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Uncharted Territory

World-renowned cave explorer Bill Steele is adding new passages to Texas maps, foot by foot

Photo by Erich Schlegel

In a dark tunnel near the entrance of Honey Creek Cave, Bill Steele buckles his helmet and tugs on a pair of swim fins.

The world-renowned speleologist scoots to the edge of a ledge, then eases into a chilly underground creek. He’ll spend the next two hours swimming through this dark, watery passage beneath the Texas Hill Country.

Steele, 73, has crept through more than 2,500 caves around the globe, from Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico—the deepest known cave in the Western Hemisphere—to two of the longest known caves in China. He belongs to the prestigious Explorers Club, whose members include divers, astronauts and mountain climbers, and in 2018 researchers named a hairy-legged species of cave tarantula Hemirrhagus billsteelei in his honor.

Today he’s wearing a wetsuit over Batman-themed swim trunks. His headlamp cuts a cone of light through the bleak darkness, illuminating thousands of stalactites that drip from the arched ceiling like long, mud-colored teeth. At one point, the ceiling drops to within a few inches of the water’s surface, and Steele removes his helmet, tips back his head and floats through the passage, breathing from a narrow pocket of air.

Steele has been exploring Honey Creek Cave, the longest known cave in Texas, for nearly four decades. Several times a year, cavers from around the state get special permission to access the private property near Bulverde where it’s located. They’ve mapped more than 21 miles so far, and on this March weekend, they’re adding to that total.

What they’ve found might surprise Johnny Gass, who ranched this land in the 1960s. Gass knew about the cave but didn’t realize how far it extended beneath the scrub- and cactus-covered fields.

Steele knows the cave’s twists and turns well. Years ago, he became the first person to enter an area called the Boneyard, where remains from ancient camels, horses and saber-toothed cats were found.

At camp he spreads out a map.

“This is the longest cave in Texas, and it just got longer,” Steele says, noting that other cavers exploring this weekend added 300 or 400 feet to the total.

That’s the kind of stuff that has kept Steele crawling into underground passages since he was a boy in Dayton, Ohio. His Boy Scout troop visited several caves, including one where Steele squeezed through a passage that had never been explored.

He was hooked. He became an Eagle Scout, saying it gave him a chance to explore, then joined the National Speleological Society. During a 34-year career working in administration at the Boy Scouts of America, he spent much of his spare time squirming through caves.

“It’s original exploration, done on a weekend,” he says.

He still crawls—and swims—through caves frequently, but most of his work now involves spearheading expeditions from aboveground.

“Everybody who’s a caver in this state knows Bill Steele or knows of him,” says Kurt Menking, former head of mapping for the Bexar Appraisal District. “He’s legendary—he’s published books and writes articles; he loves to tell stories and goes to caving events all over the country.”

Menking remembers following Steele into the labyrinths of Honey Creek Cave shortly after surveying began in the early 1980s. “We’d swim with flippers on for hours, get to a side passage and slog through a couple more hours, then survey for a few hours,” he says. “Then we’d do it all again coming out—a six-hour trip.

“Bill would fly through that cave. He knew exactly where to step and what to avoid.”

Steele, who lives in Irving, is best known for his work in Mexico, where he has helped lead explorations of Sistema Huautla, which reaches depths of nearly a mile. He helped create the Huautla Deep Caving Expedition in 2014 to map the entire cave system. He has personally crawled through about 40 of the cave’s 55 mapped miles, sometimes camping inside its damp crevices for weeks at a time.

“Some people get overwhelmed at the thought of how long it takes to get out,” he says. “But I like that kind of thing.”

He feels the same way about the watery tunnels of Honey Creek Cave.

“They say there’s an explorer’s gene, and I think I’ve got it.”

Correction: September 26, 2022
This story was updated to correct the spellings of Johnny Gass’ and Kurt Menking’s names.