By Alan Wechsler
At about 8 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in November, Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie and I headed off from the Upper Works parking lot toward Indian Pass in the High Peaks. Most people who head to this narrow defile are rock climbers looking to gain the lofty heights of Wallface, New York’s tallest cliff. We had something more subterranean in mind.
We were following in the footsteps of a man named Robert “Bob” Carroll Jr., unknown to most of the world but a giant in the secretive world of northeastern caving. Carroll, who died in 2005, was obsessed with underground exploration. For decades, he traveled all over the Adirondacks, mostly by himself, seeking out caves that had not yet been discovered. For this he would pore over topographical maps, looking for rock outcrops that might hide a underground passage in their midst. He would hike upwards of thirty miles a day.
Though he was a loner, he reached out to hunters and landowners, asking if they knew of any caves on their property. He would chase rumors of caves into the woods, exploring even the smallest sinkhole. Caves were his life: he documented more than 640 of them in the North Country alone. In all, he explored more than a thousand caves throughout the Northeast.
One of his biggest obsessions was just below Wallface in the heart of Indian Pass. Located in the jungle-thick woods is a series of caves that Carroll named TSOD—Touchy Sword of Damocles, apparently for a precipitously perched overhanging rock. During the 1970s, he would drive to Upper Works from his home in Potsdam, leaving well before dawn to spend his days crawling around or under giant rocks. He measured these caves with sticks and body-lengths, never a compass or tape measure, a more typical method of cave mapping. When he was done, he would draw—completely from memory—intricate, beautifully rendered maps of where he had been.
For no particular reason, other than curiosity and because it sounded like a grand adventure, Kevin and I decided to retrace his steps. In doing so, perhaps it would open some windows into the man himself. Because Bob Carroll was, as they say, different. In fact, his achievements in caving are all the more remarkable in light of his eccentricities.
“Bob had his own world,” said his younger brother, George Carroll, who lives in Connecticut.
The Carroll family moved to the Potsdam area when Bob was young, and he stayed for the rest of his life. As a youngster growing up in the North Country, Bob explored the woods endlessly, nearly always alone. When his father brought back giant inner tubes from his job at a construction site, Bob took them to a local river and floated downstream.
George left town at age eighteen to join the Army, but Bob stayed. He attended Clarkson University, majoring in physics (“Brilliant mind—he was the smartest one in his class,” George recalled). He graduated in 1963, also the year of his first cave trip, and later got a job at the school, working as a computer technician for thirty years. He lived in a tiny, two-room apartment in Potsdam without a refrigerator or stove. There were lots of books—he was an avid reader. When he was home, he ate mostly out of cans. Sardines and canned Chinese food dishes were a favorite, and he ate them cold. He did laundry in the bathtub and hung the clothes up in his room to dry.
“He had a bathroom, he had a bed,” George said. “That’s the way he lived.”
He worked on weekdays, caved on weekends, and spent much of the rest of his time sitting before a small table in his room, writing handwritten letters in neat script and making extensive notes about his trips. He spent so much time at that table, friends said, that he wore holes in the carpet from his scuffing feet.
Chuck Porter, who edits the magazine Northeastern Caver, has thousands of pages of notes from Bob’s collection, in fifteen spiral-bound notebooks—so many that Porter created an index on his computer just to keep track of everything. The letters Carroll sent to the magazine, published by the National Speleological Society Northeastern Region, stack two inches high.
Carroll wasn’t particularly fussy about the caves he visited. He crawled into meltwater tunnels, found in the huge expanse of snow that forms each year on Mount Washington’s famous Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire. He explored crystalline ice caves formed by flash-frozen waves, created during frigid and windy nights on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. He even crawled under the skin of a frozen river, which had flooded and then receded, leaving a thin layer of ice on top and an air cavity beneath.
Roger Bartholomew, now seventy-four and living in Rome, New York, went out with Bob Carroll ten times between 1971 and 1999. “On most hikes, Robert wore a rubber [rain] suit with a rubber hood and pack boots which came up just below his knees,” he said. “This enabled him to be prepared for any kind of weather. He went into the caves with this outfit, and on one hike over three days he also slept in it.”
Carroll loved to talk as he hiked, friends recalled, and didn’t particularly care if anyone else was listening. At times he’d ramble on about his theories on geology—for instance, that the earth once suddenly shifted on its axis, which he believed was responsible for some of the geological anomalies found in caves in the Adirondacks.
But once inside a cave, he focused on what he could see. He crawled around in his rubber suit, lighting the way with three six-volt flashlights tied to a rope around his neck. At about five-foot-six and skinny, Carroll could fit into all but the smallest passages. Finding and mapping a new cave was a special pleasure.
“When you’re a cave explorer, you’re always interested in finding new passages that no one else has seen before,” Bartholomew said. “We call it ‘virgin cave.’ That is one of the objectives of cave explorers.”
One thing Carroll didn’t like was doctors. In the mid-1990s, he was suffering from a particularly nasty flu, and his co-workers at Clarkson decided to bring him to a local hospital. There, doctors didn’t know what to make of him. At times, Carroll could ramble in tangents unrelated to a conversation topic. When he was sick, it was worse. Doctors thought there was something wrong with his head—and committed Carroll to an institution in Ogdensburg for observation. He was there for several days, until his brother drove up and demanded his release.
Bob Carrol’s response to the incident, according to his brother: “He got back to his room and he said, ‘I’m going to send my books to the hospital because they don’t have a lot of reading.’ So he packed them up and sent them to the hospital—that’s Bob.”
In 2004, he began to complain to friends and to his brother about worsening back pain, coughing, and difficulty walking. Being Bob Carroll, he avoided going to see a doctor—until the pain got so bad he told his brother he couldn’t stand it anymore. By then it was too late. Carroll had prostate cancer, and it had spread everywhere. On April 10, 2005, he died at age sixty-four.
Cavers came from all over the Northeast for his funeral. His caving gear—donated to the speleological society—was on display, as was a PowerPoint show documenting his life. “Those who looked beyond his oddball personality quirks found a warm, intelligent, caring person who would go to great lengths to help his many friends,” Porter wrote in an obituary that ran in Northeastern Caver.
Carroll came to my attention through MacKenzie, a storied climber and adventurer in his own right, albeit aboveground. MacKenzie has spent the last few years exploring Panther Gorge, a remote escarpment near Mount Marcy, and became interested in Carroll’s caving visits. My first thoughts were: wait, there are caves in the Adirondacks? And Bob found hundreds? Who was this guy?
Given that Panther Gorge is a four-hour hike from the nearest road, I decided Touchy Sword of Damocles would make a much more enjoyable and instructive destination, especially since Carroll spent so much time there.
Plus, it would be easy to find. Cavers generally keep the location of limestone “solution” caves secret to reduce the risk of damage. These caves might have delicate speleothems such as stalactites, which take tens of thousands of years to form and can easily be broken off by the unwary or by vandals. And there are the bats, which are dying from a fungus believed to have been accidentally introduced by cavers. TSOD is a talus cave, formed not by water but from falling rock. It is far from fragile, so there’s no danger from careless visitors. It’s right off the trail to Summit Rock in Indian Pass, about a ninety-minute walk on what must be one of the muddiest trails in the High Peaks. At the base of a wooden ladder, make a left at a giant rock with a deep fissure through the middle, and you’ll see the entrance.
Actually, a talus cave doesn’t necessarily have just one entrance. It’s more like Swiss cheese, with multiple entrances and exits, overhangs and tunnels. There’s no sense of going deeper into the earth. The air isn’t musty as in a typical cave, and the floor is mostly dry instead of muddy. In many sections, traces of sunlight remain. Many cavers might find it lacking in appeal, compared to the thrill of crawling deep underground.
Not Carroll. From his first trip here on August 3, 1974, to his last trip, May 28-29, 1977, he eagerly explored every inch of the cave. TSOD is actually one of a hundred caves of various sizes he documented in the Indian Pass area. Cavers might scoff at what qualified as “cave” to him—some were mere overhangs or fissures—but there’s no question TSOD is big. Carroll documented nearly four kilometers of passages.
We brought Carroll’s maps and notes with us. For every visit, he drew a new map, expanding his bird’s-eye rendering of the underground world. Many of his illustrations look like something you might see under a microscope—protozoa in the midst of splitting apart, perhaps. His maps used colorful names to identify the different rooms: Antigravatron Sector, Talus Rampart, Courtyards, Big Room, Garnet Alcove.
At no point did we find anything that seemed to correspond with anything on Carroll’s cave maps. No doubt it all made sense to Carroll, though. Still, it was a thrill to follow in his footsteps and imagine what it must have been like for him to have set foot in some of these hidden pockets, possibly the first human to have done so.
After an hour or so of crawling around, Kevin and I quickly understood how much effort Carroll put into his hobby. Talus caving is hard work. And confusing—you pop out of a passage into the sun, with no idea where you are in relation to the rest of it. The house-size boulders surrounding the cave make navigation extremely difficult. It was a relief to find our way back to the beginning.
But I could understand the thrill of being in here.
When we grew tired with TSOD—I told Kevin he should consider changing his nickname to “MudBat”—we headed downhill to another cave, Henadoawda, which contained a stream that disappears and reappears as it runs through the jumble of boulders. It was exciting to hear the roar of a hidden waterfall and then crawl around a rock and find it in front of you. We traversed dark pools, got splattered by cold water as we climbed wet rocks, photographed each other in shafts of light that beamed through holes in the ceiling. We also found a beer can of recent vintage—at least one other party had found the space compelling enough to explore (one apparently unacquainted with the concept of “leave no trace”). Finally, we emerged at the base of a giant cliff.
It was midafternoon when we decided to halt our explorations for the day and head home, a relatively easy trip compared to Carroll’s long days in the woods. As we splashed our way through the mud on the way out, I wondered: what was it about caving that appealed to Carroll so much?
No one I spoke to, neither his friends nor his brother, could say exactly. Perhaps, like computer programming, caving appealed to his mathematical mind, a puzzle to be figured out. Maybe it was a way to escape the world of man, where he could be by himself with his thoughts and ideas. Certainly it brought pleasure to one who lived life on his own terms and brought knowledge to a community that could appreciate his unique skills and passion.
“If he saw a hole in the ground, Bob would crawl into it with no fear,” George Carroll said. “It was something that he could do on his own. Without anybody else.”