- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

Marieke Bier stands with her right hand in front of her face, fingers outstretched and apart. "If an opening is as big as this" she says, indicating the size of her fully open hand, "then you can get your head through it."
She brings up her left hand, also outstretched, and places it thumb tip to thumb tip next to her right hand. "If the hole is this big, then your entire body will fit."
The class of caving students looks at her incredulously. "You'll see," she says.
Ms. Bier, an instructor for Outerquest Adventure Schools, with co-instructor Traci Price, is leading this class of four into the main opening of a cave known as Whitings Neck, near Shepherdstown, W.Va., about a 90-minute drive from Washington.
Whitings Neck one of thousands of caves, not all of which have been mapped, that sit beneath central West Virginia, southern Virginia and central Pennsylvania is a mile-long cavern so thoroughly explored that it's old hat for experienced cavers. It has been used by outdoor adventure companies and groups such as the Boy Scouts for more than 20 years.
Ideal for beginners because no rope climbing or rappelling skills are needed to traverse its main passages, it has a little bit of everything: stalactites, stalagmites, twists and turns, precipitous drops, slick walls, mud and puddles. It still offers the thrill of discovery looking at an opening in the ground and wondering where it might go and then finding out.
Yet it's not for the unwary: Over the past 10 years at least a dozen people have been trapped or injured here and rescued.
So while caving is the perfect escape from the oppressive heat of Washington in the summer caves in the mid-Atlantic states offer year-round temperatures in the mid-50s it requires care, attention and the proper equipment. That's what instructors such as Ms. Bier focus on.

Entering the cave requires a scramble down eight feet through a 6-foot-wide hole in the ground, using exposed roots as handholds.
Ms. Bier gathers the students around her at the bottom of the hole and points to a narrow slit in the rocky walls. "That's the keyhole," she says. "Once you get through there you'll have no problem."
The slit looks barely wide enough for an arm to fit, let alone an entire body. Walking toward the slit, she double-checks to make sure everyone's headlamps are on and working properly. The headlamps are attached to hard plastic helmets, a necessity for crawling around in the dark.
"But first," she asks, "can anyone tell me what causes the sparkling dots on the ceiling?"
"Ummm, water?" comes a voice from the darkness.
"That's right," says Ms. Bier. "Caves are formed from water that percolates down through the ground through decomposing organic material."
Thus, the road ahead would not only be dark and cramped. It would be muddy and wet not a place for anyone who's claustrophobic or afraid of the dark or of getting dirty.
Ms. Bier wedges herself into the crack, disappears and then calls out for the first volunteer. Sean Reed, of Bowie, takes up the challenge. He eases himself into the damp opening, sliding downward as he pulls himself deeper into the narrowing crevice. Following Ms. Bier's instructions, he tilts his upper body through the tightest section while his feet remains wedged. The space is so tight that he cannot even move his head. Clearing the passage and once again being able to turn his head, he can see Ms. Bier below. She points out a handhold on the wall for Mr. Reed to grab and use to pull the remainder of his body through. With the leverage from the hold, Mr. Reed hauls himself upward a few inches and shimmies the rest of the way through the keyhole.
"It's really slippery," Ms. Bier cautions as Mr. Reed begins to slide down toward her. She guides his feet and spots him down into the large chamber.
"Who's next?" Ms. Bier calls out. Lauren Tjaden, of Round Hill, Va., and Chris Schwartz, of Davidsonville, Md., soon join Mr. Reed.
Karen Carra, a rock climber from Takoma Park, is somewhat claustrophobic. As she approaches the keyhole, she says, "Maybe I'll just wait for you guys out here." But with the encouragement of the rest of the group and assurances that this is the tightest passage she will have to conquer, Ms. Carra wiggles her way farther into the darkness.
"Keep coming and put your hand there," Ms. Bier advises, as Ms. Carra becomes unlocked from the keyhole, drops down and moves away to make room for Ms. Price. The cavern slopes down toward another tear in the walls, a horizontal fissure next to the floor. One by one, the cavers march to the end of the tunnel and take turns crawling through the opening.
"This isn't as bad as I expected," Ms. Carra exclaims, as she inches along on her belly. "It's like being a kid again."
She emerges into a chamber that reminds her of the interior of a cathedral. Everywhere, the rock has been sculpted into sinuous shapes and formations stalactites, stalagmites, thin ribbons cut into the wall called draperies. Turning around, Ms. Carra joins the rest of the party who were staring up at the most spectacular feature in the room, a cascade of stalactites layered in groups one on top of the other.
"We call that the wedding cake," Ms. Bier says.

Ms. Bier asks if anyone knows the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite. With no responses, she spouts, "Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling. Stalagmites might reach the ceiling."
She reminds everyone of the importance of not touching any of these formations, broadly known as speleothems. Just the oil from a person's hands can cause damage. The motto of the National Speleological Society a volunteer organization of more than 12,000 members dedicated to the study, conservation and exploration of caves is "take nothing but pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time."
In addition to water-created formations, the region's caves host the remains and fossils of numerous animals: pigmy armadillos, cheetahs, tigers, mastodons and, of course, bats. (With the discovery of a unique fossil, archaeologists from the Smithsonian are usually alerted so that the new find will be properly excavated.) Many living animals also make homes in caves, especially bats. Eight different species of bats are found in the caves of Virginia and West Virginia, three of which are on the endangered species list. But bats are harmless and should not be bothered. No bats live in the Whitings Neck cave.
Ms. Bier leads the group toward another passage and straddles a 3-foot-wide gap that falls into an abyss.
"Don't step here," she says wryly and points to the void. Taking turns, the students climb over her. "Just keep following the passage and you'll end up right back here."
The passage twists and turns deeper into the cave system. Several of the squeezes require lying on one's back and sliding through. Other parts are negotiated by crawling on the knees or slithering on the belly like a snake. The only sounds are those of Ms. Tjaden banging her head occasionally against the ceiling and cursing under her breath. She is having problems compensating for the additional height added by her helmet.
The path reaches a muddy hole and then the group must make a 20-foot climb up a series of ledges and muddy embankments. They emerge in the main chamber below "the wedding cake."
"Piece of cake," says Mr. Reed.
To get a better view of the wedding cake, Ms. Carra scales a dirt ramp leading to the top of a rocky platform. She shines her light into a small hole in the wall next to her, which reveals a flat circular room no more that 2 feet high at its tallest point, with a width of about 12 feet. The ceiling tapers down to the floor at the perimeter. Mr. Reed scampers up and sticks his head into the hole.
"That's the pancake room," says Ms. Bier. "Let's see if we can all fit into it."
Mr. Reed, then Ms. Bier, Mr. Schwartz, Ms. Tjaden and Ms. Price slither their way in and cozy up next to each other lying flat with Ms. Carra taking up the rear, only able to get her torso and hips in before running aground on the sea of bodies.
"OK, it's lights out time." Ms. Bier declares. Total darkness.
"The two darkest places in the world are in caves and at the bottom of the ocean," Ms. Bier notes with eerie amusement. In the absolute blackness, the mind plays tricks. Shapes that didn't exist appear in the darkness. Some think they see different shades of black. Ms. Bier says this is normal.
"Anyone think they can find their way out without lights?" she asks. Everyone agreed to try. For Ms. Carra, it only requires sliding out backward and sitting up against the wall. To the surprise of Ms. Bier and Ms. Price, everyone finds their way out quite easily, everyone except Ms. Tjaden. She has gotten herself turned around and was once again bonking her head against the cavern walls.
"Just follow our voices," whispers Ms. Bier.
Bonk. The group can't help but to erupt in laughter. As Ms. Tjaden finally feels her way out of the room, she brushes her arm against Ms. Carra. "A person," Ms. Tjaden cries out with glee. "I feel a person." Ms. Tjaden is more than happy to comply when Ms. Bier says, "lights on."

The next passage leads under the wedding cake to a long tunnel tall enough to allow walking without worry of cranial impact. It ends at a precipice that drops 40 feet. Ms. Bier explains that experienced cavers rappel down and go into deeper and more difficult sections of the cave. After everyone takes a look, they return and Ms. Bier offers another challenge a hole two hands wide.
Ms. Price says it leads to a small opening only big enough for two people. Inside the opening are formations called soda straws. Ms. Price pushes her legs into the small aperture, puts her hands above her head and drops away as if sliding down a laundry chute.
"It's wet down here," someone says. Whitings Neck is considered to be a dry cave even though it is filled with slick walls, mud and puddles. Wet caves fill with water during periods of rain and some contain underground rivers, large ponds and waterfalls. When exploring a wet cave, cavers must take extra precautions and pay close attention to weather forecasts so as not to become trapped should water levels rise.
As always, Mr. Reed volunteers to be the first student to explore this next passage. Ms. Price advises him to watch his head and just let gravity do the work. He slides under a long thin flake that might act as a guillotine for the unwary and lands in the room with his bottom splashing down into a large puddle. The room shimmers like the inside of a quartz geode and the soda straws hang like hundreds of miniature stalactites from the ceiling.
Climbing back out proves not to be as easy. He reaches up, grabbing the flake and pulling while trying to push up with his feet that keep slipping in the mud. Once past the flake he continues to jam his feet against the sides of the tunnel as he claws his way back into the main chamber. Ms. Tjaden notes that he looks like he was coming out of the birth canal as he comes head first, barely fitting back through the opening. She offers to go next followed by Mr. Schwartz. Ms. Carra decides to pass on this challenge.
On his return, Mr. Schwartz struggles loudly as he makes the difficult climb out. So Ms. Bier decides to make it a bit more difficult. She picks up a flat round rock and covers the hole. "Okay, we'll see you guys later," she jokes. But before she removes the rock, she advises everyone to cover his or her hands in mud from the floor to give Mr. Schwartz a good mudding. She pulls the rock away and as Mr. Schwartz sticks his head through the hole, everyone takes turns wiping mud on his face as he wrestles to get free. This is such fun that the group decides to give Ms. Price a good mudding as well.
For the last bit of fun, Ms. Bier passes out large Wint-o-Green Life Savers to show the phosphorescent effect.
"You have to get your mouth really dry to make this work," she says. She demonstrates the mouth-drying technique by opening her lips wide, clenching her teeth and breathing in and out quickly. The exaggerated baring of teeth creates an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to smile during a movie scene that requires tenderness. On cue, the students place the Life Savers between their teeth and turn out their lights. Little green flashes randomly spark from mouths whenever someone successfully bites through a piece of candy. After turning the lights back on again, Ms. Bier asks for help collecting the bits of candy that had shot out of people's mouths during the demonstration. Even the smallest piece of candy, the students learned, can pollute a fragile ecosystem such as a cave.
Rather than trying to squeeze back up and through the keyhole to exit, Ms. Bier descends into yet another passage and instructs the others to follow. The tunnel leads to a wooden ladder that drops into an open grotto with sunshine streaming in through a hole on the far side. Going single-file, each member of the party climbs down the ladder, crosses the room and climbs up another ladder.
Returning into the world of light, colors seem more vibrant and everything looks brighter, everything but the cavers. Each are covered head to toe in mud and they all point at one another and laugh. With sunshine also bringing the heat and humidity, the students look back toward the cave. Despite the mud, the water, the head banging and cramped conditions, a cave is a far better place to be during the dog days of summer in Washington.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide