Underground Rock Stars
It isn’t true that Alan Glennon can crawl into any cave space where a mouse can stick his nose. But the 31-year-old Western Kentucky University graduate student and research hydrologist probably can wiggle his way into any crevice where mortal man can go.
At Whigpistle Cave, near famed Mammoth Cave, Glennon reached a crawlway area so low that he “scraped my nose against the ceiling to keep air in my nostrils because there was so much water. For over an hour, it was crawling through water and slithering on my belly.”
For two-thirds of his life, Glennon has dared venture into underground pits where others have feared to go. For his 10th birthday, his mother gave him a 102-foot rope to practice rappelling down the steep pits within caves. On vacations, the Glennons opted for Carlsbad Caverns over Disney World.
Glennon reached Kentucky with an agriculture degree from Texas A&M. He went to work as a park ranger at Mammoth Cave. When he learned Western Kentucky University had the nation’s best university for studying karst (land above caves that may indicate their presence), he enrolled for graduate work.
Living in Park City, right at Mammoth Cave and studying caves at Western Kentucky University, is for Glennon like an otter discovering spring water. Western provides his base for cave exploration (his forays have taken him to Spain, North Africa, Alaska, and China) and a cadre of fellow students who get excited over “the thrill of the unknown.”
One of his fellow students is Rhonda Pfaff, age 22, from Louisville. Unlike Glennon’s family, her folks are not so gung-ho on cave exploration. Just before one venture, her dad reminded her of the fate of Floyd Collins. Her grandmother had just expressed her view of the project, “You ordn’t let her do that.”
Pfaff’s first cave excursion was with Dr. Chris Groves, an associate professor of geography and geology, for whom she worked. She accompanied Groves to take some water samples inside Mammoth Cave as part of a grant.
“I didn’t know much about caving and there was a 70-foot pit to get down. I didn’t have the right boots or the right gear, and it was a pretty miserable experience.”
But she has the never-say-die spirit of Little Orphan Annie. “Now I have more experience, along with the right boots. I’ve started hanging out with these cavers. They’ve become my social buddies as well as my co-workers. Melissa Thornton, from London, Kentucky, is one of our group.”
The term “spelunker” is verboten at Western, Pfaff says, although “the media has a tendency to call us that.” Glennon recently saw a bumper sticker that he liked: “Cavers Rescue Spelunkers.”
The Western Kentucky University cave explorers received a spate of publicity December 3, 2000, when they discovered an enormous cavern near Monticello with a vast room larger than the biggest room in Mammoth Cave.
Glennon is one of only 10 individuals who have reached this room. He has described it as “awesome.” He thinks the discovery is something Kentuckians should take pride in.
“People have been walking over Kentucky for maybe 250 years, and this was right under their feet all along.
“The last 100 yards get pretty bad,” he explains. “You are going through terrible small stuff. The rocks are driving into your clothes. It hurts because the rocks are so sharp. And then you get into this area, so large, so different from the rest of the cave, it’s incredible.”
On the way to the “big room,” Glennon encountered a stream of water 8 feet deep. “There is a jumble of rocks two feet underwater. During the summer the water will be within a couple of feet over these rocks and you have to balance yourself on them. They are covered with mud, so when you step on them, it clouds the water. The first person has to pay attention to where they are and tell the next person where to step.
“It is not life-threatening, but the cave water is like 54 degrees. We had one person fall in but we were on our way out.”
Pfaff has successfully navigated her way across the meandering stream. “There is what we call a ‘tippy’ rock, where you have to be careful. It has a tendency to tip over on you.”
Pfaff, who is 5 feet 3 and weighs 115, stays in top physical condition. She works out frequently but does no special training for her caving activities. She admits she has to work harder than her male associates when climbing is involved. “I have to work harder to compensate for the fact that my muscles are slightly weaker. But I say women can cave with the best of ’em.”
Glennon says his size and weight (5 feet 5 and 145 pounds) make it easier for him to shinny through narrow passages.
“Tall people can climb, of course, but are not as able to wiggle through small places and do the contortions to get around rocks.”
Pfaff’s most exciting experience was a couple of Christmases ago when she went into a cave near the big one. “To get down to where we wanted to go, I had to go down to the bottom of a 134-foot pit. Alan was on the bottom and Shane Fryer was at the top. I went down between them after Shane helped me adjust my gear. I was yelling all the way down, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It was such a rush and I was basically scared. Alan said I just fell over when I reached the bottom.”
Despite her limited time as a caver, Pfaff has gone inside probably 40 caves. “Alan and I went to Spain and North Africa. We went through walking passages in Spain and Gibraltar.”
With another Western student (Bill Curry), Glennon went to Alaska on a grant to study soil erosion at cave sites where trees were being chopped down. He also traveled to China to teach a workshop to Chinese cave specialists on how to get their caves into the computer system.
His “greatest adventure” was not reaching the “big room” in the Wayne County cave. Instead it was his discovery of what has been mapped out to be the third-largest cave system in the state.
Back in 1996, with another grad student, Jon Jasper, he was searching the area just south of Mammoth Cave. “We were tramping around when I fell in a sinkhole.” When they explored the hole, they discovered a crawlway leading to a large cave. It turned out to be the back door of Whigpistle Cave.
“When caves are connected like this, they are given a new name. We call this the Martin Ridge Cave System. It extends 33 miles and is still being explored.
“We have thrown some nontoxic dye inside Mammoth Cave. We found the dye came out in Martin Ridge Cave. Now we have to find a way to go through and map this route. Maybe someday I will be able to say I discovered a new entrance to Mammoth Cave.”
If you’re interested in caves and have a quest for adventure, you’ll want to attend the 22nd annual Crawlathon at Carter Caves State Resort Park, January 24-26, 2003.
Last year’s event drew about 700 cavers ranging from novices to professional cavers. There is a variety of field trips, entertainment, and instructional programs for varying interest and skill levels, including a walk through Cascade Cave, an introduction to rappelling called “Down for Dummies,” or an all-day excursion into two pits called “Pit Plunging.”
Advance registration for the Carter Caves Crawlathon is highly recommended, and you can sign up for events in December. To see how last year’s program was structured, go to www.crawlathon.com. Reservations at Carter Cave State Resort Park tend to book up three years in advance, but you can find nearby lodging. For more information, contact Carter Caves State Resort Park at (606) 286-4411, and ask for Cave Tours.
Gigantic Cave Room
The discovery of Coal Trace Cave, on an isolated farm in Wayne County, has whittled Mammoth Cave down in size. It boasts a giant room that covers 2.5 acres, half an acre larger than the biggest passage in Mammoth.
Three Western Kentucky University students (Joel Despain of California, Shane Fryer of Louisville, and Alan Glennon of Park City) first made their wearisome way to Kentucky’s largest cave passage in December 2000.
Another Western student, Art Pettit, actually found the entrance to the cave in 1996. But it was only after hours of crawling through “a highly contorted passage” five years later that Despain began yelling with excitement. He was standing in awe in this great rockbound room, while Fryer was still wiggling along in his wake.
Despain has led expeditions to southeast Asia and crawled through many of the world’s largest caves, but he couldn’t believe his eyes as he stood erect in a chamber 750 feet long, 130 feet wide, and as much as 90 feet high.
Glennon explains, “It took several mapping trips before we reached the tiny crawlway, the place the rock was moved and which led to the big room.” On the fourth exploration, each trip lasting 12 hours, the Western trio made it to the area where they moved the rock and found the cavern on December 3, 2000.
Glennon calls the last 100 yards “basically a contortionist’s obstacle course.”
“To find something that exceeds what is known is pretty significant,” Dr. Chris Groves comments. “It is incredibly huge.”
The probable name for the cave comes from the farmer who owns the land, Glennon explains. “He told us about a time when water blackened by coal dust began seeping from a spring near the entrance.”
Alan Glennon loves every aspect of caving: crawling through the mud and darkness, rappelling down into mysterious pits, wiggling along passages of razor-like rocks. But his current research has a service side that has been said “could bring invaluable help to countless Kentuckians.”
As a hydrologist, Glennon is studying the location of underground rivers and streams in the Mammoth Cave area. He hopes his research better explains how this water reacts to various situations and environments. Among other things, this can help predict floods and provide clearer drinking water.
Dr. Chris Groves at Western University has long been concerned about the purity of the drinking water that affects so many citizens of Kentucky because of the abundance of caves.
Glennon says that, “At Western, you are in the Mecca of karst science. This is the term for landscapes where underground streams create caves and sinkholes.”
When he was in China, Glennon conducted a three-day workshop on a computer mapping technique that he developed. This knowledge was important because 250 million people rely on the water that runs through that nation’s karst area (one of the largest in the world).
“The State of Kentucky,” Glennon relates, “has been highly supportive of our research because it has to do with healthy drinking water. To show the excitement the university has for it, Dr. Gary Ransdell (WKU’s president) went into Mammoth Cave recently to see one of our study sites.”