In utter darkness, wearing only her Under Armour, Danielle “Dani” Carey ’10 squeezed herself through an unimaginably small cave passage. She had taken her helmet off to fit the space, and fellow cavers at each end were pushing and pulling to get her through. No, she wasn’t stuck; she was “pushing the connection” between two caves. Crawling on hands and knees through winding tunnels, doing handstands to record data points or rappelling down 200-foot drops, students in the Wittenberg University Speleological Society (WUSS) are more than thrill-seekers; they are explorers and often scientists fascinated by a diverse underground world most cannot imagine. That a liberal arts school the size of Wittenberg has one of the nation’s longest-running, student-led caving clubs is unique; that it celebrated 30 years on campus this year is remarkable.
by Gabrielle Antoniadis
For the uninitiated, such experiences sound crazy or even downright scary. But for Carey and the cavers with her, discovering that connection was a very big deal – it meant they had found a cave system. It was also a huge thrill, she recalls, and the highlight of her experiences as a “WUSS.”
“Once I got through, we all joked and laughed because we were so excited,” she says. “Getting through that hole really boosted my confidence; I thought ‘If I can get through that, I can do anything.’”
Conversations with cave enthusiasts like Carey or Holly Kellar ’10 (co-presidents of WUSS, 2009-10) abound with stories of overcoming tough situations – some of them physically tough, others mentally. Caving can be long, grueling and tiring work, especially when you are nose-to-the-cave floor looking for life forms or spending a whole day miles from an entrance mapping a cave. Teamwork is essential, and everyone depends on each other.
The result is an extraordinarily strong bond between fellow cavers that lasts well beyond the four years spent at Wittenberg. From the moment they become “WUSSes”– their very own WUSS member number makes it official – they feel as committed to each other as they are to the sport of caving. It is a unique and lasting connection that keeps alumni coming back when they can.
“I feel like the people I met in caving club I’ll be friends with for life,” Kellar says. “I’ve grown with them, and they are like an extended family.”
WUSS became an official student “grotto” when it received its charter from the National Speleological Society (NSS) in 1980. Since then, WUSSes have surveyed 30,260 meters (or nearly 19 miles of cave) in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. And many WUSSes have explored caves all over the United States and around the world from Europe to the Bahamas to Australia. Throughout the club’s 30 years, membership has ranged from nearly 40 to just a handful. Unlike most campus clubs, WUSS has always included members of the Springfield community as well as alumni.
Pushing the Limits
But what is it about descending into damp, cold, enclosed spaces that keeps them coming back? Horton Hobbs, professor of biology and the club’s one and only faculty adviser, sums it up this way: “People say they climb mountains because ‘they are there.’ People cave because of what might be there. You never know what is around the corner – is it going to end or will it keep going? And that is exciting.”
That sentiment is echoed by WUSS members past and present, including Kevin Kissell a Wittenberg student who, despite transferring, couldn’t stay away from WUSS. “From the first time I squeezed into a hole that I probably should not have gone through, I was hooked,” he says. “I see a dark hole, and I want to know what is there.”
Much more than hard work, caving is an adventure, complete with elements of danger and surprise. New and old members are put through rigorous safety training such as learning how to rappel safely (they learn above ground first) and learning how to recognize a cave that might flood (look for leaves and other debris on the ceiling). It’s not for the faint-hearted. As a club T-shirt proclaims: “You have to be brave to be a WUSS.” But once they do it, most never look back.
“It is just an amazing experience, and I hope to do it for the rest of my life,” Kissell says.
Hearing Kellar describe a caving trip in Indiana, listeners can immediately feel the heady mix of fear and excitement. After descending farther and farther through honeycomb tunnels, she shot through a “rabbit hole” and into a huge room with a stream below. “I wondered how in the world I was going to get through that hole to go back. It was scary,” she recalls. But, she adds, grinning ear-to-ear, “It was so fun!”
“There is no doubt we are all adrenaline junkies,” Carey adds. In addition to having a great time underground, WUSSes have conducted an enviable amount of valuable research including cave surveying to map the length and/ or depth of caves and inventorying cave life – which includes much more than bats – from cave crickets to salamanders to crayfish. Many students have presented papers at NSS conventions, with four receiving the prestigious James Mitchell Award for best student paper. And it is not only science majors that conduct research; caving attracts all types of people. For the past three years, WUSSes have been part of a state research project funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to inventory Ohio cave life. Many of them will continue this work this summer, logging up to 30-45 days in the field.
For those who can’t, or won’t, ever venture into a cave, there is Pholeos, WUSS’s journal, a combination of research articles, personal musings on caving and even cave poetry. Published entirely by the students approximately twice a year, Pholeos goes out to alumni, researchers, libraries and caving clubs in 27 countries.
Yet, words can’t truly express the thrill of climbing, sliding, dropping or crawling deep in the dark recesses of a cave, or the camaraderie that comes from sitting together on a cave floor boiling water for tea; it is something one has to do to understand.
Says Carey, “Caving is always fun, but more than anything, it gave me a chance to push my limits and see amazing things I never dreamed I’d see in life.”