“See? Each cave has its own personality,” said Jim Sherrell as his miner-esque headlamp revealed a passageway brimming with “formations.” This particular type reminded me of the wax drippings on the side of a burning candle.

We had the serendipitous fortune of running into Sherrell at the Berome Moore cave in Perryville, Missouri, when our planned guide didn’t show. At some point, after scurrying behind Sherrell over a rickety bridge, trudging through knee-deep water, crawling on hands and knees, and lowering myself down a rope, I realized how fully — and unwittingly — I had entrusted my life in this stranger’s hands. My disorientation was profound; I hadn’t the slightest clue how to get out if needed. The thought crossed my mind that I could improve on my safety decision-making skills.

I’d met Sherrell once before, at the monthly meeting of the Meramec Valley Grotto on a Wednesday evening at the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood. Boisterous and familial, the group members kept interrupting the orders of business with good-hearted ribbing and reminiscences of recent escapades.

“Cavers rescue spelunkers,” a member quipped, when one of my fellow visitors asked the difference between the two terms. Like a tribe with its own language, I tried to follow along as terms like “karst” and “stalactites” were bandied about.

I asked to come to their next outing, and this jovial group agreed. Their instructions were clear: bring work gloves, boots, a helmet, a headlamp and clothing appropriate for wading through water and withstanding cool temperatures all day.

Rite of Passage
We couldn’t have picked a better guide for our first time. Sherrell has been caving for more than 30 years. Interspersing knowledge of the geology and history of the cave with harrowing stories of his many years exploring secret underground passages around the world, he kept us entertained throughout the 1.5 miles we explored. (It felt like 15.)

There was the expedition to Mexico and a New Year’s dance in a small village with the enchanting woman that would become his wife. And then there was the time he got stuck exploring a new passageway and his friends had to use mud as lubricant to heave him free. That was the first and last time his brother went caving.

We took a break from crawling in one particularly challenging tunnel, and Sherrell instructed us to switch off our headlamps and experience the darkness. My senses immediately kicked into high alert; I tuned into the humid air and smells of the cave, subconsciously seeking clues to orient myself to the invisible surroundings.

The silence in the belly of the earth is perfect. I’ve experienced silence — or better said, lack of human noise — on top of high summits and deep in the Maine wilderness, but this was something entirely new. There were no birds chirping, no helicopters in the distance. The only noises we heard were the ones we made.

Berome Moore also offers a particularly interesting blast from the past: There are extinct Pleistocene jaguar footprints in the mud, still seemingly as fresh as the day they were made thanks to the cave’s constant environment. You can see where the cat sunk its claws while scrambling up a slippery slope. Some have speculated the cat ran into the cave to escape a fire or some other hazard.

The Caving Community
“With caving, we don’t want to promote that it’s this sensationalized, death-defying sport,” said Daniel Lamping, president of the Missouri Speleological Survey, a nonprofit that promotes cave research and conservation.

“It’s a bucket list item for some people, [but] if that’s what they’re after, most will come away unsatisfied. It’s hard to achieve [more extreme caving adventures] without a longer term investment,” he added.

From monitoring bat populations to maintaining a database of the state’s 2,000+ cave maps to removing graffiti, caving organizations like the Meramec Valley Grotto play a vital role in conserving these natural resources. And, in large part, it’s all done by volunteers.

At the Berome Moore event, people entered the cave in crews, each tasked with projects: surveying, biology work and speleothem (cave formations) restoration. The local groups that own and manage the cave — the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy and the Middle Mississippi Valley Grotto, respectively — are working to repair damage done by visitors before they bought the surrounding access land.

To date, there have been nearly 7,000 caves discovered in Missouri, though Lamping was quick to point out that Missouri’s definition of a cave (a natural cavity beneath the earth’s surface) may be looser than in other states. “In Missouri, a 25-foot-long cave may qualify as a cave,” he said. “But we also have 30-mile caves.”

There’s little left in this world to be the “first” explorer of, but in Missouri, about 100 caves are discovered each year, said Lamping. (We are known as “The Cave State.”) Home to more than 900 species of animals, from the Ozark Cavefish to the Grotto Salamander, Missouri caves also shelter a number of endangered species.

“The big allure [of caving] is virgin passage,” said Lamping, who has mapped “miles of passage that no person had ever seen before.”

But these caving communities are an aging group. At 36, Lamping is often the youngest caver in a crew.

Today, it’s harder for novices to get involved since all caves on Missouri’s public lands are closed, except for tour caves in state parks and one on national park land. The state’s Department of Natural Resources took that measure in 2010 in order to stem the spread of “white-nose syndrome,” an emergent disease that has killed at least 1 million hibernating bats in the U.S. since 2006. Humans can spread the fungus between caves on their clothes and gear.

Getting Down and Dirty
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in exploring life underground, you can do so through joining a local caving group. Active members may offer to show you the ropes, but expect to invest some time in a few meetings first.

The Meramec Valley Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society and a member of the Missouri Speleological Survey, meets at 7 p.m. every third Wednesday at the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood. Or you can find them online anytime at mvg.caves.org.

Most caves maintain pleasant temperatures year-round, making them a welcome escape from the freezing cold of winter (or the sweltering heat of summer). However, this is definitely not a sport for those prone to claustrophobia.

Entering a cave is entering a foreign world of close, rough irregularity. You’ll be using a combination of climbing and hiking techniques — crawling, stretching, stooping, grasping and moving your body through spaces of varying sizes and shapes — all of which can be exhausting after several hours. As such, a decent level of physical fitness goes a long way toward an enjoyable experience.

Move carefully to avoid unnecessary bumps, bruises, sprains and surprises. Don’t overextend your reach when grabbing for a handhold or foothold, and watch for loose rock. Look out for your caving partners, and they in turn will look out for you.

Certainly, caving is a physically and mentally demanding pursuit that should not be entered lightly. With brains and caution, though, it can be a really exciting pastime.

Underground Safety
You should only go caving with experienced individuals. There are a number of risks involved with entering a cave on your own, or with other novices, not the least of which includes getting lost. When it comes to safety recommendations, you will want to:

  • Go with a group of three or four (experienced) people
  • Bring two headlamps, a backup flashlight and spare batteries for all your light sources
  • Pack a basic first-aid kit, and know how to use it
  • Wear a helmet, gloves, waterproof boots and hiking socks
  • Dress for the elements; clothes that can get (really, really) muddy and will keep you warm in the cool temps of the caves
  • Let friends or family know where you are going and what time you expect to be back

Author: Kimberley Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine