There is an entire world beneath the surface not far from you.
When I was young, my dad would take the family on trips outdoors, usually to go camping, but the most unique and memorable trips were the times he took us caving. Sometimes we would visit caves he was intimately familiar with, and sometimes we would venture into the unknown of a cave we had never explored before.
On one trip we drove a few hours out of town and parked the car on the side of a dirt road. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, miles from any signs of civilized life. From the car we walked a few paces into the woods, where we changed into boots and overalls. We secured our helmets, double-checked our gear, and began scanning the area for clues to a secret passage. Eventually we approached a small hole in the ground, just wide enough for one person, with the rung of a wooden ladder visible just over the hole's lip. One by one we climbed down, and as the light from above slowly faded, the small hole opened up to a huge cavern under the earth.
Soon shrouded in complete darkness, our eyes began to adjust with the help of our headlamps, and then we walked, climbed, and crawled our way in whichever direction seemed right. We spent hours exploring tunnels, climbing mountains, crawling through mud, and avoiding pitfalls. The whole time the imagination of my young mind raced with images of monsters, hideaways for bandits, and the mysterious natural forces that carved this place into being over time. After a time we trudged our way back to the ladder, that symbol of familiarity in an otherwise mysterious and unfamiliar place. We emerged into the light of dusk, exchanged our muddy clothes for a fresh set, and drove home. Now, caving has become a regular activity to share with friends, meet new people, and reconnect with the natural world. From these trips I have many unique memories.
The Caving Experience
Caves are hollow underground spaces formed by weathering of rock carried out over time. One of the most common ways for caves to form is when water interacts with soluble rock like limestone. Water steeps into cracks in the rock and over time creates larger openings and causes rock to break away. Other natural processes like the cooling of lava, and erosion from streams and wind can create caves. What once was a small crack in a bed of rock millions of years ago is today a vast and complex structure underground that we can climb down into and explore.
In terms of access, a cave is horizontal if it can be entered and explored on foot without any rope assistance, and vertical or pit caves are predominantly inaccessible without ropes and harnesses. Cave diving in underwater caves requires scuba diving gear, and can be extremely dangerous.
The structure of caves vary wildly. Tight squeezes, bottomless pits, treacherous paths, and enormous spaces. Some rooms are so big that you cannot perceive the ceiling even with your light pointed directly above you. And some spaces are so tight that you will actually order your group from largest to smallest going in, and smallest to largest going out to prevent getting trapped. This variety gives you a truly unique physical exercise.
You might climb your way over mountains of rubble - piles of rocks and boulders that have broken off from the ceiling - and then squeeze your way through a jagged 6" hole in the wall. You will slide your butt along the edge of a steep and muddy ridge, all the while looking down towards the edge and wondering who will catch you if you slip, how far down it goes, and how long it would take someone to rescue you if you fell to the bottom.
Caves can be wet and muddy, or dry and sandy. One cave we visited has an abundance of clay, and if you can find a small opening in the wall in one of the tunnels, and fit yourself through, you will enter a small nook just big enough for one person that is lined with rows and rows of clay figurines. Take a ball of clay, make a small snowman perhaps, and add your art to the underground gallery, seen by only those brave enough to venture down into the earth.
When you enter a cave, the first thing you will notice is how dark it is. Even though you wear a powerful headlamp, the light is outmatched and swallowed up instantly. If you turn your lights off so that you are sitting in complete darkness, you will begin to hallucinate lights and images. Place your hands in front of your face and you will think you can see them, but it is just your mind playing tricks on you because it is not used to a complete lack of visual stimulus.
In one of our favorite caves to visit there is a book to sign if you can find it. You navigate your way a few miles through challenging rock passages towards the back of the cave where there is a treacherously steep and muddy mountain, appropriately named "Mount Olympus." If you climb it (I've only done it once), there is a sealed PVC pipe at the top and inside is a small notebook that you can sign and add your name to the list of others who conquered the mountain before you. Signing the book brings the feeling of a big achievement, but it's also strange. Finding this book feels like uncovering the remains of an ancient civilization; there are probably few places you can go to feel as alone and cut off from the world as you do in a cave, and finding a small reminder of the world above in such a secluded place is surreal.
If you have a fear of heights like I do, caving can bring about moments of trepidation. The fear of falling down a long shaft is combined with the idea that if you do fall, it will not be easy for anyone to retrieve you (see here how much work is involved rescuing someone from a simple horizontal cave). Feelings of claustrophobia can also creep up on you if you're not careful. Sometimes when I find myself pancaked between two giant slabs of rock, the left side of my face pressed up against the ceiling, and the right side against the floor, I have to remind myself not to think about what would happen if the earth decided to move. But these fears and anxieties are easily overcome and outweighed by the awe you experience taking in everything around you.
One of the most awe-inspiring places we like to take people who have never been caving is a room in Tumbling Rock called the Topless Dome. About a third of the way into the cave there is a small opening in the roof of a tunnel. In wet months this hole will be gushing with water and when you hoist yourself through it, getting soaked in the process, you will follow a small stream to the sound of falling water. You then find yourself standing directly under a 400ft waterfall. We always take a moment in this room to turn our lights off, listen to the sounds in complete darkness, and appreciate the unique environment we find ourselves in.
For some of the best - and better lit - pictures you will find, check out Nathan Williams.
Preparing For Your Own Trip: What To Know Before Going In
Finding a cave near you. If you have never caved before, chances are you don't know where to start. The good news is that finding experienced and friendly cavers are easy to find, and they will be more than happy to help you in organizing your first trip or in pointing you in the right direction. Check out the National Speleological Society to find local Grottos (caving clubs) in your area. This is also a great way to meet people with gear if you want to explore a vertical cave but are not in a position to rent or buy rope and harness gear. To find groups outside of the US visit the International Union of Speleology.
Get permission. Many caves are on private land and if that's the case, make sure you have requested permission to visit so that you are not trespassing.
What to wear: The temperature in every cave is the long-term average of the area. If you are in the SE United States, that's going to be roughly 55°F, so dress according to the temperature with the added expectation of getting muddy and wet.
- Sturdy long pants or overalls, and a long sleeve shirt are fine. The tougher the material the better, because you will find yourself pressed up against jagged rock frequently. Avoid denim at all costs, and if you are going to wear cotton, just keep in mind that it is not going to dry as well as wool or a synthetic material will. For caves where you will be interacting with water frequently, just don't wear cotton.
- Shoes. We used to tell people to wear shoes they did not care about, because they are going to get muddy and banged up. One person took the advice to heart and wore shoes they really did not care about, and within the first hour the sole had fallen off. Your best bet is a pair of boots with great ankle support and traction; a twisted ankle can be disastrous in a cave so do not neglect good support. Personally I wear a pair of waterproof Keen hiking boots. A pair of Timberland boots from Walmart will do just fine as well.
- Socks. Cotton absorbs water quickly but drys slowly which can lead to blisters so avoid that and go with a wool or synthetic material.
- Gloves. These are a good idea to have because they give you a more secure grip in muddy places and keep your hands protected. Get a nice pair from Walmart for $5
- Pack. Every person in your group should have their own pack. Besides holding all the essentials, we have found from experience that packs do a great job of protecting your back from unexpected points on the ceiling. I highly recommend Lost Creek Packs for their durability. Also, zippers can be finicky in muddy environments so the buckles and hooks that these packs utilize are more user friendly. However we have done plenty of day trips with your typical gym drawstring bag without any problems.
- Headlamp. Fenix has a great range of models. Consider the waterproof HP12 model or the cheaper HL30 model. I have used this Coleman headlamp (available at Walmart), but whichever one you go with make sure it is appropriate for the environment you are going in. Don't bring a cheap headlamp to a cave that requires you to stick your head under water.
- Two backup light sources and fresh batteries. In a cave, losing your light source means you're not going anywhere. You could be 100ft from the entrance but without light there is no way you will make it. Throw a couple of handheld flashlights in your pack to ensure you won't be caught off guard if something goes wrong with your primary source.
- Helmet. This is an essential item. Helmets are not just lifesavers in the event of a fall; it is extremely common to misjudge the amount of space available for you to stand up and end up banging your head against the top of the ceiling. Petzl and Black Diamond make great helmets.
- Trash bag. Since you won't be leaving any trace, keep your trash packed away in your pack or trash bag. A big trash bag can also serve to keep you warm in the event you need to protect yourself against hypothermia.
- First aid kit.
- Food and Water. I always bring too much water, but it is better to have too much than too little so throw a few bottles in your pack. For food bring trail mix, protein bars, and even a sandwich to help keep you going.
Keep in mind that if you connect with a local grotto, they will likely have quality equipment you can rent for individual trips. If you do not want to purchase equipment you might only use once or twice, this is a great alternative.
Avoid dying alone in a cave. Notify someone where you are going and let them know when you enter the cave. They should know who to contact and how long to wait before notifying someone if they do not hear back from you. There is no cell service underground so if you become trapped for whatever reason, your only way out is being found. My dad knows the caves I go to, so I always send him a simple text before I go in and as soon as I have service after I am out.
Once You Are In, Know How To Survive
Be prepared to get lost. It's part of the experience and part of the thrill. You are exploring a new environment under limited lighting. We get lost in caves that we have been to several times. It is okay to get turned around but you want to minimize the risk of getting lost to the point that you're in danger.
- Check behind you regularly. You might squeeze through a 6inch tunnel to emerge into an enormous dome-like room with a 300ft ceiling. If you plow ahead without paying attention to where you came from, you're going to have a hard time finding that hole again when you come back, especially if it's been several hours.
- Know the general layout of the cave before going in, and for some caves it might even be a good idea to bring a map. Knowing if the cave is one directional, loops back on itself, or splinters off into many different directions is really important thing to know. The more a cave forks off into many directions, the more you need to observe your surroundings and employ caution at points of diversion.
- Pay attention to the time. Before you go in you should have an idea of how long you expect to spend in the cave. Bring a waterproof watch with you so that you can turn around halfway into your time budget and focus on following the path towards the entrance.
- Look for arrows. It is common to find arrows that have been spray painted on the walls indicating direction, and these can be real lifesavers. If you find yourself in a particularly tricky spot, look around for them. They are usually either orange or black, but they always point to the exit.
Three points of contact and safe maneuvering. Anytime you are climbing or you find yourself on treacherous ground, always have at least three points of your body - usually limbs - in contact with rock. Don't ever jump or run in a cave. A fall can be disastrous. Remember that simple injuries above ground can be incapacitating in a cave; your friends cannot carry you, and you rely on the full strength of all your limbs to pull and push yourself over and under intense obstacles.
Do not underestimate distance. My dad loved to tell us a story about a caver who looked over the edge of a hole and saw the ground five feet below. Rather than jump down into it, he positioned his body over the edge, and tried to feel for the ground with his toes while hanging onto the lip. He could not seem to reach the ground but decided at the last second to come back up rather than drop the last few inches to the bottom. He took a small rock and dropped it down the center of the hole and watched as the rock when right through the mist he mistook as solid ground. A couple seconds later he heard the echo of the impact as the rock ended its 25ft fall. Had he dropped himself down to the bottom he would likely have broken his legs and been trapped waiting for a rescue mission to be organized. The story emphasizes again the importance of being cautious.
Finally, respect the cave. These are highly sensitive natural environments and it is very sad to see any sign of damage, either from vandalism or carelessness. Remember the caver's motto:
Take nothing but pictures / Leave nothing but carefully placed footprints / Kill nothing but time