The allure of caving, enthusiasts say, is a mix of challenge and discovery. “I’ve seen spaces no one has seen before,” says Derek Von Nieda, a Penn State senior and member of Nittany Grotto Caving Club. The student club was chartered in 1948 as a chapter of the National Speleological Society by then–graduate student Robert Zeller Jr. ’48, ’49 MS EMS. Three years later, the Grotto became an official student organization through the efforts of entomology professor Stuart Frost.

Today, the club is designated a special-interest group and meets on campus twice a month for programs on knot tying, caving gear, safety protocols, and an introduction to the fauna one might find in caves. As club president David Wasson says, “The only way you can protect a natural resource is to know about it.”

As part of its agreement with the university, the club is not allowed to hold official activities off-campus. But many club members spend their free time going on caving trips together. “Caving is a team sport,” says Von Nieda, who is set to earn a degree in industrial engineering in December. “It builds a lot of camaraderie.”

Alec Matheus near Nales Cave

INTO THE VOID: Alec Matheus gets ready to rappel into Nales Cave in Mifflin County, Pa.

Nittany Grotto Caving Club members

DIRTY WORK: "The people you go caving with are just as important as the caves," Von Nieda says. Back row, from left: Alex Vizcarra '20 Sci, Matheus, Emma Koller '20 Sci, Jake Lee, Kelsey Neff '19 Agr; front row: Michael Swope '21 Eng, and Olivia McAllister '20 Sci at Stitzer Cave in Centre County, Pa.

Alec Matheus in McClung's Cave

AROUND THE BEND: Alec Matheus on a survey trip to McClung's Cave in West Virginia, part of the Great Savannah cave system.

Aaron Clair in Bear Cave

THE LONG VIEW: Aaron Clair '14 EMS navigates Bear Cave in Westmoreland County, Pa. The light of another caver illuminates him from behind.

Megan McDermott in Bear Cave

UNDERGROUND FASHION: Megan McDermott '21 H&HD inside Bear Cave wearing a vintage caving suit by B&C Wunderwear. "These suits are beloved by many cavers for their ruggedness and style," Von Nieda says.

David Wasson in McAlisterville Cave

JUST POPPING IN: Club president David Wasson on a surveying trip to McAlisterville Cave in Juniata County, Pa. Cavers use an adjustable "squeeze box" to test how tight a space they can get through before going in.

Olivia McAllister at Sliding Rock Cave

WELL CONTAINED: Waterproof cases and Daren Drums keep equipment and extra layers dry—vital on long days: At Sliding Rock Save in Bedford County, Pa., Olivia McAllister and friends spent 16 hours underground.

David Wasson in Walnut Pit

GOING UP?: For cavers, gaining proficiency in the use of vertical equipment is a time-consuming but rewarding process. Here, Wasson rappels into Walnut Pit in West Virginia.

Emma Koller in Gourdneck Cave

STRIKE A POSE: Emma Koller in Gourdneck Cave in Alabama. Nittany Grotto cavers have traveled to multiple states, and to Italy, Montenegro, Cambodia, and Svalbard—a Norwegian archipelago with glacial ice caves.

Club members have traveled out of state and even internationally, but a long trip is not necessary: Wasson says there are more than 100 caves in Centre County alone. Penn State owns a dozen or so, though all are closed to protect the natural resources. “I’d much rather the caves be protected than get to see them,” says Wasson, a junior majoring in landscape architecture.

Most local caves are on private property, but the club—and its State College–based sister organization Nittany Grotto Inc.—has agreements with several landowners who allow club members limited access. Von Nieda says the nature of local caves “creates cavers who are willing to put up with difficult conditions,” such as tight crawlways and muddy, wet rocks. In certain caves, he says, it’s not uncommon to pick up 10 or more pounds of mud on your clothes and gear as you go. That can make the trip back up to the surface even more challenging.

Olivia McAllister in Benson's Cave

WATER WORLD: Above, Olivia McAllister maneuvers through an "ear dipper" in New York's Benson's Cave. Cavers wear wetsuits underneath their coveralls in caves with a lot of water. Below, a happy caver in the Bone-Normal Cave System in West Virginia.

Caver in Bone-Normal Cave System


Student cavers have contributed to the field of speleology by collecting specimens of microorganisms for researchers and by helping to survey several caves. Nittany Grotto members have helped with the surveying efforts of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is the longest known cave system in the world. “The aspect of exploration is something I really appreciate,” Von Nieda says. “Most of the mountains have been climbed, a lot of the surface of Earth has been traveled by people. Caves are among the few unknown regions we have left to learn from.” The cavers say they respect the pristine nature of the spaces they explore, knowing that merely being there is leaving a trace. “Where you put your footprint may never have the chance to erase that footprint,” Wasson says. “We walk where people have already walked, to minimize our impact. If there’s one trail, there’s no need to make two. We’re mindful of every footstep.”

Harrison Cassady in Kooken Cave

WHAT'S YOUR ANGLE?: Harrison Cassady '16 MS Eng rappels into Kooken Cave in Huntingdon County, Pa. In addition to caving for sport, club members have removed graffiti and participated in watershed cleanups.