A shrill beeping pierced the complete silence. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and felt around for my phone; instinctively I hit the snooze button and rolled back over. Eight minutes later, it went off and I heard shuffling around me. I turned the alarm off and sat up. Inky blackness stretched in all directions, a void that stretched to infinity. Opening and closing my eyes made no difference. I could feel my body but could not see it. I was simply and purely existing.
With a soft click, Nathan Roser turned his light on at his sleeping area about 50 feet away and suddenly the world came back into existence. I was at base camp in a cave, deep within the 45-mile-long Hellhole System in Pendleton County, and it was time for breakfast. A stove popped on, and soon the still and cool air was filled with aromas of coffee and oatmeal.
The previous day, we spent roughly 15 hours transiting from the entrance, dropping over 450 feet using more than two dozen ropes and hauling packs weighing over 40 pounds each nearly two miles into Hellhole. We walked through massive amphitheaters and squeezed through tight crawls where either your helmet or your head will fit, but not both.
The goal was to photo-document the wonders of this hidden subterranean world. After dropping gear off at base camp, we ventured another half-mile into the cave to explore places with exotic names that underscored their mind-bending beauty: the Rainforest, Ecstasy Avenue, Joy Canyon, and the Philosopher’s Dome. In the Rainforest, we stepped delicately around slender formations barely thicker than a soda straw but over four feet long, dozens of them colored in white, red, purple, and yellow hues. In Philosopher’s Dome, we stared upwards into a shaft nearly 400 feet tall from which a waterfall dances downward on its own wind currents, twisting and spiraling in a motion known only to the underground explorer.
Caving the Way
We did not discover these places; we merely followed in the footsteps of those who did. The cavers who dedicated their lives to the exploration, documentation, and protection of these caves did so voluntarily, risking injury, their day jobs, and, in some cases, family life in the pursuit. Over the last two decades, the members of the Germany Valley Karst Survey worked tirelessly to discover and preserve this underground labyrinth. In doing so, they extended the known limits of the cave from just a few miles to nearly fifty.
They discovered the second-tallest shaft in the continental United States, Perseverance Dome at 535 feet. A cave just south of Hellhole began as a tight crevice in a hillside and was dug open and cleared of sediment to become a 26-mile-long cave that almost certainly connects with Hellhole. To the north, another cave is still being pushed beyond its known limits. All told, there are over 70 miles of cave passages below Germany Valley, which are most likely one massive system.
A Geologist’s Playground
Since cavers began exploring West Virginia in the 1960s, the Mountain State has proven to be a hot spot for large cave systems. Of the fifty-longest caves in the United States, West Virginia has nine of them; Kentucky trails behind at six. In the southern part of the state alone there are four caves over 30 miles long: Scott Hollow Cave, Organ Cave, The Great Savannah System, and the 46.5-mile Friars Hole System, which is currently the longest system in the state. And those are just the large caves.
Several thousand caves that range from a few yards to a couple-dozen miles long are scattered throughout the state in a zone running north-south along the state’s eastern border where the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains has exposed the great limestone beds of the Mississippian Era. These beds, some thousands of feet thick, are the result of calcium deposition from an ancient inland sea that once covered what is now the eastern U.S.
This limestone, which is predominantly made of calcium carbonate, reacts with groundwater and dissolves away much like a slower version of Alka-Seltzer in water. The water flows through the thousands of cracks and fissures within the rock bed, only being slowed by impurities in the limestone. The result is miles of underground tunnels that weave and thread their way through the limestone, affected by every small fracture and lump of impure limestone along the way. For geologists, it’s a playground, one which allows a unique view that only the caver-geologist gets to see: entire rock structures in situ.
Much like other natural features on Earth, caves follow life cycles. Passages open as water dissolves the rock away, and then become refilled by mud, rocks that fall from the ceiling, or the redeposition of limestone in the form of stalactites and stalagmites. Most large West Virginia caves are like a tree with a central trunk conduit that branches out into a matrix of successively smaller branches. As one moves away from the trunk, the branches are often in different stages of decay, filling up with sediments and formations. The result is that some caves, which were once one large system, are now separated into smaller caves. Sometimes, cavers reconnect the caves by removing the sediment.
Once the work of water has progressed, the caves fill with life. Bats, salamanders, crayfish, and fish all inhabit caves. Some caves in West Virginia are closed by governing bodies such as the Monongahela National Forest, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the West Virginia Cave Conservancy, and even private landowners to protect the fragile ecosystems that thrive in these unique environments. Access to these caves is restricted. Hellhole is restricted primarily to protect bats from white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has ravaged Appalachia’s bat populations. In the northern section of the cave, conditions allow one of the largest colonies of the endangered Virginia big-eared bat to thrive. Access to northern Hellhole is strictly limited to trips that monitor, research, and protect the bat populations. Southern Hellhole is difficult, and the technical knowledge needed to safely traverse its pits limits access on its own accord.
The air in Hellhole regularly circulates, controlled by the exterior temperature and barometric pressure above ground. Yesterday, Hellhole was still. As we leave today, it is sucking air to the north, likely up and out its northern entrance. This entrance frequently expels cold air in the summer and inhales it in the winter. This cold air trap creates a prime environment for endangered bats. When heavy fronts pass over and the barometric pressure changes, the cave must equalize, causing currents of air to rush in and out of entrances to equalize. Today, it’s simply the temperature. Hot air is cooling and sinking down through the cave and blowing out the northern entrance. As we near the exit, the temperature in the cave steadily climbs to well over 70 degrees. Our cave suits, designed for temperatures in the 40s, now become sweat suits. As we ascend, each rope begins to blur into the next one until we exit a crawl way and look up 20 feet to blue skies and sunshine. One by one, we squirm out of the cave into the oppressive humidity of Germany Valley in June.
Ryan Maurer is an engineer and lives in southwest Pennsylvania. He’s been on over 500 cave trips into 240 caves in 20 U.S. states and two countries.