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History of Speleo Digest

Just What is a Speleo Digest?

by Scott Fee, NSS 19797 LF
All sorts of challenges and problems confront the caver who likes to dig. These challenges range from the mildly annoying glitches that are blown off and forgotten to really life-threatening events like being buried alive or forgetting to bring your Little Debbies. Since the beeg hassles always get the attention, we're going to devote a few paragraphs here to discussing one of the little things that can make a digger's life miserable: getting a mudberry stuck in your ear.

Two days later...gave my ear a nice long drink with an ear syringe and compounded the error by tamping everything securely down... total hearing loss... tried hydrogen peroxide... dug out a bottle of Molifene (1972 vintage)... tried a baking soda solution... then a spray nozzle in the bathtub!... and then Olive Oil [courtesy of my Pharmacist]. ...I was on the point of quitting when one particularly desperate squeeze of the bulb produced a searing pain and all the stuff that had plagued me so long at once burst out of my ear...

-- excerpts from Here's Mud in Your Ear by Edward R Burrow, 1995 Speleo Digest

A Speleo Digest is a book which contains selected material from grotto newsletters of a given year, selected by a volunteer editor on the basis of entertainment or permanent reference value. Nowhere else in America can one find such a comprehensive collection of written works on the activities of American cavers. The Speleo Digest is naturally a potpourri of information about every aspect of American caves and caving. Where else could you have found an article humorously detailing how to get a mud plug out of your ear?

Typically, about half of the book will be devoted to descriptions and maps of caves all over the U.S.A. These articles vary from routine passage depictions to detailed accounts of how the intrepid explorers managed to push even further than the previous generation. Additionally, the International section covers non-USA caves and is often quite lengthy as well.
...I dived into the current and swam as hard as I could toward the standing wave. I had already been caught by an unforgiving current and was being swept towards the boulders and their companion whirlpools. Adrenaline forced me to pull harder, and when I encountered the wave it rolled over me. I felt a sudden acceleration as my body rose to the top of the wave. From there on, I was propelled downstream at great speed, and covered the 400 meters to the beach in what seemed less than minute.

On shore, I was still tingling from the daring flirtation with death. However, I realized the gravity of the situation and felt helpless for my companions as they were totally alone and at the mercy of the river...

-- excerpts from The 1988-89 Nita Ka Expedition, Mexico, by James H Smith, Jr., 1989 Speleo Digest

The Speleo Digest was first published in 1956 by the Pittsburgh Grotto. Being stapled and only about one-half inch thick, this first book is rare and valued at over $100 for an original copy. Even back then cavers were an independent lot and some of the articles can be quite entertaining.
Once upon a long time ago, in the far off city of Lavington, a group of people had a hobby called SPELLING. Nobody had ever organized SPELLING before, but they were enthusiastic and thought SPELLING had a future. They even had a motto: "The last outpost for the most." So they got a charter from the town council at Lavinton and called themselves the NATIONAL SPELLING SOCIETY...

And then the trouble began. The local groups chartered by the Society, called POTTOES, were scattered all over the country and did not respond to suggestions. They did not take kindly to the enforcement of a by-law which stated that all information about SPELLS, pictures of them, and maps of them gathered on POTTO trips were the property of the NATIONAL SPELLING SOCIETY. Nor was this alleged injustice eased by the fact that in return for their dues, members received only a copy of a yearly book called the "Communique" and a monthly pamphlet called "The Views..."

-- excerpts from The Debating Society by Allen D McCrady, 1956 Speleo Digest

The Pittsburgh Grotto continued to publish this compilation of cave-related material through 1966. Then the Pittsburgh Grotto gave the publication to the NSS which has published all subsequent editions.

A Speleo Digest also serves the important function of preserving, in a readily accessible form, much information from local newsletters that would otherwise be nearly impossible for cavers to locate in the future.

Do you remember the "Diet Pepsi Can needle scare of 1993?" No? Well then, check out the 1993 Speleo Digest for a few articles and cartoons that added an underground twist to that piece of American history.

In addition, just think how much it would cost you to be a member of all those grottos who publish newsletters? With about 190 Internal Organizations nationally, membership at $10 would be almost $2,000!

The rarer editions vary in price and I would suggest consulting your speleo book vendors before making a significant purchase. Nonetheless, I know of at least three cavers seeking a 1958 Speleo Digest, with minimum offers of $100, to complete their collection.

Needless to say, a Speleo Digest makes a great gift for your speleo-spouse or underground comrade. You can obtain your copy from the NSS Bookstore NSS Bookstore, or by calling (256) 852-1300 or e-mailing

1) NSS Members Manual
2) NSS Board of Governors Manual
3) Evelyn Bradshaw, 1996 Internal Organizations Chairman, Personal Communication, August 26, 1996