Down Below

Caving in Western Montana
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My friend James Cummins is an avid and accomplished caver. Almost by definition this makes him an odd person. Caving — by which I mean technical, exploratory caving, as opposed to a guided walk through a tourist cavern — is a peculiar activity. It takes place in a world that is dark and cold and cramped and wet and muddy and dangerous. In other words, it takes place in areas where you might want to stick someone that you hate. Little surprise, then, that people who go out of their way to spend as much time as possible in such places tend to be on the eccentric side. There is certainly no money in caving, and no fame. If ESPN were to start a half-dozen more channels, I still don't think caving would make air time, not even at four in the morning. Caving is possibly the least hip sport on the planet. Recently, I read a magazine article in which one of the world's most skilled cavers, a woman named Carol Vesely, described her fellow enthusiasts by saying,"I don't think I know any cavers who were ever in the in-crowd."

It is this complete lack of coolness, I think, that piqued my interest in caving. I am so far removed from any in-crowd that I'm not even sure what an in-crowd is, or if one actually exists. Also, when I was young I spent an inordinate amount of time crawling around in the drainage pipes that ran beneath my road. And so I asked my friend James if he would take me caving.

James has peach-colored hair and startling blue eyes and is about the least tan person I have ever met. He is thirty-four years old. Caving was his first sport. He grew up in southwestern Virginia, which is somewhat of a caving holy land, and though he now lives, as I do, in the mountains of Montana, whenever I see him around town he seems to exude a sort of subdued pensiveness — a tinge, perhaps, of agoraphobia — that makes me think he's living on the wrong side of the soil. Two things James studies and admires are bats and mushrooms. I could not imagine him turning down an opportunity to descend into a cave, even with a rookie like myself, and when I asked if he'd guide me he immediately agreed.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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