Personnel: one. Equipment taken: none.
Caving in the States is rather odd. I really just went over for a fortnight, intending to sponge off relations and forget about caves for a bit. But somehow, they just seem to open up under one's feet - even in Indiana, which no-one's ever heard of! I was staying in the little nowheresville called Terre Haute, and in the course of a few drives out-of-town (in between jugs of Schlitz, Budweiser, Colt 45, Blue Riband, Anheuser Busch, Pabst, Shakespeare, Miller Hi-Life and similar gut-rot) I couldn't help noticing that a nearby burg was called Oolitic, and another proclaimed that it was the 'Limestone Capital of the World'. So I insinuated myself into the local university library and borrowed a copy of 'Caves of Indiana', meeting in the process a resident geology lecturer called Don Ash who - it transpired - was the local caver. "Fancy a trip this weekend?" he asked, as cavers do, the world over. And since the weekend happened to be New Year and I hadn't missed a New Year trip for seven years I naturally said yes.
To get myself into the hang of things I drove south over the Ohio River into Kentucky and did a tourist trip into Mammoth Cave which on first aquaintance is very big and impressive, but becomes progressively less interesting all the way to the fully plumbed underground lavatories, which could be straight out of a Hilton. Back in Indiana I visited Wyandotte Caves; unfortunately the main cave was closed so I visited Little Wyandotte - a true rip-off. Then it was back to Don's house for the weekend trip. "Hang loose a moment" he said, diving into his fantastic collection of carbide lights, "I think I've got a Prem-eer for you". Suitably equipped, we headed south in his Land-Cruiser towards hill-billy country. Rather a scary bit of country. "Keep your mouth shut, so they don't hear your accent," said Don, as we went into a backwoods bar. "They're liable to lynch blacks, Catholics, Jews and any sort of foreigner around here." I thought he was joking till I heard of the two bodies found hanging from a bridge a few miles away at the town of English. And when I heard part of a conversation in a garage, which went "... yup, his pappy burnt down the courthouse..." I was convinced I would never get back alive.
However, American cavers are like cavers everywhere - dirty, drunken, foul-mouthed and friendly. Soon a motly party of twenty of us were assembled before the entrance to Binkley's Cave to boldly go where no man etc., etc. Binkley's is 18 miles long and we were to explore and survey as much as possible with the aim of making it the longest cave in the state. I borrowed a wetsuit, and we wallowed in, pushing dinghies ahead of us for those that didn't fit into wetsuits. Since the average American caver seems to be 6'2" with a 45" waist there were quite a few dinghies. After 3000ft or so of canal we climbed up and were soon into new cave. Here I started to take in American jargon: 'Straight on at the next room, up the dome-pit into the crawlway, past the stalacto-stalagmite and the other speleothems, and you'll be into the strike section with a lead at the far end. It's real gross!" Altogether we surveyed about half a mile of easy stuff, with new passage beckoning on all sides. Americans are not rapid cavers, and like to stop for a smoke or a meal every few hundred feet. And so back out into the icy night (20 degrees below zero) for beer and whoopee.
The following day I had a private trip around Marengo Cave, which must be one of the most spectacular little places in the States, then left for home. Lasting impressions are of the friendliness of the local cavers and the absolutely enormous potential for finding caves with a minimum of effort. But when I go back for the ISC at Bowling Green State I'm certainly going to take a few barrels of warm frothy ale with me!