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There Will Be Mud: Horizontal Cave Exploration

vanessa griffin stafford caving

When I was a kid, I was always on the lookout for places that seemed to be desperately in need of exploring. Although I had always thought the idea of exploring caves sounded intriguing, it had never occurred to me that there were regular people actually did it as a hobby. My curiosity was raised after I watched the film Sanctum while stranded in Ireland last year (that’s another story altogether). Despite the unfortunate, and graphic, events that took place in the film, it still seemed like a worthy endeavor. I started to research only to discover that there were many caving clubs, known as grottos, in the region.

I decided to try out a grotto located in Northern Virginia called the Battlefield Area Troglodyte Society, or BATS. BATS is comprised of a small group of enthusiastic people who share a passion for underground exploration. During my required grotto orientation, I discovered how seriously safety is taken during caving trips. The gear list is extensive and consists primarily of emergency gear. Prior to my orientation I had researched and watched multiple YouTube videos that showed people climbing muddy walls, negotiating tight squeezes, and even getting stuck between rocks. If something happens in the cave, and you haven’t followed the recommended safety precautions, the situation can become life-threatening very quickly.

I was invited to my first caving weekend a little over a month ago. Saturday’s adventure took place at the Grand Cavernsin Grottoes, Virginia. I was helping with an excavation project in a cave known as Fountain. Prior to beginning the manual labor portion of the day, one of the cavers from my grotto took me on a quick tour of the cave’s mazes. I loved it immediately. Crawling over water puddles…tight squeezes…underground boulders…it was amazing. To show me what “pitch black” really meant, he had us both turn off our headlamps and just sit. Complete silence. Complete darkness. I decided that I would purchase more backup batteries for my headlamp before my next caving trip. If you’re stuck underground and your light runs out, there is no way to navigate those mazes. Motivated from the experience, I proceeded to assist with the excavation project and wait for my trip to Glade Cave the following morning.

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Glade was different from Fountain in that it had a more complex series of mazes and there is wet, sticky mud. EVERYWHERE. About eight of us from BATS carefully lowered ourselves into the cave opening and began to explore as a group. There were muddy crawl spaces with a couple ropes and make-shift ladders to assist in getting from one level to the other. One caver suggested that I explore a small tunnel that veered to the right and out of sight. I took off my pack and began pushing it in front of me as I squeezed through the tight hole. Now, I am not claustrophobic, however when I made it far enough into the shrinking tunnel to realize that there would be no turnaround point, I did have a few seconds of panic. I began backing myself out of the hole until I was able to exit the tunnel and rejoined the group. Although I was not mentally ready to handle the situation at that point, I know that next time I will be more prepared to go further knowing that I might not be able to exit head first. Aside from this instance, I had no psychological barriers exploring the rest of the cave and had an absolute blast.

SIDE NOTE: While we were making our way back towards the entrance of the cave, we came across a high school field trip of students who were dangerously ill prepared for the trip. Many were wearing shorts and t-shirts; one boy had his arm in a cast. None of them had packs or supplies, with the exception of one source of light. There were only a couple chaperones who were unable to adequately monitor the locations of the students. This is very dangerous. In 2006, a girl scout got stuck in Glade 300-feet underground where the temperature was as low as 50 degrees. Luckily, she survived despite being found cold by rescue workers. In 2011, another woman had a seizure at 315 feet and fell 20 additional feet into 52 degree cold water. Her rescue took over an hour. And the lesson learned? BE SAFE! Going into a cave unprepared isn’t worth your life.

What to Take Caving (necessities):
Helmet
3 sources of light (primary headlamp plus two backup lights)
Spare batteries for all of your personal light sources
Snacks
Water
Pack or bag to carry your stuff
Large black trash bag (store in your helmet as an emergency heat tent, use after the trip to contain your muddy clothes)
Optional, but Recommended Items:
Gloves
Knee pads
A change of clothes for the drive home
Camera
If you’re up for the adventure, check out your nearest grotto!

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