"ARE YOU AFRAID of spiders?" asks guide Kathy Tryon. "Bats? Rats? We have one rat living in the cave."

I say no, grateful she didn't mention snakes, and adjust my over-the-shoulder pack containing the lead acid battery that will power the light attached to my helmet. Then I follow her inside a small dark hole nearly hidden in a rocky mountainside.

I am wild-caving here in the Shenandoah Valley, exploring an undeveloped cave located near the commercial Caverns at Natural Bridge Village in Natural Bridge, Va. Winding my way through the narrow passages of the portion of the cave dubbed the Doll House -- so named because of its many small rooms -- my senses do double-time. The wet smell of clay and rock are heightened by a total blackness that is pierced only by the beams of light bobbing from atop our helmets. The rat is elsewhere today, but we nod hello to a brightly colored cave salamander and whisper as we pass a tiny sleeping bat. I am dazzled by beads of condensation sparkling overhead like fool's gold. No wonder novices like me want to see a cave in its wild state.

"The visitors who come here to the {commercial} caverns, they're always asking questions about the undeveloped parts," explains Tryon. Visiting a wild trail, she says, lets the average person "see the natural state of the cavern. You get to see a lot of different things that you wouldn't normally see on a commercial tour. You get to take more detail, and more time with it."

Soon I am crawling through tight, mud-slick passageways, pulling the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my palms to keep my bare hands from touching the intricate formations sprouting and rippling throughout the cave. Emphasizing the fragility of the cavern, Tryon explains how the oil on your skin leaves a film on the cave that can cause water to flow around the area, keeping the formations from growing. With each turn, she points out intricate shapes tens of thousands of years old: stalactites (they grow down), stalagmites (they grow up), hollow soda straws, rimstone, flowstone, gravity-defying helictites, even rare anthodites -- all created by the slow drip and flow of water as it seeps through the 450-million-year-old limestone and dissolves the mineral calcite.

Vandals have written on walls and broken off huge formations deep in the cave. Tryon is sick over the destruction; I wonder who would be foolish enough to enter such a cave without proper equipment and experience, especially since caves can be as dangerous as they are magnificent.

We scramble over a formation the cavern guides call Elephant's Butt, due to its two rounded slopes and crisscross patterned surface, and carefully hoist ourselves up high slippery walls to reach yet another level in this dark labyrinth. We ford tiny streams, the gentle ripples providing soothing background music. The strenuous activity keeps me warm even in the cave's constant 58-degree temperature.

Tryon squeezes through a crack in the limestone. I follow, questioning my sanity for a split second before realizing that my guide knows where she's going and how to return. But what about those making new explorations?

Gary Berdeaux is a professional cave photographer who is mapping the unexplored areas of his family's Endless Caverns in New Market, Va.

"It's sort of like discovering treasure," he told me. "You're not discovering gold doubloons but you are discovering beautiful rooms sometimes, or maybe you might stumble upon a little pool in a room that contains a one-of-a-kind species . . . . That's why caves are so special, because you can have such unique and specially adapted creatures that perhaps only survive in one or two caves."

At one point in our exploration, Tryon and I are dwarfed by limestone formations towering hundreds of feet overhead -- all the result of time and the forces and elements of nature. Walt Disney couldn't have done better.

The sun welcomes us warmly when we finally emerge. The mountain's dark mysteries are left behind, silently awaiting another visitor. I hope he or she will tread carefully to help preserve Tryon's beloved Doll House.

I remove the helmet and wipe my hands on my mud-smeared jeans, the dirt my personal badge of adventure. Now I understand the caver's creed: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time. IN A CAVERN, IN A CANYON . . .

You must be in good physical condition for a wild cave tour, since it requires a great deal of climbing, walking and crawling. Wear warm clothes, sturdy boots or shoes, gloves and bring a complete change of clothing -- you will get wet and muddy. Helmets, lights and guides are provided. Advance reservations are required. The following caves are within a three- to five-hour drive of Washington:


Minimum two people and a maximum of eight on the three- to four-hour tour. Recommended for children 12 and up. $20 per person. Natural Bridge, Va. Take Exit 49 off I-81 south. In Virginia call 800/533-1410; elsewhere 800/336-5727.


Maximum of six people on the three-hour tour. Recommended for children 14 and up (unless accompanied by an adult). $25 per person, $12.50 per person deposit in advance. Organizer for group of six admitted free. Lewisburg, W. Va. Off Route 64W; take Exit 169 onto 219 south. Call 304/645-6677.


Four- to five-hour tour for ages 14 and up. $24.50 per person. Begins at Organ Cave, off Route 64W, Exit 175 south. Call 304/645-6984.

The following speleological clubs do not offer organized tours, but they do welcome new members or will assist those wishing to learn more about caving. For ecological and safety reasons, the clubs will not give out locations of wild caves in the area. D.C. GROTTO --

Write Dave West, 13610 Arctic Ave., Rockville, MD 20853, or call 460-4299.


Write Tom Kaye, 3245 Rio Dr., Falls Church, VA 22041, or call 379-8794.


Write Jim McConkey, 604 Shirley Manor Rd., Reisterstown, MD 21136, or call 301/526-6224.


can provide information on speleological organizations located throughout the United States. Write NSS, Cave Avenue, Huntsville, AL 35810, or call205/852-1300.

Angela Soper last wrote for Weekend about the rollerblading craze.