We need discuss commercial caves no further. You want to visit a commercial cave, drive down an Interstate somewhere and watch the billboards.
A wild cave is different. It is not developed, and features mud, Stygian torrents, tight crawlways, stupendous pits, mud, fear and panic, alien landscapes, exhaustion, and carbide stink. Oh, and mud. (“Wild” cave is not unexplored cave. That is “virgin” cave.) Wild cave is the place to experience the agony of defeat and the agony of victory.
Everyone agrees that exploring virgin cave offers the greatest thrill in caving, but grubbing through any wild cave is an experience worth having. Though it may have been explored by everybody since Turok, Son of Stone, there’s no jamoke in there backlighting everything, attempting to force a resemblance between a mineral formation and Buddha strangling a flamingo.
In a wild cave, two kinds of things can go on: sport caving and project caving. Sport caving is exploration for the fun of it. Most cavers begin this way, exploring wild caves in their own vicinity, and winding up on the brink of a bottomless put in Mexico, festooned with mountaineering equipment. Not usually in the same trip, mind you.
Project caving is sport caving with the flash and glamor of science; one may view project caving as the enforcement arm of speleology. For some reason people are less likely to write you off as a madman if you have an ostensible reason for crawling down a hole, such as collecting fish that can’t see. Many cavers agree that the most important aspect of project caving is surveying and mapping. Virtually all the people who say this are cave cartographers, but it’s probably a valid statement anyway. In the first place, an accurate cave map increases the likelihood that a scientific party that enters a cave to collect data will emerge again. Second, a detailed map is data in itself. The size, trend, mineral composition and layout of passages in relation to joints and bedding planes is essential knowledge for practitioners of geology and hydrology – particularly when the map is sufficiently accurate to tie the underground topography to surface features such as springs, rivers, sinkholes, valley walls and the like.
Tying a cave topographically to overlying features is extremely useful for another reason; some caves are vast, and nasty to negotiate. A region of exploratory or scientific interest might lie, say, a mile away from a cave entrance. If that seems only a pleasant jaunt, try it crawling on your belly. Through corkscrew tubes no bigger than a gnat’s intestines, half filled with ice water. And stop every now and then to descend into a 60-foot pit and climb up the other side. You might also throw in a canyon or two with no top and no bottom (that you can stand on, anyway). You travel the length of it spider-fashion, arms and legs scrabbling against opposing vertical walls, lugging a pack full of food, water, carbide and miscellaneous survival supplies, plus whatever scientific equipment is needed at the far end. By the time you achieve that other end, a mere mile away, 12 hours may have elapsed – 12 hours of peak physical effort. And now you’re going to explore? Hoo, boy. And don’t forget, you’ve got to do that mile again, all 12 hours of it, if you want to feel the sun on your face again.