Notes From the Underground

UT’s Speleological Society seeks dusty, dark, claustrophobic adventures.

Notes From the Underground

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there are Barton Springs salamanders in Whirlpool Cave. There are salamanders, but they are Plethodon glutinosus complex, also known as “slimy salamanders,” and they are quite plentiful.

The entrance to Whirlpool Cave, a hole in the ground covered by a heavy iron gate, can fit only one person at a time. The rickety aluminum ladder is worn from years of use and exposure. Although the frigid wind outside cuts through my sweater, the air coming out of the cave is warm.

“Watch out for salamanders at the bottom,” Heather Tucek, my guide for the day, tells me and our photographer, Anna Donlan.

I see no salamanders as I descend. The cave’s inky blackness swallows me as soon as I leave the surface. The only natural light comes from the hole overhead, where Tucek and Donlan wait their turn.

“Clear!” I shout as I flip on my headlamp. The white light illuminates the small room, bouncing off the drab rock walls.

I crawl around while the others climb down. There seems to be no way forward, even though the map posted outside shows 400 meters of explored cave. Already I am lost.

“See how it looks like there’s no way to go?” Tucek says, smiling. She beckons us to follow her to the far side of the room, then slides feet-first through an opening no larger than a car window. I hear shuffling, sliding, then a “Clear!” from somewhere below us, out of sight. Here goes nothing, I think, as I wedge my feet into the hole.

Founded in 1951, the University Speleological Society meets in Painter Hall. The student club is closely tied to Underground Texas Grotto, a local chapter of the National Speleological Society. Students, a few daring professors, and community members all go caving together. They also do volunteer work, cleaning and conserving caves and holding educational events.

Tucek, my guide inside Whirlpool Cave, is a freelance theatrical-lighting technician turned professional caver for the City of Austin. She leads beginner caving trips twice a month for everyone from UT students to 9-year-old kids to 90-year-old grandmothers. But her favorite group to take through is the Texas School for the Deaf.

“It’s a whole different dynamic,” she says. “They see some of the coolest things because they aren’t told to look at any specific place; they look at all the places that we never think to tell people to look at. It’s pretty neat.”

As we army crawl through narrow passages, Tucek points out the creatures around us. Cave crickets, an almost-translucent white from the lack of sunlight, scamper across the low rock ceilings. Millipedes slither through the dirt. We even encounter a raccoon in one of the rooms.

When we enter the Travis County Room, named because it is not just the largest room in the cave but in the whole county, Tucek motions for us to sit. I stretch before choosing a rock, since this is the only place in the cave I’ve been able to stand. I’m grateful for the break; the descent has left me breathless. Caving is hard work.

There seems to be no way forward, even though the map posted outside shows 400 meters of explored cave. Already I am lost.

And like any extreme sport, it’s not without danger. The Texas Speleological Association keeps a memorial of fallen Texas cavers on their website. A red parenthetical C denotes caving-related deaths; half of the names on the list are followed by the C.

The risk of death doesn’t bother Tucek because proper cave safety mitigates any threat. “Anything that could possibly go wrong in the cave, 99 percent of it you have control over,” she says. “Considering all the accidents that could potentially happen, caving is very, very safe.”

Another risk mitigator is the caver community itself.

“You never want to go into a cave you’ve never been in before with someone you don’t trust with your life,” Tucek says, “because if something happens in that cave, they are your lifeline.”

That trust carries over onto the surface. Cavers are so close-knit that they often attend each other’s weddings.

caving3

I begin to panic halfway out of Whirlpool Cave. As we climb up through the Corkscrew, a narrow, twisting passage that connects the first and second rooms, I lose sight of Anna in front of me. Every side of the passage looks like a solid rock wall.

Seconds feel like hours as I try to wedge myself up through the passage. I finally see a foot going through a hole above me. Cold air flows across my face as I pop out into the first room like a champagne cork. The warm blackness of the cave merges with the cold blackness of the night as I stick my head above ground for the first time in three hours.

I’ve made it. I’m covered head-to-toe in cave dirt, but I made it. And I’d gladly go again.

Above, from top: The author at the entrance to Whirlpool Cave; deep in the cave; Heather Tucek leads caving expeditions with the Speleological Society. 

Photos by Anna Donlan

 

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