By Jeff Berg
Within two minutes of attending a recent meeting of the Mesilla Valley Grotto, it becomes painfully obvious (pun intended), that caving, while certainly being a rewarding and exciting hobby, is also not without its share of danger.
The president of the organization, Steve Peerman, sits at the head of the half-moon setting of chairs with his lower leg wrapped in an old-fashioned plaster cast. Although he receives some gentle ribbing about his injury, especially when other Grotto members can't find a pen to use to ink their sedimentary sentiments on the cast, his wound is not taken lightly.
A rock had fallen on Peerman's foot as he was working on a digging project in the Big Manhole Cave, located in the Guadalupe Mountains.
"Big Manhole has been known about for at least 100 years," Peerman explains. "Jim White may have known about it, since there were the remains of a ladder in the entrance chamber. The ladder was made of barbed wire and sticks, which was the kind he used to enter caves."
White is best known for being one of the first Europeans to explore Carlsbad Caverns, in southeast New Mexico. Bats-millions of black little mammals whirling their way upward in a funnel-shaped cloud that grew and grew until the topmost portion seemed to fuse into the hazy clouds of a New Mexico sunset. That was the spectacle, which, years ago, led White to discover the colossal Carlsbad Cavern. In his 1932 book, Jim White's Own Story: The Discovery and History of Carlsbad Caverns, White recalled: "I thought it was a volcano, but, then, I'd never seen a volcano-nor never before had I seen bats swarm, for that matter. During my life on the range I'd seen plenty of prairie whirlwinds-but this thing didn't move: It remained in one spot, spinning its way upward. I watched it for perhaps a half-hour-until my curiosity got the better of me. Then I began investigating."
Big Manhole is north of Carlsbad Caverns, and less than a mile from Lecheguilla Cave, which remains partially unexplored, but may be larger than the Carlsbad network. In speaking of the exploration and digging that is occurring at Big Manhole, Steve Peerman says, "There is (so far) one sizable room, perhaps 60 feet in diameter. However, air would blow through cracks in the bottom of the room, and that indicates that it should be much bigger. Sometimes the air would blow 40-50 miles an hour at the entrance passage."
Steve Peerman and his wife Kathy have been plunging into the unknown for many years. The Mesilla Valley Grotto club connects them with 40-some fellow spelunkers, enthusiasts of a pastime for which southern and eastern New Mexico is particularly well suited. (All spelunking clubs are called "grottos.")
"I have been caving for over 40 years, ever since I was a kid," Peerman recalls. He grew up in Artesia, and notes that there are "a lot of caves in that area. I went on my first caving trip when I was 12. I used to go with my older brother, but he lost the 'bug' as we grew up, but I kept it. I came to Las Cruces when I was in my mid-20s to go to school, and got involved with the caving club at that time."
Kathy Peerman, like her husband, is a retired teacher. She taught special education for 25 years; he put down his chalk after 30 years of instructing students in math and computers. Their son, Lucas, who edits the Pulse entertainment section of the Las Cruces Sun-News, is also a spelunker, though he probably does not remember his first caving adventure.
"I went caving while I was pregnant," Kathy says. "I was not going to let being pregnant stop me from going. Lucas went with us on his first trip when he was 6 weeks old. I carried him on my back."
She is a Santa Fe native who got interested in caves at a young age. "At 16, I went to Carlsbad (Caverns) and was just fascinated. When I attended NMSU, I moved in next door to Steve (thus, he married the girl next door), and since I am an adventurous-type person, he invited me to go caving with him."
A petite woman, Kathy says she doesn't mind getting dirty, or "going into the unknown." She adds, "It's a good sport for your health. You have to be able to torque your body into positions that you didn't know you could do! You are on your hands and knees a lot, and you do a lot of crawling and climbing."
Not to mention the fact that most caves are not exactly alongside a road, hence cavers usually end up hiking for some distance before being able to do all of the aforementioned things.
The Peermans clearly emphasize the importance of safety to anyone who is interested in getting into caving. A safety-equipment handout from the Mesilla Valley Grotto lists everything from a hard hat to three light sources, with extra batteries and bulbs for each, as things that must accompany you on a cave expedition. It also mentions two or three caving companions-this is not a sport for loners.
"Thrill seekers don't last long," Steve says. "We make a conscious effort to introduce them to the sport in a safe manner, and take them to an easy cave and work up to more technical caves. However, they lose interest and don't last long."
The Peermans are not quite as active as they used to be in the exploration part of caving. Kathy has encountered some respiratory issues in recent years, and Steve says, 'Since I've gotten older, I've gotten more selective. I've been to a lot of caves that I remember fondly, but don't have the desire to go back to. I have less stamina than I used to."
So a portion of their caving time is now spent doing digs and working on projects.
The current digging project at Big Manhole has been going on since 1988. Most of the digging has been done with hand tools, until recently when it became permissible to use power tools. The thought is that Big Manhole is hiding a big, big cave.
And since nothing is sacred to some people, the Grotto members also do a lot of cleaning up after others. Kathy says, "We always carry trash bags in our packs. Vandalism is a big problem, and graffiti was 'popular' a few years ago. It is better now, but the vandalism still remains a problem."
Oz Gomez, outdoor recreation planner for the Las Cruces Bureau of Land Management, says that many of the caves that spelunkers use are now behind locked gates. "It's kind of a secret thing (getting to go to a cave), which is done for the protection of the cave," Gomez explains. "In many of the local caves, the front rooms (the room where one enters a cave) are empty. People break off the stalactites for souvenirs. So, we take a lot of information from anyone who wants to go to a cave, and usually refer them to the Grotto to arrange a trip."
He again emphasizes safety equipment and training for anyone who wants to go crawl on their belly across rocks. "About 10 years ago," Gomez says, "we had a death when one inexperienced caver was trying to squeeze through a narrow passage on his belly. He dislodged a rock that fell on him and killed him."
Gomez adds that Caballo Cave is a popular and nearby destination, and also mentions Snowy River Cave, which recently made headlines when it was revealed that it has a "river" of white calcite rock that is more than two miles long. Snowy River is a recent discovery, and was first explored in 2001. Adjacent Fort Stanton Cave, which has been explored since the 1800s, gave up its secret when gusts of air were discovered blowing through piles of rubble, leading to the eventual discovery of Snowy River. The exact location of the cave, whose calcite "river" may be unique in the world, remains a secret except to a handful of people. Sen. Pete Domenici has introduced legislation to create the Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Cave Conservation Area to help protect the cave.
According the US Geological Survey (USGS), there are about 17,000 known caves in the United States. Every state except Rhode Island and Louisiana has caves. "About 125 caves have been opened to the public for study and enjoyment," says the USGS. "Of these, 15 are in national parks or monuments, and 30 are in state parks. The remainder are privately owned and operated. Most of these caves are in the Appalachian Mountains, the Ozark Mountains, the Black Hills and the limestone regions of Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana."
The length of US caves varies, according to the USGS: "Seven caves have more than 15 passage miles. The longest is the Flint-Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, with more than 169 miles. The other six are Jewel Cave in South Dakota (54.4 miles), Organ Cave in West Virginia (32 miles), Wind Cave in South Dakota (28.7 miles), Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee (23.2 miles), Sloan Valley Cave system in Kentucky (22.4 miles) and Crevice Cave in Missouri (20.8 miles)."
The deepest cave in the United States is Neff Canyon in Utah. There, a depth of 1,189 feet below the entrance is reached along a steeply sloping 1,700-foot passage. The second-deepest cave is our own Carlsbad Caverns; its lowest point is 1,022 feet below the entrance. Ellison's Cave system in Georgia, a close rival of Carlsbad, has a depth of nearly 1,000 feet.
The largest cave room is in Carlsbad Caverns, where the Big Room covers 14 acres. This room is 1,800 feet long and ranges up to 1,100 feet wide. The maximum height of the ceiling is 225 feet. The size of the Big Room, the length of the caverns (14.9 miles, the 11th longest in the US), and the depth probably make Carlsbad overall the biggest cave in the United States.
New Mexico has about 1,900 known caves.
Another local cave enthusiast is Kenny Stabinsky. It was Stabinsky's truck license plate that originally sparked this article. The license plate reads "NMCAVER."
Stabinsky has this to say about his interest in holes in the ground: "I have been caving for almost 12 years, and have been interested in caving since I was a kid growing up on the East Coast. But I never really got involved in it until I came to Las Cruces to obtain a degree from New Mexico State University. I have been caving in several states and in Guatemala and Belize. I do both horizontal and vertical caving."
He is currently the chairman of the Southwestern Region of the National Speleological Society. "The southwestern region includes all grottos in New Mexico," he explains. "We get together four times a year in different locations throughout the state. The first three gatherings involve work projects for (the) BLM (Bureau of Land Management), (US) Forest Service, and (US) Park Service. We also just have recreational projects. The fourth meeting, which is the winter meeting, is called the 'paper regional.' At the paper regional people present talks on different aspects of caving and other similar interests."
Stabinsky says he also enjoys doing cave photography, cave surveying and cave digging. "Mapping a cave is called 'cave survey' and usually involves three people. I usually like to read the instruments, which consist of a compass and a clinometer (which measures up and down angles). There is another person who sketches what the passage of the cave looks like, and a third person that picks the survey points and reads tape."
Similarly, he says, "cave digging" also represents a team effort, involving several people working on a dig project in a cave. A permit is usually required from the organization that manages the cave. "Cave digging is done to expand a going cave or connect one part of a cave to another. Most digs are in a location of a cave where air movement can be felt." Equipment consists of a small shovel, hammer, chisel and a bucket and rope, which are used for hauling.
Like other cavers who sound a cautionary note, Stabinsky also wants to share a short tale about the other perils of his hobby. This story, as he relates it, "does bring home the point of always caving with at least three people," he says.
"I had been caving for about four to five years and had visited this cave two to three times," Stabinsky recalls. "I was leading a couple of cavers to a room I had been to before and ended up taking a wrong turn. The area looked unfamiliar to me, and the crack leading down looked a little small to me. So one of the other cavers went first. Then I started down after him. This crack was a vertical pie shape opening with about an eight-foot drop. As I started down, gravity wedged me into the crack.
"The first thing I did was panic. You are told not to panic, but it is hard to stop it. After several minutes, I gained my composure and calmed down. Those several minutes felt more like 20 minutes. The problem was that there was nothing below to push my legs against so I could push myself out of the crack. Because I was the second person, there was a person above and below me. The person below pushed my legs and allowed me to push off him to get my body out of the crack. The person above helped to pull me out of the crack. After I got free, I was totally drained of energy and had to exit the cave.
"This incident has not stopped me from caving, but it has made me a little leery of tight passages in a cave."
Needless to say, the claustrophobic should not apply to join the Mesilla Valley Grotto.
Jeff Berg lives in a cave east of Las Cruces.