So you think you want to be a caver?
I started out (and still prefer) visiting caves with nice, large walk-in entrances that lead to long, tall hallways that look like avenues (boreholes in caver terms) and highly decorated rooms. I like to see where I’m going, what I’m getting into and I certainly don’t want to enter through a narrow, dark, vertical, hole in the ground that involves a long, vertical drop. I have done one rappel with a 40 foot vertical drop and will likely do more since my family enjoys
near death adrenaline pumping experiences. I know what you’re thinking…I should just go to Cathedral Caverns. Okay-no. I like wild caves and adventures and I’m willing to crawl, swim and climb if I have to. Docents, no thank you.
What sparked my interest? Instagram is the short answer. I was scrolling through instagram one day and I saw a friend’s picture at Stephen’s Gap. I knew instantly I had to go. I knew @objectivityrach was a photographer, not a “caver”, so I felt I’d be qualified for this adventure.
How? I went online, applied for a permit from SCCI and rounded up an available friend. We signed waivers we didn’t read, made a donation because we didn’t want to seem like jerks and off we went. Neither of us had any experience, however we are both athletic and in decent shape. It was a great experience! We had headlamps, but not helmets. The trail was slick, and the waterfall was gushing. We walked in the huge walk-in entrance, we were super careful, did our thing, took pictures, explored, then headed home on an adrenaline rush.
Next step: I loved this experience so much that I got my husband and two of our couple friends and we headed back to Stephen’s Gap, but this time got an additional permit to Tumbling Rock, which is also in Jackson County. We stopped at Stephen’s Gap first, had a great time, took pics, explored, then headed to Tumbling Rock.
At Tumbling Rock, we noticed people coming out of the entrance of the cave. They were filthy dirty and muddy and they all had on head lamps, helmets, these full body hazmat looking suits and boots. By contrast, there were 4 of us (one couple wisely ditched us) with two headlamps and we each had a cell phone flashlight. Helmets? What’s that? Let me stop here to add that we are all educated people with degrees. Stupidity isn’t limited to the uneducated. I’m sure there was something about gear and skills in that waiver we signed, but never read. Wearing Nike shorts and tank tops, in we went…
After about 45 minutes or so inside the cave, climbing, walking carefully, sliding down slopes, one of our headlamps went out. Great. We quickly realized that we couldn’t do much with such lack of light. It was pretty chilly inside too and we weren’t prepared for the cold. We gladly made our way out of the cave and decided to try again another day.
I continued chasing waterfalls above ground, but I kept thinking of the beautiful formations we saw in the cave that day. All of these beautiful formations underground exist with such intricate detail and very few people ever get to see them.
The turning point: Some time later I got a permit to yet another cave, but this one had a waterfall that flowed from above ground, into the cave. I had no intentions of going down into the cave, but I love chasing waterfalls! The guy who issued our permit answered my 247 questions and then suggested I go to a Birmingham Grotto meeting. He was so kind and helpful and I did want to learn more, so I decided to go.
Joining a grotto: I went to the monthly meeting at Birmingham Grotto. (Meetings are held on the first Tuesday of the month at 7pm in the room above Avondale Brewery There’s also a public Facebook page). There were about 30 people present, very laid back atmosphere and everyone was welcoming. People told stories of caves they’d recently visited, we introduced ourselves and most importantly we met people and joined the grotto. Meeting people who are part of a grotto associated with NSS (National Speleological Society) will optimize your caving experience and allow you to learn from experts. These people have great stories and they go on organized in-state caving trips often. Most importantly, they can teach you things that will save your life.
Where I am now: I am still a beginner. I got my first cave permit in 2017 and I do many other things, so I’ve not honed my skills or been on many caving trips. I still prefer horizontal caves with large walk in entrances. I’ve been in 7 wild caves I think? Btw, a wild cave is one without railing, lights, pavement or guided tours. I don’t own a single rope and I do not know how to properly rig myself to go on rope and descend into a cave. I went to a new cave last night that had spaces so tight, a small child could barely fit through. I struggled for every inch of progress and left last night feeling reeeeaaaal humble. I think I said “is this the last time we have to crawl” more than twice, along with “is this almost the end” after a long chert crawl from hell, and Bradley Jones didn’t roll his eyes in my face a single time (not that I saw anyway).
What I’ve learned so far that I find important: I always go with at least one other person. Just like hiking or anything else I have to talk to people. I don’t want to be all by myself for hours on end. Also, If something unexpected happens, I could find myself needing help. Caves don’t have cell phone signals and Lassie is not my dog, so I take people with me.
I’m rarely fully prepared for any adventure. Don’t be like me! This is what I consider important as of 7/9/19. A gun. Kidding…
Headlamp. Lumens matter. I recently purchased the HL55 Fenix Headlamp because a caver recommended it. I think it was 60 or 70$. It takes an odd size rechargeable battery. It’s waterproof, cold-proof and can shine up to 900 Lumens. Lumen is a latin word that means “light” and it’s the international system of measuring light. The headlamp I bought that I don’t like puts out 250 lumens. It’s not nearly bright enough. It’s like striking a match in the pitch black and walking around with it. I have a waterproof flashlight that puts out 1500 lumens and I love it, but realistically you can’t cave and carry a flashlight because all hands, feet, elbows and knees are needed. It’s too heavy to strap to your helmet. Ask me how I know. I do use it to help light a room when taking pics.
Knee pads/elbow pads: Depends on the cave. I have only used these twice, but there are 3 times I wished I had worn them. I dislike bulky apparel, so I typically leave them at home. Last night, I crawled and wiggled my way down a seemingly never ending tight passage of chert. Chert is a type of rock that has all kinds of sharp, pointy goodness to it and I’m pretty sure it’s what satan’s bed is made of. I wish I had worn very long knee and elbow pads. I look like I’ve been beaten badly with a large stick. But…it’s your knees. You decide.
Backpack: For my first caving trip (north Georgia) with grotto people it was muddy and it was winter. The zippers on my jacket and backpack were caked with mud and unzippable afterward. Dang it! Since I don’t think ahead, I’ve done this same thing every time I’ve gone caving. EVERY, SINGLE, TIME. Find a small pack that rolls down with no zippers. I just ordered a Swaygo pack. It’s waterproof, small-Google it. It’s made by a small, southern-based company in the US. I’ll let you know what I think once I try it out. My current backpack has been too bulky every time and I already told you about the zippers, plus it isn’t waterproof.
What I pack that may or may not help you: I pack a knife, beef jerky or trail mix, water, extra batteries, an extra headlamp, flashlight, lipgloss, and my phone. I’m sure everyone’s pack is a little different. I go on short, horizontal trips. Cave map (although good luck finding one).
What I will be adding to my pack next time I go caving: Gloves. They keep your hands dry. Get the kind with grippy things on the palms. I got mine at Lowes and I typically forget them, but I love them! A poncho or trash bag. Experts say you can get hypothermia and a trash bag or poncho may come in handy to hold in the heat if you get cold. For summer caving, I have loved the cool temperatures because I’m constantly moving. Dressing in layers is a good idea. Getting hurt or trapped could be a cold experience.
Shoes: My bad experiences involved Tevas or Chacos sandals. Pebbles got all in between the shoe and my foot. I love wearing tennis shoes. Other cavers wear boots with ankle support. I’ll try that out next time, but I’m not a fan of hiking boots and tennis shoes have worked fine for the caves I’ve entered so far.
Helmet: I use a bicycle helmet. Other cavers use the helmets that look like construction site helmets. My opinion is that it doesn’t matter which helmet you get, but get one with a chin strap that works. It’s main purpose is to protect your head from falling rocks or debris (like if someone climbs above you and knocks something loose accidentally). <~~~By the way, if you knock a rock loose and there are people below you, you are supposed to yell “rock!” Also a helmet protects you from bonking your head on a rock in tight squeezes. I’ve done plenty of that. It’s good to have a way of mounting your headlamp on your helmet. Most cavers hard mount their lights. I have not.
Clothing: It depends on the cave. I wear something tight, that is comfortable and can get dirty. In the winter I dress in layers. I’ve worn a fitted, long sleeved top, 0% cotton with tank top underneath. I don’t buy anything special and I’m still on a journey to find something movable, that isn’t bulky or hideous that also wicks moisture. No luck so far, but I’ll let you know. I saw so many different clothing choices worn by seasoned cavers so I don’t know that there’s a “right” answer. Just a “right for you” answer. And since I know you’re dying to ask-they frown on swimsuits. I know, right? It seemed like such a good idea! (Bradley Jones, Pres. of B’ham Grotto tells me that people do sometimes wear swimsuits underneath their clothing).
Pain meds for emergencies: On my first vertical trip, someone was badly injured. If that had been me, I’d have been begging for pain meds. It took a while to get her out of the cave and she was in a lot of pain. It’s just a suggestion. If you don’t need it in the cave, go knee padless and enjoy them afterward.
Pro tip: As you walk along, turn around often so that you know what the passage looks like when you’re walking the other direction. I have a terrible sense of direction and I do this on the road and in the woods.
Always take several lights and extra batteries. Rule of thumb is 3 extra, but the more the merrier.
Watch your step! Rare creatures live in the caves right here in Alabama. Watch out for bats too. If you bump them with your helmet and knock them down, it could be deadly to them.
To hear what experts have to say about safe caving, (and you really should)….: https://caves.org/brochure/Guide_to_Resp_Caving_2016.pdf
To find a grotto near you:
Enjoy a few caving pics!
See above pictures for examples of one of my first poorly planned caving trips.
Bruised butt: <image loading>