Such secrecy can have a more personal motive, however. Genuine frontiers exist underground—unknown miles of passages to be mapped, vaulted chambers to be named—and cavers often become protective of their "going leads," passages that hold the promise of larger virgin caves to come. For many, the sport's greatest thrill is stepping into subterranean halls, rivers and canyons never before seen by human eyes, to shine the first beam of light on new land. The quiet competition among top cavers to be first is made all the more fierce for the way it is universally denied to exist.
Caving etiquette requires a new passage to be surveyed as soon as it's found. Points of reference within a cave are vague at best, and twisting routes can confuse anyone's sense of direction. Yet by simply looking over their shoulders at major intersections, most experienced cavers have developed the ability to find their way even out of complex multilevel systems. Still, accurately describing where they have been—surveying—requires careful measurement with tape, compass and inclinometer. To overlook this nicety, to plunge hell-bent through passages and crawls, particularly on a going lead provided by someone else, is known as "scooping booty"—and by doing so one would risk being made an outcast by the caving community. Plunging boldly on is not a decision to be made lightly.
A case in point involves Great Expectations, or Great X as it's called by cavers. The upper cave's entrance—a vertical slot dubbed Crisco Crack, which was once so tight cavers had to strip out of coveralls and wet suits to wriggle through—sits in a dolomite hollow just above the point where the surface stream vanishes into the western flank of the Bighorn Mountains. The nine-inch squeeze was first negotiated in the summer of 1977 by a group of cavers from the area, led by Jerry Elkins of Sheridan, Wyo. Elkins went on to survey several hundred feet of narrow fissures, a cobbly streambed winding beneath a five-foot ceiling, and a few unimpressive, mazelike crawls. Word of the cave filtered through the Rocky Mountain region, and in August 1978, caver Andy Flurkey invited John Scheltens, a principal explorer of 51½-mile-long Wind Cave in his home state of South Dakota, to join him on what he said would be a "two-hour survey of a little cave in the Bighorns."
While Flurkey and two other cavers mapped the easier passages, Scheltens, his wife, Pat, Dave Springhetti and his wife, Carole, were sent to survey a network of convoluted crawlways. Scheltens, who is about to become president of the NSS, recalls the trip: "The stuff we were in was cold, damp and tight, and it didn't seem to be going anywhere—the cave just meandered through breakdown [jumbles of loose boulders]. Dave had crawled ahead, and I was sitting between a couple of slabs of breakdown, about fed up with the place, when I noticed a little slot three feet over my head."
Scheltens carefully climbed the chimney he had spotted and was surprised to pop into a dry upper-level passage. A tunnel 15 feet in diameter stretched away into the darkness. No previous footprints marked the sandy floor. Scheltens and Springhetti left their wives in the crawls below while they examined the find. They continued along a hundred yards of unremarkable passageway before they rounded a corner and saw the stuff of every caver's dreams: a hundred-foot-high borehole, stretching ahead as far as they could see.
They ran through a quarter mile of the huge trunk passage, climbing and sliding over a dozen steep, dusty hills of mineral rubble, the gleaming magnesium-white ceiling far overhead, before returning for their wives, who by then had been waiting in the crawls for more than an hour. The four explored the borehole—which they christened the Great Hall—for a length of 2,000 feet. At the end of the enormous room the rocky floor rose almost to the ceiling before dropping away into a 20-foot pit. The four had brought no rope or climbing gear with them, so observing caving etiquette, they began the tedious, 16-hour process of measuring and mapping their way out.
Their discovery soon flashed through the caving community: The Bighorns had a big one going. On a subsequent trip, Scheltens and Springhetti found a narrow side canyon a quarter mile beyond the 20-foot drop that had ended their initial exploration. This passage, called the Lunchroom, led them to a hundred-foot rappel into a roaring, Whitewater stream they named the Lost Worland River. The two were stopped by a series of waterfalls, but the river passage promised miles of cave yet to come.
During the following two summers, survey groups—which came to include a dozen top cavers—mapped almost two miles along the Lost Worland River, working their way down Gonzo Falls, B-52 Falls, Lover's Leap and lesser waterfalls no one took the time to name; swimming and splashing through rapids; rigging slippery traverses above silent, swirling pools. Survey trips became increasingly dangerous and arduous, reaching durations of 20 hours and more. Cavers contemplated an overnight camp along the river, but no one could find a ledge large or dry enough for a safe night's sleep—even in a full wet suit.
Often, the biggest cave discoveries come aboveground, when a freshly drawn map of what's beneath the surface is compared with surface topography to suggest a likely passage trend. The lines of the canyon above Great X led explorers to begin searching for another entrance, closer to the new subterranean finds. Hiking the difficult surface terrain on a downhill slope far beyond the known extent of Great X, an inquisitive caver followed a hunch and found a stream bubbling from a crack in a rock face seven miles down-canyon from the Crisco Crack. Another explorer stumbled upon a small cave, which he appropriately named Dumb Luck, on the floor of the same canyon two miles closer to Crisco Crack. If either opening could be entered and shown to connect with the Lost Worland River, the change in elevation would guarantee a new U.S. depth record. Thus the stage was set for what many consider the greatest single trip in the history of American caving—and one of the most controversial.
Tom Miller and Pete Shifflett, who were with the Great X survey on the strength of previous international discoveries, carried a full complement of gear as they entered Dumb Luck on Aug. 17, 1980. Just 50 feet into the small cave the two found rushing water and wind they were convinced could come only from Great X and the Lost Worland River. But the passage quickly deteriorated into a steep, frigid crawl in a streambed bristling with submerged velcro. They would struggle upstream for a few yards, their heads uncomfortably tilted so that sometimes just a single nostril could be held above the frothing water, only to hit a dead end. Then they would backtrack and try another, equally miserable and ultimately discouraging, lead. To attempt to survey in such conditions, they realized, would be a nightmare. Yet the tantalizing presence of wind suggested that the water level did not reach the ceiling somewhere up ahead in this maze, although they were about to discover that even in the through passage it came close. Shifflett could not shake visions of accidentally wedging his helmet between the uneven floor and the low ceiling, pinning his head facedown and drowning in three inches of water.