Virginia is one of the top caving states in the U.S., and many of the best caves are right outside your door.
“It’s not like you have to be Superman. Pretty much anyone can do it to a certain extent.”
Sarah Crowder is talking about caving, or as they say in the business, “going under.” Crowder is vice president of the VPI Cave Club and has been exploring caves in the Southeast since her freshman year at Virginia Tech. A senior now, she was not always so keen to venture underground. A little pressure from her older brother – a former club VP himself – and couple of trips later, however, and Crowder was hooked.
“I like the fact that it is a consistent mental and physical challenge,” she says. “Every part of the cave has to do with balance and technique. It’s like a puzzle.”
A puzzle Crowder solves as the trainer of new club members. Experienced cavers travel to southwest Virginia for the vertical systems; the repelling, climbing, and vertical shafts dropping hundreds of feet. This makes caving a very dangerous endeavor, obviously, so you should never attempt it without an experienced team member.
Fortunately, the sheer abundance of caves in the area, and the diversity of the systems, makes it easy to advance quickly.
“It’s really easy to teach people to cave here and work them up,” says Crowder. “It’s wonderful for people who have never entered the sport before. We have a lot of diversity within two hours drive, and at Tech, we have caves within 10 minutes.”
On a recent survey of an area cave – due to safety reasons, the club is not allowed to give cave locations – Crowder says the group found themselves in virgin passages of gorgeous curtains of white flowstone and giant columns of rock where stalagmites and stalactites had come together over thousands of years. That experience of discovery, that chance to be the first to find something new, is what keeps cavers coming to the area.
“We have a lot of caves that go” (caver slang for significant miles of passage), says Crowder. “We have long, extended cave systems that have alternate passages. There are still tons of caves that need to be explored in the area which is really cool because it’s not that often you get into somewhere that someone has never been.”
Crowder says most people don’t realize how many caves there are in the region and how many opportunities there are to go under with people who know what they are doing. She says the best way to get involved is to attend a weekly meeting of the club, and to embrace the mental aspect of caving as well as the physical.
“When I started I was afraid of heights,” she says. “Give it a try even if you don’t think it’s for you because it may surprise you. It certainly surprised me.”
How to Go Under
Experience the beauty of natural underground formations for the first time with the family. Commercial sites light features dramatically making for a great activity for young and old. Both Dixie Caverns in Salem and the Caverns at Natural Bridge offer guided tours and walking paths.
Guided Caving Trips
For those who want to try caving for the first time, guided trips are available through area outfitters. Wilderness Adventures at Eagle Landing in New Castle offers tours, as do many parks and recreation departments. This will give you a taste of the dark and dirty world of actually crawling around in a cave, a great gateway to the sport.
There are several caving clubs in the area that survey, map and run rescue operations in southwest Virginia. Besides the 65-year old VPI Cave Club, the Blue Ridge Grotto and New River Valley Grotto host monthly meetings and lead trips on a regular basis. All are members of the National Speleological Society.
Exploring caves can be extremely dangerous, so going with an experienced trip leader is highly recommended. A helmet and three sources of light are standard equipment for any trip. Going in a group and having a solid sing-out plan are essential. Let someone know exactly where you are going and what time you will be back. If you are not back by that time, your friend will be calling one of the above caving clubs to find you and pull you out.