Cave Exploration on Rise Despite Danger

By ADAM GANUCHEAU, | September 21, 2015

Patrick Werszner and a friend visited the Stephens Gap Cave Preserve in Jackson County, Ala., on Sept. 6.

The 18-year-old UAB student sat on a ledge – what Stephens Gap cavers call “The Pedestal” – inside the preserve’s main cave. As he tried to stand to leave, he lost his balance or slipped on the limestone. He fell about 50 feet toward the floor of the cave, authorities said.

He died when he hit the bottom.

Werszner’s death brings to light caving’s soaring interest in Alabama and the Southeast, along with its myriad dangers.

In the past decade, interest in the sport of caving has increased, cavers across the state say. Today, there are about 10,000 cavers registered with the National Speleological Society, the leading cave organization in the world.

There are about 250 grottos – local caving clubs with the sole purpose of promoting safety and conservation – around the world. There are eight active grottos in Alabama.

Caves in Alabama like Stephens Gap are destinations for cavers around the world.

The trio of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia (the region is nicknamed “TAG” by cave enthusiasts) has the highest concentration of caves in the world, according to the National Speleological Society. In Alabama alone, there are more than 4,200 known caves.

The state’s number of caves enticed the National Speleological Society, which promotes safe and responsible cave practices, to move its headquarters to Huntsville in 1971.

“In terms of caving in any region of the world, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than Alabama,” said Fenn Spencer, an active caver and past president of the Birmingham Grotto.

Most caves are on private property in rural areas, which makes enforcing visitors difficult. Though many caves across the country have been gated by conservationists or authorities, most are left wide open, which can be dangerous to both the visitors and the caves themselves.

Visitors to Stephens Gap, which is owned by Tennessee-based nonprofit Southeastern Cave Conservancy, must obtain a permit and sign waiver forms before entering the cave. Werszner and his friend had permits, said conservancy employee Brian Krebs. Authorities, however, said Werszner didn’t have rope or other caving gear.

Werszner loved the outdoors, his friends said, and he went on numerous weekend climbing and hiking trips over the past year. In one of his Facebook profile pictures, he’s on a rock wearing climbing gear. Authorities said he had been to Stephens Gap before. It is unclear, however, exactly how much training Werszner had or how familiar he was with caving.

Friends said Werszner had become more interested in outdoor activities in the past year or so. The UAB sophomore was a devout Catholic, helping serve mass at the St. Stephen campus chapel each Thursday.

“He often spoke about his love for the outdoors, especially climbing,” said Werszner’s priest, Father Douglas Vu, who knew Werszner for five years before his death. “He loved God, his family and his friends, but he definitely loved the outdoors. He talked about it all the time.”

The thrill of caving is different for individual participants, Spencer said. For some, it’s the camaraderie with fellow cavers, the adrenaline rush of dangling hundreds of feet in the air in complete darkness or seeing some of nature’s most concealed beauty.

Spencer is 49, and he was born into caving – his mother went caving while she was six months pregnant with him, he said. He said he can’t imagine living his life without caving.

“There’s a certain point when you’re on a rope, it’s dark and you can’t see a thing,” Spencer said. “You’re completely alone. For me, there’s no greater adrenaline rush or feeling. When it’s just you and nature like that, it’s just indescribable.”

But with the thrill and beauty comes danger. Caves are inherently dangerous, especially for those who have not been properly trained. They’re dark, moist and slippery. Rock and sediment protrudes from all surfaces and angles. Pits – often hundreds of feet deep – can be hidden, making them hard to spot for even the most experienced cavers.

Cavers spend decades learning the trade. They constantly practice communicating with leaders, and they rely on adequate lighting, gear and dedicated rope and knot work to keep themselves alive.

“The sport can be very dangerous,” said Brian Bailey, chairman of the Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit. “It’s dark, everything is wet and slippery. You have to have the right gear and equipment, lights, batteries, extra food and water. You just have to be educated before you go in.”

There have been 92 caving deaths worldwide from 1986, the year the National Speleological Society tracked caving incidents in the American Caving Accidents report, through 2014. Last year, there were 30 caving incidents reported in the United States, with two resulting in fatalities.

In 2014, rescuers saved 10 cavers who fell, either on rope or off. Five cavers became trapped or stranded. Other 2014 rescue incidents occurred after cavers experienced difficulty on rope, became exhausted, experienced poor air quality or experienced general equipment issues.

Since 1986, caving was deadliest in 1991 and 2003 when six fatalities occurred.

Werszner’s death will be counted in the 2015 accidents report.

Oneonta resident David McRae is a certified cave rescuer. With multiple decades of experience, he is often called to caves around the TAG region to save injured or trapped cavers. He has performed three rescues at Stephens Gap and numerous others over the past few years.

But because of the rise in popularity of the sport and the wider use of social media, he also checks daily for websites that publish locations of caves.

“It’s a constant battle we face,” McRae said. “There has been a natural growth of the sport, which means access to the caves is becoming easier and accidents are happening more frequently. People are finding these caves and tagging the locations with GPS or on social media, and it’s opening the door for people to get seriously injured or killed.”

Though accidents like Werszner’s occur, experienced cavers believe they can be used as learning experiences. Bailey, who has performed cave rescues for years, said the importance of being properly trained is crucial to the growth of the sport.

“The most important thing is to educate yourself,” Bailey said. “Get involved with experienced cavers or grottos. That’s what they’re there for. And always cave within your means.”

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