A Cost and Benefit Analysis of Kentucky Caving    

A Cost and Benefit Analysis of Kentucky Caving
We Drove How Far To Cave For How Long?

Written for the SCAG newsletter in December 1994.

How many times have you heard the question "Why do you go caving"? For cavers the answer is simple. It's not necessarily logical. It's not necessarily rational. It's not necessarily an answer that you can even explain to the non-caver who asked in the first place.

Now, imagine trying to explain why you would leave from the grotto meeting on Thursday night, passing on the comfort of your own bed to take turns driving, keeping the driver company (or keeping the driver awake), and sleeping in the back seat for about 16 hours and 900 miles. Sure, you get to stop and stretch every 2 or 3 hours, and by 9 AM even the back seat becomes comfortable. And there are all those AM radio stations that Phil keeps finding. The ones that play country music. Achy breaky crying-in-your-beer-because-your-girlfriend-left-you-for-somebody-else country music. Stations that are just a little too far away and come in all static-filled, and give the weather report and their call letters without ever once telling you where in the hell they are, so that you can't tell if that freezing rain and sleet is coming or going. Don't forget to explain the soup and salad bar at the Shoney's just half an hour into Kentucky; it's only $1.50 extra with any sandwich or meal. All this and they still don't understand, do they?

Well, most of us appreciate a good road trip for the sheer decadence of it, but some people just don't see the journey for the destination (to twist an old cliche); there has to be a purpose to it all or they won't be happy. For these poor simple folk who need that purpose at the end of the trip, there is White Lightnin'. No, not that white lightning. White Lightnin' is a cave. It probably has between 1300 and 1800 feet of passage (I use the term loosely), and I saw most of it in only 15 hours.

To prevent road trip euphoria from distorting our perspective of the world, or, at least of Cincinatti, we had stopped at Cincinatti's Museum of Natural History where we killed about 3 hours. The main purpose of the stop was to go caving. We paid for parking. We assembled our gear: wallets, street clothes, including shoes and shirts so that they would let us in. We were ready to see our first Ohio cave. We paid the admission (of course it's a commercial cave - it's in a museum). Admission, by the way, is mandatory, as opposed to a donation, which is voluntary; our ever-vigilant Treasurer had investigated the matter, always watching over the grotto expenditures. We walked through the doors and asked where the cave was. Thankfully all caves aren't this easy to find; this one required that we follow the green footprints down the ramp then stop following the green footprints and follow the signs for "The Cavern". A few steps later we were reading a series of informative signs and looking at displays. Then there it was: a moderately large walk-in entrance. The gate was open, we had permission, and in we went. Perhaps 200 feet of exploration brought us to another entrance, through which we exited. We had looked down pits. We had seen formations. We had taken the left passage at a fork, so there must be more passage to be found. We returned by the overland route to the first entrance and followed the other passage. We went down and around. We went back up. We saw domes and waterfalls. We saw soda straws and columns. We saw parents with kids in tow, with no helmets and no back-up light sources. This was just like a real cave! We even found places to crawl under, over and through. I went still further and found a going lead with a stream and no electric lighting. I put my foot in the water.

Despite all the diversions, we were only able to stretch the drive out until about 7:30 before arriving at Mammoth Cave National Park's Maple Springs Research Center, our home for the next two days. Signing in and visiting for a while killed some time but the inevitable could be put off for just so long, and I was sleeping in a comfy bunk by 10:00, a scant 24 hours after leaving the grotto meeting. Morning rolled around two hours later, but it was largely ignored for another seven hours, until breakfast and the bathroom clamored for attention. All that sleep had washed away the joys of the ride down, but after a hearty breakfast I was one of the people with a purpose. With Rick as leader, and Jeff as our sketcher, I would read the instruments for our survey work in White Lightnin'.

After a brief talk with the trip leader to find out what we were in for, it was time to get organized. Vertical gear was required, perhaps an extra polypro shirt, but not a wetsuit. We hoped. Our destination was a stream passage that would lead us to virgin cave after only a couple of hundred feet of survey, so nobody really knew what we would encounter. The ferry across the river operates until 2:00 AM when cave trips are happening and you don't want to miss it, so we planned on being back in time to catch it; that meant a trip of 12 to 14 hours was probable, so in went several candy bars, some canned food, and some heat tabs. Adding the usual gear brought the total pack size to just bigger than you would want it to be, plus another pack for the vertical gear. It was drizzly and pretty cool so I dressed in my thermals so I wouldn't have to get completely naked at the parking area (much as I normally enjoy that), and by 9:30 we were on our way.

Three miles down the road and across the river by ferry we turned into a paved and public parking lot; it was a good thing I had put my thermals on already, since the folks from Peoria may go running to the rangers when they see some sleazy types getting naked in the parking lot. The few people around now didn't seem to pay much attention as I finished suiting up, and we quickly headed up the hill and into the woods. After a pleasant walk along a slippery hillside above some small cliffs we arrived at the entrance, which was perhaps 10 feet wide and 7 feet high. We fired up our lamps and headed in. After 10 feet there was a short hands and knees crawl opening into a small room. The perverse nature of White Lightnin’ is learned early, as that was to be the pattern for this cave: a little obstacle then a few real steps, and then another obstacle. Several steps later the next obstacle lay at our feet. And stayed there. Well, okay, it came up to our knees. Down onto our bellies we went, trundling our packs along in front of us over the breakdown for about 100 feet. The constriction was tight enough that Jeff left a button or two behind, but most of the crawl was almost a foot and a half high. With the spaces between the jagged blocks on the floor this passage was practically roomy, and at its end was a room easily large enough for the three of us to relax while we rigged the pit and got into our vertical gear. Some poking and prying convinced us that a projection on the wall would serve as our primary rig point, with a back-up anchor right in the line of pull. Rick soon had his safety ascender on rope and was sliding backwards through a slot about 15 inches high towards the lip of the drop, where you can climb over the edge and stand on a ledge while attaching your descender. Down a corner for 20 feet, then 50 feet free to the bottom, one after the other, and in 15 minutes we were packing up our vertical gear and climbing back up the other side of the pit and into an adjacent dome for a short hand-line climb into a canyon.

At the end of the canyon Jeff was putting his vertical gear back on and Rick was already at the top of the dome looking at a possible lead. In 15 minutes we had all made the 30 foot climb and stashed our vertical gear since it wouldn't be needed from here on. All that easy vertical work meant that it was time for another obstacle, and once again it lay at our feet. We crawled for a few yards then took a turn into a sandy belly crawl that has been dug out from its natural height of 4 inches; it's tight on me so it must be tighter on Jeff and Rick. Another dome follows the 100 foot crawl, and again we stand for half a dozen steps before the next crawl. This time the crawl is shorter and the right angle turn in the middle is only slightly impossible for those of us with legs. Again a dome follows, but instead of crawling out the other side, we climb 8 feet up and over a partition that separates the adjacent dome by only 2 inches. There's even a small hole that our packs can be stuffed through at the bottom. We take several steps through a short dome complex before we are down on the floor again, this time for only several yards. We stand again and walk through a nicely decorated migrating dome complex. There are several stalagmites on the floor and flowstone on the walls; we are careful to walk single file as ours is only the second party to have come to this marvelous place. The path is already obvious and we try to limit the signs of our passing.

This is the starting point of our survey, but we take a short side trip to the waterfall we can hear. There has been a great deal of air blowing in the cave and it mostly comes from the top of the waterfall. We push into a small canyon off the side of the dome in an effort to find a route to the top of the waterfall. In a narrow slot I come close to reaching a passage we can see part way up the dome, but my knees don't bend forward so I am stopped. There is a projection that might be lassoed to reach the passage but it will have to wait for a future trip. It has been about 4 hours since we entered. We pause for a snack and then begin our survey.

Our first station is the tie to the last survey and after a 3 foot shot the cave gods throw us a freebie. Pebbles dropped from the station just miss the edge of the hole in the floor and show us our next station about twenty feet straight down. No compass or clinometer readings on this one, we simply measure the distance. It will be the last easy shot for some time, as we drop into a 20 to 30 foot high, narrow, twisting canyon. In places we lie horizontally, half way up the jagged sides in order to proceed. With contortions we stretch a few shots to 30 feet; after half a dozen stations and 100 feet we are in a nice-sized room with a side canyon. On the last trip, Rick had scouted about 100 feet further downstream to be sure it made sense to come back to survey, and to be sure we wouldn't get 3 or 4 shots before needing wetsuits or vertical gear. This side canyon, however, was virgin. Jeff took the low road and I took the high road and in short order we met at still another dome. All this cave wanted to be was a series of domes with obstacles between them. There was a climbing lead and a small drain that would probably join our stream passage, so we returned to the survey.

The canyon we had started in continued as a ceiling channel but we now worked in a low, but wide, phreatic tube with shelves that kept us out of the water. After 2 more stations we had come nearly as far as Rick had explored; Jeff was still sketching so Rick offered up another serving of virgin cave. I followed his old footsteps for several yards until they ended, then continued into the unknown hoping for something better. I had only gone another 50 feet when the stream turned towards the right and the passage opened up to the left. I climbed up onto a sandy shelf that formed a small room with another side canyon, though this one was only about 1 foot wide by 3 feet high. That I would save until company was right at hand. Down the far side of the shelf I found myself back in the same stream passage but the sound was different. It was louder, and deeper. Perhaps there was more water ahead, a stream junction or a dome with a waterfall. I returned to the others, saving the next section for Jeff.

We quickly surveyed to the sandy ledge where we took a much-needed break. The 13 or so stations had taken about 6 hours, and dinner was calling. I opened up a can of chicken and dumplings, fired up a heat tab, and began stirring. In several minutes I was enjoying a hot meal as Jeff endured his cold Beanie-Weanies. As I started on my second can, Jeff headed on down the passage to see what was in store for us next. He returned in 10 minutes with an explanation of the sound change. The passage once again turned into a canyon, and the stream dropped over a 10 foot waterfall, and then some rapids. Once more we turned to our survey, and continued on. We only managed a few more stations before it was time to leave. As Jeff finished up his sketch, Rick and I put in a survey mark that can hopefully be found by the next party, and did a re-con downstream. After the 10 foot waterfall there is about a twenty footer, and the next party will need at least a handline, and they will probably get wet. We hustled back to Jeff and started out. It was 10:00 PM and we had a long hard trip ahead of us.

Back through the canyon, "Geez, how did I do this the first time"? Try a bit higher there, back down again, and up high here. Back at the start of our survey I know I'm several minutes ahead. I take a drink, eat the other fruit cocktail, and relax for a minute or two. I am just about ready to doze off when I hear Rick say he wants to check something. I follow him down a short crawl that overlooks a dome with new footprints; the dome Jeff and I had found was right under us. Perhaps it will serve as a bypass to the nasty canyon. Now, where is Jeff? He had been between Rick and me but was now gone. He had missed the climb out of the canyon, and continued into still tighter places before realizing his mistake. In a couple of minutes we are together again and we start to motor. Step, step, step, crawwwwl. Step, step, climb, step, and crawl further. My arms are beginning to feel like rubber, and the long crawl is just ahead. I think we were all at about our limit. Soon we were at our first drop; really tired, take it slow and don't screw up. With a safety on I backed down the short crawl until my feet were at the lip, and rigged in my rack; I lowered my pack over the edge and slid backwards over the drop, and on down the rope. By the time Jeff was coming down the rope I was ready to move through the next canyon. Soon I was at the bottom of the long climb back to that wonderful belly crawl. It was about 12:30 as I began to climb and we were afraid we would miss the ferry and have to take the one hour ride back to the camp. At the top I was glad to see that our rope hadn't moved at all on the projection we had used. I packed away my vertical gear as Jeff began the climb, and started the crawl as soon as he was safely up. We were racing the ferry, and I was going to be damn sure nobody would be waiting behind me in the crawl. Rick must have just flown out of the pit because I could hear him talking to Jeff as I crawled. Finish the crawl, then out into a room, duck low, two steps, and a quick crawl, and I'm out.

The others join me in a few minutes. The trip back to the ferry will take every second we have left, but we are determined to make it. My carbide lamp, which has been low for a while, dies and there's no time to change it. I stay in the middle with my small pelican light. It has rained during the day and the slope is more slippery than on the walk in, but we charge along at a good aerobic pace. Finally we are where we can see the ferry; the ranger probably knows there is a car in the lot, and we shine our lights in his direction hoping he will see us coming. He is allowed to be tied up and leaving at precisely 2:00 AM, and we hope that he will allow us a little grace if we need it.

At last we begin dropping towards the road, slipping and sliding as we go. We already have our plan: it's Jeff's car and we don't want to get it filthy, so to save time Jeff will drive the car and Rick and I will just walk onto the ferry. We hit the road, and head for the ferry as Jeff goes for the car. The ranger starts up the ferry and crosses to pick us up. We step off onto the other side of the river at 1:58. Ours is definitely the last ride of the night. As the ranger ties up the ferry we change in the middle of the deserted road.

In 15 minutes we are back at camp. We are the last group to return and all but one have beaten us by more than two hours. Everybody else seems to be asleep already; if we hadn't returned the breakfast crew would discover it at about 6:00 AM, which is the normal time to do something for an overdue party. I leave a note that Jeff and I won't be caving on Sunday; Rick never plans on caving the day after White Lightnin', so he's already let them know. We chow down on spaghetti, salad, bread, and apple and strawberry pies. A nice soak in the shower and I feel almost human. It is about 3:30 when I crawl into bed.

For some inexplicable reason I wake up at breakfast time, so I wander to the dining room and eat, but mostly drink, as I feel pretty dehydrated. I am almost cajoled into going on an easy trip, but decide that I should take it easy. Rob and Phil both take trips that are due back around 10:00 PM or so, and I plan on handling the driving when we leave. Accordingly, after perhaps an hour, I return to my bed and sleep until a normal time for a Sunday, 3:00. My help is not needed for dinner preparations, so out of some misguided sense of duty I sweep the bunkhouse and clean the bathrooms.

After dinner I get all my gear together, except for my pillow and sleeping bag, which I once again put to good use. At some point I become aware that Phil is back, and later on I hear Rob's voice, so I get up and finish packing my gear in the car. Meanwhile, the others are busy shining lights in the faces of everybody in the bunkhouse, trying to find me so we can leave. I come back in just as they have finished disturbing the last person. We make our goodbyes and pull out around midnight. Phil has had a short nap, and insists on driving for a while. An hour later he lets me take the wheel, and I make good use of all that sleep, driving until about 7:00 in the morning, at which time Phil takes over again. I make my nest in the back seat and settle in to let the miles roll by. It's a nice sunny day and I'm not terribly sleepy so I just lay there and watch the world go by until my back hurts from lying down for too long. We finally arrive at Phil's house at about 5:00 PM, and after dropping Rob off, I'm home by 6:00.

It's been 92 hours since we left the grotto meeting, and we've spent a third of that time cruising down the interstate. Phil and Rob did a bit better than the fifteen hours of caving that I did. I spent 16% of my caving vacation actually caving. Each hour of caving (or each hundred feet of White Lightning) cost two hours of driving, and about three bucks in expenses. It cost me two hours of cleaning bathrooms. And I must be getting old, because it also cost me a couple of days of being stiff and sore, although some of that can be charged to the back seat. I think it would be fair to add the three hours of caving at the museum to the benefits column, and dinner at Shoney's is completely forgettable, so it doesn't need to be added to either side of the equation.

Taking all the costs and all the benefits into account, I think the final analysis is easy and the answer obvious. Hell, I'll even let Phil turn up the volume when ol' Billy Ray comes on the radio. This is a trip that is easily worth the price. Those non-caver types may not have a clue, but you understand, don't you?