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Under the Mountains: An Idiot's Guide to Caving

How to pack up, do everything wrong, and love caves in 5 easy steps.

By: Dan Bernstein + Save to a List

Step Zero: Introduction

Photo: Brian Fulda

“Caves are the world’s most remote and fragile wildernesses.” –NSS Guide

When I worked as a river raft guide, my immediate boss, George, often reminded my coworkers and me not to take the surrounding area for granted because we worked in one of the most beautiful places on earth. He often referenced a mysterious unnamed study that proved people love landscapes which combine mountains, plants, and bodies of water.  It seemed like a reasonable idea, but I doubted the government actually spent thousands of dollars to prove the obvious.  

In 1976, the USDA Forest Service published a paper based on a scale they created called the Scenic Beauty Estimation (SBE).  The SBE was an attempt to quantify landscape aesthetics.  Later, the Bureau of Land Management engaged in a similar study for what they call Visual Resource Management (VRM).  The two studies generated a wealth of data, but essentially, the government poured thousands of man-hours and taxpayer dollars into proving that people like flowers, clean water, and big mountains, into proving that beauty is visual. 

The cramped, dank world of caves exists in stark contrast to the humbling enormity associated with mountains.  Nothing is beautiful in a cave.  When surveyed about beauty ideals, only serial killers and naked mole rats mention caves. (Bats declined to comment.)  Rather than regarding caves as beautiful, many associate them with evil.  In the competitive business of supervillain hideout construction, the popularity of caves comes second only to that of volcano lairs. And yet, for some, caves emit a peculiar, manifestly non-villainous draw. 

Caves are negative space. The seemingly interminable black vacuum provides a blank slate on which the imagination can project its wildest ideas.  Imaginations left to wander can yield frightening conceptions.  While nobody is afraid of darkness itself, many people fear the unknown whether or not the darkness triggers their thoughts about it.  Caves provide a controlled iteration of the unknown.  They allow people to walk into the fear on their own terms, to literally illuminate it. 

Alternatively, caves may appeal to people because of feelings of placelessness or a sense that there is nowhere left unexplored—at least not for the average person.  In Unruly Places, Alstair Bonnett argues that people have an “appetite to find places off the map that are somehow secret, or at least have the power to surprise us.”  Caves feel secret and mysterious.  Perhaps they are among the last examples of true wilderness, of unsurveilled land. 

For me, the draw stemmed in part from a desire to take advantage of the local topography. My co-worker Andy, who was practically a wilderness encyclopedia, would constantly tell me of interesting things the Appalachians have to offer. Synchronized lightning bugs, survivalist camping, and ginseng hunting were all potential trips never planned. When he told me about how the area’s geological history had created an incredible density of caves, I ruminated on the idea but did not act for some time.  After the rafting season ended, however, with the river’s excitement absent from my life, I felt obliged to try something out of the ordinary.

Though I was wary of caves and cramped spaces and fear itself, caverns fascinated me.  In order to discover more about caves and their appeal, I resolved to explore one.  Before I went, however, it was necessary to persuade another to join me. Though it would probably be a tough sell, I began by attempting to convince my roommate, Griffin.

Photo: Jeremy Meek

“Hey Griffin want to explore a cave?”

“Sure, you ever been?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. Know where one is?”

“Can’t be that hard to find one.” I concealed the excitement in my voice.  My rhetoric had bested him.

It feels a bit disingenuous to say that I have never been caving as that may lead others to believe I have never been in a cave.  When I was in middle school, my dad, brother, and I went to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  There we took a guided walking tour of a small section of the caverns.  The median age of the tour weighed so heavily towards the geriatric my father joked we may have signed up to see crypts rather than caverns.  Thrice before entering, the guide warned the group that the walking tour featured dozens of steps and in excess of a half mile of walking.  I have been in a cave, but I have never been caving. 

Step 1: Safety, Safety, Safety

 “Christopher Columbus was a great explorer, but he didn't set off for the New World with only a canoe and a peanut butter sandwich!” –NPS “Cave Safety Tips”

I am in my apartment comparing my inventory against suggestions found in the cave literature I’ve been reading.  Three sources of light? Headlamp, solar lantern, bicycle light. Warm clothing? Already sweating. A group of four? Two short.  Helmet? Next time.  Definitely next time.  Inform another person where you are going and how long you expect to be gone in case you get lost.  I send my girlfriend a text with a dropped pin.

"Griff and I are going caving. If I'm not out in four hours, send help."

"Haha will do."

I have a sneaking suspicion that she is not treating this as gravely as I am.

Though Emerson once argued that “fear always springs from ignorance,” the more instructional caving literature enlightens my ignorance, the more frightening the prospective adventure seems.  My girlfriend may not realize that caves afford spelunkers the unique opportunity to die of drowning, hypothermia, exposure, and blunt force trauma in one convenient location, but the fact echoes in the back of my mind.

Because of the variety of dangers, cavers must regard safety as a top priority.   Safety is always first.  As ever, preparedness minimizes risks and maximizes safety.  While I am not totally prepared, I believe that I can minimize other risks by following a friend’s advice: “Break one law at a time.”  He has almost never been to prison so I regard it as fairly good advice. Though I may break the total preparedness law, I will not do anything incredibly stupid in the cave. This should place me squarely within the safety zone of the risk spectrum. 

On the edge of feeling prepared to enter a cave, I learn that cavers must remain cognizant of the fact that every caving expedition features two distinct caves.  The first cave is from the mouth inward, the second from the caver’s final point to the mouth.  Cavers who are not careful may find that the path has forked behind them as they delved into the cave.  If no mental note was made or physical marker left, the party will find themselves very lost.  Because of this, cavers must keep their heads on a swivel.  Failure to recognize forks and mark a path can easily lead to a loss of direction.  While many forks terminate quickly some may go on for miles as they drain power from precious, limited light sources.

Step 2: Don’t Go

“The skin of the world hides many caves.” –Michael Ray Taylor

35°59'22.1"N 83°59'49.5"W

Blocks of quarried stone lay jumbled behind a church in North Knoxville.  Karst formations peek out from the tree covered hill beyond the jumble. Griffin and I have been here for forty-five minutes cracking through light brush looking, to no avail, for a cave. While stomping through rupestrine plants, we realize that it may have been a bit absurd to geocache a cave based on dubious coordinates from an internet message board; we abandon our search.

The difficulty we experience is not entirely our fault.  Caves are often difficult to find, and many seek to maintain this level of secrecy. Caving clubs, called grottos, and speleologists (cave scientists) diligently guard cave locations.  The secrecy is meant to protect caves from those who will not treat them properly.  Vandals seeking to practice rattle can art on the walls are problematic in many caves.  Cave paintings are the earliest known form of art, preserved for thousands of years because of the stable conditions.  Some regard them among the best artwork in human history.  T.S. Eliot, for instance, drew great inspiration from the famous paintings in Dordogne. They may have inspired him to write his essay on the dissociation of sensibility and to believe that art was better in times past.  These new cave painters, however, are not as well received. Spray paint fumes harm animals, and oftentimes the relationships the graffiti represents do not last as long as hearts containing the words “Tom and Jessica 4ever” may imply.  

Perhaps equally problematic are the well-intentioned but ill-informed spelunkers who may spoil caves by harming cave formations, disturbing wildlife, or dying in them (selfish).  White nose syndrome has recently been identified as a major threat to bat populations across the United States.  It is an extremely deadly disease which spreads through inter-bat contact or, more recently, by spelunkers who visit multiple caves without properly disinfecting their gear.  People wish to imagine caves as truly natural places untouched by man, but is difficult for people to imagine that they are the first ones ever to see a part of the earth when those before them have already damaged it.

The decision to protect locations also contains an element of selfishness.  Seeing another group in a cave can shatter the illusion of solitude or frighten both parties.  Assuming people discover the location of a cave, many speleologists would argue against their entering it.

The first section of the National Speleological Society’s A Guide to Responsible Caving suggests that readers not go caving or at least that they reflect seriously on their rationale for going. The first section of the guide, “Tolerating Misery,” informs potential cavers that caves are cold, muddy, and uncomfortable.  The NSS seeks to dissuade spelunkers with rose colored lenses to rush into caving irresponsibly.  Caving is not a romantic romp on a rocky trail.  Caving is also not an activity for those looking only for a neat Instagram.  Few appreciate poorly lit photos of rocks.  Rather, cavers must explore with a humble attitude, a reverence for the unforgiving earth. 

Photo: Edward Day

Step 3: Learn Terminology

“Cavers rescue spelunkers” –Anonymous

Griffin has all the clothes you might expect of one who enjoys exploring the outdoors: hiking pants, Gore-Tex boots, dry-fit shirt, technical pack.  Despite all these items, he looks confused, like a man who woke up in another man’s body. It’s not that he’s inauthentic or a fraud.  It’s more that nobody goes into such a harsh environment with gear that looks so fresh.  He looks like what I’m trying to deny being: we’re a couple of damn spelunkers.

Many activities bestow special names upon those who are new and ignorant of the intricacies involved in the pursuit. These apparent ignoramuses are the greenhorns, the nascent, the newbies, the casuals, the Freds.  They are known for their bumbling actions and foolhardy natures. In the world of caving, they are spelunkers.  

It wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to associate the term spelunker with unsafe and uninformed cave explorers.  While spelunker carries a negative connotation among serious cavers, spelunking still sounds like fun to the average adventurer.

Though cavers are dissuaded from using a technical term to describe their pursuit, they encourage the use of specialized names to identify animals and features found inside a cave. Animals that live their entire lives within caves are called troglobites.  The berry cave salamander is a troglobite indigenous to Knoxville. The caves at the Ijams nature center host some of the only known examples of the species.  Part time cave dwellers are called trogloxenes.  Famous examples include bats, bears, and Batman.

As far rock formations are concerned, most people only care about three. Stalactites and stalagmites form from CaCO3 deposits.  Stalactites look like hanging icicles while stalagmites look like gravity defying icicles.  For those who enjoy pulling out cave facts at cocktail parties, it is helpful to remember that stalactites are on the ceiling while stalagmites are found on the ground.  Both classify as speleothems or formations created by mineral deposits.   The bulk of my experience with speleothems is from freshman year.  On move in day I discovered stalactites dripping in the dorm shower.  

The third formation people care about is the shaft.  Most can readily identify shafts by their resemblance to big, vertical holes in the ground  This is because shafts are big, vertical holes in the ground.  Cavers refer to caves with shaft entrances as pit caves or vertical caves.  Those unfamiliar with vertical caving will find shafts especially hazardous and should likely refer back to step two if they wish to explore them. 

Step 4: Go Caving

“Do you really want to go caving?” –NSS Guide

While we had no luck finding the first cave, Griffin and I called a friend who informed us of a nearby cave with a more easily discoverable location.  Shortly thereafter, we drove to the new location and began hiking to it.  As we neared our destination, a log tumbled down from the ridge above us and tore across the trail mere feet in front of us.  I am not typically superstitious, this struck me as a bad omen.

The cave’s mouth looms simultaneously inviting and rebuffing. From here, only the first fifteen feet of the limestone maze are visible.  After this point, the walls narrow, twist, and hide in the dark.  Griffin and I stare in from the edge looking and feeling more confused than we had during our fruitless search for the first cave. 


“Guess so.” He clicks his headlamp on. I follow suit.

We enter single file and are immediately forced to crouch.  Above us are a few fun sized stalactites.  I crouch lower so as to not bump against them.  Mud squelches under my shoes initially, but the ground is dusty only a little further into the cave. Around the first turn there is a long, narrow room shaped like a boat’s hull.  Graffiti covers the room’s walls.  It is a subterranean dive bar bathroom complete with smashed beer bottles.  The graffiti comes in a healthy variety of anarchist sentiments, jokes, and names. The beer is unidentifiable. 

We squeeze through the room and find a fork in the path. The left the path looks unnavigably narrow, but the right path appears viable.  The right path leads to another fork.  Again we choose right, but the passage quickly terminates so I backtrack and take the left passage. It leads to another room, larger than the first, with a high roof and steeply sloped walls.

As I look around, my headlamp etches though the thick obsidian.  Anything outside the beam is functionally invisible.  Then, the initial excitement begins to subside and fear creeps into its absence.  It occurs to me that Griffin did not follow me into this room.  I hope he didn’t get hurt.  If our lights failed, we would probably never make it out of here. What if we’re already stuck? What if there’s something hiding in this cave?

“Dan?” Griffin’s voice breaks the panicked silence.


“I hear voices?”

“Don’t screw with me.”

“I think other people are coming in.”

I turn around and meet up with Griffin in the first room, and we make our way towards the entrance. When we emerge from the cave, we find a group of hikers hanging out at the cave entrance.  They seem as surprised as we are.

After exchanging pleasantries, we re-enter the cave.  This second time, the cave is familiar, friendlier.  I feel that I can turn around and leave successfully whenever I wish.  The option to quit gives me the motivation to continue. 

We push into the second room, this time staying together.  In order to cross the room, one must duck under a boulder while balancing on a small rock so as to not fall into the hourglass shaped crevice below and get stuck.  As I weigh the risks and rewards associated with doing so, I find that Griffin is gliding effortlessly through the maneuver.  I am compelled to follow.

At the end of the room, there is a small tunnel.  We have to go totally prone to crawl through it. As we crawl through the meandering tunnel, I begin to doubt it goes anywhere at all.  The tunnel could continue like this for miles.  As I crawl, my hands hit the dirt and kick up clouds of dust.  My clammy palms, however, make micro-batches of mud.  Griffin stays back this time.  Despite these doubts and my previous fears, I feel compelled to continue.  The mystery draws me in, and I need to know what lies just beyond my torch’s throw.

“Griffin, come check this out.”

“Is there something cool?”

I have come to a third room. It is quite large and tall enough to allow for kneeling.  Griffin crawls in shortly after. Towards the center of the room, there is a large pit. A two by six beam lies across its diameter.  There are more, identical beams inside the pit about ten feet down. 

At this point, we do not feel comfortable continuing our journey.  There may be more to see at the bottom of the pit but the risk seems to greatly outweigh the potential reward.  This will be our final room today. Knowing that we will explore no further, it seems obligatory that we should turn off all our lights.  

Step 5: Experience Nothing

“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

We lean back against the stone walls and relax.  I stretch my legs out and find a comfortable position though the stone feels cold and rough through two shirts.  Griffin looks over.

“Ready?” He holds up three fingers.

“Three… two…” Click.

I am taken aback by the enormity of nothingness.  The darkness is stifling, but the nothingness feels infinite. The rock chamber is totally silent apart from the arrhythmic sounds of calming lungs exchanging air. The mind can comprehend many great ideas, but total nothingness defies logic.  My mind populates the emptiness with floaters and flashes of color before it finally adjusts.

We could have turned our lights off anywhere in the cave and gotten the same result.  There are no degrees of total darkness.  We began exploring the cave with only the idea of adventure in mind.  Though caves lack the catharsis of a mountain hike's summit finish, they provide an  autotelic experience.  With no end in mind, cavers can enjoy their current place, and whenever they wish, cavers can eliminate all light and distractions and experience Sublime darkness. 

In his treatise, On the Sublime, Longinus writes that the Sublime is marked by its ability to form grand conceptions. It evokes a mixture of awe and pleasure.  Elements of it are unimaginable or indescribable.  It is, in some ways, an idiomatic experience. 

Sitting in complete darkness and near silence brings me to the closest approximation of the sublime I have experienced.  The dearth of sensory feedback is frightening, but the experience is also awe inspiring and uniquely enjoyable.  The true feeling is indescribable, as though there is a substantive nothing.   Nothing is beautiful in a cave.

Cover photo: Edward Day

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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