Is it OK to Cave?

When temperatures flirt with triple digits and the sun beats down on us, it's hard to get excited about any outdoor activity. But the Allegheny regionís caves are always around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Lately, though, the fear of spreading white nose syndrome among bats has brought caving in the region to a near standstill. At the end of a year-long voluntary moratorium, some cavers are beginning to return to the caves--but many are not. Commentator and caver Ken Chiacchia discusses the tricky issues surrounding the question, "Is it OK to cave?"

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Host open: When temperatures flirt with triple digits and the sun beats down on us, it's hard to get excited about any outdoor activity. But the Allegheny region's caves are always around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Lately, though, the fear of spreading white nose syndrome among bats has brought caving in the region to a near standstill. At the end of a year-long voluntary moratorium, some cavers are beginning to return to the caves-- but many are not. Commentator and caver Ken Chiacchia discusses the tricky issues surrounding the question, "Is it OK to cave?"

Like all caves, it was cold and absolutely dark. This one, though, was endowed with more than the usual amount of very slippery mud. The mud was what got me into trouble.

We were using a rope as an assist to climb a steep incline. I'd decided to add a bit of insurance to my ascent by tying what's called a French Prusik. That's a kind of ratchet made of webbing or cord that lets you move up the rope, but prevents you from slipping back down.

But I hadn't counted on the mud. About halfway up, on the steepest part, that Prusik jammed in place. I wanted to retie it; but that would mean letting go of the rope when my footholds were treacherously slippery.

Twenty feet below me, my friends, getting impatient, started offering advice.

"You're not seeing what I'm seeing," I said, a little more testily than necessary. When you have the time to think a problem through, you do. Rushing can kill you.

I can't tell you where the cave was. You donít tell anyone where a cave is unless you take them yourself, see with your own eyes whether they're a danger to themselves. Or the cave. Cavers take that responsibility seriously.

I can tell you about the bat that fluttered past my head when we'd entered the cave. Like most cavers, I have a strong affection for the furry little guys.

That's why the caving community reacted in horror when white nose syndrome started killing thousands of bats in the northeast U.S. Fearing that we were spreading it, we instituted a voluntary, year-long moratorium in the threatened areas, which included my home turf of southwest Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.

That was a year ago. The moratorium has expired, and many of us are back in the caves--though we're also employing decontamination methods we wouldn't have dreamed of a few years back. New findings, that WHITE NOSE SYNDROME is genetically identical to a non-fatal fungus in Europe, are consistent with humans carrying it to the U.S., but fall short of proof. In any case, these data don't address the BIG question of transmission between American caves. Biologists have demonstrated that the fungus can be passed between bats. At least in western Pennsylvania, the pattern of newly infected caves appears to follow the geographic features that funnel bat movement--not the highways that cavers generally travel. Perhaps most importantly, despite the moratorium, the disease has continued to spread.

But the return to caving is as much about the feeling that an initial, valid desire to err on the side of caution has cemented itself into policy, on scant evidence.

The question strikes to the heart of responsible, environmentally conscious enjoyment of the wild. Human presence may put some environments at risk, but it protects them as well--cavers, in particular, have been at the vanguard of preventing many caves from being mined for road gravel. And cavers don't protect caves as a theoretical exercise--their devotion to the environment goes hand in hand with experiencing it. The question of when it's OK to visit an environment, then, is one of balancing risk and benefit; there are no magic answers.

Cavers certainly don't agree on the right thing to do--some are back "in cave," others are continuing the moratorium. It's not clear what would constitute a meaningful assessment that it's safe to cave. If someone discovered DNA proof linking a sick bat's white nose fungus to spores on a caver's boot, it would certainly argue for a permanent moratorium. But to date the case against cavers has been circumstantial. In the absence of direct proof caving is harmful, how do you prove a negative--that cavers aren't spreading the disease? And how much bat habitat will be lost if caves lose cavers' protection?

I certainly wasn't sure, stuck on that rope, what the best thing to do was. I decided to abandon my Prusik, try something different. To get past the steep part, I improved by grip by wrapping the rope around my arms and back--what's called a "body belay"--and, not gracefully, hauled myself upward. Not my first choice, and more than a little scary. But it seemed my best option.

When I got to the level bit at the top, I pulled the rope up, removed the balky Prusik, and tied a series of loops my companions could use as handholds and footholds. They ascended without further drama.

When you're in a fix, the "right answer" isn't always clear. But one rule always holds: When you have the time to think it through, you have to be willing to take that time, reassess, and maybe change what you're doing. It won't guarantee the right answer; but it's better than holding onto a tool that isn't working.