Introduction to Caving with the Boston Grotto


Kevin W. Harris

Table of Contents

About Caving and the Grotto
Meetings and Affiliated Organizations
Where the Boston Grotto Caves
Boston Grotto Officers
Equipment for Caving
Where to Buy Equipment

About Caving and the Grotto

The Boston Grotto is a chartered internal organization of the National Speleological Society (NSS). It was founded in 1952 for the purpose of promoting exploration, conservation, scientific study, and social activities in and about caves. The grotto sponsors caving trips every month, to Northeastern locations as well as other U.S. caving areas and other countries. Typical cave trip activities include: Training, Photography, Surveying, Exploration, Geological Study, Biological Study, Rescue Practice, and Rope work Practice.

Caving has several properties that distinguish it from other outdoor sports such as hiking, mountain climbing, canoeing etc. While it is usually physically demanding, the emphasis is on skill and endurance rather than strength. Body size is not too important - tall people get an advantage in climbing situations, but get penalized in the low cave passages that abound in the Northeast. Neither is it glamorous, you won't see any ESPN cameras in caves. Not to mention that a caver usually ends up covered with mud. Significant travel is usually required as well - there are few caves East of the Connecticut River, and most of them are small and short.

Caving with an organized group is generally quite safe, but common sense and creativity are required to avoid dangerous situations. While bruises and small cuts are common, major injuries are remarkably rare in organized caving due to a long term emphasis on safety and training. Initial equipment costs are low, but rugged warm clothing is essential for safety in our cold Northeastern caves.

Caving is an intensely social sport. It is easy to become friends with your fellow cavers due to the long travel times and teamwork required for the group to traverse a cave safely. Learning opportunities abound in caving, usually everyone involved learns something significant on every caving trip. Typical lessons include climbing moves, leadership, specific manual skills such as photography, surveying and rope work, safety techniques, new equipment, speleology topics such as geology, hydrology, biology, even civil engineering (rock moving)!

Caving is one of the few kinds of exploration left in the world where a relative novice can make interesting new discoveries. All it takes is noticing something no one has ever noticed before. The simple words "It goes!" are about the best music ever heard by cavers.

Caving is not an expensive sport, the dominant cost is transportation to the caving areas. Basic equipment is a suitable helmet, reliable light sources and heavy duty warm clothing. While there is much equipment available for specialized cave applications, the beginner can acquire this gradually, as his skill improves.

Although it is possible to see unusual, even amazing, formations such as stalactites, rimstone, gypsum flowers, helictites and large "borehole" passages, caves with easy access to such "speleothems" tend to be commercialized already. So it is usual to find that overcoming at least one (and often all) of four main obstacles are required to access such wonders in wild caves: significant travel, tight squeezes, vertical pits, and immersion in cold water. Some of us find that overcoming such obstacles is rewarding in itself, regardless of the potential benefits at the end of the journey - as mountain climbing has often been described. Overcoming each type of obstacle demands a different set of skills and strengths, and builds character in its own way. So if want to see pretty formations and large passages, without significant effort, feel free to visit the fine commercial and Park Service caves of America and the world. But if you want to challenge yourself in new and different ways, and see what the inside of the earth looks like, lit only by your own headlamp, then come caving with the Boston Grotto!

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Meetings and Affiliated Organizations

Boston Grotto meetings are held on the first Wednesday of every month from 7:30 to 10:00pm in the Stata Center (Bldg 32), classroom 124, on the campus of MIT, on the first block of Vassar street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Convenient free Parking is usually available at meeting time in the MIT East Parking Lot. Annual Grotto dues are $15 which includes a subscription to The Massachusetts Caver. The mailing address is P.O. Box 304, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, MA 02138. Meetings usually include recent cave trip reports, announcements of future trips, discussion of local, regional, and national caving activities, and a program, usually photos, a video, or a speaker on some aspect of caving. After the meeting, you can usually find us eating pizza and discussing caves at La Hacienda tavern in nearby Somerville.

In addition to the monthly meetings, individual grotto members often host an informal party on the second Wednesday of the month. This is a good opportunity to explore better driving routes in the area, check out other members' caving equipment and decorations, learn to play Hearts for blood, discuss recent trips and plan future trips.

Several times per year, the grotto holds rope-climbing and rappelling practice and training sessions at local cliffs. The modern methods used to traverse vertical passages in caves are called Single Rope Techniques (SRT), to distinguish them from older methods that used an additional "safety" rope, which became obsolete after nylon ropes became available. Caving SRT is somewhat different from rope work in other sports, such as rock climbing, so we recommend that members attend at least one vertical practice before joining a trip to a vertical cave. Novice vertical practices are often held at College Rock, in Hopkinton, MA, or the famous Quincy Quarries, which are accessible from public transportation. For more advanced training, we often visit Crow Hill Cliff, in Leominster State Forest, near Fitchburg, Mass. This is about a 90 minute ride from Boston, but offers a 105 foot free drop, the highest in the area, and extensive views of Mt. Wachusett and the Eastern Massachusetts landscape.

Grotto members also often attend regional meetings, held one or two times per year in the eastern USA. These meetings often feature guided trips to area caves, and sometimes guidebooks as well, often with cave maps. The NRO meetings are held in the Spring, usually around Mother's Day and Fall each year, at a low budget campground, hosted by one of the grottos in the region. Grotto members also sometimes attend meetings of the MAR, VAR, and SERA Regions. Two other Eastern US caving get togethers are notable, and have been frequent destinations for Boston Grotto trips: the annual Old Timer's Reunion (OTR) and TAG Fall Cave-in ("TAG"). Each of these is a major event, held over a long weekend, usually attended by over a thousand cavers, at a dedicated camping facility, with lots of nearby caves to explore. Last, but not least, the annual NSS Convention is hosted in a variety of venues around the USA. This is a week-long event, featuring daily symposia, guided cave trips, and major events each evening. On Thursday evenings, the auditorium is packed for the Photo and Video Salons and awards, and Friday's Banquet features the annual NSS Award presentations.

The Boston grotto is a member of the Northeast Regional Organization (NRO), which includes grottos from Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as Massachusetts. The Boston grotto publishes a bimonthly newsletter, The Massachusetts Caver, which is supplemented by the NRO publication The Northeastern Caver. Grotto members who also choose to join the NSS also receive the monthly magazine NSS News and the scientific publication, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies published 3 times per year. NSS members can also join special interest groups, called "Sections", many of which provide publications. Some popular examples: the Vertical Section (Nylon Highway), the Survey and Cartography Section (Compass and Tape), and the Geology and Geography Section (Geo**2).

To round out the list of affiliated organizations, Boston Grotto cavers should be aware of several cave conservation conservation organizations. These are typically non-profit corporations established for express purpose of owning and conserving the scare resource of caves. Often, these conservancies own some of the most significant and popular caves in their respective regions. They have a dual role of both insuring the protection of the caves, and especially the life in the caves, and insuring access for cavers. For this reason, many caves owned by conservancies are gated, and prior permission from the manager is required to visit their caves. Sometimes, these caves are closed for part of each year, often to protect large colonies of hibernating or reproducing bats. The NSS Cave Conservation Section maintains an up-to-date list of all Cave Conservation Organizations in the USA. Boston Grotto members should be aware of several conservancies that own significant caves in regions that we frequent:

  1. The Northeast Cave Conservancy
  2. The NSS itself - List of Nature preserves - three in NY, one in PA
  3. The Nature Conservancy
  4. The Appalachian Cave Conservancy
  5. The Mid Atlantic Karst Conservancy
  6. The New Jersey Cave Conservancy
  7. The Pennsylvania Cave Conservancy
  8. The West Virginia Cave Conservancy
  9. The Butler Cave Conservation Society
  10. The Southeast Cave Conservancy
  11. The American Cave Conservation Association

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Where the Boston Grotto Caves

Here is a short discussion of the regions frequently visited on Boston Grotto caving trips, in order of closest to farthest:

  1. Far Western Massachusetts

    Near the New York border are a substantial number of solution caves, formed mostly in low grade marble. Some contain attractive passageways, but most are short, with small passageways. About 2-3 hours drive from Boston.

  2. Central Vermont

    In the Green Mountains, between Manchester and Weybridge, there are a variety of modest size caves. Some are over 1000 feet in extent and contain interesting passageways and even some pits. Unfortunately, many are on the slopes of Dorset Mountain, which has recently been closed to cavers by the landowners, a large marble quarrying company. About 3-4 hours drive from Boston.

  3. Northern New Hampshire

    There are some large boulder piles in some areas of the White Mountains. In some places you can crawl around under the boulders for significant distances. About 3-4 hours drive from Boston.

  4. Eastern New York

    New York State has several different caving areas with substantial numbers of medium and large size caves. The most significant is the Helderberg escarpment - Onondaga Formation region, and associated areas of the Appalachian plateau about 20 miles Southwest of Albany, in Albany and Schoharie Counties. Several multi-mile cave systems with large (walking size or greater) passageways are found here. Most Boston Grotto novice training trips use this area or Vermont caves. About 4-8 hours drive from Boston. Some small areas of the Adirondacks, especially near Indian Lake, contain some significant caves. There is also a narrow band of rock in the Southwestern end of the Shawangunk Mountains area, which contains several significant caves with large and extensive passages. Finally, the Watertown area, near the St. Lawrence River has some extensive maze systems with small passages, but many of these are on closed land.

  5. Central Pennsylvania

    About once a year, the Grotto takes a long weekend trip to visit caves in Central PA (the State College area). There are several significant caving areas within a two hour drive of there. This is about an 9-10 hour drive from Boston.

  6. Western VA, West Virginia

    There are some very large and extensive cave systems (10s of miles in total length) in the extensive bands of limestone associated with the Appalachian Mountains and the Plateau to the west. These areas start around the Shenandoah Valley near the Maryland borders, and continue almost unbroken all the way to the southernmost Appalachians in Alabama and Georgia. The closest of these areas is about a 13 hour drive from Boston, so these areas are usually visited only on long weekends or extended trips of 4 days or more. The farthest areas accessible from Boston in a single day's drive are in Southwestern VA, near Blacksburg. The terrain in these areas is very rugged, towns are sparse, and long driving times between caves are common. The reward is some of the best caving in the USA, featuring extensive systems, large passageways and rooms, large and varied formations of many colors, interesting cave life such as cave crickets, salamanders, and bats, and warmer temperatures than the Northeast.

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Equipment for Caving

Basic equipment needed for a cave exploration trip in the Northeastern USA:
A sturdy rock-climbing type helmet is ideal - light, thin, comfortable, with a 4 point suspension that will stay on in a fall, a sturdy chin strap that can be easily disconnected, and safe for mounting brackets and battery packs. Construction type helmets are acceptable but almost always need an improved suspension to keep them from falling off when struck from behind (common in falls). Soft bicycle helmets not acceptable - they can be severely damaged by a single hard blow.
Headlamp mounted to helmet
A variety of lamp styles are available, tradeoffs involve initial cost, per-hour cost, weight, convenience, and durability. For 30 years, there was an on-going controversy - whether carbide lamps or battery operated electric lamps (incandescent) were better for caving. With the advent of high-powered LED based lights, it now looks like both of these technologies are obsolescent. For novice trips, the Grotto has about a dozen helmet/light combinations that beginners can borrow for a nominal upkeep fee. These take 4 D-Cell batteries, bring a package of fresh Alkaline batteries for best results. Helmet mounting is usually accomplished by a system of straps and/or brackets firmly attached to the helmet. Most Northeastern cavers now use an electrical lighting system, but some old-timers still use carbide/acetylene miner's cap lamps occasionally. This usage has diminished in recent years, due to the restrictions on shipping carbide through the mail.
Equipment pack
A small pack is needed to carry your spare lights, batteries, food, water, extra clothing, and repair parts. Backpacks are popular, but tend to catch on the ceiling in low passages. Large fanny packs are better, but must be rugged. Easy buckling and unbuckling is a plus, since you frequently need to remove your pack to crawl through a small passageway.
Extra lights
A minimum of 3 working light sources is essential for safety on a Northeastern cave trip. If your primary headlamp is very robust, and you have adequate repair parts, then 2 small C or AA cell flashlights are adequate for backup lights. Experienced cavers mount a small AA-cell flashlight on the side of their helmet, to allow an instant spare - or a focused light beam, to be ready in case the primary light goes out. If your primary light is prone to failure (most non-LED based systems), then it is useful to carry a spare headlamp to supplement or replace your primary light. In addition, you should carry enough battery or carbide fuel to last at least twice your expected trip length. Spare lamp bulbs are also necessary for incandescent systems.
Sturdy boots
Paved trails are essentially non-existent in Northeastern USA caves. More common is a jumble of broken rocks, with mud and water covering them. In these conditions, sturdy boots with deep lug soles and good ankle support are essential. Good quality hiking boots are commonly used, as are work boots. Assume they will get soaking wet, and prepare them accordingly. British style "Wellington" knee-high rubber boots are gaining in popularity.
Warm clothes
Exposure to cold and wet conditions are the greatest problem to overcome in Northeastern caving areas. Unfortunately, most people's first choice in rugged clothing, blue jeans, are very poor performers in these conditions. They soak up the cold water instantly, and are not warm when wet. If you get wet in a cave while wearing cotton clothes, your trip will be cut very short, since you will likely be shivering uncontrollably within an hour. Since most Northeastern caves are wet, cotton clothing is simply unusable. The less cotton, the better, and this rule applies even to underwear. Expect that any clothes you wear caving will become so impregnated with mud that it will be impossible to wear them for any other purpose.
Generally, novice cavers should acquire caving outfits made of synthetic materials or wool. Poly pro or capilene long underwear and coveralls with a blend of cotton and synthetics are widely available locally. Wool pants and shirts are widely available in the fall and winter, and are a big improvement on cotton. An extra (medium weight) wool sweater is good, because wool stays warm even when wet. Stretchy tights are also good because they squeeze the water out from the underwear. Experienced cavers usually purchase a dedicated set of coveralls made specifically for caving.
A thin wool, poly pro, or pile hat is very effective at retaining body heat.
Sturdy gloves are also essential, and a wide variety of styles are acceptable. Avoid cotton. Look for a good fit, and a sturdy palm. Leather gloves work well and so do heavy-duty rubber gloves. Finger less bicycling gloves work well when rope work is involved, since significant finger dexterity is needed.
Use synthetic and wool socks to keep your feet warm in cold water. Neoprene rubber socks are the best, these are often available in stores that sell diving, kayaking, or canoeing equipment. You may need a different shoe size when wearing them. Small plastic bags worn under your outer sock are a remarkably effective, low cost, substitute.
Food and Water
For an extended caving trip, you will need to bring food to keep up your energy level and water to keep hydrated. Even after a big breakfast, the constant exertion and cold conditions combine to draw down your reserves in a few hours. And dehydration can lead to shivering even if the cave air is dry. Bring good food that you will eat, packed in a robust container, such as Tupperware. Granola Bars, GORP, Power Bars and Clif Bars are popular caving food. Plan to drink at least a pint of water every 2 hours, since dehydration is a major cause of hypothermia and exposure problems.

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Where to Buy Equipment

Basic equipment can be obtained locally, but the mail order suppliers have a much bigger selection of cave worthy equipment and clothing. Click here for a reasonably complete list of American suppliers, most will send a current catalog on request. Because of the high cost of travel (fuel and wear & tear on vehicles, mostly) to the caving areas, it is often cost-effective to purchase high-quality equipment that will maximize the fun at the destination. This is the origin of the informal Boston Grotto Motto: Better Caving through Spending Money!

Some Boston area sources of equipment which can be used for cave exploration are listed below. They are mostly general outdoor equipment vendors, with a limited selection of caving specific equipment. However, you can often find high quality warm clothing, helmets, a variety of lights, seat harnesses, footwear, and some rope climbing equipment there.

Boston Rock Gym, 78-G Olympia Ave., Woburn, MA, 617 935 7325. See also Sterling Rope Company.
City Sports Several locations in town, general sporting goods.
Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) Many locations. The biggest chain of outdoor stores in the Boston area, Headquartered in Peterborough, NH. Good selection of high quality brands in convenient places.
Earth Gear, 11 Rockingham Road, Windham, NH 03067, 603 893 3733. See also Sterling Rope Company. Directions: Take I93 to Exit 3 in NH (Rt 111). Take Rt 111 East to Rt 28 North. Shop is 200 yards from this intersection, on left (west side of Rt 28). The 2nd Floor of the building houses "Policy Pump and Well".
Maynard Outdoor Store, 28 Nason St., Maynard, MA, 978 897 2133.
MetroRock, climbing gyms, two locations - Everett and Newburyport.
Moor And Mountain, 3 Railroad St., Andover, MA. 01810, 508 475 3665.
Morty's Outfitters, 25 Otterson Street, Nashua, NH 03060, phone: 603 886 6789.
Patagonia This is their Boston store in back bay. Most expensive but highest quality outdoor gear - mostly too expensive for in-cave use, but great for the associated hikes! Patagonia branded stuff also sold at most other outdoor stores. Get on their mailing list - the catalog has the most amazing wilderness photos of any company!
Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI). There are now four stores in the Boston area, Boston, Reading, Hingham, and Framingham.
Rhode Island Rock Gym and Ocean State Rock Climbing, both in Lincoln, RI.
Work 'n Gear Currently in 16 locations around Boston. This is a great place for coveralls and boots.
Wilderness House, 1048 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Ma. 617 277 5858.

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