Down We Go
Penn Staters with a thirst for adventure—and with no apparent fear of deep holes or tight spaces—spend their weekends exploring and surveying underground worlds.
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.”
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.
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.”