Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tips on Caving

I love to cave. Ever since my 7th grade science teacher took 1/3 of our class on my first wild cave tour (the kind that requires a head-lamp, knee pads and gloves), I've been hooked. It's a dark, mysterious jungle-gym that has new realms to explore all the time and tests endurance, creativity and grit. However, caving is not without numerous risks, or smaller frustrations, that can be planned for in advance to help you on your wild-caving tour. I'll share with you what I know/practice.

To begin, and let's just be clear, when I talk about wild caving, it first means that you don't pay anyone to go into the cave. If there's an 18-year-old kid named Tim with a name tag walking you along a smooth path with rope lights along it, pointing out the paper mache jaguar, you are not on a wild cave tour. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm not going to speak to any form of caving that requires heavy-duty repelling equipment, temperature endurance clothing, or overnight caving. Frankly, because I've never done it. I'd LOVE to do that some day - parachute into a cave or go cave scuba-diving; but for now, I have extensive experience in raw wild caving, so that's what I'll speak to.

1. Tell Someone

This is a pretty safe travel tip even outside of caves, when you're going somewhere alone or with a small group. Let one or two people know your plans - exactly when you're setting out, exactly where you're going, and when you estimate you should be back. I like to add on the "call the police time;" for example, "I should be back by 7 p.m.; but if you haven't heard from me by 9 p.m., then call the police." A multitude of bad things can go wrong - injuries, getting lost, animal attacks, what have you. Also, a number of far more realistic things can happen that can delay your return - rain, traffic, took a nap or your phone battery died. Giving a cushion allows for those delays. Also, don't forget to then re-contact those parties when you they don't call the police. I tend to try and let close, level-headed people know about these kinds of trips - letting constant-worriers know about these kinds of plans stresses them out the entire time you're gone and they might get trigger-happy with that "call the police time" call.

2. Clothing

When you enter a cave, it will most likely be cold. Coated in a cool blanket of earth and stone, most likely with some body of water, and without sunlight, your cave has plenty of reason to be cold. Therefore, dress in layers. Wear sturdy boots, like hiking boots, although I've learned that TEVAs and KEENs work nicely too, especially if it's a particularly wet cave. Wear a pair of thick jeans that fit correctly (baggy jeans will fill with mud, tight jeans won't allow you the flexibility you'll need). Wear two or three layers on top - a light t-shirt, a strong long-sleeved shirt (that fits like your jeans), and then maybe a sweater/warm jacket. As you move around in the cave, your body temperature is going to rise (because it's cool, you don't realize how hard you're usually working). So you'll want to be able to shed layers to cool off. Last note: do not wear clothes you like. Because of the different minerals that may be present in the cave, cave mud can permanently stain your clothes. I think I have one or two cave-specific outfits - knowing I'll never be able to wear them anywhere else, except Halloween probably, or a mud fest.....

3. Safety Gear

Knee pads. Plain and simple, you'll be spending a lot of time on your hands and knees. Wear knee pads (the kind you would wear for volleyball or rollerblading are just fine). If you want to rock out a little more, get some elbow pads (again, like rollerblading). It's dark in a cave; and as you move your arms through the darkness, it's easy to nick your elbows on cave walls. Get a caving helmet. Caving helmets differ from biking and construction helmets in that they have a place for your headlamp. Petzel makes some great helmets - although pricey (rock-climbing helmets work too). Lastly, wear some work gloves. These would be really tough gardening gloves or construction gloves - again, you'll be on your hands and knees a lot; and in tight spaces, you'll be pulling yourself forward with your fingers. I find that gloves and knee pads are the essentials to comfort, followed by the helmet.

4. What Goes on Your Back
  • A sturdy backpack (waterproof if it's an extra-wet cave)
  • At least two back-up flashlights
  • At least two complete sets of back-up batteries
  • A pocket knife
  • A first-aid kit
  • A Nalgene-worth of water (cold + exertion = you don't realize how much you're sweating)
  • Glowsticks (it's fun to light up caverns now and then)
  • A camera
  • Leave your cellphone and GPS in the car - there is no reception in caves
There have only been two times where I've been in a cave long enough to merit bringing food. If you DO bring food, use narrow Tupperware containers (more flexible in your backpack) or food that can be crushed w/o worries (trailmix) in a plastic bag. Try to avoid foods that come in wrappers or boxes - NEVER leave any garbage or trace of you behind, except footprints in the mud. Lastly, eat healthy in the cave - protein and carbohydrates. You need the fuel to keep you moving. Never drink or do drugs in a cave (well, I guess anywhere depending on the audience of this blog). Getting intoxicated in a cave, being disoriented in the dark, could not only be terrifyingly confusing, but deadly. If you're going to party, consume after you get home while you're recounting your caving stories.

5. Be Cave-friendly

At-heart, I am a nature fanatic. It's therefore my opinion, in any natural setting, that you should try and disturb nature as little as possible and leave nothing behind. I always told my campers, "take only pictures and leave only footprints." So there are a few things to follow when in caves, and a few admittedly have blurry lines.
A: Do not touch any animals. Cave-dwelling animals, from fish, to salamanders, to spiders, to bats are typically very delicate creatures - because they don't have to put up with the snow, pouring rain, water, thunder, predators and wind that their surface-dwelling companions have evolved to. Leave every living thing, down to the lichens, undisturbed.

B. Do not touch stalagmites or stalactites. Stalactites hang "tightly" to the ceiling, and stalagmites are "mightily" in the ground. They form from water, carrying tiny bits of minerals from the rock above, dripping through the ceiling of the cave. As the water runs off the rock, it leaves it's little bit of mineral behind. Over thousands of years, this mineral builds up to form some of the beautiful cave structures (see also soda straws, egg yolks and curtains). Often times, you'll see a stalactite right above a stalagmite. Since these structures take thousands of years to form, it's disappointing to touch them - like smearing a painter's canvas mid-painting. Only touch these structures if it's necessary - whether to save you from a dangerous fall, or if holding onto a thick, sturdy stalagmite is the ONLY way to pass the current obstacle.

C. Stay out of the water. Most wet caves will have some form of standing water - whether a tiny stream or lake(s). The more still the water, the more delicate the ecosystem within. Stepping into bodies of water can crush animals or directly deposit foreign chemicals (dyes and films from your shoes, even the salt in your sweat) that could throw off the pH and kill life in the water. If the water is deep, it can be VERY dangerous to enter it, not knowing what foreign objects lie below the surface (animals, plant debris, jagged rocks), and it's nearly impossible to judge the depth. If you come to very swift-moving water, do not attempt to cross it at all - the risk is far too great. The only time it is appropriate to enter an underground body of water, like the stalagmite, is if it is the absolute only route to proceed further into the cave. Even then, it breaks my heart.

6. Cave Etiquette

A. Keep you voices down. Animals, like hibernating bats, are very sensitive to sound in the cave, and it can wake them out of hibernation suddenly, and kill them. Also, when caving with a group, sudden screams or shouts can be very alarming and disorienting, even scary. Lastly, sound does NOT travel all that well in a cave - when you put enough distance; say, 100 feet, between you and another person, the cave starts to swallow your noise. If you're with a group, or even one other person, stay close together and always clearly communicate your intentions.

B. Pace yourself. Never run through a cave, as you can trip and fall very easily. Also, be respectful of the rest of your party and keep moving. Everyone should rest every once-in-a-while; but if you're at the tail-end and stopping to break every five minutes, you should consider turning around and leaving with a partner. If you're having a problem, clearly communicate it to the person ahead of you.

C. Never shine your light in someone's face. People's eyes acclimate to the darkness of the cave (i.e., their pupils get bigger to let in more light), and they get used to the light-level in the cave. When you shine your headlamp in their eyes, their pupils suddenly contract, which can be painful, flares their vision, and can actually create little light circles in their vision for up to a minute. Most headlamps come with a feature that allows you to angle your light downward at a 45-degree angle. Do this when conversing face to face.

D. Quit the horseplay. Caves are really exciting and fun, but this is not a time to play hide-and-go-seek, fake injuries or fear, or hide and then jump out to scare someone. You're far under ground, and any accidents that result from the above could result in serious consequences. Have a great, incredible time exploring underground - but don't be foolish.

White Nose Syndrome. Starting about six years ago, white nose syndrome showed up in the eastern and the midwestern United States. It's basically a fungus that infects the respiratory system of bats - it plugs up their airways and kills them, en-masse. Entire cave colonies have been dying. It's EXTREMELY poorly understood - it's origin and how it spreads. In a panic, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has restricted caving in areas where white nose has been found and has a massive call for people disinfecting their clothes before and after caving. The caveat is - no one knows for sure where it's origins are and actually how it's spread. So, what does this mean for you? Not a whole lot, honestly. Don't touch bats; and if you're going to go caving in an area that's closely monitored by a park service, check with them first, or the local caving group (often called "grottos") to make sure it's OK to check that cave out. If they catch you coming out of a cave that they've labeled "quarantined" (again, without concrete knowledge on spread), they can slap you with a big fine. Don't quarrel with them either - legally, they're in the right. Scientifically? THAT'S very debatable.

I think that exhausts my caving knowledge for now. If you'd like to learn more, you can always attend a meeting or sign up with your local speleological society. They're listed on the National Speleological Society, which has great information too. Lastly, I started my own caving series this summer - it will probably be another four or five months before I can make another episode, but it was a fun project.

Feel free to post with questions or other great tips! Also, feel free to share any great caves you've explored!