You probably spend your weekends trying new bars or restaurants, catching up on sleep, or working up a sweat. But Ethan Reuter and his older brother, Ian, like to spend their free time caving underground, traversing through some of the deepest pits in the country.
Ethan records their caving expeditions, too, as a self-taught photographer. (You can check out the photos on his website, where you can also buy prints of his work.)
For the brothers, caving is closer to a lifestyle than a hobby. They started with their father when they were teens growing up in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where the ponderosas reach over 230 feet into the air and the caves stretch over 830 feet underground. His favorite is Ellison’s Cave in Georgia, which features Fantastic Pit, the deepest unobstructed pit in the U.S.
The Reuters are just two caving buffs in a large, ever-growing community of amateur and professional cavers and conservationists. The National Speleological Society’s members have formed over 400 caving groups, called grottos, nationwide, with at least one in every state. Similar groups of caving enthusiasts have existed for decades in France, Australia, Brazil, and many other countries around the globe.
We caught up with Ethan to talk about recreational caving; adventure photography; climbing gear; and the scariest, most exciting adventures he’s experienced underground.
What’s the draw of caving for you?
When you’re underground, there’s not really anything else you can think about. You have to be in the moment to make sure you’re safe, so you kind of forget about all your stresses. It’s also just really pretty and serene. It’s like a sense of calm.
When you’re caving, you have to deal with tight spaces and extremely dark climbing conditions. Does that ever produce anxiety?
You kind of get used to it, I guess. The dark never really bothered me, but I used to be really scared of small spaces, and the more you go through, the more confidence you build up. With climbing, too, it’s just like a learning curve. Now I’ll go down a deep pitch in the dark and not even think twice about it.
What’s the longest trip you’ve ever done in a cave?
I once spent four days underground, which was really awesome.
Yeah, we did camp trips in the cave once—well, three times. But I think that trip was 72 hours. We went in the morning and got out four mornings later.
What subjects do you tend to photograph in the caves? And what equipment do you use?
We try to find new things to photograph, rather than photographing things that have already been found. But I use a Nikon D610 and I have a 14 to 24mm lens on it that has an f-stop of 2.8 all the way through, which is really nice for low-light situations. But lighting is obviously the most important thing in caves, so I started out with LED flashlights, but those didn’t get it done. Then I went to Speedlight, so I have a lot of Nikon Speedlights. Normally I use those for smaller rooms or just a closed-in shot. But I really like flashbulbs—which are old. They don’t really make them anymore, but they put off so much light, and they have a pretty, soft glow on cave walls. I tend to only use big bulbs for the large rooms because they put off so much light, but I just ordered a lot of little bulbs so I could try them instead of the Speedlights.
A lot of your photos focus on the pits and these huge, open spaces. Is that what you’re drawn to as a photographer?
I like to try and capture the adventure part of caving. I’m more focused on the ropework or the tight crawls. Most of my work is done on-rope—that’s what I like the most about caving. There’s a cave in Alabama called Stephens Gap that everyone goes to, and I’m sure you’ve seen a picture of it. Everyone’s seen a picture of it. But I like to go to the drops that are several hours into the cave that are super pretty but no one’s ever [been to]. They wouldn’t know they existed otherwise.
Why do you love Ellison’s Cave so much?
It’s got the two deepest drops in the United States, which is really cool, but the cave itself has a couple of entrances. There’s one on the east side of the mountain, which has Fantastic Pit, and all the way on the other side is Incredible Pit, which is 440 feet, the second deepest, and you can actually go in one side of the mountain, then come back out the other side and just traverse all the way underneath the mountain. It’s really neat to think when you’re in the middle, you’re just directly in the middle of a mountain, and there’s like 1,200 feet of rock above you and you’re just so isolated.
Since you travel all around the world and you’ve gone on all these caving expeditions, do you have a bucket list of caves you’d like to explore? Any trips you’d love to tackle this year?
I’ve always wanted to visit Slovenia just because the caves there look really pretty. Same with Mexico. In the U.S., there’s a cave called Lechuguilla Cave, which is very protected. I think it’s in New Mexico, and I’ve always wanted to go there. But honestly, Ellison’s Cave still has a lot that’s left to be explored. I think about it constantly throughout the week. It’s what I’m hoping to get to on the weekend.
Are there any myths you’d like to dispel about caving for people who’ve never done it?
A lot of people think the climbing in caving is like rock climbing you see all around ’cause rock climbing is really popular, but actually, [in caving] you climb the rope, you don’t climb the rock. Everyone’s always like, “How do you climb up the walls?” Well, you don’t climb the walls. You climb the rope. Another thing people don’t realize is how cold the water is or how quickly it’ll sneak up on you. A lot of people who die in the caves die because of hypothermia. They don’t die because they fall.
Do you have any tips for novice cavers who are trying to, or thinking about, breaking into the caving scene?
They should go to the NSS website, National Speleological Society. There’s a locator there, so see if there are any grottos in the area. That way, they can affiliate themselves and educate themselves on how to become proper cavers rather than just kind of going out on their own. That’s the main thing for newbies.
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