History of organized caving in Montana
Notes, memories, and research by Zach Angstead, Tina Shirk, Daryl Greaser, and Ken Stahley
For a long time, organized caving in Montana meant men and women going on
day trips or picnics to Ram’s Horn Cave, with men dressed in their suits and
ladies dressed in petticoats and dresses carrying candles and kerosene lanterns.
That continued from the early 1890s until about 1920 (F. Scott Fitzgerald visited
Ram’s Horn in about 1915 on a summer adventure in the west).
In the early 1940’s Bruno Petch, Park Superintendent at Lewis and Clark
Caverns, encouraged Herman Seidemann Jr. and Willis Nelson to join the NSS
and were likely the first three Montanans to join the NSS. With encouragement
and help from Petch, Seidemann Jr., and Nelson, and joined by Melvin Carlson
and Keith Ripley (all NSS members), explored and mapped a large section of
Lewis and Clark Caverns after which it was thought that the majority of the cave
was explored and mapped.
After World War II there was little organized caving in Montana. Basil Hritsco
was an avid caver but had few companions to go with him. Hritsco relied on
cavers from out of state and also hired unsuspecting help at the labor office in
Great Falls. Hritsco caved for many years.
The Treasure State Speleological (TSSS) was formed by a group of college
students from Eastern Montana College and Rocky Mountain College in the late
1950s. The TSSS was the active caving group in the Billings, Montana area at
the time and focused their efforts in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and the Big
Horn Mountains of Wyoming but with many trips to Ram’s Horn, as well. Many of
the TSSS members were also NSS members but TSSS was not an NSS
affiliated grotto. Still, TSSS and its members submitted papers, photos, and
stories to the NSS Bulletin.
Cavers of the TSSS included Jerold Elliott, Ron Pering, Harley Leach, Tonee
Tillett, Vern Gilbert, Guy Howard, and Carolyn Minette, along with Dave Doze,
Dean Dale, and Royce Tillett. Mary Alice Corn (Mary Alice Corn Chester will be
at our 2018 convention!) and Nikki Tillett also caved with TSSS members.
While the TSSS was actively mapping caves in south-central Montana, another
group of cavers and climbers from Bozeman formed the Montana State College
Outdoor Club (MSCOC). The MSCOC and the TSSS were often caving together
in the Pryor Mountains throughout the early 1960s. The two groups were
effectively one unaffiliated grotto but kept their autonomous group names.
Meanwhile, Basil Hritsco was still caving, mostly independently, but did team up
with Newell Campbell in 1960 to descend the bottomless pit. Newell Campbell
went on to publish Montana’s “Cave Bible”, Caves of Montana, 1978.
In 1965 the cavers in the MSCOC reorganized and formed the Southwest
Montana Speleological Society. Jim Chester, Jack Vernink and Rick McBee
urged the group to join the NSS and the SMSS was chartered by the NSS. The
MSCOC and SMSS merged soon after in 1965 and the name was changed to
the Shining Mountains Grotto (SMG). The SMG and TSSS members continued
caving together throughout Montana. As members of the TSSS relocated, some
of the remaining members joined the SMG. The Shining Mountain Grotto
continued for many years. But, as time passed, their publications became less
frequent until about 1982, when a lack of new members, and the relocation of the
college student oriented members’ graduation. Some of the former SMG
members continued caving together but there was no longer a formal
The Lake Missoula Grotto was formed in about 1990 in Missoula. The Lake
Missoula Grotto was a strong presence in Montana through the mid 1990s and
members were actively caving until the late 90s. The group found, or refound,
several caves and explored caves all over the state.
In 1999 the attraction of Montana, and the caving potential, lured a couple of “out
of staters” who made Montana their home. They were Joe Oliphant and Tina
Shirk. At about the same time, Daryl Greaser moved to Missoula and Doug
Warner moved to Bozeman. Together, with the help of the NSS and Montana
residents Mitch Price, John Citta, and Larry Evans, they formed the Northern
Rocky Mountain Grotto (NRMG) which was chartered on February 20, 2000.
Early meetings were held in Missoula and membership was about 20 members.
In the mid-2000s, Mike McEachern retired to Hamilton and kept the grotto going
through a few lean years, instituting a "lifetime" membership fee of only $12,
which persisted until around 2012 when annual membership dues was modified
to $12 per year still a pretty good deal.
When Andy Belski returned from an Annual Grotto Meeting of the Alberta
Speleological Society, their model of one business meeting per year was
adopted by the NRMG and persists today. The annual AGM suits Montana
because it allows state wide support of a single grotto.
Other important players in NRMG were Hans Bodenhamer, veteran caver of
Silvertip in the 1980s, Jim Chester, a 1970s wilderness caving legend who
helped with securing a Cost-Share agreement with the US Forest Service, and
Jason Ballensky, at the time a kid from eastern Montana intent on visiting every
cave in the state, and the founder of the Caves of Montana Project.
In about 2011 or 2012, the NRMG began holding its AGM at Lewis and Clark
Caverns, whose staff graciously hosts us each year. Grotto members are
empowered to sponsor "Pub Nights" anywhere there are cavers. Our state is
700 miles by the interstate highway to cross from east to west. The Pub Nights
act as “mini meetings” of cavers located in cities that might be 500 miles apart, a
distance just a bit too far to accommodate monthly meetings for the full grotto.
As a result of the Pub Nights membership blossomed from around 40 members
in the Missoula and Bozeman areas in about 2010, to over 150 active members
The NRMG is a network of cavers in which the interest for cave exploration was
reignited to the continuation of old projects, development of new projects, and the
eventual discovery and exploration of the deepest cave(s) in the United States.
Through caving outreach the NRMG works closely with the Big Fork High School
Cave Club in Bigfork, MT, led by Hans Bodenhamer, and the University of
Montana Cave Club in Missoula.
In 2018 the NRMG has members from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington,
California, Colorado, South Dakota, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Michigan, New
Hampshire, Tennessee, and Canadian Provinces, Alberta and British Columbia.