Keeping Wild Caves Secret

Cave lovers worry that sharing their passion just might kill it.

  • Caves are one of the last frontiers in which we can feed our hunger for exploration and discovery. They offer us a reminder that the world is more than what is immediately visible to us. They are proof that the seemingly inaccessible is worth pursuing.
    Photo by Flickr/Gyik Toma

Left to my own devices, I would have walked right past the cave entrance without knowing it was there.

It was no more than a crack in the ground, barely big enough to notice and nowhere near big enough to imagine climbing into. Bogdan, a geology professor in his 40s and as athletic as men 15 years younger, dropped into it without warning, the earth swallowing him up without a trace. Then Lee, a skinny veteran of narrow cave passages, slid in after him. Then Kali. Then some Dutch guys whose names I never could remember.

Finally it was my turn. I was not a caver, but I was ready—against my better judgment—to lower myself into an impossibly tight limestone fissure that led downward into the side of this mountain and became Humpleu, one of Romania’s most spectacular wild caves. I held onto the lip of the crevice as my feet dangled below in nothingness. I kicked around, frantically searching for purchase. “You’re going to have to just drop down,” Kali told me from inside. “But don’t worry. It’s there, trust me.”

Don’t worry, trust me. Even then I knew that trust was the only worthwhile currency in the caver world. Trust was paramount. If you didn’t trust those you are caving with, you shouldn’t be there. Distrust is dangerous. Distrust gets people killed, or so I’d been told. So I took a breath and just … let go. I had been maybe six inches above the ledge. Score one for trust.

A moment later I wondered how I’d get back up.

Once everyone was accounted for, we started deeper into the cave. The tiny room we had been standing in was well lit, thanks to the concentration of headlamps. I peered into another crack in the limestone to my right, one big enough to walk through this time. This passage led to Humpleu’s main rooms, and the one thing I could see is that it was dark in there. I couldn’t imagine a darkness more intense. I tried to laugh at myself for being so unnerved by the prospect: What kind of 34-year-old man is still afraid of the dark? But I still couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.

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