Chris Goes Underground: A few thoughts on my first two years of caving.

c_nail-16Growing up I was exposed to the outdoors early on by my Grandpa. He would take the family fishing, hiking and gathering wild edibles. We also spent a fair amount of time rock hounding in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Naturally this meant spending time poking around in rock piles and mine tailings, exploring up canyons and through the hills. The area was dotted with caves, rock shelters and the occasional abandoned mine. Grandpa had spent part of his life working for the Homestake Goldmine and knew first-hand the dangers that places like mines could hold. I was always warned to stay away from any holes in the ground and to keep my distance from the old mines. For some reason I took these warnings to mean that every cave or mine shaft held a hungry bear, just ready to gobble up a six year old. Being a fairly obedient kid and not wanting to be bear lunch, I did as I was told and stayed clear of any enticing opening to a world below.

About two years ago I met my wife. We both love being outside and have a number of similar interests and skill sets. We both love hiking and back packing plus the first time I laid eyes on her it was at a meeting of the Search and Rescue group I’ve been a part of for years. There were some areas where we’ve been able to show each other something new. Last year I showed her how to run a chainsaw for the first time and I have my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to take her fishing this summer. When it came to introducing a partner to exciting new activities, she had me beat. As it turns out, she was a long time and very active caver who had been in many, many holes in the ground that did not contain hungry bears. Two weeks from the time we met she had me on a survey trip in my first wild cave and I was hooked…on both her and caving.c_nail-2

I usually like to write about specific trails in a way that I hope is useful to experienced hikers and encouraging, with a healthy dose of caution and safety, for those with fewer miles on their boots. Often this starts with how to get to a trailhead…but I won’t be doing that this time or any time I write about caves and for good reason.  First and foremost, while caves can be tremendous, sometimes almost magical places to learn and explore in, they are also potentially very dangerous places. And no, I’m not talking about that bear again. If you are interested in learning first-hand about caves and caving, please visit the National Speleological Society and find your local grotto. Grottos are local NSS chapters. Think of them like caving clubs. There is absolutely no substitute for learning from experienced, ethical and safe cavers. Most grottos are excited to introduce new people to caving and may even be able to help with loaner or start up gear like helmets and knee pads. To review, if you want to try caving, find an NSS grotto and go with experienced cavers. Do not try to figure this out on your own!

You’ve found your local grotto, attended a few meetings, heard stories full of strange names and terms you are working to keep straight in your head and at last there is a trip coming up that includes a “good first cave” that you can participate in. Regardless of your level of experience in the outdoors, you likely have a few questions. I consider myself to still be a new caver after two years, but not a complete rookie. There is a lot to learn and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. In my experience, some of the best cavers are also the ones who really enjoy sharing their knowledge. Luckily, my grotto is full of these kinds of cavers. During my first several cave trips my questions could be broken down to  1. What gear do I need? 2. What is White Nose and how does this decon thing work? 3. How do I make sure I get invited on the next trip?

Lets start with what kind of gear you will need. If you spend a lot of time hiking then you likely have most of what you will need, or at least some things that will work for a trip or two. You absolutely need a helmet. Rock climbing helmets are ideal. If you don’t have one and aren’t quite ready to invest, ask if anyone in the grotto has a spare they can lend you for the trip. Bring at least three independent sources of light with spare batteries. Light is life in a cave and equipment can break and fail so redundancy in light sources is a must. If at all possible, make your lights helmet mountable to keep your hands free. A hand held flashlight is ok as well. I often bring one that is as bright as my headlamps on high to light paint for photographs or for when I just want a little extra light to see a room better. Boots are a must. Depending on the type of cave you will be in you may want sturdy hiking boots or you may want a pair of waterproof boots like Wellingtons. I’ve made due with a good pair of hiking boots and waterproof socks in some situations. Ask the trip leader you will be going with about what kind of conditions you are likely to find. You will also need gloves. These will protect your hands from the cave and the cave from your hands. The oils on your skin can be harmful to growing cave formations. Many people prefer nitrile coated gardening gloves for this purpose. They provide a good gripping surface and are durable. Clothing is another area where some advice from your Grotto is a good idea. Some caves are warm and some can be downright cold. Either way, dress so that you will be comfortable while moving and if you need to stay in one place for awhile. Cave clothing should be durable. Crawling, climbing and squeezing will make short work of your favorite hiking pants after a few trips. Some cavers invest in specially designed cave suits that will keep them warm while handling an impressive amount of abuse. Even a pair of coveralls can work. Military surplus or thrift stores can be great sources of inexpensive cave clothing. Knee and elbow pads can be wonderful in some caves if there is much crawling to be done. There are specialized caving pads out there such as the “Cave Legs” knee pads my wife wisely talked me into early on. Basic volley ball pads will work to get you started and can be made more durable by coating them with a little tool dip.

Now that you can see where you are going and are properly dressed, you will need a few more things and a pack to carry them in. Lets talk packs first. If you are a hiker chances are you have a few packs ranging from small day packs to a large expedition pack. Here’s the good news, you can leave the big pack at home. On most cave trips small and lite are the way to go. The bad news is that hiking packs and cave packs are different for a reason. When I first saw my wife’s cave pack I thought that cavers must just be behind on current pack design…way behind. It was essentially a heavy duty dry bag with shoulder straps and nothing else. When I brought out a small Camelback daypack she looked at it somewhat disapprovingly and said “I guess that will work for this trip.” Cave packs tend to have very little on the outside that can catch on rocks in tight places. The water bottle pouches and straps on my pack were constantly getting hung up that first trip. Cave packs also tend to be made of heavier materials and are easier to take off and on compared to a pack used for hiking or back packing. The lack of a hip belt worried me at first, but my cave pack always ends up significantly lighter than my daypack. In the pack you’ll want to have your extra layer, water, food, extra lights and batteries and a small personal first aid kit. Some people include a trash bag to be used as an emergency layer. You will also need to be ready to observe a serious leave no trace practice when it comes to human waste. For solid waste many people carry a “burrito bag”. This consists of TP, wipes, possibly paper towels, aluminum foil and a few zip lock bags. For liquid waste, you just need an old fashioned pee bottle. I generally bring a bottle of sports drink (along with water containers) that I drink first and then repurpose. That covers the basics for horizontal caving.

As you gain more experience more things may end up in your pack such as survey instruments, supplies for science based trips and even different sets of clothes for different parts of the same cave. One extra that I consider more or less essential is a camera. Unless you are a serious photographer on the surface, I suggest leaving the DSLR at home and even then, don’t worry about it until you have a few trips under your belt and get a handle on the basics of caving. You will want to take pictures of these new adventures. Even when I don’t bring all of my photographic equipment, I at least have a point and shoot camera that is designed to handle the abuse that comes with caving. My wife had high praise for the Olympus Stylus Tough line of cameras after managing to break only one after more than a decade of caving all over the world. I’ve become quite fond of the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-4. It will shoot in RAW, has some manual controls, is water proof and it takes a beating very well when slipped into a pocket. Although I’ve seen people use them in caves, I don’t recommend bringing a smart phone along for the ride, but that’s personal preference. One suggestion I do have for taking photographs while caving, without turning this into a cave photography discussion, is to turn off GPS tagging on the camera. Granted, GPS doesn’t work underground, but it will work on a hike to the cave and around the entrance. Its best to keep cave locations private and if you share your photos, you don’t want to accidently give away the location of a cave via image metadata.

Decon. It sounds like something out of an alien invasion movie and for a new caver it’s a term that can be a bit confusing. What is it and why do we worry about it? Decon is the process of sterilizing and removing cave material from our clothing and equipment to make sure we don’t transfer anything from one cave to another. Caves are micro environments so decontaminating your gear is probably a good idea in any case, but it has become much more important (and in many cases required) in recent years due to something called white nose syndrome or WNS. I’m not an expert on the subject so look here for more detailed information, but WNS is a fungus that is killing bats. Lots and lots of bats. WNS and the cave, bat, human puzzle is something that is hotly debated and heavily regulated. In an effort to slow the advance of WNS, many government agencies have closed or restricted access to caves and in many instances put decon requirements in place. To the best of my knowledge (and again I am no expert here) the restrictions that have been put in place to make sure people aren’t moving WNS around are precautionary and not because dirty gear has been shown to be a culprit.  Regardless, cleaning your gear is a good policy to follow. There are a number of decon methods that will kill WNS and I imagine just about anything else you picked up on your last cave trip. For hard surfaces I use a combination of Lysol spray and wipes or isopropyl alcohol. These will kill WNS spores very quickly. For things like boots, pants and packs I use the hot water method. For this I bought a large ice chest at a thrift store and modified the lid to push floating items below the lip of the container so everything is fully submerged when the chest is full and closed. This method requires that items be fully submerged in water that is at least 131 degrees for a minimum of 20 minutes. A BBQ thermometer will let you monitor the temperature of your water. Its also important to remove mud from your gear as decontamination methods tend to not work very well through lots of grime. Be sure to ask your grotto for guidance on how to do all of this correctly.

Decontaminating your gear seems straight forward, right? The part that confused me at first wasn’t the part that took place in my driveway, it was what happened before I got into the car to drive home. Get used to planning ahead when it comes to what to wear and when. Contaminated clothing and gear shouldn’t be tossed into the car after a caving trip. Everything that was exposed to the cave should be placed into heavy duty plastic bags and sealed up to be decontaminated later. Lysol wipes or isopropyl alcohol will let you decon your hands, camera etc. before changing into clean clothes. Figuring out when and where to change and what to bring and where to leave it took me awhile to get used to. Others may find it a non-issue but I think I drove my wife crazy for the first few months asking about when and where to change clothes.

You are on your first cave trip and after a tight crawl you see your first “pretties”. You’re hooked. The first trip isn’t even over and you can’t wait for the next one. To help make the next trip happen, it helps if the first trip goes well. Even if you have tons of experience in the outdoors, be ok with not knowing everything underground. Many of your skills and experiences will translate well, but there will be aspects of underground travel that will be new, so be open to learning new things and being a follower for a while. Do everything you can to protect the cave. Watch how experienced cavers move, where they put their hands and feet. This will help you to not break formations and to move more efficiently. Every time someone from my grotto has encouraged me to move through an area in a different manner, it has been faster and easier than how I was moving. Stay with the group. Of course wandering off could get you lost, which would ruin the trip, but staying with your group will also help you stay out of areas you shouldn’t be traversing. You’ll learn more by sticking close by. Caving with different members of my grotto almost always yields a lesson in geology, history or conservation. Observe the volume of the group and make an effort to keep all of the “Wow’s” to a whisper. Keep your light out of peoples eyes. If you aren’t sure about something, ask. Its good to be curious and to be sure about what you are doing. Caving can be physically demanding in ways that other activities aren’t, so be prepared to be more tired than you would normally expect from a day out.c_nail-6

Find a grotto, be safe and go experience what caving has to offer.