The longest cave in the world

Dismal Hollow in Mammoth Cave
Photo: National Park Service

Spelunker Roger Brucker spearheaded the once secretive process of mapping Mammoth Cave, helping to establish it as the longest cave system in the world.

At the age of five, Roger Brucker made an important discovery: his new trainers had enough grip to scale his friend's laundry chute.

He promptly climbed from the basement to the first storey bathroom. Regrettably, it was occupied.

"I wasn't invited back," Brucker chuckled. But he didn't learn his lesson either. 81 years later, he's still addicted to exploring the world's hidden spaces.

He just chooses a more prestigious environment.

Mammoth Cave, the centrepiece of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, has attracted explorers for centuries. Spelunkers have discovered blind fish in underground rivers, tunnels blooming with gypsum flowers and sheer, gaping pits.

What they haven't found is the end of the cave.

"It's an obsession for a few people who are intrigued by how big it is, how far is goes and how many kinds of cave passages it contains," Brucker said.

"I think this is just unbridled curiosity fed by a continuous stream of discoveries."

Brucker has worn a lot of hats - writer, executive, teacher, activist. But his favourite has a carbide lamp on the front.

He's been exploring the uncharted reaches of the Mammoth Cave System for more than 60 years.

In that time, he's played a role in most major discoveries, including Mammoth's establishment as the longest cave in the world.

In the 1950s, Brucker was part of a team of ambitious young cavers exploring the Flint Ridge landscape around Mammoth Cave National Park.

Together, they founded the Cave Research Foundation, a team of volunteers dedicated to scientific exploration.

Their hope was to connect the local caves into a single giant system.

Up until then, mapping had been a disjointed and secretive process.

In the 1840s, a slave and cave guide named Stephen Bishop published a sketch of Mammoth's known tunnels.

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