Down in the Depths
Spelunking where the sun don't shine
By Charmian Christie
Deep within cold, dripping caves, adventure lurks. "It's not for the claustrophobic," says our resident Nomadik spelunker, James W. Coates. While you can expect to emerge from your caving adventures with a few scraped fingers and wet, muddy clothes, you can't predict the sights you'll see inside.
Each cave has its own version of hidden beauty - from rippled stalactites and stalagmites to underground waterfalls, from open caverns to crawl spaces only svelte spelunkers can wiggle through. But why crawl through dark passages on your hands and knees when you can stand tall on a mountain? "Spelunking lets you see things from a different perspective," Coates says. "Being in a cave isn't just getting close to nature, its getting inside nature."
Hidden Treasures, Hidden Dangers
While some spaces are roomy enough to stand in, more often than not you'll be crawling like a worm. Without natural light, you're completely reliant on your helmet's artificial light source, but the wonders that wait around every bend are worth the struggle.
Steep drops, falling rocks, misjudging distances or cracking your head on a stalactite are only some of the dangers. Since caves tend to be cold and wet, getting stuck or lost for hours can make hypothermia a real danger. And it's not a matter of crawling in and out. Some caves are complex labyrinths worthy of Greek mythology. Getting lost or separated from your group in one of these underground mazes can't be solved with a standard search-and-rescue mission.
While floods and falls can pose dangers, fumes are another issue. Some caves are home to colonies of bats so thick, the ammonia released from their droppings can kill you. No joke. When spelunking in the bat cave, be sure your utility belt has an oxygen mask.
But these dangers pale in comparison to the exhilaration of tapping into your drive to explore.
While ropes, helmets with lights, knee pads and elbow pads are standard-issue, trust is likely the most precious commodity. Instead of stumbling blindly through unknown caves, an outfitter can provide a fearless leader to steer you safely through your first underground adventure. Not only do they supply experienced guides, they'll teach you the techniques needed and provide you with the right equipment.
Once you've got a few caves behind you, join a spelunking club and explore the depths of the Earth... and yourself.