Photo by Ron Simmons

Spunky spelunkers prove cave network is world's largest
By George McLaren

The Indianapolis Star, 9/14/01

A century ago, Mammoth Cave was touted as the longest cave in the world. But it wasn't until 1972 that a team of avid cavers discovered a key underground connection and proved the boast: 144 miles of connected caverns and passages.

Today, thanks to the efforts of two key cavers and their colleagues, the Kentucky landmark has been mapped and surveyed to 365 miles-3 times the length of the next longest cave anywhere in the world.

But authors Roger Brucker and James Borden think the discovery of new connections in the next century might expand the cave to 1,000 miles.

The two men will visit Indianapolis this weekend to talk about their new, collaborative book on the exploration of the cave, which has been a national park since 1941.

Beyond Mammoth Cave provides and inside glimpse of how two competing groups of cavers alternately cooperated and co-opted each other's efforts during the cave's exploration of the late 1970s and early '80s.

Brucker and Borden, of different generations, personalities and occupations, put aside their longtime rivalry to write the book.

They take turns writing chapters, and neither of them pulls punches in describing the differences between themselves and their competing caving organizations.

"This book is a very personal book," said Brucker, 72, a retired advertising executive from Dayton, Ohio.

"We wanted to show the contrast between old farts-that's me-and Jim Borden, the young Turk like the Tasmanian Devil."

Borden, now in his early 40s, is a data storage manager for a healthcare company in Louisville, Ky.

The men first caved together in the early 1970s and have grown to be friends over the years despite the often bitter, nasty competition between their caving groups.

The book describes real push-the-envelope exploration trips into intricate, confusing, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing cave passages-and always, always, in absolute darkness, save for headlamps.

Teams of cavers would set out on 24-hour trips going miles into the caves, crawling and squeezing through tiny openings often leading to dead-ends. More often than not, frustration was the reward rather than new cave connections.

Dirty, wet, hungry, cold and banged up, the cavers always would return for more of the same. To keep competing cavers in the dark, so to speak, secretive explorers would lie to and mislead even their friends.

"We wanted to give the readers an insight into the kind of obsession that drives cave explorers," Brucker explained.

Along the way, the explorers learned about the nature of caves and how they develop, using that knowledge to predict underground pathways and explore possibilities that others had ignored.

They always were searching for the connection to the next cave.

"They are elusive. None of them are easy to find," Brucker said. "It's not just a lucky guess of looking behind the right rock."

More key connections are out there, Brucker said.

Though he no longer is actively exploring, he still caves with university students he teaches. But he said others are still looking and will someday find a key connection between the Mammoth system and another 100-mile cave nearby.

Right now, the cave systems are only an eighth of a mile apart.

"I've even heard rumors that it's already been done," he said.

Perhaps some secretive caver already holds the key that would expand Mammoth Cave to nearly 500 miles.

George MaLaren covers outdoor recreation and nature.
He can be reached at 1-317-444-6232 or at george.mclaren@indystar.com




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