Publish date:


Beyond the small hole into which Trapper Floyd Collins first wriggled in 1917, explorers have pushed almost to the limit of their endurance

The announcement by the National Speleological Society that a vast cave system lies under Flint Ridge in central Kentucky was directed at a limited number of specialists among the hundreds of scientists gathered this week in Atlanta, Ga. But throughout this country and abroad, to millions who have never been in a cave, the news came as an unexpected sequel to an old story that began 39 years ago. It was in 1917 on this Flint Ridge beside the winding Green River that 30-year-old William Floyd Collins, a farmhand, trapper, and—by the fate of things—cave explorer, squirmed into a small hole looking for a lost coon trap. Collins found instead a large cave. Such a find in that part of Kentucky in that year got little notice. The Indians and the first white Kentuckians found caves in that area more than 150 years ago. But when light was thrust into darkness, Collins' cave proved an exceptionally vast and beautiful example of the slow work of subterranean water through almost infinite time.

The entrance to Crystal Cave, as it became known, was later enlarged, so where Collins once squirmed in, guides can now lead a herd of sightseers without scuffing a shoe. One mile down the main corridor, behind a two-ton boulder, the guide bids each gawping tourist notice a small, ragged hole called Scotchman's Trap. Down this trap Collins crawled on to see more wonders, and beyond it for the past two years the country's best cavers have been pushing 32 miles through a seemingly endless tangle of cave.


As anyone who read the headlines remembers, in 1925 Collins was trapped while crawling through treacherous sandstone seeking an alternate entrance to his cave. For more than a week mawkishly curious crowds and hucksters crowded around the rescue operations. A young aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was hired to fly out the photographic coverage. A young reporter, Burke Miller, crawled into the cave with food, won the Pulitzer Prize with his stories and equally deserved a medal for his vain attempt to help Collins.

In the years since, the sad song, the plots of fiction and other legends swirling up around the tragedy of Collins have obscured the fact that he was a good caver, if not always a prudent one. With cans of beans stuffed in his pockets, by the light of a lantern, he went in alone. Beyond the Trap he found a labyrinth. He told his family that in one wide passage a man could walk erect for a mile, and this lost passage became part of the Collins legend. In the early '30s a Spanish explorer named Navarro went in. He did not find the lost passage, but he told of a river too wide to cross and of great white columns beyond. The Spaniard may have been a big talker, but no one will call him a liar. Such things are found deep in caves. Collins' word was surely reliable, in any case, and the Lost Passage stood for years as a goal, an ultima Thule, which must be down there somewhere.

Sixteen years after Collins' death, two miles down in the cave two explorers suddenly came upon Lost Passage. Two years ago the National Speleological Society began an organized assault on Crystal Cave. In February 1954 two dozen cavers of the society lived for a week in the Lost Passage, supported by 40 cavers based above ground two miles away. In one week this big force doubled the known network of cave. In the past 22 months fast-moving teams of explorers have doubled the net again, until the Lost Passage, which once was a goal, is now merely a historical landmark passed early on the long, tough route—a place to stop and open a can of beans on the silt floor beside the rusted shards of bean cans Collins left 30 years ago.

There are now only six cavers who know the extended routes well enough to lead exploration farther. One of these is the present leader of the assault on Crystal Cave, a 26-year-old advertising account executive named Roger Brucker, whose zeal for caves is something like that of a Moslem for Mecca. The caver best acquainted with the labyrinth is a 28-year-old civil engineer, William Austin, who literally was born in the mouth of a cave. Though Austin has spent over 2,000 hours in the lower reaches of Crystal Cave, there are still many unexplored passages along the ever-lengthening way. Some of these, the cavers know from experience, narrow into impassable slits or end in a jumble of breakdown, but for each that does, another branches out again and again, compounding the maze.

As soon as he wriggles down the narrow, twisting 30 feet of Scotchman's Trap, the caver must make his first choice in the maze. The passage goes left and right. Along each way there are random blue chalk arrows on the limestone. These are the old marks of the Spaniard. In the present assault the cavers have concentrated to the right of the Trap. In this direction for 50 feet the passage is comfortably wide, but it is only three feet high. Thirty feet farther along it is high enough for a man on stilts, but averages 14 inches wide. The passage ceiling lowers again in the first 200 yards, and for a quarter of a mile there is only room to crawl or to half-crawl in a low, lizardlike waddle. This leads into the S-curve, where the 15-inch-wide passage makes two 180° bends in 20 feet, and the caver must lie on his side, inching forward by alternately pressing his elbows on one wall and heels on the other. After the S-curve the passage narrows again into the Keyhole, 10 inches high and 14 inches wide, where a man can only squirm, dragging his supply bag on his foot or pushing it ahead of him.

Just this far in the cave any latent claustrophobia in a man shows up, and this is fortunate, for farther along, in the third mile, he will come to the Fishhook Crawl, a 60-foot-long, flat tunnel, 10 inches high, lined with aggravating nubs of cave onyx. In the Fishhook he must squirm an inch, then twist his head to reset his helmet and carbide lamp that have been knocked askew, grunt as the onyx nubs prod his underside, and if his light is knocked out, blindly inch on, following the grunts and scuffling of the caver ahead. Past a great pit where water thunders out in darkness 80 feet above into darkness 70 feet below, in the fourth mile lies the muddy Storm Sewer, and this leads in the fifth mile to a river. For six hundred feet the cavers must crawl upstream, the water up to their chins and their heads pressed against the ceiling of a 30-inch tube. Some learned ass—and he was probably leaning back in a chair contemplating a high ceiling at the time—has concluded that cavers are impelled by a subconscious urge to crawl back into the womb. The Crystal Cavers wriggling through the Fishhook have a very cheap opinion of such pedantry.

Compared to the way water works above ground, this underground system makes no sense. The acid traces in the water percolating down through soluble limestone for millions of years have created an awesome but seemingly aimless hodgepodge of tunnels, rat holes, cracks and canyons—passages that twist, branch out, double back and often rejoin. Silt abrasion combines with the work of solution. Evaporation further changes the cave, adorning it with small spiral helictites, blisters and blooms of gypsum, stalactites, stalagmites and draperies of flowstone. While it may all make sense geologically, to a caver, dirty and sleepless on his eighth and ninth mile of the cave, it seems the water has cut passages of every shape except what decently fits a walking man.

At Castration Point the cavers must crawl on the cave roof, climbing from a stoopway to a large rock, bending their knees and thrusting themselves along with their feet on the ceiling. To the right on the far side is a black void and to the left a narrow ledge projecting from the sheer wall of this bottomless pit. The cavers lean over the void and, pressing their hands against the opposite scarp, inch sideways over the chasm, remembering here that a man must keep three points of support or fall from this world.

"We had some mountain climbers in here," Bill Austin noted recently in reviewing the exploration, "but they didn't like it very much." Cavers sometimes use mountain tools (ropes and pitons for belaying and rappeling) and rough caving requires some of the same skills. But it is an error to conclude that cavers go down because, as the mountain climbers have expressed it, "it is there." The caver is not always sure "it is there" at all. The caver is impelled by curiosity to throw light into darkness wherever it may lead. A mountain climber, accustomed to perspective of his whole target before he starts out, going into a cave might at first tragically ignore one vital difference. As he moves forward with care, a caver must continually think back. He must not only be sure he can get back up every crack he slips down, but he must also remember the sequence of cracks, holes, pits, bends and canyons. The darkness that withdraws ahead also closes in behind. Bill Austin punctures the overconfidence of new cavers with an apt reminder: "No helicopter will come looking for you on the other side of Scotchman's Trap."

The cavers mark their route with the soot of carbide lamps, but even these slight marks on the cave are kept to a minimum. More than any other man in nature the caver is mindful that he is a tenant, briefly, and not the owner of his environment. The sediments through which he moves were laid down 260 million years ago. No good man in the woods wantonly fells a 100-year-old tree and no caver is inclined to mar the shape of a cave that began 30 million years ago. The caver leaves the sampling to the specialists, for where the cavers go for sport, science often follows. A large cave system if thoroughly mapped, offers special opportunities to biologists, paleontologists and geologists. A hydrologist can literally study inside the natural plumbing of a water table.


Years before any of the present assault teams had probed Crystal Cave there was evidence of its vastness. The ridge under which it lies is one of the largest in the great Kentucky cave area. Atop the ridge are entrances to 15 other caves. In 1910 fluorescein dye put in the water of one cave three miles away worked through to the river below Crystal Cave, and cave authorities have long believed that Crystal Cave might be the nucleus integrating all the caves on the ridge.

The explorers have now gone a long way toward proving this. With the discovery of bare-foot prints—probably Indian—six miles inside Crystal Cave they established connection to an adjacent cave. This October, chimneying 193 feet up a series of pits, Cavers Bill Austin and Jack Lehrberger came into a new cave and, as Collins had sought 30 years ago, found a second entrance. Over six winding miles from the old entrance the cavers came into a new section where the passage runs under 20- to 30-foot ceilings for almost three miles.

After such discoveries it seems another large exploration force like that which lived in Lost Passage two years ago would be in order, but oddly this method is now obsolete. The supply lines now stretch out six to eight miles. It now takes a caver two days to bring in one day's supplies for an explorer at the advance points. "We've reached the point of diminishing returns," observes Roger Brucker, "and the only way now is a quick hard attack—nine hours to go in, five hours to work, and nine hours to get out." The cavers have also reached a point of diminishing manpower. There are many cavers with the competence to get through the S-curve, the Keyhole, the Crawl-way, across the Bottomless Pit, into the Lost Passage and "B" Trail, the Fishhook, and out the Storm Sewer and into the cold waters of Eyeless Fish River, but there are not too many who can keep in the condition to make this return trip, dog-tired, 15 hours later. Along the way rest periods cannot be prolonged. The 55° degree temperature is near perfect for a moving man but with the humidity ranging above 90%, in wet clothes he must keep moving. Fatigue fast reduces a man's efficiency. In the first hard mile, which good cavers can now cover in 90 minutes, one party, suffering mild panic, took 14 hours. A tired man is vulnerable to injury, and a slight injury can be very serious. A sprain would be enough to immobilize a man. A broken leg would have to be set in the cave, and the caver lie there while it knit. He could not be left alone, for in the soundless dark remarkably stable people soon start hearing things and some start imagining things—start "seeing the little men," as the cavers say.

"There are six of us now." Roger Brucker could report as the assault entered its third year. "And we have two new men in training. We have a large cave down there. Where can it lead? To a larger cave or it can end in mud and rock—a cul-de-sac. This is the colossal gamble that pushes us to what we can only imagine. The sport is not the discovery but the pursuit of the unknown—and perhaps the unknowable."

















CLIMBING 193 feet up a series of pits, Jack Lehrberger (above) and Bill Austin, who took this picture, found the long-sought second entrance to the cave in October.


BARE-FOOT PRINT, believed to be that of an Indian because of the straight placement of big toe, was first clue that Crystal Cave connects with other caves.