When most people hear the term “outdoor recreation,” their first image is often majestic mountain peaks and wide open skies. There is a black sheep in the world of outdoor sports, however, and that is caving. Commonly known as “spelunking,” caving is, as the name suggests, the exploration of underground caves. It is a dark, wet, cold and claustrophobia-inducing activity, but popular nonetheless. Every year, the Williams Outing Club (WOC) leads a handful of trips to caves around the Berkshires, and this past Friday I got to tag along and experience firsthand the otherworldly thrill that draws people to this bizarre hobby.
It was a warm and humid Friday afternoon when we trudged the mile from the road to the small hole in the ground called Bentley’s Cave. Upon arrival, we tugged on our helmets, headlamps, kneepads, climbing shoes and layers of long underwear, and one by one descended into the cave. The first few meters consisted of veritable rock climbing, until the passage leveled out and cooled off, and we were standing single-file at the bottom of a deep underground canyon.
Although caving is a relatively technical and higher-risk activity, WOC is well-equipped to run trips. All of the required gear can be borrowed from the equipment room, and Assistant Director of WOC Dave Ackerson (who accompanied us on our trip) is well-versed in cave safety and is familiar with many local spots. The student leader of the trip was Glen Gallik ’18. Although not a particularly experienced caver, he was eager to share his enthusiasm. “It’s a very popular trip,” he said. “It’s something people have a lot of interest in, but it’s not something that people can really try by themselves.” Thankfully, WOC has the equipment and the expertise to help students get outside and underground.
One of these students was Emily Elder ’20. Despite knowing nothing about the world of caving, the trip summary in the weekly WOC email captured her curiosity. “It struck me as very mysterious and exciting, and I’m always looking for new forms of adventure,” Elder said. “My expectations were based exclusively on the description of cold, dark and dank fun from the WOC email.”
Although we were warned, most of us were still shaken by the underground stream that we had to belly-crawl through, and awed by the expansive room that we crawled out into. Despite the chilly, unlit and cramped confines, we began to feel some of the exhilaration that more experienced cavers boast about. It was a liberating feeling to shimmy out of a tight pinch and have room to stretch, and the inky, yawning blackness of the room quickened all of our pulses. After a few minutes of catching our breath by the small stream, we embarked on a series of “loops.”
The loops were tight tunnels that started and ended in the main room, and presented an extra challenge for those looking to test their mettle. Jared Bathen ’20, who had already done some caving around his native Tucson, Ariz., jumped into these with particular vigor. “It’s such a unique environment,” he said. “The experience of being in a cave is not really an experience you can get anywhere else.” His favorite part is “blackout,” when everyone turns off their headlamps and sits in silence, without any audiovisual stimulation. “It’s super cool to do for like five or 10 minutes,” he said. “You just completely lose track of time.”
Due to time restraints, we only experienced blackout for a couple of minutes. The varying levels of experience, size of our group and limited time there restrained the trip in a number of ways. The cave we visited was much smaller than others in the area, but the largest within the range of a reasonable afternoon trip. We took frequent breaks to ensure everyone stayed together, and posted people at particularly difficult pinches to make sure no one got stuck. The slightly clunky nature of our group, and the lack of individual freedom that came with it, ground on some of the more experienced cavers, who were looking forward to a more exploratory experience. That said, it also offered a welcome sense of security for those of us trying caving for the first time. Whatever the shortcomings of the trip, veterans and newbies alike all seemed to be smiling when we finally emerged in the fresh air and the setting sun.
As far as the future of caving at the College is concerned, the biggest barrier is not the College or the caves but the calendar. Due to white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that has decimated bat populations over the last decade, the caves are closed to visitors for most of the school year, so trips are limited to the first few and last few weeks of school. Despite this, though, interest in caving remains strong, and WOC hopes to lead a longer, all-day Saturday trip in the spring to a much larger cave near Albany. While some are drawn to the thrill of the unknown and others to the unique physical challenge, caving offers an odd but exciting experience for anyone with an open mind. “I was just happy to be spending my Friday night in a cave with some of my closest friends,” Elder said. “It was the perfect way to cap off a busy week.”