Introduction to Caving
Caving is the act of exploring subterranean passages. These are usually wild caves (non-commercial natural cavities) but may also refer to abandoned mines (non-commercial artificial cavities).
What it is
Like Canyoneering, caving often requires a variety of techniques and skills, including hiking, scrambling, climbing, rappelling, jumping, and/or swimming but also requires the negotiation of squeezes, tight passages and the total absence of natural light.
A typical caving trip may consist of:
- The approach: hiking up or along a trail then branching off the main trail to access the entrance of the cave or abandoned mine
- The descent: going underground, usually entering through an opening and traversing some sort of underground passage. This often requires scrambling through rocks and constrictions. Vertical caves/mines also involve the mandatory use of rope to rappel down steep drop offs or shafts, that will have to be ascended later to come back out. Some caves/mines may allow for a 'through trip', entering by an opening and exiting by a different one without having to retrace one's steps. Some caves are actually underground canyons carved by streams that flow deep under the surface. These "cave canyons" often have multiple underground rappels and even jumps and involve what cavers call a 'pull down through trip'.
- The exit: coming out of the cave/mine to reach and follow a trail back to a vehicle
Like Canyoneering, Caving involves the inherent risks of:
- Remoteness (no one nearby to give or find help should something happen)
- Exposure (heat, cold, etc)
- Water and food availability
But caving also involves additional challenges and risks involved with going underground:
- No Light: Without a source of light it may be impossible to find the exit out of a cave/mine. Cavers usually bring 3 sources of light per person to mitigate this risk.
- Entrapment: Many tight passages may cause the caver to become stuck, unable to proceed forward or reverse course, often trapping the rest of the group in the process. Cavers usually leave the skinniest person last/first so that at least one person will be free to go call for help.
- Bad Air: Although rare, some caves/mines may have too high CO/CO2 or too low Oxygen, which can be deadly. Historically the shape and color of the flame of a lighter was used to check for bad air, but modern cavers will usually use some type of electronic gas detector.
- Rockfall: Loose rock in caves is common, and aside from slips and falls, rockfall is the next most common cause of injury to cavers. Good cavers use extreme caution around loose rock, especially when in vertical shafts.
- Collapse: roofs of natural caves are usually more stable because they have been around for millennia, but abandoned mines are much younger and usually have a much higher risk of collapse. Cavers usually leave at least one person outside risky passages so that someone may go call for help if disaster happens.
- Explosives: Mines tend to have the additional risk of abandoned explosives, usually dynamite sticks and nitroglycerin, which should never be disturbed.
- Extreme Difficulty of Rescue: Cave/mine rescue can be an excruciatingly long process. It is uncommon for typical mountain rescue units to be trained in cave rescue. Usually (but not always), it is performed by volunteer cavers who may or may not have formal cave rescue training. Many challenges exist, including: lack of nearby cave rescue resources and personnel, hostile environment that quickly leads to hypothermia, length of time to get rescuers to the patient, complicated communication between the underground and surface rescue personnel, difficulty of moving the patient in confined or vertical passages, etc. Cave rescues commonly take days to complete. For this reason, it is important to make risk analysis while caving with this in mind.
Vertical caving techniques were developed prior to canyoning/Canyoneering, both in Europe and North America. In the late 19th century, ladders were used along with crude rope belay techniques. As rope and hardware technology improved throughout the 20th century, safer and more efficient rope ascent/descent techniques were developed. This eventually culminated into what we now know as Single Rope Technique. In the mid-late 20th century, as mechanical ascenders were beginning to replace ladders for ascending, two main styles of vertical caving techniques were developed: Alpine SRT and American Technique.
- Region: developed in France, applied in Europe, Asia, and South America
- Geological context of development: deep, cold alpine caves with multiple pitches
- Rope: small diameter (8-10 mm), flexible, semi-static
- Rigging: Preference is placed on artificial anchors. Great care is taken to prevent the rope from contacting the rock by using rebelays (intermediate anchors) and deviations (redirects) to protect the rope.
- Descenders: Bobbin descenders (eg. Petzl Simple, Stop) are ubiquitous due to the ease of negotiating technical obstacles and the reality that most long pitches are broken up with rebelays.
- Ascent system: Frog
- Region: developed in southeastern USA, applied in eastern USA and some caves in Mexico
- Geological context of development: large, open-air pits
- Rope: large diameter (11 mm), stiff, semi-static
- Rigging: Preference is placed on natural anchors. In some cases, the rope makes contact with the rock. In instances where the risk of rope abrasion is significant, such as sharp rock edges, rope pads are used to protect the rope. Rebelays and deviations are uncommon.
- Descender: Brake bar racks are common descent devices as they allow for a large range of on-demand friction variability, which is useful on stiff rope and long, unbroken pitches.
- Ascent system: Ropewalker, Mitchell, Texas, or Frog
As cavers around the world participate in an increasing number of international expeditions, there has been a shift toward Alpine style SRT in most cases. Even in the southeastern USA, major cave exploration projects are moving in this direction. That said, the shape of some shafts, especially ones that are bell-shaped, does not lend well to the use of rebelays or deviations. Therefore, it makes good sense to understand each system and where and when it is best applied.
In Europe cave locations are usually displayed on topo maps but in the USA cave locations are usually secret as a way to protect them from vandals. Although some caves are documented in the Beta, the best way to access caves/mines is usually by joining an established caving organization.
There are caving clubs and associations all over the world. In the USA the National Speleological Society (NSS) is the main caving association and focuses on cave recreation, conservation and science. The NSS hosts an annual 'NSS Convention' in a different location every year that provides a weeklong of cave related presentations along with recreational caving trips lead by local cavers. The NSS is headquartered in Alabama (where caving originated in the USA) but branches out all over the USA in the way of affiliated local caving groups usually called 'Grottos'. You can search for a Grotto near you here.
- National Speleological Society
- Southern California Grotto (Los Angeles)
- San Diego Grotto (San Diego)
- Desert Dogs (Laguna Beach)
- Underground Explorers (San Diego)
- Greater Houston Grotto (Houston)