September 1942: Franklin D. Roosevelt was president of the U.S., and the world was at war when five Virginia Tech students formed a club around their shared love of exploring the world underground. Four months later, in January of 1943, the VPI Cave Club was recognized by the National Speleological Society as the first student “grotto,” or local chapter.
This week, alumni and current students will gather at the Cave Club’s annual banquet to celebrate the student organization’s 75th anniversary.
The club has grown from humble origins to produce alumni who have explored caves around the world. Today, Virginia Tech’s Cave Club continues the strong traditions of local, national, and international cave exploration; surveying; rescue preparedness; and photography.
Membership requires completion of a rigorous training program. A majority of its members work with the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad’s Cave Rescue Group, and the club is involved in efforts to fight white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has devastated bat populations. Alumni of all ages maintain contact with current student members, forming mentorships through an extended network linked by exploration, education, adventure, and camaraderie.
“Virginia Tech cavers are throughout the world,” said Eric Hahn, a third-year student majoring in computer science who is the club’s vice president. Hahn joined the club in 2014 after being invited to a meeting by one of his classmates. “He brought me to one of the meetings and took me on my first trip the next morning,” Hahn said. “It was awesome — six hours underground.”
Hahn joined the club the following year and has participated since then, balancing his time between school, caving, and work on Virginia Tech’s team in the 2016 DARPA Robotics Challenge and with the Blacksburg-based TORC Robotics, an alumni-owned business.
“We cave every weekend,” Hahn said. “We take safety seriously. We have both hands-on and written tests. We have a full training manual that we write and develop. We follow National Cave Rescue Commission best practices.”
The club wasn’t always so formal. Originally, membership only required paying dues and attending meetings. Cave trips were scheduled a full term in advance and often found members exploring in street clothes with limited safety gear. During the early years, due to the extreme nature of the sport, the club did record several accidental injuries, including a fatality in 1958, when a student’s rappelling rope broke. But as the club, the sport, and outdoor recreation culture matured, members focused more attention on safety guidelines, becoming one of the leading cave rescue groups on the East Coast.
Its members also have gone on to become prominent in the international caving community. Cheryl Jones (forestry ’74) played a role in exploring Ellison’s Cave, a major system in the southeastern United States that features the deepest, unobstructed underground pit in the continental U.S., as well as completing what then was by far the longest in-cave big wall aid climb underground — 398 feet up Topless Dome in an Alabama cave. She was the first person down the deepest drop on the Arabian Peninsula (519 feet) into what was at the time the third largest known cave room in the world. Jones has also held leadership positions within the National Speleological Society.
“My life would have been so different and dull without the Cave Club,” Jones said. “I had fabulous adventures, learned to handle significant challenges, and visited places no one had ever seen. Most importantly, I made so many life-long friends and joined the family of VPI cavers.”
Mike Futrell got involved with the VPI Cave Club as a student in the early ’80s, before eventually finishing his degrees at Ohio State University. He now works as GIS administrator for Draper Aden Associates in Blacksburg. He continues to explore and survey caves and mentor other cavers, including those of the VPI Cave Club. Mike is quick to share tales of cave and karst-related mapping in Virginia and around the world, including recent projects in Asia.
“Joining and meeting a lot of outdoor folks through the cave club definitely launched a lifetime of outdoor-related pursuits, particularly in efforts to find new caves and explore caves around the region and the world,” Futrell said. “The positive influence of others at that age of 19 or 20 set for me a trend that I think I’ve followed ever since.”
Alumni and other past members often return to participate in meetings and trips with the current student organization.
“Many of us marvel at the strong connections we forged with this club when we were students at Virginia Tech in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Jean Cobb (forestry and wildlife ’75), who with her husband Richard (mechanical engineering ’79, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’88) maintains documents from the club’s history. “Alumni from the ’80s, ’90s up to and including 2017 also maintain contact with current student members. Our extended alumni connections to a student club were most likely forged through exploration, adventures, and camaraderie.”
Hahn said the trips often are planned during the Friday night meetings. They range from half-hour sport trips to weekend-long project caving, often including surveying, photography, and scientific analysis.
The club also is active in bat education and preservation. Bat populations have been devastated by white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has the potential to kill millions of bats annually.
“Bat populations were decimated in the late 1990s, early 2000s, but are very slowly recovering,” Hahn said. “Because of that, we don’t cave in certain caves in winter. We clean our gear and clothes following every trip, or if we go to a white-nose area, we typically borrow gear.”
For more information about the VPI Cave Club, or to register for its 75th banquet, visit its website.
Written by Mason Adams
Images courtesy of the Bugle