Caves and Cavers
aves have held an attraction for man since prehistoric times, with a wide range of human activities taking place within their depths. In the lower Pecos River region of Texas, hunter-gatherer residents of 6,000-1,000 years ago used caves for burials and left a vivid record of their presence in paintings on rock shelters in the area. For modern-day cavers, the lure remains. Sundry motives fuel their passion for exploring underground: the love of adventure, natural beauty, scientific discovery, physical challenge and more.
Texas caves are as diverse as the cavers who roam their passages, offering something to suit everyone. For sheer beauty, the Caverns of Sonora in Sutton County rival caves worldwide, with their sparkling chambers of pure white or mineral-tinted formations. A very different, watery setting greets wet-suited visitors to the state’s longest cave, Honey Creek in Kendall and Comal counties, which comprises more than 20 miles of active stream passageway draining to the Guadalupe River. In Edwards County, the legendary Devil’s Sinkhole — a 350-foot deep pit caused by the roof collapse of a giant underground chamber — boasts a large bat colony as well as an intriguing 133-year history of exploration and exploitation. “Long, tight and dusty” are words to describe Airman’s Cave in Travis County, a popular destination for Austin locals. Enchanted Rock Cave, a granite cave in Llano County, is an example of pseudokarst, in which caves are formed in non-soluble rocks by processes other than dissolution.
From three-dimensional mazes to steep drops to stunning decorations, the charms of Texas caves have cavers coming back again and again. Sometimes, for decades. Blair Pittman’s romance with the underground dates back to his first visit to Carlsbad Caverns when he was just five years old.
“I was hooked,” says the pioneering cave photographer.
Pittman, who grew up in Pecos, had to wait a few more years for his first wild cave, the formidable Devil’s Sinkhole. But in 1949 at age 11, accompanied by an adult friend, he gingerly descended 150 feet down a ladder made of sheep-wire fencing to the top of the guano mountain that rises from the depths of the enormous pit. Soon he was caving regularly. And, entranced by the beauty of the formations he saw — and eager to share it with his parents — he began to teach himself the difficult art of taking pictures below ground, starting with a simple Brownie Hawkeye.
Stalagmites and Stalactiets
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s — the “Golden Age of Texas caving” — he continued to hone his photographic skills in a wide range of caves in Texas, adjoining states and Mexico, making multiple trips to many. He participated in the early explorations of such great show caves as Natural Bridge Caverns, Inner Space Cavern and, especially, the Caverns of Sonora (then called Mayfield Cave), which became his personal muse. “Once I got into Mayfield Cave, that was it. Trip after trip after trip to it only, photographing the fantastic formations,” he says. He also worked there with developer Jack Burch to help develop the trail and electrical systems.
Photographic prowess led to a professional career. In 1962, he joined the Denton Record Chronicle staff, moving in 1964 to the Houston Chronicle, where he stayed until 1978. Next came a five-year stint with National Geographic, followed by years of freelance work. Caving took a backseat to job and family concerns, though he still found opportunities to cave in England, Ireland, Malaysia and Ecuador, while racking up a long string of photography awards.
In 1995, when Texas A&M University Press contacted him about doing a book, he had been out of serious caving for almost three decades. “I’d forgotten how hard cave photography is,” says Pittman, who was soon squeezing through tight passages and floating heavy equipment down subterranean rivers to revisit locales he’d photographed years before. Texas Caves, published in 1999, contains 66 of his finest photos, old and new, along with 33 more by other eminent explorer/photographers of his era.
Today he’s retired to a cabin in Terlingua Ghost Town in the Big Bend, a stone’s throw from an abandoned mine, a natural cave and a 150-foot pit. And though busy with other projects, like penning two slim volumes of local lore, he still caves on occasion. “But I stay away from the tough stuff,” he says.