Note: this blog is called "Addison County Outside" or "The Great Outdoors." This week's blog entry is not truly "outside". It's not really "inside" either. Addison County Underground sounds like a nightclub, so I'm settling on "Underside."
Saturday I did something that I have never done. Caving.
“Caving?” you might say, “Don’t you mean ‘spelunking’”?
I have recently learned that the term “spelunker” has fallen on hard times. Though the term still applies to anyone who futzes around underground, serious explorers of the subterranean world call themselves “cavers.”
Phebe Meyers, Emma Drucker and Morgan Boyles at the entrance.
(photo: Wyatt Orme)
While cavers rig complex rappel systems, spelunkers clamber down on fraying clothesline. Cavers survey and map their finds; spelunkers carve smiley faces in the rock. Cavers wear Petzl headlamps, rattle off equations about airflow, and use the word karst correctly. Spelunkers have Coleman lanterns, jeans, and tennis shoes.
The author, squeezing through the entrance. Notice the fuzzy calcium deposits above my head.
This weekend, I got the privilege of being a little of both. Yes, we might have been wearing neon party gear over Carhartts and brought a battery powered boom-box into the cave. But, we also had an equalized three-way anchor to rappel from.
Looking up from the cave floor at the top of the rappel
Whatever you want to call the motley crew (“ravers” might be an appropriate term), we descended into the darkness of Weybridge Cave, explored for 4 hours, and then climbed back out to a bright, moonlit night. If you want to read about the whole trip, check out this week’s Clippings article, but suffice it to say: one of the stranger and more exciting things I’ve ever done.
I can't wait to go back to the Weybridge Cave, and to explore other caves in this region. I think if I were a real caver, I might say that the "karst is rich around here." The Champlain Valley is full of limestone and marble, which erode and leach into vast caverns systems connected by constricting pinches. It's a great way to face up to claustrophobia, spiders, bats, heights, asphyxiation, and many other irrational phantasies. It's also totally unexpected. Right now, beneath your feet, there could lie an undiscovered network of dank hollows.
Morgan about to touch down. The author and Phebe beginning the dance party.
But, unlike most of my blog posts, this one won’t publish information on how to get there, what specific gear you need, or that sort of thing. You might think that I’m some sort of elitist. This is not so; my first real caving experience happened just two days ago. I’m as close to a “spelunker” as you can get without a birchbark torch. If you want to go to the cave, find someone who has been there and ask them to take you. Better yet, get in touch with the Vermont Cavers Association. Here are some reasons why:
1. You’ll enjoy it more if you go with a guide who knows what to expect. This is especially true in Weybridge Cave, where you could fall 40 feet if you weren’t careful. Go with someone who can advise you on gear, technique and caving ethics.
2. Caving is dangerous. Just because you CAN get into Weybridge Cave with disco attire and a boombox doesn’t mean you should.
3. Caves are a fragile resource – breaking off a 1000 year old stalactite isn’t okay, and neither is leaving beer bottles or scratching your name into the wall.
4. Bat populations in the United States are being decimated by a mysterious disease called “whitenose.” Cavers may unwittingly spread it between isolated bat populations, and several Vermont caves have been closed by local speleological societies to help contain the pandemic.
5. Just to reiterate the first point: caving is not like hiking. It’s not like climbing. There are some very real dangers involved in squirming through tight, wet, confusing passageways far below the earth.
In addition to these reasons, there’s a satisfying mystique about the idea of “gatekeepers,” local men and women with extensive knowledge who dispense it as they see fit. I imagine these people living in caves themselves, surrounded by musty books, candles and pet bats. The guy who took us in on Saturday is very approachable, though. He even lives above ground and eats cooked food.
All that said, if you truly want to find Weybridge Cave, you probably will. The entire Natural Area is about an acre in area, and if you walked there enough, you’ll find the opening. Be careful, bring extra headlamp batteries and enjoy.
Just to be clear, I am not one of these mythic gatekeepers, with "knowledge," "expertise," or other things like that. I am basically ignorant about caving, but am excited about doing more. However, if you want to send me an email anyway, feel free! I'm christianw at addisonindependent dot com.