My descent into darkness; a first time caver's adventure in Hillsboro
"You want to go caving next week?"
I hesitated. I'm guess I'm slightly claustrophobic - I don't even like sitting in the back seat of most cars, let alone low-crawling through tunnels in the dark. I'd been in caves before when I was a kid, but I'd never actually been "caving".
But if Andy Gibson was leading the way, how could I say no?
Gibson has been caving in Pocahontas County for more than 30 years, so I felt comfortable with the idea. I first met him up at Snowshoe where he works as the Outdoor Adventure Supervisor. He posed the question to me over burgers at The Foxfire Grille recently.
Gibson was already familiar with the cave he was taking our group to; he's been in there dozens of times.
"I've been caving since probably 1976, I started when I was 15 or 16. I've been stomping around in them a while now," laughed Gibson.
We met around noon last week and made the drive to Hillsboro. After parking the truck, our group of five explorers started the half-hour hike to the mouth of the cave. Our troop consisted of Andy, his sister Carol Doss, and two of Gibson's Snowshoe coworkers, Andy Nall and Phillip Groseclose.
The mouth of the cave was only about 15 or 20 feet deep with a low ceiling interspersed with hanging stalactites and thick icicles. We carefully worked our way to the rear of the cave where we crawled through a tight, rocky opening in the ground to a larger cavern below.
I was pleased to see the larger, lower chamber left plenty of room to stand and walk without having to hunch over. We left some of our heavier gear and jackets there, pulled on our gloves, checked our batteries and set out on our expedition, headlamps lighting the way.
The limestone cave has seen its share of explorers over the years, graffiti from as far back as the 1950s covers the walls in places.
"Back then, it was acceptable to do those things. Not today. Once something has been altered, you're not going to see it ever recover," said Gibson.
According to Gibson, even the oil from your fingers can affect the growth of the rock formations.
"You try not to touch the formations when you're in there. If they're wet and dripping, they're still growing."
I was surprised by the constant temperature, it was almost warm deeper inside the cave.
"Yeah, year round it stays around 50 or so, even when it's freezing cold, blowing wind outside on the hill," said Gibson.
I can't say I didn't feel uncomfortable a couple of times in our four hour outing, but I was too fascinated by the cave and Andy's stories to notice the tons of rocks pressing in all around me. I think it was a good thing that I was the caboose most of our excursion; I scrambled right into every freaky little cleft with enthusiasm, not wanting to be left behind.
I inquired about the small piles of white powder I was seeing. Guano maybe? Nope. According to Gibson, about 25 years ago people would cave with carbide lamps.
"What you're seeing is the spent carbide. Once you load them up, you'd usually get about four hours of run-time out of them."
Our group came across the usual wildlife you'd expect in a cave; furry little bats, crickets, and salamanders in some of the shallow pools.
I was amazed by some of the rock formations. We saw most of the usual stuff in our adventure; stalagmites and stalactites, thin bacon strips and flowing drapes, but I was blown away by the fragile helictites, something I'd never even heard of.
A helictite is a rare rock formation that grows in several different directions. They are some of the most delicate cave formations and can easily crack or break.
"Surface water tension pulls 'em like that. They're very rare, that's the only cave I know of that's got 'em, and I've been in a lot of caves," said Gibson.
I've been intentionally vague about the location of this particular cave because I felt fortunate even to be invited. Access is somewhat controlled these days.
"The issue in the past was this cave used to be open to the public but it's actually on private land. What people got to doing was parking at the cemetery and hiking up the holler there, up to the cave. A lot of graffiti, formations getting broke, things like that," said Gibson.
According to Gibson, the landowner called one day and told him how he was getting a lot of traffic through there and people had stopped asking permission and he was thinking about bulldozing the entrance shut.
"I suggested doing whatever else we could do, rather than closing it off," said Gibson. "We got in there and looked at it, and we saw it would be super easy to put a gate in. I said 'that'll stop all your problems and it'll still allow people that are responsible and respectful, access to the cave.' That's all it took, no more problems and that was years and years ago."
Perhaps the best way to overcome fear is really just to meet it head on; I used to be afraid of heights until I flopped out of an airplane. Four hours later, with skinned shins, a couple of bruises and a thick layer of clay covering me, I clambered out of the cave mouth into the blinding afternoon sunshine, and stretched.