No One Entered More Caves Than Marion Smith

Tennessee man who 'wanted to create an adventure' daily dies at 80
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 24, 2022 9:30 AM CST
Marion Smith Explored an Unmatched 8K Caves
The historic entrance to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.   (Getty/snikeltrut)

"If caving were a professional sport," a Sports Illustrated profile said in 2003, Marion Smith "would possess the lifetime stats of a Wilt Chamberlain or Ted Williams." Smith—who is thought to have gone into more caves than any other human being ever, per the New York Times—died Nov. 30 of congestive heart failure and chronic lymphocytic leukemia at his home in Tennessee. He was 80. Here are some of those stats:

  • 8,291 separate caves explored.
  • 2 million feet of rope climbed up and down.
  • 3,000+ underground pits deeper than 30 feet were rappelled into.
  • 335 cave visits in a single year, 2013, when he turned 71 years old; it was his personal best.

Smith, who grew up in a part of Georgia replete with limestone cave systems, first went into a cave in 1966. He became known for caving every weekend, regularly making discoveries, fearlessly entering uncharted spaces. "Every day, he wanted to create an adventure," said Chuck Mangelsdorf, also a caver. Smith concentrated on searching for hidden entrances to caves and going deeper into caves he'd already explored. After searching for jobs that would leave plenty of time for caving, Smith became an assistant editor at the University of Tennessee in 1974, tasked with readying President Andrew Johnson's papers to be published. He retired from the job in 2000, per the Times, but not from caving.

There were scares. Smith was pinned under a boulder for nine hours in 2014 after falling into a pit. It took 50 volunteers to free him. "All it did was screw up my plans for the weekend," he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press at the time. In retirement, Smith worked on a project to record the thousands of signatures left by Confederate and Union soldiers in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, for which he wrote brief biographies of about 80 of the men. He had no plans to ever stop going into caves. "Even if I'm physically impossible to go in a wild cave, surely I can be put in a wheelchair and wheeled to a commercial cave," Smith told the Times Free Press. "And if I can't be sitting up in a cave, surely they can put me on a stretcher and wheel me into one." (More caving stories.)

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