Even when the temperature drops below zero, Virginia Tech students will brave the cold to pursue an activity they love.
Members of the VPI Cave Club like to take a different kind of plunge — a plunge into the earth, where, ironically, temperatures are mild.
According to John Mulheren, president of the VPI Cave Club, Virginia’s average yearly temperature is around 52 degrees.
“Caves are the same temperature all year round, so in the winter you go into a cave and there is natural heating,” he said.
This means that no matter the weather, the club is always preparing trips. Mulheren had no caving experience before he joined the club his freshman year, yet he trained to become a member and president. Gobblerfest is the club’s biggest source of new membership.
The VPI Cave Club has opened its arms to the Blacksburg community since its start in 1942. Students Tommy Watts, Ralph Hess and George Crabb started the club, which grew significantly after World War II.
The club was one of the first to join the National Speleological Society, which now connects more than 250 other cave-related groups.
VPI Cave Club’s mission hasn’t changed. The entire Blacksburg community is welcome at each caving trip and Mulheren said the club is able to offer a unique experience to every newcomer.
“At Gobblerfest, the big thing is that we offer free trips,” Mulheren said. “People always expect a catch. Nobody believes we’re lending out nice gear and giving free rides back and forth.”
Because the club can offer so many conveniences, many of the group’s members make it out to the caves every weekend. Vice President Courtney Trost has a near-perfect attendance record and leads most of the club’s expeditions.
“Leading new people is my favorite thing,” Trost, a junior business information technology major said. “It’s really important to know that anyone can try caving, no matter what experience or gear your have.”
Trost was introduced to the cave club at Gobblerfest. Her first caving trip followed only a few days later.
“They describe caving as a combination of hiking and rock climbing, but it wasn’t really what I expected,” Trost said. “It’s really muddy and there are a variety of ways you can cave.”
VPI Cave Club spends most of its time in Giles County caves on noncommercial land, so the group has always fostered strong relationships with New River Valley landowners. The club puts an emphasis on caving as a respectful experience.
“Virtually every cave we go to is on some private property,” Mulheren said. “We try not to give out too much information about cave sites because a lot of these caves are on some farmers’ properties.”
The club doesn’t only stay in Blacksburg. Mulheren highlighted a trip to the Cave of the Swallows in Mexico as a standout experience.
“Rappelling down only takes a couple of minutes,” Mulheren said, “but climbing up is like being on a Stairmaster for an hour.”
The Cave of the Swallows is the largest known cave shaft in the world, as it drops 1,092 feet from the lower opening of the cave shaft. The cave is named for the parakeets and swifts that reside in the walls of the pit.
While Mexico offers several places for vertical caving to take place, Blacksburg lends cavers a variety of excursions to take. The caving club takes members and visitors on several different trips, including brief sport trips and longer surveying trips.
According to Mulheren and Trost, beginner caving trips usually lasts around two hours, but some spend weeks submerged in the Earth. Trips can be photography-based, sport-based or simply for enjoyment.
“Since we know a lot of the caves in the area, most of our trips are planned the day before,” Mulheren said. “We can have a meeting Friday and wake up the next morning and just decide to go caving Saturday.”