Barbara Anne am Ende first learned about the wonders of caving during a simple visit to a commercial cave at the age of 14. Shortly thereafter she took a spelunking tour (studying caves and their contents) and was hooked; she joined the National Speleological Society (NSS) to foster her interest. As a member, she did some tourist caving (looking around well-known systems) and visited wild caves (undeveloped without paths or lights). Am Ende longed to find a passage no person had ever seen before, a virgin cave. She got her wish—one of her most memorable explorations, the 1994 Huautla Expedition, is depicted in her book, Beyond the Deep.
What does a deep-cave explorer do?
Most hardcore cavers live to scoop booty—to be the first person ever in a cave. Some cavers aspire to set depth records, and others find a system to keep exploring until they’ve seen it all. However, it’s not enough to just see a cave, the passage has to be mapped. Cavers suit up in nylon coveralls, helmets with efficient lamps, and sturdy boots. Survey equipment, traditionally, is comprised of a compass, clinometer (used to measure angles), and fiberglass tape. A typical team may include a lead who heads first into the unknown with one end of the survey tape, a second person to hold the tape’s other end, and a third party to document distances, angles, and cave sketches. With this data, the survey line is later plotted on a computer. More recently, I have used survey equipment that maps caves in 3-D. The device sends laser (or sonar, if underwater) beams out within the cave and records reflections from the walls. Complex software converts those measurements into a virtual cave. Someday we’ll be able to go “caving” without setting foot underground, which will be useful for educational outreach and scientific studies.
Because cave exploration is not a well-paid profession, cavers may choose to also have a “day job.” With bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in geology, I work for the Aerospace Corporation, combining geology and computer skills to study the Earth through remote sensing. As part of The Matrix, I get farmed out to various projects that need someone with my expertise. I’m constantly learning new things, the job never gets boring, and my caving career remains a special “treat.”
What background is needed?
The caving community includes a lot of different backgrounds. Within caves, geologists may study mineralogy, hydrologists investigate water movement, and microbiologists can examine bacteria. Engineers design equipment used in cave exploration and research. Archeologists study cave paintings and artifacts to learn about past cultures. Sketch artists and photographers detail cave walls and features. Rescue work is yet another aspect of caving.
Students should visit the NSS website at www.caves.org to find links to grottos—local caving clubs that organize trips and provide proper caving equipment and important safety guidelines for members.
What has been your most exciting experience?
The 1994 Huautla Expedition, located in Mexico, involved one of the deepest caves in the Americas at the time. My team sought to explore and map this cave in hopes it would prove to be the deepest in the world. The route we took into the cave descended about 840 m before we hit a point that was completely flooded with water; an obstacle we intended to beat. At that depth, we camped on a collapsible platform and started to dive through the water with rebreathers (a type of scuba gear that recirculates a diver’s breath instead of losing the exhalation as bubbles). It was a very difficult project and most of our team quit during the three months on site. In the end, only the expedition leader and I dove through the flooded section of cave to emerge into air and explore another 3 km stretch of virgin cave. That set the depth record for caves in all the Americas at –1475 m; a record that lasted for nine years and was broken by only a scant 9 m in 2003.