Ever since I joined the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh (ECP), my friend Chuck had been after me to do some caving. I was interested, but there were only so many weekends, and so many activities to choose from. Well, back in April, I received an email from Chuck about a caving trip to Bear Cave coming up in May. I decided to make it happen this time. I signed up for the trip and before I knew it, I was riding toward Blairsville with two other ECP members, Denise and Paul.
We headed down on Friday night to visit a guy named Bill and take a sauna. Apparently, sauna is pretty popular in the caving community. I was told that everyone was stripping down; being blind, I was taking their word on that. So, if any photos show up of me naked with people in bathing suits around me laughing, I’ll know I got taken. Anyway, after a great sauna, a good night’s sleep, and a hearty breakfast the next morning, we were ready to go.
We met up with a person named Terry at breakfast and then joined up with Chuck and several other folks from the Loyalhanna Grotto, Butler Outdoor Club, and the Pittsburgh Grotto. Everyone was very cool and we had lots of laughs throughout the day.
The hike to the cave was not terribly long, but it was up hill all the way. We eventually dropped down over the crest of the hill and into a pleasant little clearing near the mouth of the cave. We all started changing out of our hiking clothes and into our caving clothes. Or that’s what I was told anyway. Again, if any compromising pictures show up of me standing in the woods in my underwear with hikers standing around pointing and laughing, you’ll understand. I changed into long underwear, nylon pants, two-too-many layers of poly on top, and a nylon jacket. Taking advice from Denise and Paul, I duct taped my pant legs to the tops of my hiking boots. This actually came in pretty handy later in the trip. I then strapped on my hard hat, and checked out my light source. Of course, there were lots of jokes about whether I needed a light source, or three of them or none at all. I certainly didn’t need the light for myself, but it was probably a good thing to have so that those helping me out could see me. Apparently, it gets pretty dark in caves and sighted people get all hung up about seeing where they are going and such.
After we were all ready, we slung our cave packs and headed toward the dark, forbidding opening in the rocks. We began a gentle descent through reasonably wide passages. The sound of a running stream was quite noticeable coming from our left and somewhere below. We ducked our heads low and zigzagged our way down through the entrance maze. It immediately became obvious to me just how different the environment is inside the cave. Sounds echo or flatten out much more dramatically than outside. The cave has a distinct smell, but it is not a strong smell, it is nearly an absence of any odor because it seems so uniform throughout the cave — no breezes to waft various scents around. The textures of the rock walls were very interesting to me, the ridges where different layers of rock had eroded at different rates and the coarse grains of some walls, as opposed to the smoothly polished walls in other areas. Some very neat, dramatic-looking fins were everywhere. And, the nearly constant palpable “feeling” of the rock all around me was something.
Here and there were tight pinches where it became necessary to remove our packs and slip through sideways, holding the packs in our hands and pulling them along with us. As I squeezed through a spot, my back against one wall and my chest against the opposite wall, it did cross my mind about how the fairer sex managed in spots like this. A brief conversation about compressibility ensued, but I won’t go into that here.
With Paul in front of me, and Denise behind me, they were doing a spectacular job of giving me information about what was coming up, when to duck my head, and great hand and foot hold positions. At some point, we crossed over a small crack and began the climb through Larimer Tunnel. At first, we were on hands and knees. Then, it became necessary to go to our bellies. This was the part I had been waiting for. I wasn’t completely sure how comfortable I would be in the narrow, tight spots. Sure, Larimer Tunnel isn’t the tightest tunnel in a cave, but it was my first time doing this.
I could hear a lot of giggling coming from up ahead. I don’t know if Charissa and Amy had nervous giggles, or if they were just having a great time, but it was quite amusing to hear the laughter echoing its way down the tunnel. It turned out that I didn’t have much of a problem in the confined space. To be honest, I found it easier on my psyche than the more open areas where I was less sure of my footing and what was around me.
Paul told me to keep my arms straight ahead and not to get them trapped beside me. I heard him scrambling ahead of me, seemingly having trouble squirming his way up the tunnel. Being a buddy, I got myself braced and grabbed hold of his boots and tried to give him a bit of a shove. I later found out that my helpful shove nearly got his arm trapped between his body and the tunnel wall. Sorry about that, dude. He didn’t get stuck and we managed to scramble onward.
It seemed for a moment that Linda, one of my new acquaintances, wasn’t all that interested in joining us in Larimer Tunnel. However, when I reached the far end of the tunnel, I could hear her back there, dragging herself through. That is really gutting it out, man. If you have any apprehension about being in tight spaces, it would take some serious nerves to keep you going in there. Linda did a great job, hung in there and joined the rest of us at the end of the tunnel.
We eventually made our way to Mary’s Room, a largish sized room where we could spread out a bit, drop our packs, drink some water, and munch on some snacks. No one seemed to think it odd that we were standing around in the bowels of the Earth, covered in mud, eating, drinking, and nonchalantly chatting. By-the-way, it is somewhat difficult to wipe muddy hands off on muddy clothing when trying to eat something. I seemed to impress some of the non-ECPers with the variety of food that kept appearing from my one small stuff sack. Variety is the spice of life. And, apparently, Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Milanos will make you very popular.
We did the typical “everybody turn your lights off” thing. I am assuming it is pretty dark with all the lights out. Personally, I didn’t notice much of a difference. Well, other than all the chattering about not seeing your hand in front of your face (like that is any big deal).
We used Mary’s Room as a base of operations and made several excursions from there to other parts of the cave. This was convenient as we could leave our packs behind and return to them from time to time. We left Mary’s Room to explore areas of the cave with cheerful, confidence building names, like Suicide Pass, and Serpent’s Sanctum. There were one or two spots along the way, like in Dunn’s Room, where Denise and Paul, faithfully guiding me, practically had me convinced that a missed foot hold would send me plummeting thousands of feet down a crevasse into a pool of boiling lava. Thinking back, I’m not so sure there were any crevasses of that magnitude in the cave. However, I am grateful for their assistance and would gladly join them again on another trip.
I found that in the more open areas, I became nervous about walking upright, especially if there were no wall to lay a hand on as I moved. I guess the fear of stumbling into, or off of, something was more testing of my nerves than was slithering through a confined space. I hadn’t really thought about that prior to going into the cave, but it does make sense to me now.
When we arrived at Serpent’s Sanctum, it was time to initiate the cave virgins. Apparently, I was supposed to strip naked, be covered in mud, and then recite Hamlet’s soliloquy. I wasn’t buying it this time, though. Instead, Terry just smeared some mud on my face and that was it. I think Paul managed to get a bit more mud on Amy, though. Some initiation; people pay good money to have mud smeared on their faces.
We returned to Mary’s Room for the last time, gathered up our gear, and headed out. We descended deeper into the cave, then found ourselves splashing through a stream. The ceiling lowered until we were duck-walking our way through the ankle deep water. I think Paul gave up at some point and just started crawling through the stream. Amazingly enough, my feet stayed dry, partly due to the fact that the duct tape, which was wound a couple of inches up my leg from the top of my boot, gave me an added inch or two of water resistance.
When we got back to the entrance maze, Chuck told everyone we were on our own and had to find our way out. Charissa and Amy did a great job, and without a single wrong turn, guided us directly back to the cave entrance.
We spilled out into the sunshine and fresh air. The smells of the woods and soil seemed unusually intense. I’m sure the sunlight seemed very intense to my compatriots as well. It definitely impressed upon me that entering a cave is like entering a different world. The smells, the sounds, the textures, are all very different from anything you experience in the world above ground. Sure, that sounds very dramatic but it really is true, even more so than I would have expected.
We all changed out of our muddy clothing and back into our hiking clothes. A little hint here, when you tape your pants to your boots, remember to leave a flap on the end of the tape, otherwise you will spend quite a bit of time pulling, tearing, scraping, and cutting your way out of the tape when you try to get your boots off. We then proceeded back down the hillside; although, it did seem that we went up quite a bit before going down again. Chuck took us a different route back down the hill — I believe the route we took down was called “Lost,” but Chuck insisted it was just called “This Fence Didn’t Used To Be Here.” After making our way along the “fence that didn’t used to be here,” we finally made it back to the parking lot. We dumped our gear in the cars, went and purchased some cheese and wine, and then headed for dinner. I do not believe the hostess was excited to see a bunch of muddy people show up at dinner hour on a Saturday night. Nevertheless, dinner was great and the beer even better.
Terry, Denise, Paul and I headed back to Bill’s for a quick sauna to wrap up the day. It was a long but relaxed drive back to the Burgh after that. I had a great time caving. Bear Cave seems to be a terrific first cave with some good pinches and squeezes, a pretty narrow tunnel, and some interesting rooms. Certainly none of these features were as tight, as long, or as large as one might find in a more difficult cave, but that is what makes Bear Cave pretty good for a first cave. I will definitely gear up and crawl into another dark, dank cave again. It was a very educational and fun experience.
I’d like to thank Denise and Paul for giving me a lift down to the cave, and for helping to guide me through — thousand foot deep crevasses and lava pools, notwithstanding.