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Cave Exploring 101
So You Want To Be A Caver?
When you say the word "caver" to folks who don’t know what it is, you will probably get a blank look from them. But if you say the word "spelunker" then you are likely to hear something like, "Oh that’s someone who crawls around in a cave," and "Why would anyone want to do that?" The truth of the matter is that caving is one of the most interesting and adventurous things a person can do. However, it does take some guts, skill, and a desire to go where few people have ever been. Not only is caving a fun, physical challenge but it’s also a chance to see some of the most beautiful places on Earth or is that under Earth?
But one thing you have to remember when beginning your caving career is that you never call yourself a spelunker. In the caving world, the term spelunker refers to someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Real cave explorers call themselves cavers and that’s that. Call yourself a spelunker when you’re among a group of cavers and you’ll be laughed out of the next caving trip.
I can say that I have been a caver since I was an infant. The first caves I explored were the Cheddar Caves in England and my father carried me through in his arms. Ok, maybe that doesn’t count for actual exploring since I couldn’t yet walk. But like a lot of families, visiting show caves also known as tourist caves was a popular vacation destination for my family. For many summers, we traveled to see the more popular caves in our area like the infamous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. But still, I guess that doesn’t count for actual exploring since the trails are paved and there is a vast lighting system in place.
I didn’t start hardcore caving until 1995. I had taken yet another trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and began to feel a deep desire to see more. It was curiosity, the seed of all caving experiences. Cavers call it the caving bug and I had been bitten. I wanted to crawl through the forbidden holes and climb down in to the dark recesses of the cave where there were no lights. I wanted to see what was there.
In the park’s visitor center, I was excited to find out that the park offered what they called, "Off trail caving tours" that took you to places off the beaten path, where the lights were limited to what you carried, and your clothes were going to get dirty. I returned a few weeks later, signed up for the "Spider Cave" and "Hall of the White Giant" off trail tours, and never looked back. I was hooked on caving.
Eventually I joined my local caving club called a "grotto" among cavers and set off to see as many undeveloped, wild caves as I could taking several caving trips each month. In my quest, I discovered a new career for myself as a park ranger. I volunteered to work for Carlsbad Caverns National Park for 5 months until I was finally hired by the park as a paid ranger. I was being paid to work in a cave. It was the best job I’ve ever had but there was a hitch. It was only seasonal work and I had to move on to another park until I could return to Carlsbad for another season. My next park was Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert of California. Once again, I was paid to work in a cave. Life doesn’t get any better for a dedicated caver.
Not only did I work in caves for money but I would also work in caves on a volunteer basis. Free work I did ranged from retrieving coins from cave pools to cleaning cave formations to marking trails to much much more. In doing so, I’ve been able to see and do so much more than I would have otherwise. Most cavers volunteer for these types of projects not only for the perks but for the chance to pay the caves back for all the joy they give.
Throughout my caving career, I have been on well over 300 caving trips, volunteered thousands of hours of work, and seen some places few cavers ever get to see. Being a caver has enriched my life in ways I never knew or could have dreamed. Being a caver is not all about crawling through muddy passages or rappelling in to deep pits, being a caver is a lifestyle. When you become a true caver you become part of a very unique family of cavers around the world. So you want to be a caver? Well, here’s how.
*Visit the National Speleological Society (NSS) website and read everything it has to offer. (caves.org) This is a hub for a lot of the information you’ll need.
* Learn about caves and the science of speleology (the science of caves). There are many books and other media where you can obtain this information. It’s important to know how caves and their formations form, what kind of life exists in caves, and how fragile caves are.
*Learn about and practice safe caving techniques. No one wants to go caving with someone who is careless and could hurt themselves, others, and/or the cave. Caves are dangerous. I’ve been on several rescues and I had two friends die while caving. Take it very seriously. Learn about CPR and first aid techniques.
* Join your local caving grotto. This is the best way to learn about caves and caving techniques as well as getting on some caving trips. Visit the National Speleological Society website to find a grotto.
* Buy your gear. Start off with a good caving helmet with headlight, a pair of soft knee pads and gloves, a pair of boots with non-marking soles, and a sturdy backpack with very few outside loops (loops get caught on cave formations) to carry water, extra lights and batteries, and a first aid kit. Once you’ve done some horizontal caving, you’ll be itching to do some vertical caving. Then, you’ll have to shell out some money for a caving harness, a rappelling device, and rope climbing gear. You can find caving outfitters online and through the NSS website.
*Cavers usually camp out in all kinds of weather during trips so be ready for that. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stay in a motel. And, you might have to do a lot of traveling on paved and unpaved often 4 wheel drive roads. Some cavers car pool for those who don’t have a 4X4 vehicle so be sure to make friends.
*Go caving as often as you possibly can but NEVER by yourself. Cavers have a strict rule of 3: take at least 3 people with you, carry at least 3 lights (with extra batteries), and tell at least 3 people where you are going and when you will be back. This improves your odds for a successful caving adventure.
*Remember that cavers are a unique group of people with very different personalities. You have to be a little different to do what we do so be respectful or you’ll find yourself left out of a lot of caving trips. Also, cavers protect cave locations with a passion and you should too.
This is not a complete guide to caving. These are merely suggestions as a tool to get you started. There is a lot more to know. So do your homework, be persistent, be consistent, and in no time you’ll be a veteran caver. You’ll have great stories to tell for a lifetime and be part of one of the most fascinating groups in the world. Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, leave nothing but footprints. Cave softy and safely.