Caving In: How Bill Steele Follows His Passion for Going Underground
There are many ways that people make critical contributions to science. One is having the courage to explore places that aren’t easy to get to. Another is to understand how to round up the right people to do the work, acquire the funding, organize the expeditions, and then share the information in a way that is meaningful.
Bill Steele is one such contributor. A lifelong cave explorer, he has traveled throughout the United States and to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and China over the last 50 years. He has written two books chronicling his explorations: Yochib: The River Cave and Huautla: Thirty Years in One of the World’s Deepest Caves.
We were interested in hearing about Steele’s passion for cave exploring and learning more about caves as an important piece of our planet’s puzzle. As an explorer, Steele's mission is well aligned with that of Blueprint Earth—to study a system, understand how it works, and help others learn about it. Here, Steele corresponded with us to share some of his insights.
I entered my first cave at age 4; it’s my first distinct memory. I remember passing through the portal entrance and finding it so friendly and calm, comforting in its darkness and coolness, and not just seeing rock, but being inside and surrounded by solid rock. It was a completely different world entered with one step from the familiar surface world to the totally different subterranean one. As we exited this small tourist cave in Tennessee, I looked back over my shoulder and wondered why it was there. Where might others be?
Family lore has it that I never let it go. On family vacations I would always ask to go see a cave. I got to go in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, at age 5, and Carlsbad Caverns at age 6, when we moved cross-country to California. At Carlsbad Caverns they turned out the lights at one point and let us experience absolute darkness. I liked the lack of sensory input and caught on that caving was a technological pursuit—you must have reliable light sources.
In a video for Boys’ Life, you mentioned realizing that you had a fear of heights when you first started exploring caves. How did you overcome it?
I overcame it by progressing slowly, checking and rechecking my gear, asking lots of questions, getting lots of practice, and wanting to and making myself get over it. I turned it around to a love of heights. I walk right to the edge of sheer drop-offs, but carefully.
The longest you stayed in a cave was 13 days. You noticed scorpions that had “de-evolved” to live inside the cave. What life do you find in caves, and what might that tell us about how living things can adapt to different environments?
Caves are classrooms of evolutionary development. I have explored two caves in the same valley, but separated by solid rock, in which different species of similar life forms have evolved. I recently had the privilege of being on an expedition to Sistema Huautla, the deepest cave in the western hemisphere, where we had a biology professor with us from Mexico City. We discovered another cave-adapted scorpion, believed to be an unknown species. The professor works with pharmaceutical companies to develop anti-venom for scorpion stings, which are the cause of more than 50,000 deaths annually worldwide. Finding a new species might aid in developing a better anti-venom. There are many such stories.
Did you study to become a speleologist?
I started to study geology in college but eventually changed to the business school because my forte seemed to be organizing expeditions, managing people, recognizing talent to build a team, and promoting an endeavor. My concentration was in nonprofit management, and I ended up having a successful 34-year career in that field with the Boy Scouts of America. When I retired I was the national director of alumni relations and the director of the National Eagle Scout Association.
How can budding scientists be self-directed like you in following their passions?
Budding scientists should seek whatever it is that interests them as often as possible and learn from experts. I have been on expeditions with some of the top cave scientists in the world, many who have become personal friends. I followed my passion and also found that my strengths were in making things happen, getting scientists to the places they might not get to otherwise, and persisting through the years to thoroughly explore and study major cave systems.
How did you finance and make the time to do your explorations?
Cave explorers acquire their own equipment and are forever adding to it. It seems expensive if starting from scratch, but if you slowly add things through the years, it’s more manageable. We usually drive to caves and share the gas.
Part of my contribution to my current major project (PESHcaving.org) is to raise money for lots of rope and specialized rigging gear, cooking gear, underground camping gear, and so on. There are supporters to be found if you have a worthy effort.
Time is the biggest challenge. When I taught school my big exploration projects were either close enough to home so that I could do them on weekends and holidays, or in places like the Rockies of Montana, where I could spend my summers.
I changed careers at age 31, mostly to be able to use my available vacation time to go to Mexico in the spring when the caves are the driest due to the rain cycle in the tropics.
Early in my career a colleague questioned the wisdom of working so hard. He asked how I managed to take all my vacation time at once when I had such a demanding workload. I told him that I had to work especially hard to get ahead of my associates to be permitted to take vacation, and when I got back I’d be behind, so then I had to work especially hard to get back ahead. He grimaced and said it sounded like nothing but hard work. I told him he also had no idea how hard I worked while on “vacation,” leading the way into some of the deepest, most complicated caves in the world.
Following your passion and making a difference in this world is not about taking it easy.
What are a few of the most important things you’ve learned about the Earth on your explorations?
Mainly I've learned about the Earth's ancient age. It’s evident when you see 120-million-year-old coral embedded in the limestone walls of a cave passage, or sharks’ teeth sticking out of the wall. Also pollution. It’s getting better, albeit slowly, but some people don’t necessarily see the relationship between the sinkhole out back where they throw dead animals and toxic trash and the spring down the hill. Or they think that nasty things going underground get “filtered” before water comes back out, which in limestone it doesn’t.
Something else I’ve learned is how interesting diverse cultures are. I’ve explored caves in rural areas of the United States, where people look as if they’ve never seen anyone like me before. Same goes for Mexican Indians in the mountains of Oaxaca and rural farmland in the Wulong Province of southwest China. Through it all I have found people to be curious, smart, witty, and usually friendly and helpful.
Field expeditions can be extremely dangerous. How do you weigh the rewards to overcome the pitfalls?
I’ve probably had 15 close calls. When things happen they happen fast, and you don’t have time to think; you act. It hasn’t always been safe; there can be extreme hazards. But you address them in a calculated way and minimize the risk as best you can. If you do the right thing and survive, you have a good story to tell.
What does it mean to you to be an explorer?
To me, exploration means original exploration: being the first to go somewhere. I’m a purist about that. I’m also fortunate to be involved in a realm of exploration where that’s possible. My legacy from a long career with the Boy Scouts of America is soon to be known. I announced the Exploration merit badge at The Explorers Club annual dinner this year, and this exemplifies my thoughts about exploration. The first two paragraphs of the Exploration merit badge booklet, to be released later this year, read as follows:
Exploration is adventurous, but it is much more than an adventure. Many adventures may be quite exhilarating but are not exploration. Taking a sailing trip in the Caribbean, hiking in the mountains, or joining a guided tour of ancient ruins is exciting, but it is not exploration. However, if you took a sailing trip to the Caribbean to study reef ecology or you hiked in the mountains to survey wildlife, then that would be exploration.
Exploration has a scientific basis, and information is collected and usually shared. The actual trip is secondary to the purpose of discovering information and contributing to scientific knowledge. This distinction is what sets exploration apart from adventure travel, eco-tours, and similarly adventurous activities.
Thousands upon thousands of Scouts will read those words in the years to come. I only hope that some day a recognized explorer comes up to me and says that earning that merit badge in Scouts is what got him on his path. And I hope the Girl Scouts follow suit.