Originally published in Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2014


Left to my own devices, I would have walked right past the cave entrance without knowing it was there.

It was no more than a crack in the ground, barely big enough to notice and nowhere near big enough to imagine climbing into. Bogdan, a geology professor in his 40s and as athletic as men 15 years younger, dropped into it without warning, the earth swallowing him up without a trace. Then Lee, a skinny veteran of narrow cave passages, slid in after him. Then Kali. Then some Dutch guys whose names I never could remember.

Finally it was my turn. I was not a caver, but I was ready – against my better judgment – to lower myself into an impossibly tight limestone fissure that led downward into the side of this mountain and became Humpleau, one of Romania’s most spectacular wild caves. I held onto the lip of the crevice as my feet dangled below in nothingness. I kicked around, frantically searching for purchase. “You’re going to have to just drop down,” Kali told me from inside. “But don’t worry. It’s there, trust me.”

Don’t worry, trust me. Even then I knew that trust was the only worthwhile currency in the caver world. Trust was paramount. If you didn’t trust those you are caving with, you shouldn’t be there. Distrust is dangerous. Distrust gets people killed, or so I’d been told. So I took a breath and just … let go. I had been maybe six inches above the ledge. Score one for trust.

A moment later I wondered how I’d get back up.

Once everyone was accounted for, we started deeper into the cave. The tiny room we had been standing in was well lit, thanks to the concentration of headlamps. I peered into another crack in the limestone to my right, one big enough to walk through this time. This passage led to Humpleau’s main rooms, and the one thing I could see is that it was dark in there. I couldn’t imagine a darkness more intense. I tried to laugh at myself for being so unnerved by the prospect: What kind of 34-year-old man is still afraid of the dark? But I still couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.

Then a single beam of light cut through, and then another, and soon the cave was completely visible as the passage filled with cavers. Water flowed down the cave walls, layers of creamy browns and off-whites. The muddy, pebble-filled pathway felt like it could crumble and break apart beneath my feet at any moment. I stepped slowly and with caution; I knew I was holding up the group, but a twisted ankle or broken wrist would slow them down even more.

Soon we were at the bottom of what felt like a large room. Our voices echoed more than in the passages we’d just come through. We felt the extra space somehow, even if we couldn’t see it, and we took advantage by spreading a little further apart.

“Okay, we are going up,” Bogdan said. There were some impressively elaborate rooms above us, he explained, accessible via a steep climb up a ledge along the wall to my left. But I wasn’t ready to move. I was out of shape and spent. I needed to catch my breath.

I ended up waiting there with a Romanian caver who’d already been through Humpleau. I remember watching Bogdan lead the rest of the party up what looked like a precarious ledge along the far wall, headlamps bobbing higher than I expected. It was only then that I got a sense of the size of the room we were in. They were at least 50 or 60 feet above us, seemingly higher than the ledge, the light from their headlamps silhouetting a nest of stalactites looming overhead. Then the lights winked out one at a time as they ducked into another passage.

This was not the first wild cave I had been in. I’d already seen Cioclovina and Poarta lui Ionele Cave on this three-week visit to Romania. I’d been lowered down a 60-foot block of ice into the restricted-access parts of the Scarisoara Ice Cave (we had permits). The beauty of its intricate ice and limestone formations – the simultaneous feeling of wonder and insignificance the glacier stirred in me – is a memory I will carry with me to the grave.

Those experiences were a far cry from the first cave I’d ever been in. That one had a snack bar in it – you may have lunched there too, at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, one of America’s great natural tourist attractions. And while I could certainly appreciate Carlsbad at the time, it didn’t move me. It felt sterile, like a Disneyworld diorama, and I remember wondering what it was that cavers found so exciting about these holes in the ground.

Years later, standing in the darkness of Humpleau’s vast chamber, drinking in a mere fraction of what that cave has to offer, that is when I finally got it.

Caves are habitat, and not just for bats. Many caves act as almost completely self-contained ecosystems; often these ecosystems require very specific environmental conditions of air temperature, water acidity, humidity. Like trees, the cores of stalagmites and stalactites have concentric rings. The layers are formed over thousands of years, as water drips down through the bedrock, depositing the calcite it contains. Those deposits can tell scientists what environmental conditions were like at the time they first entered the cave, and can be used to assemble a timeline of local climate change that goes back millennia.

But there are other, less practical – but just as valid – reasons for protecting caves, reasons that resonate at a more emotional level. Caves are irreplaceable gifts of a strange, otherworldly kind of natural beauty. Caves are one of the last frontiers in which we can feed our hunger for exploration and discovery. They offer us a reminder that the world is more than what is immediately visible to us. They are proof that the seemingly inaccessible is worth pursuing.

The problem is that it’s very easy for people who love caves to accidentally destroy them. We can damage these ecosystems through the indirect impacts of our actions on the surface, as toxins are washed downward into caves, carried by rainwater and runoff. More directly, we can change the humidity or the carbon dioxide levels inside a cave just by being there. A smudge of oil or sweat from a fingertip can stunt the growth of a stalagmite that has been accumulating for thousands of years. We can bring nothing but the best of intentions into any cave and still sow the seeds of its eventual destruction.

Caving organizations have few resources to invest in land banks or cave restorations – and even less political clout to enact cave protection ordinances. Instead, many caving organizations rely on a decidedly low-tech conservation strategy: secrecy. They simply don’t tell people where the caves are. If nobody can find them, nobody can ruin them.

That’s been the thinking of the National Speleological Society, the largest organization of cave professionals and enthusiasts. The NSS discourages members from publicizing cave locations, preferring instead a system of information dissemination that is based on personal ties and references from other cavers. In some clubs, newbies aren’t told the locations of certain caves until they prove themselves worthy of trust.

“Most people don’t understand caves,” says Jason Polk, a professor of geography at Western Kentucky University and a lifelong caver. “Caves are abstract. They’re dark, wet, and cold. They aren’t perceived as beautiful natural resources worthy of protection, like a redwood forest. You can see and experience the redwoods for yourself, and that’s something you can’t usually say about caves.”

Polk is skeptical that cave tourism – one of the most-frequently suggested potential solutions – would be much of a solution. Even if it were possible for cave tourism to deliver an experience that emphasizes the natural resource aspect of caves – something Polk says is unrealistic – the cost to the resource itself would almost certainly be too high. “We’ll say to the public, come see the cave and bring your dollars – but not too many, because then you’re causing damage,” he says.

It’s a classic catch-22: We can’t adequately protect caves without opening them up to the people who might be inclined to provide financial support, but doing that would almost certainly mean losing the wonder itself. Maybe secrecy really is the only feasible way to protect these incredible resources. Maybe caves will have to be like the stars, a feature of the natural universe that most people will have to appreciate from afar, a wonder beyond reach, a consolation just knowing they’re still there.