A friend of mine once asked, “What’s the point of climbing that hill? You only have to come back down again.” Her husband and I dutifully ignored her and climbed it anyway. But did she have a point?
All these hills look nice but it takes a lot of effort to get to the top, why not go round? Well, that can take even longer so why not go through the middle? I don’t mean something like the Mont Blanc Tunnel – why not use natural tunnels?
Over the years, I spent a lot of time doing just that but when I tried to entice others into my subterranean world, I got a few questions and objections …
Caves are cold and wetIt’s true that caves are normally formed by the action of water passing through the cracks in fractured limestone and water remains a feature of many caves but some are very dry and you may need to take a drink.
Generally speaking, dry caves are warm and wet caves might be cool. But the temperature inside a cave doesn’t change much and a typical deep cave will be an almost constant 2°C. The seasons do make a difference near the surface and jumping into fresh meltwater can be … exhilarating.
Of course, water can be fun – where do climbers and hikers find water slides and pools they can play in?
Caves are muddySometimes caves are nice and clean but mud is a common feature.
On a trip to a cave in the Republic of Ireland, we had to pass through a shop and a show cave to get to the real cave. We were asked not to drag mud into the shop on the way out and not to scare the visitors.
Unfortunately, there was so much mud in places that even standing up was a challenge and we had to try to clean up in a very muddy stream. After a while it was hard to tell who was who or even where we all were. Inevitably, we had to tip-toe through the shop, muttering apologies and leaving a mud everywhere. Very messy but lots of fun!
Caves are too small / I get claustrophobiaIn 30 years of caving and having helped to introduce at least 400 youngsters to the sport, I only encountered one person with claustrophobia. It’s the unknown that worries people.
Of course, there are some very small spaces in lots of caves and plenty of occasions where the water can get to places we can’t. That doesn’t stop us trying, of course, and on one trip where I couldn’t get through a friend thought he might be able to. So the rest of us pinned him down, stripped off his caving gear and tried to force him through. We didn’t succeed.
Water adds even more fun to narrow spaces …
The biggest chamber in England is The Titan, Derbyshire, at 464 feet (141m) high. On the first exploration it took six days to climb to the roof.
The Gouffre Berger, Vercors, France reaches a depth of 3681ft (1122m) and while that puts it at 28th in the world depth records, it was the first one to be explored to 1000m depth. The return trip can be done in 24 hours but two or three days is more normal.
There’s nothing to see – isn’t it all just rock?Definitely not true! Caves are amazing combinations of all branches of science. And some of it is really unexpected.
There’s an old saying – what goes up must come down. But it turns out that gravity isn’t the only force in a cave. Water dripping from the roof or wall usually contains tiny amounts of calcite which are deposited where the drip forms. These build up over long periods of time and form stalactites that hang from the ceiling or flowstone that sticks to the wall and, even more decorative, curtains (drapes).
Where the water lands on the floor more calcite builds up and can form a stalagmite that grows towards the ceiling.
And then there are the others – calcite formations that grow in random, gravity-defying directions including sideways and upwards.
Occasionally, we see little crystals of aragonite growing out of the mud …
Caves even play tricks with the chemistry and add salts of iron or copper to the colour scheme …
Caves are also home to a wide variety of wildlife (in addition to cavers). The most obvious cave dweller is the bat, or usually thousands of them. As bats are protected in some countries, we have to be careful but the bat knows nothing about this and I have occasionally found one roosting on me.
And then there are all the cave-adapted creatures from freshwater shrimps and small fish to insects the size of crane flies (daddy longlegs). The usual adaptations are loss of colour and lack of eyes, both of which are useless in a cave. A few caves, such as one off the coast of Majorca, became isolated long ago and host species of fish that have developed independently from the ones we know.
And finally, caves have a life of their own. They change slowly over time, grow longer or wider and even breathe. Once, while digging out silt some way down a cave I smelt oranges and it turned out someone on the surface was eating one. That meant the cave was breathing in because the air pressure was higher on the surface. In theory, there should have been a large chamber somewhere below us but we never did find it.
I don’t know what to wearMy kit consisted of a fleecy under-suit with a heavy nylon over-suit or a wetsuit. And wellies, of course (the clips on walking boots snag on some of the gear). For novices, I used to keep a few old cagoules and over-trousers. But generally, anything that doesn’t come to harm from mud and water. And if you forget your helmet the cave will do everything it can to remind you of that fact.
I wouldn’t recommend the outfits worn by two girls on one of my trips – pristine white boiler suits. The temptation was too great and I led the group to passage with some nice firm mud so they could all sit down while I led the way, followed by the two girls, through a narrow tube full of lovely glutinous mud. I can still hear them swearing at me when they realised they were in a dead end and I had managed to sneak back past them and re-join the others.
If you decide to use elasticated over-trousers, please make sure the elastic is good. Hauling a caver up a ladder when his trousers have fallen down is hard work.
Oh, and don’t forget your helmet. The cave will you remind you of your folly if you do.
It's dark – I won’t see anythingWell, yes, there is no light so you’ll never accustom to the darkness and a light is essential. The first cavers stuck candles on their felt caps.
In our early days we used stinkies - old calcium carbide-based bicycle lights that work by producing and burning acetylene. The last one I had was a Russian-made welded titanium affair. You can see from the picture that they weren’t always easy to control. Carrying spare carbide was a hazard and one trip ended with an unexpected explosion.
Later we used old miner’s lamps but there was a risk that the acid would damage the nylon ropes (so we used a lot of polypropylene gear). Now it’s all LED lights but, unlike the old carbide things, they’re cold and you can’t warm your sleeping bag with them.
Are there any changing rooms?Quite simply – nope! Hardened cavers aren’t averse to getting changed in the worst of weather.
Of course, things can go wrong and it pays not to get changed near a church having got the days muddled up. Oh well, some of the congregation seemed to think their luck was in.
And don’t imagine that a blizzard will hide what’s on show from unexpected passers-by.
But I still think the funniest incident was one nice warm day when three of us stood on a deserted road. All of a sudden the other guy raced off down the road wearing very little. His wife and I were puzzled until she realised he’d run off with her underwear so, with nothing at all on, she chased after him.
How do you get down … and back up again?Let’s ignore the obvious option of falling down the hole because it’s hard to reverse that manoeuvre. We have three basic techniques for the vertical bits. Scrambling will be familiar to all but wellington boots aren’t the best footwear for elegant climbing. Abseiling (aka rappelling) is reversed by prusiking and we go to great lengths to stay out of the water.
But the more traditional method was to use a ladder. Not a nice sturdy steel thing – it wouldn’t go round the bends. Instead we carried rolls of wire ladders which we could rig in the most awkward (and wet) places. A lifeline is essential on all but the shortest pitch but it is supposed to be kept under tension …
Even then, it was common to cheat on the long pitches and abseil (rappel) down the lifeline …
Don't you get lost?Yes.
But not that often and, unless it's a cave we know well, we usually carry a map or survey of some sort. Even then, it can be quite easy to miss well-hidden passageways. Those brave souls who explore the underwater passages pull a bright orange cord behind them so they can find the way back and the rest of us sometimes leave arrows scratched in the mud or small cairns to mark our way.
There are always times when the whole cave lies hidden in a gully and I remember several moments where a group of stood on a hillside muttering "Where is it?". And when you've found your cave, got to the bottom and out again, you can still get lost. We emerged one evening into an unexpected blizzard and completely failed to find the cars that were only a few hundred metres away. Only after the snow eased and we saw a farm in the distance did someone discover he had brought a compass after all.
Caves are dangerousCavers are like anyone else who takes the outdoors seriously – we assess and double check all the time. As the climber, Doug Scott said in a lecture once: “When I climb I think about climbing. When I walk downstairs in a morning I think about getting to work, jobs around the house and not the child’s toy on the bottom step”. (Apologies if I’ve paraphrased.)
Certainly, accidents and mistakes do happen and help has to be sought. I was once called on to construct a stretcher out of a piece of canvas, some spare tent poles and a roll of insulating tape then run through a forest populated by wild boar in the middle of the night. The full story is, of course, somewhat longer but we got him to safety.
Another of our group performed an unexpected rescue that same week when an over-inquisitive youngster leant out too far and, quite literally, fell down the cave and landed on top of him.
You can’t just go poking around, can you?True enough – a lot of caves are on private land and require a permit. Some are not easy to find and some are restricted for scientific or protection reasons. But others are freely accessible – it all depends on where the cave is so you must check.
We once had a farmer chasing us, shotgun in hand, until we showed him the permit he had given us. He seemed really disappointed when he couldn’t pepper us with buckshot.
As with anything in the outdoors, we have to take responsibility for our environment and leave things as we found them. Good cavers don’t take souvenirs.
The best advice is to find a reputable club or a qualified leader (who may want paying) and never cave alone.
And when it’s all over, the tidying up has to be done and all the knots need to be taken out of the ropes – over 1000m for a big trip …