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Chicago's Cavers Crave Challenge Of Finding Place 'No Human Has Ever Been'

By Justin Breen | August 26, 2016 8:19am
 A member of Windy City Grotto lowers himself into a cave.
A member of Windy City Grotto lowers himself into a cave.
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Facebook/Windy City Grotto

CHICAGO — For members of the Windy City Grotto, a Chicago-based group that explores real caves across the country, finding places that "no human has ever been to before" is just an average weekend.  

"There's a huge adventure underground," said club president Phil Goldman, who's been inside 500-plus caves. "It's beautiful. And it's physically, emotionally and intellectually challenging and engaging. You're going to do and see all sorts of different things during your time in the cave."

Windy City Grotto was founded in 1959 and has about 75 members. About a third live in Chicago, Goldman said, with members hailing from Wicker Park, Logan Square, Old Town and other city neighborhoods. The club meets on the second Tuesday of every odd month at First Ascent Climbing and Fitness, 3516 N. Spaulding Ave. The next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 13, will focus on a huge caving event the club is hosting in Kentucky.

The closest caves to Chicago are several-hour drives away in southern Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, Goldman said.

He said the group has slowly been adding membership, with women representing about 50 percent of the newer cavers. Caving, he said, is actually a fairly cheap hobby. Goldman said, for horizontal caving, all you need is boots, helmet and head lamps.

Of course, the sport can be much more difficult, with cavers descending into the depths with ropes and other equipment.

"It's not like hiking where you're just walking down a trail," Goldman said. "In caving, you could have to climb boulders, climb with rope, stretch and reach, swim and crawl. ... A good cave pace is a mile to a mile and a half an hour, and you have to be very self sufficient. It's not like you can go back to your car."

Goldman said he's seen amazing wildlife in caves, from bats and crayfish to bright orange cave salamanders, beetles and sculpin, a type of fish.

He also noted that cavers share a unique bond.

"There's such a camaraderie and synergy," he said. "It's a really good fun social time."

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