World’s Most Prolific Cave Explorer Dies at 80

Marion Smith, a caver with 8,291 separate explorations to his name, died on Nov. 30 of congestive heart failure and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to The New York Times. He was 80.

Smith was born in Fairburn, Georgia in 1942, and spent a lifetime exploring the southeastern United States’ famous limestone cave systems. According to the Times, Smith was a member of a team of cavers that discovered a previously unknown 106m-tall, 1.8-hectacre chamber in East Tennessee in 1998. The chamber is part of a cave system known as Rumbling Falls. Smith was its principal explorer, according to a 2002 Sports Illustrated profile.


After retiring from a historical research position at the University of Tennesee in 2000, Smith’s caving escalated. His hyperactivity culminated in 2014, with 335 cave visits that year. Smith was 71 at the time.

That was also the year that Smith fell into a pit and became pinned under a boulder for nine hours. After rescue, Smith checked himself out of the hospital and returned to the Van Buren County cave for more exploration — all on the same day.

“This incident, all it did was screw up my plans for the weekend,” Smith told the Chattanooga Times Free Press shortly after 50 volunteers helped free him from the boulder.


Smith’s caving frequency may have peaked in 2014, but he continued exploring until the last years of his life.

“Every day, he wanted to create an adventure,” Chuck Mangelsdorf, Smith’s friend and fellow caver, told The New York Times.

A man of many talents

Smith also continued his penchant for historical research well past his retirement. In 2010, the caver partnered with historians at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., to document Civil War-era graffiti in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. He was also one of the world’s foremost experts in the historical mining of saltpeter, a critical ingredient of gunpowder.

“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 Chatanooga Times Free Press in 2014. “And if I can’t be sitting up in a cave, surely they can put me on a stretcher and wheel me into one.”

Smith is survived by his partner, Sharon Jones.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
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