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Go Underground With The Nittany Grotto Caving Club

Before she came to Penn State, Nittany Grotto Caving Club president Olivia McAlister had never met someone who would call themselves a caver. Like many new members, she had no experience but managed to find her home underground with the 70-year-old club.

Her experience of quickly getting hooked is far from unique when it comes to people picking up the activity.

“Caving is the great equalizer,” she said. “Everybody is on the same playing field going into a situation like [a caving trip,] and I think it helps people bond being in a situation that is completely different, and something that they’re maybe not comfortable with.”

The Nittany Grotto Caving Club’s primary mission is to promote the National Speleological Society in Centre County and to work with the Nittany Grotto to help students interested in caving go on trips with like-minded people. But this doesn’t exactly mean students come to Penn State looking to get involved in caving. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

For the 25 or so active members of the club, teaching new people about caving is a challenging, yet enriching experience for a pastime not many people have.

Photo Courtesy of Nittany Grotto Caving Club

Especially in recent years, the club has tried to become more inclusive and open to anyone who is even remotely interested in increasing recruitment efforts and making meetings and trips more accessible. Dues are only $5, and all equipment is provided by the Nittany Grotto Inc., a local chapter of the National Speleological Society that runs all of the club’s trips. All you need to go on a trip is a “pair of clothes that you wouldn’t mind never looking the same again.”

On trips, the club does everything from surveying and studying caves to discovering and excavating new ones. Wherever you want to take your caving experience, there is an option, as caving is truly, a lot ~deeper~ than most people imagine. There’s an addictive element of adventure and excitement that comes with each trip. Sometimes, members are the first humans to ever step foot in a certain cave.

“The underground is one of the final frontiers,” club treasurer Derek Von Nieda said. “It is hard to describe to someone. I would ask someone to think of a time they did something for the first time and it blew their mind, it was a completely seminal experience for them. For a lot of people, caving can do that.”

Photo Courtesy of Nittany Grotto Caving Club

Caving certainly has its ups and downs, especially for a university club. Penn State cracked down on clubs that pose a risk to the university and almost terminated the Nittany Grotto Caving Club in 2008. A decade later, the university forced yet another restructuring in 2018 after the club temporarily lost recognition.

Although members of the Nittany Grotto Caving Club were initially frustrated with Penn State, Von Nieda and McAlister think that things ended up turning out better for the club after the dust had settled. They feel the university didn’t initially do their due diligence on the club, and instead, just assumed risk existed based upon an unfair stigma that exists around caving.

“Only the bad stuff catches those headlines.” Von Nieda said. “Neither the Nittany Grotto Caving Club nor Nittany Grotto, Inc. have experienced any serious injuries in more than 70 years of existence.

McAlister added that “As long as people are willing to give it a chance, then we’re able to show that it’s not like whatever preconceived ideas they already have.”

But the “stigma” around caving also has many benefits, especially for recruitment. The “wow factor,” as McAlister put it, tends to draw people looking for adventure or fresh experiences to the caving club. Von Nieda added that everyone who has gone on a trip has gotten something out of it, and had a good time. Whether it’s the cave itself, the different rock formations, or even just the social aspect, there’s something in a trip for everyone.

If you’re interested in joining, make sure to check out the Nittany Grotto Caving Club’s website, where upcoming trips and meetings are outlined.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a Sophmore in DUS from Bucks County, which is juuuust outside of Philly. He's a huge Philly sports fan, back to back to back failed entrepreneur, and he appeared on the Rachel Ray Show at the age of 5. If you want to gain absolutely nothing, you can follow him on twitter @rjparsons9. Any "serious" inquiries or death threats can be sent to [email protected]

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