at least 27 new species of spiders, centipedes and scorpion-like invertebrates have been identified. These particular species were discovered not in some far-off jungle, but within two easily accessible national parks in central California: Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Cave photography is another specialty that attracts many cavers. By firing a single light source over and over again during a long exposure, many photographers literally paint the composition of the photograph with light.

Many former rock climbers take up “vertical caving,” which involves the use of rope and specialized gear to descend routes too steep to explore on foot. Likewise, some scuba divers take up cave diving, or underwater cave exploration, a highly dangerous specialty involving extensive training.

Each year, a handful of veteran cavers can join one of several expeditions seeking to discover the world’s deepest cave. While every mountain climber knows which peak is the world’s tallest, no one will know which cave is the deepest until explorers bottom them all. The current record holder is the 2,080-meter-deep Krubera – or “Crow’s Cave” – in the Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia.

Savor the Deep

While expeditions to Crow’s Cave are both expensive and arduous, North America still boasts thousands of not-yet-fully-explored cave systems. For many people, this unseen wilderness – and the chance “to boldly go where no one has gone before” – is an irresistible lure.

In a world where it often feels like there is no place left to “boldly go,” where the great mountains have been summited and the farthest corners of the earth’s surface have been explored, we have to look deeper to explore new terrain.

Many amateur cavers have savored that golden moment in their caving career when they become the first person to set their boots upon never-before-seen ground. It’s an experience that one simply cannot have anywhere else on Earth.

Monte Paulsen is a coauthor of Beyond the Deep: The Deadly Descent into the World's Most Treacherous Cave (Warner Books, 2002). He lives in Vancouver.

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