Potomac Speleological Club

Getting Started

The best way to get started is to attend a PSC meeting. The club holds meetings online on the fourth Monday of each odd-numbered month (January, March, May etc.) We welcome anyone interested in caving to attend. At the meeting, you can talk to PSC members and learn about upcoming caving trips and other events. To get a link to our next meeting, just send an email to Paul Gillis–pgillis (at) cox (dot) net–saying how you heard about PSC and whether you’ve had any previous experience with caving or other adventurous sports.

Membership in PSC has many benefits, besides the opportunity to meet other cavers and go caving. There is a printed bi-monthly newsletter and a club library of caving publications going back more than 60 years, which is accessible to members. Club members also have access to the PSC fieldhouse in Pendleton County, West Virginia and a field station in Pocahontas County.

Keep in mind that few caving organizations have long lists of upcoming trips. Being a caver requires networking and persistence. “Organized caving,” which means PSC and clubs like it, are the only way to up your game as a caver. “Independent cavers,” those who do not belong to a club, tend to visit the same few caves over and over again and soon lose interest.

Why Go Caving?

Caves are fascinating places, very different from the surface world. They are usually challenging to explore, and often very beautiful. Caving is great exercise, and it’s a fun way to meet new people and enjoy the camaraderie of a challenging trip. It’s fair to say that most people who stick with the sport end up counting their caving buddies among their closest friends. In Virginia and West Virginia, most caves are found in remote areas with scenic beauty. More advanced cavers often find and explore virgin caves—caves that have never been seen before by anyone. Genuine exploration is rare these days anywhere on earth, from the Antarctic to the Himalayas, let alone a few hours’ drive from Washington, D.C. Many experienced PSC cavers have participated in weeks or months-long expeditions to explore the caves of Mexico and other countries.

Types of Caving Trips

Tourist trip: Walking, crawling and climbing around in a cave looking at things, just for fun.

Vertical Trip: Traveling through a cave that requires ropes and ascending/descending equipment to get up and down pits and other vertical obstacles. This could be a training trip, a tourist trip for more advanced cavers, or a more focused trip for surveying or photography. New cavers definitely require extensive training in safe vertical techniques and what equipment to use before visiting this kind of cave. Experienced club members can help you.

Survey trip: Cavers map caves using compasses, tapes, and clinometers (which measure a vertical angle), or an electronic version of these instruments. One member of the survey party takes notes in a book or a tablet and the data is later used to make a map. If cavers discover a new cave, the ethic is to map the cave as you explore it. Cave surveys may include inventories of the species that live in the cave, measurement of air and water temperature and flow, collecting rock and water samples, and many other scientific studies. Surveying an unexplored cave can be very exciting, and surveying a previously known cave almost always results in the discovery of new passages. PSC cavers will teach you how to survey if you are interested.

Photo trip: Visiting a cave for the primary purpose of taking good photos of the cave (and usually of the cavers exploring it.) Sometimes the photos are intended to be an inventory of the cave, in association with a survey and map. Good cave photography can be very challenging, and rewarding for someone with the patience to learn the art of it.

Ridgewalking: Walking around on the surface looking for undiscovered caves. Since most caves in the East are on private property, finding and cultivating the landowners is a major part of this process.

Digging: Trying to extend a cave by removing mud, gravel, and rocks from plugged passages. Also, cavers try to find “new” unexplored caves. These are typically caves with a natural entrance that is either blocked with fill or too small for people to enter. There is no technology that can reliably detect caves from the surface, but geology and water flow can provide clues. The best indicator is cold air blowing out of cracks in the ground. Most digs do not net much new passage, but the results can sometimes be amazing. In 1999, PSC cavers found and dug open a cave in West Virginia that is now (as of 2016) 26 miles long.