Champion stalagmite sitter recalls historic publicity stunt
LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- He may not pole vault, sprint, play championship poker or consume mind-boggling quantities of food or drink, but Bob Addis is a world record holder nonetheless.
"No one's challenged my record yet," Addis said confidently last week, as he stood near the scene of his historic feat -- the 28-foot-tall bowling pin-shaped stalagmite named War Club, deep in the show cave section of Lost World Caverns.
On Sept. 3, 1971, Addis and fellow caver Bob Liebman spent the day completing work on a six-foot-square wooden platform atop the subterranean monolith. At 8:11 that night, Addis, carrying a sleeping bag and a flashlight, climbed atop the platform and didn't come down until 15 days, 22 hours and 34 minutes had passed -- setting an unofficial and unbroken world record for stalagmite sitting.
"It was a promotion for the show cave, which had only been open for a year at that time," Addis said.
Addis and Liebman had both traveled from California to Blacksburg, Va., earlier that year to attend a National Speleological Society convention. There, Addis renewed an acquaintanceship with Cliff Forman, the new owner of Lost World, who hired the two footloose Californians to serve as the show cave's manager and assistant manager.
As the State Fair and Labor Day weekend approached, Addis, Liebman and Forman sat in a Lewisburg bar and discussed ways to boost end-of-the-season revenue at the cave.
"Cliff starting throwing out ideas -- things like bringing in a dancing bear, having a rock band perform in the cave, or having a flagpole sitter come in," Addis recalled. As the new show cave manager pondered the flagpole-sitting scheme, a new twist to the Depression-era stunt began to take shape in his mind: Instead of sitting on a flagpole, why not showcase one of the cavern's natural features, and attempt to set a world record by perching atop it for an extended period?
Since there was no known world record for stalagmite sitting at that time, Addis said Forman picked a figure out of the air -- 7 days, 23.5 hours -- and billed it as the current world record, giving Addis a minimum time to shoot for.
Once atop the stalagmite, Addis soon discovered that his world record bid would not be effortless.
"There was a hump in the middle of the platform, so in order to sleep, I had to curl into the fetal position and rope myself to a section of the deck to keep from falling off," Addis said. "Over the next two weeks, I had a lot of nightmares, most of them involving falling."
After an access ladder was pulled away from the War Club, Addis noticed that the stalagmite had a tendency to sway when he moved about his platform. The stalactite above the rocky pillar constantly dripped water onto Addis's sleeping bag, which had to be taken out for drying every few days.
Each day, Liebman brought in food and drink, much of it donated by local diners, and raised it to the platform in a bucket.
Addis lowered a second bucket containing the end results of the food and drink, which Liebman -- by now clearly aware of the distinction between "manager" and "assistant manager" of a show cave -- hauled to the surface for disposal.
Soon after beginning the publicity stunt, Addis was connected to the outside world by an 800-foot-long telephone extension cord plugged into a jack in the cavern's office.
"Television crews began appearing at the cave, and I started getting calls from talk shows and disc jockeys from across the country," Addis said. "Everyone seemed to want to interview me. Even Blaze Starr, the famous stripper, called and said she'd like to warm things up for me, but she never made it over here."
Addis said he called his parents in New York to tell him about the success of his publicity stunt, but they seemed unimpressed until an article on the world record stalagmite-sitting bid appeared in the New York Daily News.
Among visitors streaming into the cave to see and speak with Addis during his world record bid was a Roanoke auto dealer with whom the show cave manager had been dickering for a used car.
"We closed the deal, and he sent the paperwork up for me to sign in the bucket, along with the car keys," Addis recalled.
But as the stream of late-season tourists entering the cave to see the stalagmite sitter slowed to a trickle, a decision was made to end the stunt.
The event's grand finale was an in-cave performance by the Greenbrier East High School Band, featuring 80 musicians and majorettes. After the concert ended, Addis rappelled off top of the stalagmite, and stood shakily on solid ground for the first time in almost 16 days.
"When I landed on the ground, my legs buckled," he said. "After being on the platform so long, I had no muscle tone left."
After the cave closed for the season, Addis moved on, returning to his career as a construction engineer, and working in Chicago for several years before moving on to the Albany, N.Y., area, where he now lives.
Addis said he is still involved in caving, and visited a cave in Monroe County with friends earlier in the week.
An active member of the National Speleological Society, Addis is among more than 1,100 cavers who gathered in Lewisburg recently to attend the NSS's 2012 national convention.
To raise funds for the NSS, Addis sold photos of conventioneers standing with him next to the War Club in Lost World Caverns.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.