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Earth Sense: Exploring caves can be fun, but dangerous

POSTED: January 5, 2013 11:59 p.m.

It could happen here in Georgia.

A cave enthusiast was crawling through a narrow passage, along with others. He decided to take a side turn and explore a particularly tight tunnel, 16 inches wide and 10 inches high.

As the tunnel began to descend, he slid down a distance and got stuck. Up to 50 people labored throughout the day and the following night to free John Jones, 26, from his predicament. In spite of all efforts, unable to move and breathe normally, he died.

The accident, which occurred Nov. 26 in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah, wasn’t the first of its kind. In 1982, Boy Scouts Master Donald Weltner, 48, got stuck in Crooked Swamp Cave in Sussex Co., N.J., in a very similar downward rock tube. He spent an agonizing three days in a constricted position before passing away.

Spelunking, or cave exploration, is a popular sport in Georgia, too, where some of the continent’s most spectacular features are found. Elison’s Cave has the deepest pit in the eastern U.S., with vertical drops of 586 and 440 feet.

Clearly, this and many others in Walker and Dade counties aren’t for amateurs. Even experienced cavers have gotten into trouble.

Elison’s claimed lives in 1999 and 2011, when climbers got tangled in ropes and became trapped underneath waterfalls. Hypothermia is an ever-present risk because the air temperature in the Georgia caves always stays near 58 degrees. Water, which drips, splashes or flows in most passages, can be colder at times.

Caves are attractive to many because they are one of the last unexplored territories on the planet. To get into spelunking, the best approach is to join one of the cave societies and gain experience gradually in one of the more easily traveled ones, such as Anderson’s Cave or Pettyjohn’s. Climbing with rope harnesses — or the most dangerous activity, scuba diving — should be the very last item on the list for people with years of experience.

This doesn’t mean the general public can’t visit some of the underground wonders. Even though they’ve been modified from their natural state to render them safer, Luray Caverns (Va.) or Dixie Caverns (near Roanoke) offer opportunities to experience that environment on lighted walkways, with no special equipment required. For the sake of personal safety, but also to preserve the untouched environment, the wild (nontourist) caves are best left to the experts.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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