What sort of person would drive all morning to the beautiful mountains of West Virginia only to crawl in a hole in the ground and not come out for 24 hours?
The answer: an experienced caver looking for a good time.
Cavers, those who spend their leisure time poking around in the mysterious other world that only bats, cave crickets and a few other subterranean critters call home insist they are having the -- time of their lives.
They thrive on the cold, dark and wet wonderland that has been a source of both fear and fascination to man since prehistoric time. Wearing hard hats with carbide lamps, heavy hiking boots and several layers of water-resistant clothing, and possessing a huge tolerance for mud, these modern-day explorers head below ground for a realistic look at what the rest of us might only envision through the fictionalized adventures of Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe.
"You get a really good feeling when you've done something that you thought you couldn't do," says Carol Tiderman, a local administrator for IBM who's been caving 25 years. "It looks like there's no way you could possibly climb that hill or . . . get through that tiny little squeeze. And you do it. And you get a rush."
Cavers -- or spelunkers, as they are often called by non-participants -- might work during the week as school teachers, businessmen or window washers, but on weekends they become equal parts rock climber, hiker and pioneer.
Across the United States there are an estimated 9,500 cavers who are official members of the National Speleological Society, which promotes the preservation of caves and caving. If folks from the local grottos, or chapters, are any indication, they are an unpretentious and hardy lot who think nothing of crawling a mile on their bellies, wading in knee-deep mud or neck-high water, squeezing through crevices only inches wide or dangling by a 1/2 -inch-thick rope over a deadly chasm in search of a new passageway.
After all, what sort of adventure would this be if there were no danger involved?
"It's sort of like the last frontier," says Norm Alt, a retired U.S. Immigration Service investigator and member of the Baltimore Grotto of the Speleological Society. "Everyone's dream is to find a piece of virgin cave."
Indeed, being the first to discover a cave or to walk along a passage that hasn't been walked before is what inspires many people to venture down into the unknown, never quite knowing what's around the next bend.
Others head underground for what they might see -- the "pretties," as cavers call them, that "decorate" the walls, ceiling and floors of a cave. They are sparkling limestone and gypsum formations that take thousands of years to develop from the dripping and evaporation of mineral water.
Still other cavers explore as an extension of their life's work -- geology or cartography -- or of their other avocations -- photography, rock climbing, diving.
Mr. Alt, who is 65 and lives in Bowie, has been climbing around in caves since he was an 8-year-old in Missouri, which just happens to be called "the cave state" for its thousands of caves. His favorite haunt today is Greenbrier County, W.Va., where he likes to spend weekends exploring a 45-mile-long system of interconnected caves with several entrances.
Craig Hindman, of Fulton, and Ms. Tiderman were among the first half-dozen cavers to explore Scott Hollow, a limestone cave discovered in Monroe County, W.Va. The Baltimore Grotto members estimate they have spent at least one weekend a month surveying the cave since it was discovered in 1984 on the property of a fellow grotto member. Since then, cavers have measured and recorded more than 19 1/2 miles of passages and have pushed to within 1,300 feet of another cave in a neighboring county.
At one point in the exploration, professional divers were called in to forge through "sumps," lakes too deep or close to the ceiling to traverse on foot, which were the only route to more passageways. So far, says Mr. Hindman, in surveying the various passages, they have found the lowest point of the cave at 564 feet below the surface and the highest point at 52 feet above the entrance.
"There are tens of thousands of caves in the United States, and new ones are being discovered all the time," says Jay Jorden, a Texas caver and public relations chairman for the speleological society. While some, like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Lechugilla Cave in New Mexico, are in national parks, the great majority of caves are on private property.
In this part of the country, most caves are "solution" caves, which means they're formed by the action of ground water slowly dissolving rock such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum to form tunnels, irregular passages and even large caverns.