People tend to have certain preconceptions about caves and caving, which do not reflect the reality and the rewards of the sport. From non-cavers the most common remarks I get are about claustrophobia and going under water. Given that journalists are people, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the coverage of the ongoing Thai cave rescue has reflected these typical misconceptions. This is symptomatic of both the need for sensationalism, especially in the modern 24 hours a day world of news reporting, but also of the long historical linkages between caves, the underworld, monsters and mythical beasts.
It is of course true that caving can involve tight spaces, muddy squalid holes and if you really want it to, diving. But these are not my everyday experiences of caving. These are not the reasons I go caving. It’s true I may have to crawl down a tiny tunnel on my belly as part of my underground journey, but what I am usually looking for is something much more majestic, something rather special. Let me explain.
I was 18 when I started caving seriously. I was drawn initially to a combination of the sporting endeavour, an all round body work out with a strong need for endurance, the weird beauty of the places you visited and the camaraderie and deep friendships I developed within the caving community. Caving is a welcoming sub-culture where no one is trendy or image conscious and people are living for experiences. A bit like climbing used to be before it went more mainstream.
As my skills and experience as a caver developed, the sport took me to more and more incredible places beneath both the UK and overseas. I saw vast underground chambers, sweeping starless rivers and the tiniest and most fragile crystal formations of the type you never see on the surface. I became bewitched by this underground world which so few “normal” people ever see. Sure you can look at photos and David Attenborough programmes and gasp. But I learnt that the images you see are all the more amazing not just because you are there, but because you have worked so hard to get there. Some of the most stunning and remarkable crystal formations I have ever seen took me one and a half days to reach. I can never totally disentangle their absolute beauty from the journey I took to reach them.
As the years went by I graduated from sports caving – just for the fun – to exploration caving, actively seeking out places no one had ever been before. Initially this took me only as far as Wales, but then to Spain and eventually all over the world. Here comes the thrill of truly not knowing what is around the next corner, but also the total privilege of being the first to cast your eyes on cracked mud, the first to gaze on majestic stalagmites and stalactites. And with that privilege comes the responsibility of documenting what you discover, leaving the minimum of footprints and providing leadership in preserving what you find so that future explorers can wonder at the same sights.
While I confess my motives may appear selfish ones of enjoyment and self-fulfillment, many cavers also undertake underground journeys with higher motives. Scientific exploration can help us understand past (and hence potentially future) climates through studies of calcite formation growth. Research on microbiology in caves has the potential to make breakthroughs in antibiotic treatments. Caves are also often teaming with life, especially in Asia, and here I have helped with the identification and description of new species of blind cave fish.
The public fear of small spaces is never more misplaced than caving in Asia. While there are plenty of tight caves in the UK if you want to search them out (and some of us do), for me caving in Asia is more usually typified by large tunnels with chandeliers of calcite formations adorning the walls and roof. There are no icy winds that you find in British and alpine caves; in Asia your problem is not hypothermia but excess fluid loss from sweating too much. While I have never been caving in Thailand, I have participated in multiple expeditions over the border in Myanmar and in China. Here the monsoon climate with high intensity rainfall and overlying tropical vegetation are similar, both contributing to higher rates of cave passage development and hence the classic larger caverns that result. These warmer, more spacious and often well decorated cave systems, often unexplored, are a key attraction to exploration cavers in these parts of the world.
But isn’t caving a “dangerous sport” I hear you cry?
But what do we mean by “dangerous sport”? In a dictionary definition something dangerous is something that can do you harm. But it is often also used in the context of the opposite of “safe”. And this is where nuance is lost. We should really be talking in the terms of risk. Here the thing that can harm you is the hazard. But the risk is the reflection of how hazardous something is AND how likely it is that the hazard will end up causing you harm. As a sport caving definitely contains plenty of hazards, of which streams which can flood is one. And also vertical drops that you can fall down and loose rocks than can fall on you. But, in the most past caving is a relatively safe sport. This is because as cavers we use knowledge, skill and experience to mitigate the risks arising from these hazards so they don’t threaten us. We don’t go caving without consulting a weather forecast, we use ropes and techniques for descending and ascending them to prevent us falling, and we clear loose rocks to stop them falling on us. Advances is both weather forecasting and equipment has greatly improved cave safety in the last 25 years. Objectively, driving to and from caves is potentially more dangerous than the caving if the latter is done appropriately. And, I have to say my personal experiences bear this statement out. The closest I have come to significant harm relating to caving is vehicle related near misses when the driver is very tired after a long caving trip.
None of this is to say that accidents don’t happen. They do. They have happened to my friends on occasion and they have happened in Thailand this month. But accidents happen in all walks of life. And, in my opinion a life without some elements of (controlled) risk and adventure is a lesser experience. In a world where we are cosseted and do not make our own judgements about risks we also become less capable of making decisions about life in general. We cannot remove all risk from our lives, nor should we seek to. And even if we try, we also remove from our experiences some of the most special places I have ever visited.
Cavers have always gone out of their way to help other cavers in trouble. All cave rescuers are volunteers. Ten British Cave rescuers are in Thailand at present, and also receiving support from home. This is under the banner of the British Cave Rescue Council. Please consider donating to the organisation to help them continue their support now and in the future.